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The New Geopolitics of Food (excerpt)
Lester Brown, Earth Policy Institute
In the May/June 2011 issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Lester Brown writes on the emerging geopolitics of food scarcity as the featured article for their special topic on food issues. Below is an excerpt from the article.
In the United States, when world wheat prices rise by 75 percent, as they have over the last year, it means the difference between a $2 loaf of bread and a loaf costing maybe $2.10. If, however, you live in New Delhi, those skyrocketing costs really matter: A doubling in the world price of wheat actually means that the wheat you carry home from the market to hand-grind into flour for chapatis costs twice as much. And the same is true with rice. If the world price of rice doubles, so does the price of rice in your neighborhood market in Jakarta. And so does the cost of the bowl of boiled rice on an Indonesian family's dinner table.
Welcome to the new food economics of 2011: Prices are climbing, but the impact is not at all being felt equally. For Americans, who spend less than one-tenth of their income in the supermarket, the soaring food prices we've seen so far this year are an annoyance, not a calamity. But for the planet's poorest 2 billion people, who spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food, these soaring prices may mean going from two meals a day to one. Those who are barely hanging on to the lower rungs of the global economic ladder risk losing their grip entirely. This can contribute -- and it has -- to revolutions and upheaval.
Already in 2011, the U.N. Food Price Index has eclipsed its previous all-time global high; as of March it had climbed for eight consecutive months. With this year's harvest predicted to fall short, with governments in the Middle East and Africa teetering as a result of the price spikes, and with anxious markets sustaining one shock after another, food has quickly become the hidden driver of world politics. And crises like these are going to become increasingly common. The new geopolitics of food looks a whole lot more volatile -- and a whole lot more contentious -- than it used to. Scarcity is the new norm.
Until recently, sudden price surges just didn't matter as much, as they were quickly followed by a return to the relatively low food prices that helped shape the political stability of the late 20th century across much of the globe. But now both the causes and consequences are ominously different.
In many ways, this is a resumption of the 2007-2008 food crisis, which subsided not because the world somehow came together to solve its grain crunch once and for all, but because the Great Recession tempered growth in demand even as favorable weather helped farmers produce the largest grain harvest on record. Historically, price spikes tended to be almost exclusively driven by unusual weather -- a monsoon failure in India, a drought in the former Soviet Union, a heat wave in the U.S. Midwest. Such events were always disruptive, but thankfully infrequent. Unfortunately, today's price hikes are driven by trends that are both elevating demand and making it more difficult to increase production: among them, a rapidly expanding population, crop-withering temperature increases, and irrigation wells running dry. Each night, there are 219,000 additional people to feed at the global dinner table.
More alarming still, the world is losing its ability to soften the effect of shortages. In response to previous price surges, the United States, the world's largest grain producer, was effectively able to steer the world away from potential catastrophe. From the mid-20th century until 1995, the United States had either grain surpluses or idle cropland that could be planted to rescue countries in trouble. When the Indian monsoon failed in 1965, for example, President Lyndon Johnson's administration shipped one-fifth of the U.S. wheat crop to India, successfully staving off famine. We can't do that anymore; the safety cushion is gone.
That's why the food crisis of 2011 is for real, and why it may bring with it yet more bread riots cum political revolutions. What if the upheavals that greeted dictators Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya (a country that imports 90 percent of its grain) are not the end of the story, but the beginning of it? Get ready, farmers and foreign ministers alike, for a new era in which world food scarcity increasingly shapes global politics...
(29 April 2011)
Go here to read the full article on Foreign Policy. Be sure to check the other food articles in this issue of Foreign Policy. -KS
Monsanto-tied scientist abruptly quits key USDA research post
Tom Philpott, Grist
On a slow Friday afternoon, a surprising bit of news came down the pike: Roger Beachy, head of National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the main research arm of the USDA, has officially resigned his post, effective May 20.
Who is Beachy? When Obama hired Beachy in 2009, I got a case of policy whiplash, because it seemed to me that the administration kept whipping back and forth between progressive food-system change and agribusiness as usual. Beachy, you see, came to the post from the Danforth Plant Science Center, where had he served as the organization’s president since its founding in 1998. Nestled in Monsanto’s St. Louis home town, Danforth has long and deep ties to Monsanto.
According to its website, the center “was founded in 1998 through gifts from the St. Louis-based Danforth Foundation, the Monsanto Fund (a philanthropic foundation), and a tax credit from the State of Missouri.” Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant sits on the center’s board of trustees, along with execs from defense giant McDonnell Douglas and pharma titan Merck. Another notable board member is Alfonso Romo, a Mexican magnate who cashed in big during his country’s notoriously corrupt privatization /liberalization bonanza in the early ’90s, and who sold Seminis, the globe’s largest vegetable-seed company, to Monsanto in 2005. (Here’s my account of that deal from the time.)...
(30 April 2011)
What is a SeedBomb?
Josie Jeffery, The Ecologist
In an exclusive extract from her new book, Seedbombs: Going Wild with Flowers, author and gardener, Josie Jeffery, explains the seedbomb phenomenon
When I tell people I make seedbombs, they look puzzled and ask, ‘What is a seedbomb?’. They think they are edible (some fancy new superfood) or a cosmetic product. Rarely do people think they are horticultural. I smile and begin a well-rehearsed explanation. Firstly, they are NOT EXPLOSIVE OR EDIBLE! A seedbomb is a little ball made up of a combination of compost, clay and seeds.
‘What is it for?’
The compost and clay act as a carrier for the seeds so they can be launched over walls or fences and into inaccessible areas such as wasteland or railways. ‘But what is the point? Why can’t you just throw seeds loose?’ Most seeds are very light and there is risk of them being blown away by the wind, making them unsuitable for launching long distances.
‘How do I make them?’
There are various ways of making seedbombs. You need to find a carrier for the seeds. My method uses natural ingredients – compost and clay. The compost offers nutrients for the seeds to germinate and grow strong during their infancy and the clay binds the seedbomb, making it hard enough not to break when it hits the ground...
...Where to launch seedbombs
Seedbombs can be launched anywhere as long as there is soil beneath them. Their versatility is part of their charm.
✱ They can be used in home gardens, window boxes or the veggie patch.
✱ Allotments – edible plants or wild flowers to attract bees to pollinate food crops.
✱ Launch them in alleyways and path networks around your local city, town or village.
✱ They can be used to create an explosion of colour on urban green roofs, on sheds or on outbuildings.
✱ Seedbombs are just perfect for throwing responsibly out of train, car and bus windows; they make journeys for future travellers much more attractive.
✱ Roadsides, central reservations and roundabouts, railways and urban tree pits.
✱ Unmaintained areas, so that the seedbombs can grow undisturbed.
✱ Next time you see a foxglove growing by a set of traffic lights, you’ll know a guerrilla gardener has been there!
Seedbombs: Going Wild With Flowers by Josie Jeffery is published by Leaping Hare (www.leapingharepress.co.uk)
(3 May 2011)
Why Is Damning New Evidence About Monsanto's Most Widely Used Herbicide Being Silenced?
Jill Richardson, Alternet
Dr. Don Huber did not seek fame when he quietly penned a confidential letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in January of this year, warning Vilsack of preliminary evidence of a microscopic organism that appears in high concentrations in genetically modified Roundup Ready corn and soybeans and "appears to significantly impact the health of plants, animals and probably human beings." Huber, a retired Purdue University professor of plant pathology and U.S. Army colonel, requested the USDA's help in researching the matter and suggested Vilsack wait until the research was concluded before deregulating Roundup Ready alfalfa. But about a month after it was sent, the letter was leaked, soon becoming an internet phenomenon.
Huber was unavailable to respond to media inquiries in the weeks following the leak, and thus unable to defend himself when several colleagues from Purdue publicly claiming to refute his accusations about Monsanto's widely used herbicide Roundup (glyphosate) and Roundup Ready crops. When his letter was finally acknowledged by the mainstream media, it was with titles like "Scientists Question Claims in Biotech Letter," noting that the letter's popularity on the internet "has raised concern among scientists that the public will believe his unsupported claim is true."
Now, Huber has finally spoken out, both in a second letter, sent to "a wide number of individuals worldwide" to explain and back up his claims from his first letter, and in interviews. While his first letter described research that was not yet complete or published, his second letter cited much more evidence about glyphosate and genetically engineered crops based on studies that have already been published in peer-reviewed journals.
The basis of both letters and much of the research is the herbicide glyphosate. First commercialized in 1974, glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world and has been for some time. Glyphosate has long been considered a relatively benign product, because it was thought to break down quickly in the environment and harm little other than the weeds it was supposed to kill....
(27 April 2011)