2008

January 2008 to November 2008

Following are the contents of some of our recent issues. Feel free to download the whole issue by clicking on the icon. If the articles pique your interest, and you'd like to see more, please subscribe!

 

#260: November 2008 TOC pdf
Reclaim the Food System! - Cathleen reports on the National Assembly of Food Secure Canada The Hunger Count - Food Banks Canada reports steady numbers at food banks, more groups serving hot meals
Corporate Moves: Updates on Saputo Monsanto Syngenta Big Beef
On the biotech front - Transposons ("jumping genes") don't fit the reductionist model
- If it's GE, is it Ayurvedic? - not according to the traditional Ayurvedic practitioners
- Nontarget Effects: Strong Stalks - BT cornstalks provide overwintering for borers, need to be destroyed
- Argentina: Full of Earth - a local organizing newspaper to publicize landowner abuses
- Markets and Labels (or not) - reports from Korea, Poland, South Africa, and Brazil on GMO approvals and labelling
- On the one hand
- ... and the other - a new GM purple tomato no better than natural alternatives
My two-day field trip with Germany's BASF Plant Science - condensed from a report by Jocelyn Zuckerman in Gourmet Magazine

#259: October 2008 TOC pdf
Troubles and Turmoil: financial market meltdown
Warning: more parasites on the loose - investors move onto Saskatchewan farmland
Obesity - it's corporate obesity we need to worry about
Who gets what: Farm prices and costs - 2008 net farm income is gobbled up by agribusiness
And effects - industrial agriculture run-off causes dead zone
Selling Monsanto - massive propaganda campaign to push GE as the answer to hunger
Small-Scale Organic Seed Production - introducing a useful new publication
Meeting the Millennium Goals - UN President says we have to change the system to address food crisis; US foundations try on more of the same
GM sorghum test approved - Gates Foundation supports research on basic African crop
And not just Africa - Bayer CropScience pushes GE in India
Borneo's "miracle" - tropical rainforest regenerated in only 6 years
Bees - German bees seek urban refuge from GE crops, while Argentine honey crops decline
Paraguay's campesinos fight GE soy - landless and poor farmers occupy Brazilian-owned haciendas in self-protection

#258: August/September 2008 TOC pdf
Lies and Contradictions: we are mesmerized by the barrage of lies from government and industry
Fellow Consumers: Michael McCain, CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, tries to deal with a major outbreak of listeria
Long Reach: the contaminated meat even got to Labrador
Good News: Doha is Dead -- the failure of the Doha round of trade talks in July is good news
Corn of Many Colours -- a poem
But where is the Yield Gene? -- the industry complains about 'spin' from its opposition!
"Can't see another way out" -- Syngenta head admits lack of vision
Common Sense from Royalty -- Prince Charles has a vision, and a program
Hubris -- the biotech/agrotoxin industry promises salvation
Eli Lilly to buy rBGH -- Monsanto backs off
Ban on GE Alfalfa -- a ban has been upheld by the US Court of Appeals
Seed Industry News -- Monsanto's Chinese joint venture
Nestlé Re-Positions Itself -- and tries to defend bottled water
'Protecting' bottled water -- three companies join in a propaganda push
Urban Organic Farming -- a new centre opens in Guelph, Ontario
GMO GPS -- in Germany, you can find GMO crops on the internet, why not in Canada?

#257: July 2008 TOC pdf
"Green is the New Black" - Regulation stifling direct markets may lead to a new black market in local organic food
Government Dismantles Itself - from the CFIA to research, government is handing responsibilities to corporations
A Very Different Attitude - the Bocock family donates most of their farm to the University of Alberta for agriculture research
Ray Epp writes from Hokkaido, Japan, about using wild yeasts
Sustainable Fuel Initiatives:

  Growing biodiesel for their own farms - a farmers coop in Manitoba grows 'feed' for their 'horsepower'
  Learning Centre Proposes Waste-based Biodiesel - Everdale Centre in Ontario looks at 'renting' their product to restaurants and then recycling it as fuel
  Reducing Carbon Emissions - Prince Charles' Aston-Martin runs on ethanol from 'surplus wine'
  What goes ’round ... - a correspondent notices sustainability behaviour in birds
Corporate Watch:
  Rearranging the Deck Chairs - Mergers and Acquisitions
  Tyson Foods - plans to sell beef interests, focus on chicken
  Cargill & Fertilizer - update on world's primary phosphorus and potash producer
  A Public Food Policy - Food Secure Canada members plan a coast-to-coast public process on food sovereignty policy

#256: June 2008 TOC pdf
Resurgent Neocolonialism - and the assault on Africa
The Party Line /Lie: US Ag Secretary spouts lies about development, griculture, and genetic engineering
AGRA: Green Revolution Part 2 - a South African commentary
Fertilizer Prices: accessible to the palm oil producers (if they are large and wealthy enough)
From the Horse's Mouth: direct quotes from the Gates Foundation, FAO, et. al.
La Via Campesina call for mobilization against the G-8 in Hokkaido, Japan
Indigenous Food Sovereignty: excerpts from a major report from BC
Food Sovereignty in Gujarat, India: herders lose access to traditional territories, become nomadic
Farming and Climate Change: a letter from a flooded farmer in the US mid-west
Back to Basics: Guano - an old fertilizer finds a new niche
Playing Lobbyist - you too can come up with a line for Monsanto!
Cargill donates $10 million to CARE with a focus on child nutrition and farmer training
Potatoes: not traded as a global commodity but important nonetheless

#255: May 2008 TOC pdf
Caution: Neoliberalism at work - futures market and its effects; and the conclusion of an international study that change is essential
Who really gets the 'food aid'? (Follow the Money, part two) - perhaps to the CEOs of the agribusiness corporations?
Who is to blame? - Robert Zoellick blames the USA (but he was one architect of their policy)
nontarget.org - a new publication from The Nature Institute on the Nontarget Effects of Genetic Manipulation
Swiss 'Dignity' Law - the law requires respect for the dignity of plants as well as animals, lawyers struggle to figure out what that means
Earnings and Inequity - Statistics Canada reports that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and the average hasn't changed
Sweetness and Light: Candy Makers Merge - Mars and Wrigley, both family businesses, merg
Wind Power - the wind in Spain provides power to the plain
Another burst balloon - the Canadian government pays farmers to kill their sows
European Update
     - Greece expands GMO ban out of concern for bees
     - The European Commission postpones acceptance of three GMO crops
GM Crop Promiscuity, Longevity - canola is found to hybridize about 40 species;
     - scientists map biotech crops to better study gene flows;
     - GM plant seeds found in fields 10 years late

#254: March/April 2008 TOC pdf
Follow the Money: - we look at what is behind the rise in grain prices
Supermarket Wages: breaking the unions for corporate competitiveness
World Beef: update on mergers and expansion
About Feedback: the CFIA learns that people are deeply concerned about health and environment, and decide to adjust their messaging
Clean Milk (relatively speaking): WalMart and others refuse milk produced with rBST
Nutritionism: reductionism in the food system
Food Safety in China: Cargill steps in to help
Appendix A: scientists discover the likely role of the appendix
Neither Food Nor Nutrition: Cargill's new ingredient for frozen desserts; egg replacers for baked and other foods
Cell phones may disorient bees: stay away from the microwave
Sugar Beet Resistance: food companies join the opposition to GM sugar beets
Attack on the Eldest Brother: farmers and activists in Hawaii opposed GM taro, which is viewed as an ancestor of the people.

#253: February 2008 TOC pdf
Lady Bountiful Version 2.08 - Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation helping small farmers pull themselves up by their bootstraps
The Indian elite is ... seceding from the people - comment from India about the growing wealth-poverty gap
Food Industry Notes - corporate mergers are old news, the interesting stuff is in the resistance to the industrial food system
Life Imitates Art - Candy bars are now full of caffeine
Dangerous Invasive Species - that would be corporations
"Corporate Control from Seed to Sewer" - NGO position at the Convention on Biological Diversity meetings
News: NAFTA is a Disaster! - rising corn and bean prices leading to a deep crisis
Fertilizer Woes - Potash Corp and friends reap record profits; Canada's Ag minister recommends farmers go cross-border shopping
Seed and Ideology - the attack on Kernel Visual Distinguishability
Bangladesh threatened with hybrid rice - TNCs rush to take advantage of the hurricane aftermath
Cowpeas - Monsanto et. al. are trying to push GM versions of this traditional crop
The Appalling Meat Industry:
   Pork Brains (processing makes workers sick)
   Recalls (slaughter of 'downer' cattle for food programs)
   Connecting Ethanol Byproduct and E. Coli (problems with cattle fed distillers' grains)
It's the model that has to change - Greenpeace and Canadian Federation of Agriculture disagree

#252: January 2008 TOC pdf
The Disappearance of 'Public' - Brewster looks at public markets as a way of considering the use - and loss - of public space
"Eau de Source Public" - tap water may be more 'private' than you think
Product of Canada - of of nature? - how can publicly-controlled water be sold in bottles?
Political meltdown affects food industry - although Unilever is struggling with tea supplies, fresh veggies are shipping from Kenya to the UK no problem
Analysis from Eldoret, Kenya - a friend writes that this struggle is about power, not tribalism, and the poor continue to suffer
From animal to machine: the next step, cloned meat - the industry defends cloning as 'substantially equivalent'
Safe as Milk? - the US FDA support for cloning is questioned
Hey, Nobody's Perfect - James Watson, famous for his work on DNA and his bigoted statements, discovers he probably has a grandparent of African descent
Resources on Agrofuels
The Depressing Section:

On the Other Hand

More Corporate Food News

Issue 252: January 2008

The Disappearance of ‘Public’

 

Over the holidays we drove to Connecticut to visit my sister and extended family. Driving through New England I was struck, once again, by the ‘Greens’ or market squares which still exist in so many of the of the colonial towns. Once upon a time – and still, in a great many villages and towns around the world – public life took place in and revolved around the village square or Green. The market took place there; so did various festivals and celebrations – and the politics of the community, of course. Public life took place in a public space. Nowadays we do most of our shopping in the publicly accessible spaces of privately owned commercial shopping centres. In these spaces, however, the public are ‘consumers,’ not citizens.

The village greens also served as parks. We still have parks, but although they are public and accessible to all, at least formally, they are not the sites of political life and public commerce. Permits from some public agency are almost always required for any kind of parade or demonstration, thus calling into question their ‘public’ nature.

I have memories of sleeping undisturbed in such places while hitch-hiking around the southern USA. I also have memories of listening to the popular Methodist preacher Donald Soper, who held forth in Hyde Park, London, every Sunday, often in a grand debate with the gathered crowd. Can you imagine such an event taking place in your local shopping mall, which in many towns and cities is all there is for a village square? (Cathleen was one of the Ottawa Raging Grannies – a peace & justice action group – who were ushered out of a local mall shortly before Christmas for committing the illegal acts of singing anti-war songs and distributing information about non-violent toys to an appreciative audience of shoppers.)

Grannies and Security

Of course politics have always been a characteristic of the British pubs (‘public houses’) and French cafés. The city of Curitiba, Brazil has structured itself so that political life can take place on the main street. When I visited there many years ago, I was told that the politicians each had their favourite coffee bar where they could be found at certain times of the day so that the public could talk with them informally. The coffee bars were scattered the length of the main street, which had been closed to traffic –  except human – and covered with terrazzo.  A very inviting public space.

Compare this scene with Ottawa today, where bureaucrats, to say nothing of politicians, are not available to the public except by appointment (perhaps) and are housed in ‘gated’ offices, protected from the public they are supposed to serve, and providing us less and less information. The civil service is under the heavy hand of the Prime Minister’s Office, and only their union, still called the Public Service Alliance, keeps alive the original idea of service to the public, not the politicians.

‘Public’ has all but disappeared.  Not quite the way political opposition critics, union activists and social justice advocates were ‘disappeared’ during the years of Latin American military dictatorships not so long ago, and not voluntarily, but rather it has surreptitiously been ‘disappeared’ by neo-liberals in their quest to privatize and commodify everything. A strong sense of public and strong public institutions stands in the way of private greed and corporate profit. 

It’s a perverse and corrupt government that spends public money to lobby for its partisan legislation. The federal government spent $1.2 million on advertising for its Wheat Board/barley ‘plebiscite’ earlier this year.  While spending that much on propaganda in their attempt to remove barley from Canadian Wheat Board jurisdiction, the government put a gag order of the CWB prohibiting the CWB from explaining its point of view.  In addition there was a lot of money spent by individual Conservative members of Parliament promoting the government’s “ideological crusade” as it was described by NDP MP Pat Martin who obtained the information under an Access to Information request.
– source: WP,6/12/07

The primary beneficiaries of this government corruption were the daily and weekly newspapers and farm press, and radio – a clear attempt to buy editorial support.

Since The Ram’s Horn is supposed to focus on food systems, I got to thinking about the better-known public markets (not to be confused with farmers’ markets) in Canada: Granville Island in Vancouver, the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto and Byward market in Ottawa. Each of these provide examples of public and private institutions and spaces that can lead to interesting reflections on the nature and value of public. The question of who actually owns these markets, or at least the land they are on, is not a simple one, nor is the question of how they are managed and who makes up the rules. How public are these places and who is the public that one finds there?

Granville Island is a tourist as well as local mecca for lovers of the best in foods, arts and crafts. It is also home to a cement plant and a major school of art, boatbuilders, ship chandlers, and a brewery. The Public (food) Market itself, always crowded, is really ‘over the top’ with its number and variety of vendors. But in what sense is it public, other than being open to the public? Most of the vendors are commercial, carrying produce and foods from anywhere and everywhere, not what they have grown themselves. (There is a special weekly farmers’ market which is what it says it is.) Nevertheless, Granville Island is an interesting example of various forms of ‘public.’

The 35 acre island the Market sits on was dredged up from the harbour in the 19th century.  In 1915 the newly formed Vancouver Harbour Commission (a public agency) approved a reclamation project for the Island that made it a significant industrial area managed by a government agency collecting rents from private businesses.  By the 1950s the older industries were in decline and the space was in need of a new life, but it was 1972 before the redevelopment of Granville Island was initiated by the federal government to create, foster and maintain a unique, very public space in the heart of Vancouver. In the same year, the administration, management and control of the revitalization of Granville Island was transferred from the Harbour Commission to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), a crown (government) corporation.  Today, Granville Island is administered by The Granville Island Trust, an advisory body to CMHC’s Granville Island Office appointed by the Minister responsible for CMHC. The Board of Trustees is composed of representatives from Granville Island, local area residents and the City of Vancouver.

The CMHC is itself an interesting example of a government agency acting specifically in the public interest – the sort of agency that Canada’s current government is determined to do away with. The federal government created the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in 1946 to house returning war veterans and to lead the nation’s housing programs. Toward the end of the 1940s, the federal government embarked on a program of much-needed social and rental housing, creating a federal-provincial public housing program for low-income families, with costs and subsidies shared 75% by the federal government and 25% by the province. Affordable housing, supported by the public out of general tax revenue, meant that people on a low income could afford both food and housing.

Between 1973 and 1982, the federal government invested heavily in Granville Island, including the assumption of the Harbour Board’s debt. Since 1983, however, Granville Island has been financially self-sustaining, with funding for capital improvements and operations covered by revenues from its tenants, which are from the public, private and non-profit sectors. 

The Market, like the whole little island, is hugely successful as a public space accommodating a wide variety of non-profit activities and institutions along with many small private businesses.

Clearly, Granville Island is a good example of a ‘public good’ (space and facilities) provided –  or one might say ‘owned’ – by the public through a non-profit crown corporation with direct government funding. This does not, however, make it the kind of public space that the village greens and town squares have provided. One does not go to Granville Island or its Public Market for political debates, however much political conversations might occur between private individuals over lunch or a beer there. – www.granvilleisland.com/en/island_info,  www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/en/corp/about/

 

#252: January 2008 TOC
The Disappearance of 'Public' - Brewster looks at public markets as a way of considering the use - and loss - of public space
"Eau de Source Public" - tap water may be more 'private' than you think
Product of Canada - of of nature? - how can publicly-controlled water be sold in bottles?
Political meltdown affects food industry - although Unilever is struggling with tea supplies, fresh veggies are shipping from Kenya to the UK no problem
Analysis from Eldoret, Kenya - a friend writes that this struggle is about power, not tribalism, and the poor continue to suffer
From animal to machine: the next step, cloned meat - the industry defends cloning as 'substantially equivalent'
Safe as Milk? - the US FDA support for cloning is questioned
Hey, Nobody's Perfect - James Watson, famous for his work on DNA and his bigoted statements, discovers he probably has a grandparent of African descent
Resources on Agrofuels
The Depressing Section:

  • Monsanto collects from farmers - farmers in the US lose lawsuits
  • Yet another Monsanto front group - American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology
  • Another hidden subsidy for Monsanto - called the Biotech Yield Endorsement program
  • No benefit to consumers, just shareholders - Monsanto's actions are clear
  • Supreme Court won't hear case against Monsanto - Saskatchewan Organic Directorate case denied leave to appeal

On the Other Hand

  • Rural Movement Attacks Syngenta - activists shut down an agrochemical plant in Sao Paulo, Brazil

More Corporate Food News

  • Big Meat - Cargill is forced to recall a mountain of ground beef
  • Commodity Trader Moves into Agrofuels - Louis Deyfus is diversifying
  • Termites, Bakers, and Ethanol Makers - enzymes in the spotlight


 

 

 

Issue 253: February 2008

 Lady Bountiful Version 2.08

Reading yet another press release about the philanthropy of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – this time a $19.9 million grant to The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) – I was struck by the language describing this grant and others by Gates that are “designed to help small farmers boost their yields and increase their incomes so they can lift themselves out of hunger and poverty.” According to Gates, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, “These investments—from improving the quality of seeds, to developing healthier soil, to creating new markets—will pay off not only in children fed and lives saved. They can have a dramatic impact on poverty reduction as families generate additional income and improve their lives.”

Charity – the obligation of the wealthy to help the deserving poor – is nothing new. The key, of course, is in the word ‘deserving’. The ‘deserving’ poor in the era of Lady Bountiful were the appropriately subservient, those who could be counted upon to be grateful for the largesse and not to challenge the upper class. The new philanthropy is not much different.

While on the surface the Gates Foundation statement is less patronizing than that tired old one about ‘sustainable development,’ it has a very American ring to it: highly individualistic, with ‘improved’ lives measured in ‘additional income.’ There is no mention of justice, which would be measured by a reduction in the gap between rich and poor, elite and deprived, or the structures of capitalism that require that a few get rich while the many get poorer. In other words, it is still a matter of helping the deserving poor, not changing the system which impoverished them in the first place.

Unspoken, also, is the trust in The Market to pay a fair price for the additional rice produced, without at the same time increasing the costs to the farmer (referred to as ‘inputs’ in the industrial system). Given how few companies control the market, coming and going, why would anyone expect them to charge or pay a fair price when they don’t have to? Global traders, like Cargill, ADM and Bunge, play the market, and it is in their interest to pay as little as possible for the commodities they trade, while charging what they can get away with for the ‘inputs’ they sell.

As for Mr. Gates, he has made it very clear that what he wants – what Microsoft is about – is a monopoly in the market place, not competition. The laws and regulations that foster this, along with the political power of extreme wealth, are not to be challenged. Rather, we are to be impressed by the generosity of the mega-rich, while they reconfigure charity into development aid to reproduce the class structure of capital and ensure that radical insight into its injustice is masked by individual ‘income improvement’.

IRRI’s project will target the poorest rice farmers in Africa and South Asia, who have little or no access to irrigation and who are totally reliant on sufficient, timely rains. These farmers are regularly exposed to drought, flooding, or salinity—conditions that reduce yields, harm livelihoods, and foster hunger and malnutrition. The development and distribution of new rice varieties tolerant of these environmental stresses can help avert hunger and malnutrition while improving livelihoods for millions of farmers and their families.

With minimal access to irrigation and fertilizer, these farmers, who own small plots on marginal land, are inevitably most exposed—and most vulnerable—to poor soils, too much or too little rain, and environmental disasters.

IRRI Director General Robert S. Zeigler emphasizes that, with climate change threatening to worsen the frequency and severity of these problems, the need for insurance – in the form of stress-tolerant crops – is growing ever more urgent.

– International Rice Research Institute, Philippines, Press Release, 25/01/08

Quite apart from their prescriptions for subsistence farmers – such as drought tolerant seeds which will have to be genetically engineered, and irrigation and fertilizer which they cannot afford – one really has to ask, Is it really appropriate for one man – or one man and one woman – to decide on what will ‘reduce poverty’ while their own wealth continues its relentless increase? – B.K.

 

#253: February 2008 TOC
Lady Bountiful Version 2.08 - Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation helping small farmers pull themselves up by their bootstraps
The Indian elite is ... seceding from the people - comment from India about the growing wealth-poverty gap
Food Industry Notes - corporate mergers are old news, the interesting stuff is in the resistance to the industrial food system
Life Imitates Art - Candy bars are now full of caffeine
Dangerous Invasive Species - that would be corporations
"Corporate Control from Seed to Sewer" - NGO position at the Convention on Biological Diversity meetings
News: NAFTA is a Disaster! - rising corn and bean prices leading to a deep crisis
Fertilizer Woes - Potash Corp and friends reap record profits; Canada's Ag minister recommends farmers go cross-border shopping
Seed and Ideology - the attack on Kernel Visual Distinguishability
Bangladesh threatened with hybrid rice - TNCs rush to take advantage of the hurricane aftermath
Cowpeas - Monsanto et. al. are trying to push GM versions of this traditional crop
The Appalling Meat Industry:
   Pork Brains (processing makes workers sick)
   Recalls (slaughter of 'downer' cattle for food programs)
   Connecting Ethanol Byproduct and E. Coli (problems with cattle fed distillers' grains)
It's the model that has to change - Greenpeace and Canadian Federation of Agriculture disagree

 

 

Issue 254: March/April 2008

 Follow the Money

The price of the world’s three main grains – rice, wheat and corn – has doubled in the past year. Rice exported from Thailand, for example, has risen from $360 a tonne to $760 in the past year and India has increased its export price for rice to $1000 a tonne. The rise in prices is popularly attributed to the demand for food crops to produce agrofuels (ethanol and bio-diesel), population growth, prosperity leading to a rise in demand for meat, particularly in India and China, climate change, and the price of oil (for the manufacture of fertilizer and for transporting food commodities).

It’s not just food prices. The CEO of fertilizer company Agrium told a global fertilizer investor conference in Toronto that the current high grain prices are good for his business. “Our customer – the farmer – is making a lot of money,” he said. Agrium’s stock has risen 48% over the past 12 months, while Potash Corp of Saskatchewan is up 165%. Canpotex, which exports the products of both Agrium and Potash Crop, has raised its price for sales to Brazil and Southeast Asia to $750 a tonne, a 40% increase for Southeast Asia and an 85% increase for Brazil. In Brazil, it is soy (livestock feed for Europe) and sugar cane (for ethanol for Brazil and the USA) that require vast amounts of fertilizer. Fertilizer for India went up 130% to $625 per tonne. Potash Corp’s president said these price increases should produce a gross maragin of $2 billion this year, more than double 2007. Agrium’s profits are expected to similarly increase.       – G&M, 3/4/08

Analysts such as Michael Pollan and Anna Lappé see some positive in the higher grain prices, pointing to the massive subsidies to the commodity crops in the US, and noting that “higher food prices level the playing field for sustainable food that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels.”                                  – NYT 2/4/08

However, nowhere have I seen any mention of the pockets in which those subsidies actually wind up. The fact that in every sector of the global industrial food system there are three, and possibly five, corporations in control is not discussed. But the oligopolistic structure of the food industry makes it quite possible that these companies are colluding in fixing prices, propagating a variety of other plausible explanations for the rise in commodity prices as a smokescreen. As Noam Chomsky famously remarked, it does not take a conspiracy for elites to work together in their own self-interest. Cargill, ADM (Archer Daniels Midland) and Bunge are quite able, and willing, to work together for mutual advantage. Competition is a slogan for public consumption, not a behavioral description of Capital. (An article in the business pages of the Globe & Mail did comment that there is no sign that the US government plans to revisit its biofuel legislation “because there are powerful interests in Congress that benefit from it.” However, it did not mention that ADM is not only the biggest ethanol producer but a perpetually major Washington lobbyist.)

Of course, this is not to deny that there really is drought resulting from climate change  in Australia and Africa, or that the substantial subsidies for agrofuel production in the USA have driven up the price of corn, or that the rising price of oil has increased the cost of fertilizer and transportation, or that the emerging middle class in India and China (which is huge even though a small percentage of total population) is demanding more meat.

The point is that we are habituated to looking at discrete factors, not systems, to explain phenomena such as dramatic price increases. For example, the current financial meltdown in the USA should clearly be attributed to the inner dynamic of the capitalist system, not to some unusual events or isolated corrupt practices – though these are part of the reality, along with an attitude that social unrest and violation of trade rules are more significant than malnutrition and starvation.

A front page article in the Toronto Globe & Mail (29/3/08) prominently noted that the rise in commodity prices is “affecting just about everything people eat, and fanning social unrest in some of the most unstable corners of the world .” It also noted that “numerous countries, including Argentina and Vietnam, have capped or taxed exports . . . running the risk of violating international trade rules.”
– B.K.

 

#254: March/April 2008 TOC
Follow the Money: - we look at what is behind the rise in grain prices
Supermarket Wages: breaking the unions for corporate competitiveness
World Beef: update on mergers and expansion
About Feedback: the CFIA learns that people are deeply concerned about health and environment, and decide to adjust their messaging
Clean Milk (relatively speaking): WalMart and others refuse milk produced with rBST
Nutritionism: reductionism in the food system
Food Safety in China: Cargill steps in to help
Appendix A: scientists discover the likely role of the appendix
Neither Food Nor Nutrition: Cargill's new ingredient for frozen desserts; egg replacers for baked and other foods
Cell phones may disorient bees: stay away from the microwave
Sugar Beet Resistance: food companies join the opposition to GM sugar beets
Attack on the Eldest Brother: farmers and activists in Hawaii opposed GM taro, which is viewed as an ancestor of the people.

 

 

Issue 255: May 2008

 Caution: neoliberalism at work

There are two stories to be told. The cruelest story is about globalized neoliberalism, corporate profits, speculative ‘investment’ and the chaos and failure of industrial agriculture as a result. The other story is about the possible turning of the tide on the neoliberal project.

All livestock farmers are familiar with parasites, internal and external, and many are also familiar with foxes (as in the henhouse), coyotes and other predators. A vigorous animal can cope with a light infestation of parasites, but even the otherwise healthiest of animals can be brought low by a heavy parasite burden, and an animal so consumed is obviously unable to provide milk or meat. Agriculture itself has long had to deal with parasites and predators of one sort or another. Sometimes they are slick seed dealers, other times shrewd livestock drovers. Now there seem to be increasing infestations of investors and attacks by fertilizer and land predators.

In Saskatchewan, limited partnerships that can give you part ownership of a portfolio of agricultural land have moved in. These pooled investor funds use the money to buy farmland, which is then leased back to farmers. “There is potential for considerable capital gains” and the lease payments generate income that is paid out to unit holders – less any fees deducted. – GM, 21/4/08. Former provincial Minister of Agriculture Tim Carroll has also suggested the scheme to the beleaguered farmers of PEI.

According to figures compiled by commodities brokerage Gresham Investment Management, the amount of speculative money in commodities futures – that is, investors such as big funds that don’t buy or sell the physical commodity but merely bet on price movements – was less than $5-billion in 2000. Last year, it ballooned to roughly $175-billion. By some estimates, investment funds control 50% of the wheat traded on the Chicago Board of Trade and Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the world’s biggest commodity markets. – G&M, 25/4/08

At an April 22nd meeting convened by the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission, many farmers and commodity buyers suggested that it is the growing clout of financial speculators, like large index funds and hedge funds, that has generated unpredictable gyrations in the futures market. Some producers blamed these large speculators for causing a disconnect between the value of a futures contract and the underlying value of the asset [a particular commodity] it is supposed to represent. – G&M, 23/4/08


 

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) is an independent agency of the US Government with the mandate to regulate commodity futures and option markets in the United States. In 1974 the majority of futures trading took place in the agricultural sector, but since then “the futures industry has become increasingly varied . . . and today encompasses a vast array of highly complex financial futures contracts.” The CFTC “assures the economic utility of the futures markets by encouraging their competitiveness and efficiency, protecting market participants against fraud, manipulation, and abusive trading practices, and by ensuring the financial integrity of the clearing process. Through effective oversight, the CFTC enables the futures markets to serve the important function of providing a means for price discovery and offsetting price risk.” –www.cftc.gov/aboutthecftc/index.htm

For more information on futures contracts, see www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Futures_contract


Until quite recently speculation in agricultural commodities (grains, oilseeds, pork bellies) was limited by the rules of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission in the US (see box above). Only those classed as farmers and food companies were eligible to trade in agricultural commodities. Then a couple of years ago the CFTC changed its rules to allow commodity trading by market speculators. The change meant that a mechanism that was supposed to help farmers and the food industry to ‘discover’ prices and manage risk was opened to speculators with no particular interest in the welfare of farmers or agricultural commodities.

This resulted in purely profit-seeking trading activities driving up prices, which in turn forced countries dependent on imported food staples to bid up prices even further in order to obtain their essential food imports.

“Investors fleeing Wall Street’s mortgage-related strife plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into grain futures, driving prices up. . . By Christmas, a global panic was building. With fewer places to turn, and tempted by the weaker US dollar, nations staged a run on the US wheat harvest. Foreign buyers, who typically seek to purchase one or two months’ supply of wheat at a time, suddenly began to stockpile. This led major domestic U.S. mills to jump into the fray with their own massive orders, fearing that there would soon be no wheat left at any price. Japan, the Philippines, [South] Korea, Taiwan – they all came in with huge orders, and no matter how high prices go, they keep on buying.”
– StarTribune, Washington Post, 28/4/08


“Has it ever been better for Cargill? Not likely. At $471,611 an hour, Cargill posts a fine quarter,” reported Cargill’s hometown newspaper, the Star-Tribune. That hourly income figure is based on the billion dollar profit the company made in the first quarter of this year ($1.03 billion to be exact).

Cargill CEO Greg Page noted that “Demand for food in developing economies and for energy worldwide is boosting demand for agricultural goods, at the same time that investment monies have streamed into commodity markets.” A Cargill spokeswoman said that food shortages have strengthened Cargill’s call for free trade: “It’s very important that food be allowed to move from places where there is a surplus to places where there is a need.”
– ST, 15/4/08


India has halted trading in futures contracts on key food items. Trading in foods such as soybean oil, potatoes and chick peas, along with rubber, is suspended for at least four months. – NYT, 08/8/08


And now for the good news:

“Business as usual is no longer an option”

The final report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) was released in mid-April. The report took four years to complete and included input from 400 scientists, academics and researchers from 100 countries.

"The old paradigm of industrial, energy-intensive and toxic agriculture is a concept of the past," the IAASTD said in a news release. "The key message of the report is that small-scale farmers and agro-ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the current food crisis and meet the needs of local communities."

Fifty-seven governments approved the report. Only the now customary misguided four, the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom have not signed on (though the UK is reported to be considering it). As might be expected, the report was also not welcomed by the agrotroxin-biotech industry and its lobby organizations. "To be quite frank we see the report as very superficial and negative," said Lorne Hepworth of CropLife Canada (which had participated in the procss but then withdrew). The report, he says, fails to recognize the yield-boosting potential of crop protection products, hybrid seeds and GM crops, which the industry
claims goes to the heart of the hunger and poverty issues. The assessment concluded that the practice of large-scale industrial monoculture agriculture is unsustainable and cannot provide food for the future.

From the Global Summary

“The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) responds to the widespread realization that despite significant scientific and technological achievements in our ability to increase agricultural productivity, we have been less attentive to some of the unintended social and environmental consequences of our achievements. We are now in a good position to reflect on these consequences and to outline various policy options to meet the challenges ahead, perhaps best characterized as the need for food and livelihood security under increasingly constrained environmental conditions from within and outside the realm of agriculture and globalized economic systems.”

“If we do persist with business as usual, the world’s people cannot be fed over the next half-century. It will mean more environmental degradation, and the gap between the haves and have-nots will further widen. We have an opportunity now to marshal our intellectual resources to avoid that sort of future. Otherwise we face a world no one would want to inhabit.” – Professor Robert Watson, Director of the IAASTD Secretariat

“The IAASTD is unique in the history of agricultural science assessments, in that it assesses both formal science and technology (S&T) and local and traditional knowledge, addresses not only production and productivity but the multifunctionality of agriculture, and recognizes that multiple perspectives exist on the role and nature of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology (AKST). For many years, agricultural science focused on delivering component technologies to increase farm-level productivity where the market and institutional arrangements put in place by the state were the primary drivers of the adoption of new technologies. The general model has been to continuously innovate, reduce farm gate prices and externalize costs. This model drove the phenomenal achievements of AKST in industrial countries after World War II and the spread of the Green Revolution beginning in the 1960s. But, given the new challenges we confront today, there is increasing recognition within formal S&T organizations that the current AKST model requires revision. Business as usual is no longer an option. This leads to rethinking the role of AKST in achieving development and sustainability goals; one that seeks more intensive engagement across diverse worldviews and possibly contradictory approaches in ways that can inform and suggest strategies for actions enabling to the multiple functions of agriculture.” –www.agassessment.org/docs/SR_Exec_Sum_210408_ Final.htm


 

#255: May 2008 TOC
Caution: Neoliberalism at work - futures market and its effects; and the conclusion of an international study that change is essential
Who really gets the 'food aid'? (Follow the Money, part two) - perhaps to the CEOs of the agribusiness corporations?
Who is to blame? - Robert Zoellick blames the USA (but he was one architect of their policy)
nontarget.org - a new publication from The Nature Institute on the Nontarget Effects of Genetic Manipulation
Swiss 'Dignity' Law - the law requires respect for the dignity of plants as well as animals, lawyers struggle to figure out what that means
Earnings and Inequity - Statistics Canada reports that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and the average hasn't changed
Sweetness and Light: Candy Makers Merge - Mars and Wrigley, both family businesses, merg
Wind Power - the wind in Spain provides power to the plain
Another burst balloon - the Canadian government pays farmers to kill their sows
European Update
     - Greece expands GMO ban out of concern for bees
     - The European Commission postpones acceptance of three GMO crops
GM Crop Promiscuity, Longevity - canola is found to hybridize about 40 species;
     - scientists map biotech crops to better study gene flows;
     - GM plant seeds found in fields 10 years later

 

 

Issue 256: June 2008

 Resurgent Neocolonialism

It seems that the world – globalization – is pressing in on us as never before. Or maybe this is what the native peoples of the Americas have felt like for the past five centuries.All of a sudden, it seems, energy supply and prices (Peak Oil), food supply and prices, speculative profit taking and both short and long term climate change have all converged.

Just as suddenly there appears to be a very widespread public awakening to the precariousness of the global industrial food system with its alarming dependency on familiar and predictable weather conditions and fossil fuels. There is also a rising awareness of the destructive ecological impacts of every aspect of this corporate-industrial food system.

More than 3 million acres of farmland are believed to be under water [in the midwest US and] another 2 million did not even get planted. About 57% of the corn crop is considered to be in good condition. Some of the fields in Iowa have received 36 centimetres (14") of rain in the past two weeks alone.  – G&M, 17,18/6/08

The logical sequel to this awakening has very naturally led to a global interest in local food and food sovereignty – bringing food, and the control of food, down to earth, or back home, so to speak.

There are few signs of hope, however, at the meetings of convergent forces such as the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (Bonn, Germany) where Canada played a sinister role of sabotaging any meaningful limitation on research and trials of genetically engineered trees, or at the  High Level Conference on World Food Security, Climate Change and Bio-Energy (the FAO Summit, June 2008) which did little more than call for more ‘improved’ seeds and fertilizer for Africa.

The neo-colonial assault on Africa currently being carried out in the name of philanthropy and feeding the hungry is an obscene attack on the very existence of African societies and cultures. The advance forces of this assault are seeds and fertilizer, and these two words can be found over and over again in every self-serving statement about what will save Africa from starvation, from Monsanto to the FAO.

The rhetoric is that of the old Green Revolution, with one word missing: pesticides, or as we would prefer to identify them, agrotoxins; but of course their use is implied – indeed, structured into – genetically engineered seeds.

Thus when we encounter the word ‘seeds’ in this context, we can be assured that it means G.E. seeds, not the seeds produced through farmer-led plant breeding based on the immense biological diversity still to be found outside the corporate precincts.  We must remember, as well, that G.E. is an unproven experiment in terms of biological consequences (for plants, animals, including the two-legged ones, and fish), though it has proven its merit in terms of corporate control and domination. We also know that the technological hubris associated with genetic engineering has the unfortunate consequences of inducing blindness, deafness and loss of feeling among its proponents, inuring them to the consequences of their investments.

Making Money

Global capital will not, cannot, feed the world. The contradiction between food and profits is far too fundamental. Food is about sustenance. Profit derives from excess – draining the ‘natural resources’ and squeezing the economic system, from the bottom like a tube of toothpaste, to provide unearned wealth for investors. With quarterly reports to ‘the market,’ it is a race to the top of excess profit on the one hand, and a race to the bottom of costs on the other, both requiring the exploitation of the cheapest labour and ‘natural resources’ available anywhere in the world. The costs of resulting pollution and climate change are externalized, i.e., dumped on the public, while the shareholders seem to think they inhabit another world  in their gated communities and private aircraft, apparently convinced that their excesses will not destroy their children’s future.

africa milk

 

#256: June 2008 TOC
Resurgent Neocolonialism - and the assault on Africa
The Party Line /Lie: US Ag Secretary spouts lies about development, griculture, and genetic engineering
AGRA: Green Revolution Part 2 - a South African commentary
Fertilizer Prices: accessible to the palm oil producers (if they are large and wealthy enough)
From the Horse's Mouth: direct quotes from the Gates Foundation, FAO, et. al.
La Via Campesina call for mobilization against the G-8 in Hokkaido, Japan
Indigenous Food Sovereignty: excerpts from a major report from BC
Food Sovereignty in Gujarat, India: herders lose access to traditional territories, become nomadic
Farming and Climate Change: a letter from a flooded farmer in the US mid-west
Back to Basics: Guano - an old fertilizer finds a new niche
Playing Lobbyist - you too can come up with a line for Monsanto!
Cargill donates $10 million to CARE with a focus on child nutrition and farmer training
Potatoes: not traded as a global commodity but important nonetheless


 

 

Issue 257: July 2008

 "Green Is The New Black"

by Cathleen Kneen

Slow Food is In, fast food is Out. Eating local, buying direct from a farmer, seeking out organic foods, have all become fashionable. Although supply has not yet caught up with demand, those farmers who are able to sell into this ‘high-end’ market are (finally) recouping the costs of production. We haven’t yet figured out how to use this trend to increase the quality of food available to the poor. However, I am sure that the more we can produce our own food, rather than trucking it in from somewhere else, the more that Nature’s abundance will provide extra to feed the whole community – a sort of ‘Zucchini Theory’ of food security.

From a public health perspective, this trend has huge advantages. Aside from the obvious fact that it is much easier to monitor quality in small batches, sales direct from the producer to the consumer are 100% traceable. So you would expect that the CFIA would welcome it with open arms and appropriate standards. After all, as a conscientious CFIA scientist recently revealed, the CFIA is planning to pass the job of monitoring food safety standards over to the industry. To the contrary,
however: while Unilever, Cargill and Saputo are trusted to monitor themselves, small producers and processors are regarded with distrust and burdened with ever-increasing regulation and restrictions, many of which make no sense whatsoever. Where is the risk in selling eggs that have not been graded as to size and weight at the farmers’ market?

Fresh from the disaster of the imposition of regulations on abattoirs in BC – which has left large swaths of the province without any slaughter facilities as the small, locally-focused plants could not afford the fancy upgrades, and caused countless small farms to quit livestock as part of their holistic production systems – the key actors in the BC Centre for Disease Control and the Ministry of Health are reported to be plotting even more comprehensive regulations for all food processing and distribution, which will make the local direct market prohibitively expensive and bureaucratic.

Of course the contradiction is only on the surface. Once you accept that the guiding policy (not to say ideology) is that Bigger Is Better, the spectre of increased numbers of small entrepreneurs becomes the epitome of Risk, to be avoided at any cost. The real risk, of course, is that we continue on this road, driving small producers out of business, depleting rural communities and leaving ourselves dependent on an industrialized, globalized food system controlled by profit-seeking corporations.

My guess is that once people have come to appreciate the real value of locally and ecologically produced foods, they will not willingly give them up. It’s not just trendy, even though Green may be the food fashion basic just as black is the clothing fashion basic. If the government attitude and regulations don’t change, the “Green” market will become the new black market. After all, there is far more risk for all of us in losing our capacity to feed ourselves than there is in eating food that comes from someone you know.

 

#257: July 2008 TOC
"Green is the New Black" - Regulation stifling direct markets may lead to a new black market in local organic food
Government Dismantles Itself - from the CFIA to research, government is handing responsibilities to corporations
A Very Different Attitude - the Bocock family donates most of their farm to the University of Alberta for agriculture research
Ray Epp writes from Hokkaido, Japan, about using wild yeasts 
Sustainable Fuel Initiatives:

  Growing biodiesel for their own farms - a farmers coop in Manitoba grows 'feed' for their 'horsepower'
  Learning Centre Proposes Waste-based Biodiesel - Everdale Centre in Ontario looks at 'renting' their product to restaurants and then recycling it as fuel
  Reducing Carbon Emissions - Prince Charles' Aston-Martin runs on ethanol from 'surplus wine'
  What goes ’round ... - a correspondent notices sustainability behaviour in birds
Corporate Watch:
  Rearranging the Deck Chairs - Mergers and Acquisitions
  Tyson Foods - plans to sell beef interests, focus on chicken
  Cargill & Fertilizer - update on world's primary phosphorus and potash producer
  A Public Food Policy - Food Secure Canada members plan a coast-to-coast public process on food sovereignty policy
 

 

Issue 258: August/September 2008

 Lies and Contradictions

Since we started almost 28 years ago, The Ram’s Horn has been dedicated to looking below the surface of the food system to reveal the way it really works. It is very hard to avoid being mesmerized by the steady stream of reassurances, hype, and downright lies that we are constantly fed.

As we are preparing this issue, we are waiting for an election call which not only flies in the face of the Harper government’s election law, but is based on a ridiculous lie, that the Opposition has rendered Parliament dysfunctional. The truth is that pretty well all of the legislation introduced by this minority government has passed in the House.

pinnochio
Pinnochio
The dysfunction comes from the Tory contempt for Parliament in the tactics it has used to bully its agenda through, and ignoring the law, not to mention the public. Harper, for example, has said he will not be deterred by three legal defeats in the past year as it has sought to destroy the Canadian Wheat Board. “The bottom line is this – mark my words – western Canadian farmers want this [marketing] freedom and they are going to get it and anybody who stands in their way is going to get walked over.” (WP, 26/6/08) This election call is based on one of the more egregious lies that we are expected to swallow. This issue will probe into others.

For example (page 2): 13 people have died so far in an outbreak of Listeria traced back to a single processed (pre-cooked) meat plant in Toronto – while the government cuts back on funding for the CFIA, which forever proclaims “We have the safest food in the world.”

Then (page 7) there is the claim by infant-formula-Nestlé to being the “world’s recognized leader in nutrition, health and wellness” – while it joins other bottled water purveyors to form a lobby to ‘protect’ bottled water from environmental attack.

The biotech industry extols the supposed yield increases brought about by GE crops (page 4-5), but throws a tantrum when Prince Charles articulates the real price of GE crops in a nightmare vision of rural depopulation, contamination, and pollution. In response, the Canadian biotech lobby trots out the old technique of the Big Lie: “GM crops are rigorously tested, reduce pesticide use, increase yields, enhance food security, support small farmers, and are environmentally friendly. GM crops are also a part of Canada’s contribution to the world’s economy and food prosperity.”

Meanwhile (page 4), the salvation promised by global agricultural trade fails to materialize as the Doha round on trade talks under the WTO falls flat; the world’s biggest military power fails to get its way; and Monsanto dumps rBGH (page 6) – which it continues to claim is a hot seller – and in turn gets dumped on in court for pushing GE alfalfa.

Along the way (page 6), the debate over food versus agrofuels is laid aside by the new Alliance for Abundant Food and Energy that says there is no contradiction – we can have both, no problem!

Hypnotist

And more.....

 

#258: August/September 2008 TOC
Lies and Contradictions: we are mesmerized by the barrage of lies from government and industry
Fellow Consumers: Michael McCain, CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, tries to deal with a major outbreak of listeria
Long Reach: the contaminated meat even got to Labrador
Good News: Doha is Dead -- the failure of the Doha round of trade talks in July is good news
Corn of Many Colours -- a poem
But where is the Yield Gene? -- the industry complains about 'spin' from its opposition!
"Can't see another way out" -- Syngenta head admits lack of vision
Common Sense from Royalty -- Prince Charles has a vision, and a program
Hubris -- the biotech/agrotoxin industry promises salvation
Eli Lilly to buy rBGH -- Monsanto backs off
Ban on GE Alfalfa -- a ban has been upheld by the US Court of Appeals
Seed Industry News -- Monsanto's Chinese joint venture
Nestlé Re-Positions Itself -- and tries to defend bottled water
'Protecting' bottled water -- three companies join in a propaganda push
Urban Organic Farming -- a new centre opens in Guelph, Ontario
GMO GPS -- in Germany, you can find GMO crops on the internet, why not in Canada?

 

 

Issue 259: October 2008

 Troubles and Turmoil

Perhaps the most surprising and disturbing aspect of the current financial situation is that we were all carrying on as if the system was rational and stable. In reality, it is irrationality and volatility that bankers and investors, finance ministers and hedge fund managers bank on, literally – they play, and prey, on the rising and falling of the market. They would all be out of business if prices were stable and actually reflective of real costs. The important question is why the prices – of stock, whether that be livestock or mining company shares – rise and fall. The manipulators would prefer we not identify them, and indeed that is a challenge, though not an insurmountable one.

A more important challenge is drawing the line between the financial sector and the economy. Confusing the two is the essence of capitalism, which rests on the practice of extracting wealth out of the real economy and playing with it in the financial sector. The rich get richer not through interminable toil, but through gains in the financial market of stocks and bonds, with the result that “in all recent years, the pay increases for top executives far exceed the rate of inflation or the gains posted by most workers in Canada.” (G&M, 6/10/08) This remark accompanies a table showing the total ‘compensation’ paid to the CEOs of the 100 largest companies in 2007, including salaries, bonuses, shares and share options, running from $235,000 to $79.2 million.

Balloon Prick

‘Financial sector’ does not equal economy. A financial ‘product’ is not only inedible, it actually has no real existence. It’s a figment of the brokers’ and investors’ imagination. A real economy (‘oikos’ is the Greek word for house) is about how a household organizes its life together, including what it eats.

It is, therefore, a sign of hope that with the ‘food crisis’, the public has become increasingly interested in the real economy of food and how it is grown, where, and by whom, to the point of beginning to distinguish between the financial sector’s grasp of food and the real food economy. This is really the driver behind food sovereignty. It’s about feeding the family and trading the leftovers, not trading the staples and hoping to live on the profits – or, more likely, the losses.

We are looking forward to gaining more insights into the real food economy  at the National Assembly of Food Secure Canada in Ottawa November 7-10th. Under the title Reclaiming Our Food System: A Call to Action, it will showcase the ways in which Canadians are implementing food sovereignty in many different areas, from seeds to food banks. (More information at  www.foodsecurecanada.org.)

So as we watch the ‘financial sector’ spin out of control at the hands of men [sic] appropriating tens of millions of dollars as the companies they head –  or headed – collapse under a burden of debt, we need to remember that the financial sector is a pyramid game built on confidence.  The financial sector neither feeds nor clothes anyone anywhere.

“Since the credit crisis began more than a year ago, investors have been exposed to a murky world of synthetic securities, credit default swaps and structured investment vehicles, convoluted financial tools that even the savviest bankers don’t fully understand. . . With the help of swaps, risk is bought and sold like a commodity by often invisible actors, in a global market with scant regulatory oversight. A decade ago credit default swaps didn’t even exist. Today the market is colossal, worth roughly $50 trillion. . .  Risk has been shuffled around like the pea in a shell game so that no one knows where it ends up.”  – Barrie McKenna, GM 20/9/08

Round and round it goes:  AIG (American International Group) was “once among the most stable financial institutions in the US, turning out a steady stream of profitable quarters.” It is now a ward of the US Government (a taxpayer liability, in other words) after losing $13.16 billion in the first six months of this year stemming from its credit default swaps investments. It had a profit of $8.41 billion in the same period last year.

Coins down the Drain

The one big player that the US Government has not bailed out is Lehman Brothers Holdings, which has rented a 30-floor tower in London’s Canary Wharf development from Canary Wharf Group. If Lehman defaults on its rent, Canary Wharf Group is protected by an insurance policy with AIG. However, it is Songbird Estates, a publicly traded company that owns 60% of Canary Wharf Group, that would be the beneficiary. So round and round it goes.   – Source: GM, 17/9/08

The turmoil of the financial sector has been hard on some of the 400 wealthiest residents of the USA, whose average net worth is, or was, $3.9 billion. Collectively, that means that the 400 richest Americans have a net worth of $1.57 trillion, exceeding Canada’s gross domestic product.     – GM, 18/9/08

Wall Street’s five largest banks awarded a record $39 billion in bonuses last year.     – GM, 15/10/08

Why, then, not let these guys bail out the banks and ‘investment houses’ that have diverted all that money to them rather than sending the bill to the general public, i.e., US taxpayers?

To put this mess into perspective, we noticed that at the end of September, the US House of Representatives passed, and sent on to the Senate, a $612-billion (US) defense authorization bill while at the same time it was debating  the financial crisis and the proposed $700-billion bailout of Wall Street.

Which is the more impressive – or depressing – figure?  $700 billion (and a lot more by now) in an effort to save capitalism from itself, or $612 billion to defend it from .... whom?

 

#259: October 2008 TOC
Troubles and Turmoil: financial market meltdown
Warning: more parasites on the loose - investors move onto Saskatchewan farmland
Obesity - it's corporate obesity we need to worry about
Who gets what: Farm prices and costs - 2008 net farm income is gobbled up by agribusiness
And effects - industrial agriculture run-off causes dead zone
Selling Monsanto - massive propaganda campaign to push GE as the answer to hunger
Small-Scale Organic Seed Production - introducing a useful new publication
Meeting the Millennium Goals - UN President says we have to change the system to address food crisis; US foundations try on more of the same
GM sorghum test approved - Gates Foundation supports research on basic African crop
And not just Africa - Bayer CropScience pushes GE in India
Borneo's "miracle" - tropical rainforest regenerated in only 6 years
Bees - German bees seek urban refuge from GE crops, while Argentine honey crops decline
Paraguay's campesinos fight GE soy - landless and poor farmers occupy Brazilian-owned haciendas in self-protection

 

 

Issue 260: November 2008

 Reclaim the Food System!

by Cathleen Kneen

The theme for Food Secure Canada’s National Assembly, held in Ottawa November 7-10th, was “Reclaiming Our Food System: A Call to Action”. The implication was that the globalized food system is beyond the control of either producers or eaters; recognizing that it is also ecologically unsustainable and unjust, we need to get together to figure out how to take it back. This thinking echoes the principles behind the concept of “food sovereignty” developed by the global peasant movement La Via Campesina, that emphasize local control of both food production and markets, ecological sustainability, and respect for traditional knowledge and foodways. As the key organizer, I had hoped that we would find ways to articulate these principles in a Canadian context and to share stories of what people are doing in all corners of this country to reclaim their piece of the food system.

Of course, when you gather 300 people together with very different backgrounds from all over Canada and when you ensure that most of them are from the ‘front lines’ (farming, fishing, working in community food organizations in Canada and overseas, defending Indigenous territories and traditions), nothing turns out quite the way you planned. In the event, it became clear that reclaiming the food system requires a total transformation of the way we think about it.

In this regard, the keynote session on Friday night did indeed strike the key note. Olivier de Schutter, the UN Rapporteur on the Human Right to Food, addressing the topic The Food Crisis and Climate Change, pointed out that from his perspective of promoting human rights, climate change hits hardest on those who are already marginalized (and hungry).

Clearly, business as usual is no longer an option; we cannot continue with a global food system which is dependent on shrinking supplies of fossil fuel, which emits increasing amounts of ‘greenhouse gases’, and which fails to feed the world’s population. Food sovereignty, he concluded, is the best strategy. In his response, René Segbenou from Mali, West Africa, commented that the first step in such a strategy is to move away from the place where we are now standing, in order to see from a different perspective. Colleen Ross, as a Canadian organic farmer, made this very concrete in terms of a local food production for the local community.

The human impact on the environment, including the effects of carbon emissions on the environment, hits Indigenous peoples hardest, as their traditional foods are contaminated or disappear altogether. In session after session at the Assembly, Indigenous leaders from BC, Yukon, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Labrador repeated the same theme, describing powerfully the loss of their traditional foods, the caribou, the salmon, which have nourished their spirits and defined their communities. They drew tears and standing ovations from participants – and in the case of Henry Lickers from Akwasasne, laughter. In one of the most powerful presentations of the weekend, Henry addressed the plenary on Resilience as a storyteller, telling how as a teenager fresh off the Reserve he ran a lucrative trap-line (raccoons and skunks) in Toronto – and emphasizing the importance of respect for seeds and for women, the traditional seed-keepers. The call to action, Henry told us, is really a call to consciousness.

dead canary

This approach was demonstrated from the first plenary session of the Assembly, where people working in programs to feed the hungry described what they are doing to respect and enhance the autonomy of the people who come to their programs and to treat them as citizens rather than clients – food sovereignty within the charitable sector. It was summed up by Nick Saul’s description of a Community Food Centre as “burying the food bank within a web of participatory and non-stigmatizing food programs” to make the food bank a site for community engagement, health promotion, social and food justice advocacy. Basically, he said, they unlock the positive side of food, so even though they continue to provide food, it is no longer seen as a food bank, but as a place where people can engage – including engaging in advocacy for both decent incomes and housing and advocacy for a sustainable food system with a fair return to the farmer – which can be done by groups working together, it doesn’t all have to be only one agency. This was echoed by Jean-Paul Faniel, one of the many Québec participants (all the plenary sessions and 5 of the workshops had simultaneous translation) who emphasized the need to work in collaboration among organizations and across other borders as well.

Speaking in the third plenary session, on Living With Risk: Healthy and Safe Food, David Waltner-Toews said we have to think about food less as fuel for our bodies and more as the way in which we are intimate with our environment, so we have to ask our food, as we would ask a sexual partner, ‘who were you with before you came to me?’

My sense of the conference as I moved from session to session, and listened to the conversations in the hallways and over (local, organic) meals, was that people were indeed inspired to think differently and were excited and energised by the ideas and examples that were evident throughout the conference. To give just a few examples: to think of livestock as an integral part of the farm ecology; to think of land in terms of stewardship rather than ownership; to think with young people about the power of food. From the workshop on Agrofuels: “not to reduce energy consumption but to seek alternatives, we must work together and rethink the way we have become a consumer society”; from the workshop on Community Economic Development: “if you need grants to get started that’s not the way to make it happen – investment by the community is the most important step”.

Success is, of course, only 1% inspiration. The other 99% is plain hard work, and the Assembly gave plenty of evidence of that, not only in the stories of what is happening to reclaim, and transform, our food system but also in the 67 different policy and action proposals which were posted on the wall and the twelve Working Groups that were affirmed or established. For me the most exciting new initiative is the People’s Food Policy Project. This project will follow up on the Assembly, working to bring the concepts of food sovereignty into the Canadian context and find appropriate language to develop them here. The perspective of the project is that when we think in terms of food sovereignty we are able to appropriate the authority – rather than to ask for the right – to do what needs to be done. Certainly part of that is to demand policy changes at every level of government; but another and critically important part is to change the political climate and context through citizen action.

As I write this, the media are obsessed with the global financial system, which is mimicking the meltdown of the polar ice, and the forces which are largely responsible for both crises are loudly trumpeting the solution as more of the same: more technology, more ‘free trade’.

Meanwhile, however, the good news is that people across Canada – and around the world – are thoughtfully, respectfully, and stubbornly working to create a food system based on a very different vision.

– More information at www.foodsecurecanada.org

 

#260: November 2008 TOC
Reclaim the Food System! - Cathleen reports on the National Assembly of Food Secure Canada The Hunger Count - Food Banks Canada reports steady numbers at food banks, more groups serving hot meals
Corporate Moves: Updates on Saputo Monsanto Syngenta Big Beef
On the biotech front - Transposons ("jumping genes") don't fit the reductionist model
- If it's GE, is it Ayurvedic? - not according to the traditional Ayurvedic practitioners
- Nontarget Effects: Strong Stalks - BT cornstalks provide overwintering for borers, need to be destroyed
- Argentina: Full of Earth - a local organizing newspaper to publicize landowner abuses
- Markets and Labels (or not) - reports from Korea, Poland, South Africa, and Brazil on GMO approvals and labelling
- On the one hand
- ... and the other - a new GM purple tomato no better than natural alternatives
My two-day field trip with Germany's BASF Plant Science - condensed from a report by Jocelyn Zuckerman in Gourmet Magazine