Articles in Politics
As something of a general-assignment reporter on the food beat, I cover everything from elite top chefs in the farm-to-fork realm, to Napa winemakers, to boutique growers, to farmers market advocates and culinary academics.
But I also see food banks — a world of hurt no one in the food industry should ignore.
"That hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable." -- Richard Nixon
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One of the movie’s shattering facts is that in the 1970s, hunger in America was all but eradicated. By the 1980s, hunger returned with a vengeance and now afflicts more people than any other time in the country’s history. A record 47.8 million Americans are on food stamps. Seventeen million are children. More than 33,000 food stamp users hold doctoral degrees. Enrollment in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has increased 70% since the economic collapse of 2008.
It would appear to be a good time to enrich the food stamp system. But that’s not what’s happening in Congress.
Just when people rely on food stamps more than ever, the Senate voted June 10 for a farm bill that cuts SNAP by about $4 billion over the next 10 years.
And that’s the good news.
The Senate cut is peanuts compared to the $20-billion slash the House of Representatives is proposing. To protest, several of members of Congress tried a budget of $4.50 a day for 3 days this week to see what living on food stamps was like — not easy. The House version of the bill will knock nearly 2 million households off the rolls during a weak economy, with unemployment stalled at 7.6% and 15% of Americans living below the poverty line, the highest in poverty in half a century.
Most people on food stamps work. But if those jobs pay only minimum wage, such as Alabama’s $2.13 an hour for tipped employees, all minimum wage workers easily qualify for benefits.
Hard times can happen to anyone
I was on food stamps in California in 2005. My husband and I had lost a business and became instantly unemployed. As staunchly middle class, closer to upper-middle class growing up, I’d never heard of most of the programs that aid distressed Americans. Only one came to mind — food stamps.
Even though I owned a home and car, it looked as if I would be eligible. Only recently had ownership of a car been stricken as a disqualifying asset. I was shocked that people obviously in poverty were once punished if they owned a car to use to get to work or to look for a job. Then I got fingerprinted. (California no longer fingerprints food stamp applicants.)
I was issued a debit-like credit card loaded with funds every month. It’s called Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT.
I shopped for what would keep us healthy and un-hungry, such as vegetables, fruits, juice, meat, eggs, and OK, chocolate. I’m a good cook, so my shopping habits didn’t change much. I never got into the living-on-beans thing. I didn’t squander precious food-stamp dollars on soda, chips, frozen TV dinners, disgusting canned peas, lunchmeat or cookies, all of which are permitted. Participants who buy Ding Dongs and Hungry-Mans, and can’t cook, burn through their balance sooner.
Once I got the hang of it, I was going to EBT stores like Whole Foods and buying leg of lamb and brie. The program even allowed me to buy seeds and plants to grow a garden.
I thought that being on food stamps was like manna from heaven. But it’s not perfect. Aside from fraud traced mostly to the grocers’ end, the most imperfect thing about SNAP is its recent message about health.
In 2008, it changed its name to SNAP so it would be thought of as a nutrition program. The only problem here is that SNAP’s N-word, nutrition, doesn’t mean much when enrollees can buy liters of Pepsi and bags of Cheetos, and attract the scorn of politicians and the uninformed. My style of food stamp usage is equally criticized as food stamp elitism. How dare I buy high-quality ingredients while on the government dole?
But food is food, and any change to this definition in the Food and Nutrition Act would require an act of Congress. The people on the Hill gave up when they became tangled in the unruly theories of what makes a food too luxurious or too junky. Why not offer food stamp users nutrition classes? Oh, silly me. SNAP’s education funding had already been cut.
Food stamps benefits multiply
Every time an EBT card is swiped at a store, a nearly instantaneous transfer of funds from Washington starts a cash ripple effect locally. For example, the federal reimbursement of an 89-cent head of broccoli benefits the grower, the distributor, the store and the person who consumes the broccoli’s nutrition — for the full 89 cents.
Slashing billions of dollars from SNAP may starve the government beast, but it’s going to starve actual human beings, too.
If the minimum wage is not a living wage, and until the economy becomes unstuck, expect even more people to need that plastic EBT card like the one I keep in my wallet to this day.
Top photo: Clients collecting food at the River City Food Bank in Sacramento, Calif. Credit: Elaine Corn
Among other accomplishments, the film shows us the lives of agrarians who have managed to hold onto their farms into the 21st century who are now being urged to “expand or die.” Apparently, in the beginning days of research, Bahrani spent time with the family of Troy Roush, the corn and soybean farmer who was featured in the documentary, “Food, Inc.”
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“At Any Price,” revolves around a not terribly loving father-son relationship and 3,500 acres of farmland planted with seeds from the Liberty Seed Company, which sells genetically modified seeds. It’s kind of interesting how in every film where GMOs have a major role, the seller of those seeds is always painted as a bad guy. In recent memory, films such as Bitter Seeds covered the same territory.
Ebert is right, there are many layers to the film, including the father-son relationship, power, familial individuation and greed. But what struck me was the way many of the film’s characters flagrantly disregarded each other.
This was particularly true of the farmer who is also a salesman for the seed company, played by Dennis Quaid. While at the funeral of a neighboring farmer, he expresses his condolences to the widow and her son right there at the graveside, but just seconds later he tries to buy the rights to the man’s land.
Much like the Indian film “Bitter Seeds,” there is a kind of desperation that is implanted by the seed company in those who are both selling the seeds and planting the seeds. Farmers who use genetically modified seeds must agree to strict rules created by the GMO seed companies. Once a farmer buys the GMO seeds, he is required to pay an annual royalty each time the seeds are replanted. After one season, the GMO seeds need additional fertilizers, and as the seasons move forward more insecticides and pesticides. The soil eventually requires more water than a normal saved seed would require. All of this means more and more money for the farmer to lay out, which means somewhere along the line the farmer is likely to become desperate. This is not a sustainable way to farm or live.
On the Whipple Farm, as featured in “At Any Price,” it’s all about bigger yields, bigger harvests and bigger profits. Where the farmer used to be a person of faith and integrity, he is now all about the bigger attitude, which colors everything and leads the main characters to lie about their illegal use of seeds, and to steal and then to lie some more. One of the characters in the film (a girlfriend of the farmer’s son) compares the use of illegally saved Liberty Seeds to a bootlegger who illegally copies DVDs. Ah, that GMOs were so innocuous.
Henry Whipple has two sons. He would like to leave his farm to both of them. After all, his grandfather left it to his father who in turn has left it to him. Three generations already and Whipple would like to make it four. But Henry Whipple’s sons have other lives in mind for themselves. The elder is climbing mountains in South America and the younger would rather be a NASCAR driver. Neither have any respect for their father or the work that he does or the life that he represents.
In his New York Times review in April, Stephen Holden calls farmer Whipple, “a warped caricature of a reassuring American archetype.”
Film raises specter of nation’s ‘wobbly moral compass’
‘Any Any Price’ He says the film is both “a critical exploration of agribusiness and its cutthroat, hypercompetitive ways,” and “a searching, somewhat ham-handed allegory of American hubris in the 21st century and a bleak assessment of the country’s wobbly moral compass.”
The film pays close attention to the stresses that high-tech farming involves and how it freezes small farmers out of their livelihoods. It also sub-plots the kinds of competition that exist between the larger farms and farmers. This is a rivalry that can, and sometimes does, lead to violence.
The movie raises issues that inspire deep reflection. It’s a complicated film, dealing with complicated issues. And it is certainly worth seeing. This is a film that explores subject matters on a variety of levels, all of which deserve our attention.
Top photo: Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid appear in a scene in “At Any Price.” Credit: Courtesy of Ramin Bahrani
Follow Danielle Nierenberg, and you will end up in interesting places. I learned this reading the missives she e-mailed from developing nations around the world during her tenure with Nourishing the Planet and the Worldwatch Institute. The Tufts-educated Missourian delivered awful truths about the world’s broken food system with an upbeat focus on inspiring individual-sized solutions. I missed her ever-present freckle-face grin when the e-mails stopped.
Now she’s back! With her new venture, Food Tank, Nierenberg and partner Ellen Gustafson remain focused on solutions, but this time they are the sweeping, world-altering kind.
Food Tank will bring together farmers, policymakers, researchers, scientists and journalists with the funding and donor communities to participate in a clearinghouse of information and data. Solid information about what’s working, they believe, will lead to more and better research and development. It’s a step-by-step scientific process toward food justice and a sustainable agricultural system.
I recently asked Nierenberg to share some background on herself and Food Tank.
You have worked to raise awareness about food quality and availability for a long time. What led you to become involved in this cause?
I’ve always been obsessed with food. I’m the person who wants to know what she’s having for dinner at lunchtime. I had the opportunity to work with a lot of farmers right after undergrad as a Peace Corps volunteer and that really helped me understand the connections between how we grow food and the impacts on health and the environment. Since then I’ve really tried to highlight what farmers, business, entrepreneurs, researchers, youth, policymakers and others are doing to make the food system more sustainable.
How did that work lead you to create Food Tank? What do you hope to accomplish?
We want to build a network of eaters, producers and policymakers and highlight the solutions that are already working.
There is so much focus on investment in big, sexy technologies, and we want to highlight how many of the answers to our most pressing social and environmental problems are already out there.
If we start now, there is an opportunity to develop a better vision for the global food system. Fixing the system requires changing the conversation and finding ways that make food production — and consumption — more economically, environmentally, and socially just and sustainable.
We also want to work with our advisory group to develop a new set of metrics to measure the “success” of a food system. For the last 50 years, the measurements have been based on calories and yield and not on the nutritional quality of food, or whether a food system protects water and soil, or whether it promotes the empowerment of youth or gender equity.
What organizations and individuals are working with you on this project?
Ellen Gustafson is the co-founder of Food Tank. She and I have had a mutual crush and admiration for one another for years. Often she and I are the only young-ish women who end up at both industry conferences and sustainable food conferences. Ellen’s work has been more on the entrepreneurial side. She co-founded FEED Projects with Lauren Bush and started 30 Project.
My work has focused on more on-the-ground research and evaluating environmentally sustainable ways of alleviating hunger and poverty. Over the last few years I’ve traveled to more than 35 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America talking to farmers and farmers groups, scientists and researchers, policymakers and academics, youth, journalists and others collecting their thoughts about what’s working to increase incomes, raised yields, improve nutrition and protect the environment.
People around the world seem to be far more aware of the issue of food quality and food security. What has caused this awakening?
I think that since the food and economic crisis began in 2007 and 2008 there’s a growing movement around how not just to feed people, but nourish them. Most of the investment in agriculture is on starchy staple crops and less has been invested in leguminous crops, protein-rich grains or indigenous vegetables. These are crops that are not only more nutritious, but tend to be resistant to drought, disease, pests, high temperatures, etc.
And more and more young people are getting involved in the food system — as producers in urban gardens in Asia, as bakers in New York, as seed distributors in Kenya, and as chefs, food manufacturers, etc. The food system and agriculture have often been something young people feel forced to do, rather than something they want to do. We need to find ways to make it more economically and intellectually stimulating so it becomes something that people want to do and know that they can make money from.
If you could snap your fingers and make one change in the food system, what would it be?
There’s no one thing that can happen to change the system, but a big thing I’d like to see is more investment in agro-ecological practices. Again, most of the investment in agriculture is in sexy technologies and commodity crops and starchy staple crops, and not in the things that are already working — everything from agroforestry and solar drip irrigation to combining “high” and “low” technologies through using the Internet and cellphones. The solutions are out there. They’re just not getting the attention, research and investment they need.
Top photo: Danielle Nierenberg at a site visit to the AVRDC-The World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania. Credit: Bernard Pollack
I was part of a conversation recently with colleagues in the food world who were griping that nothing much had changed in the health food movement since Adelle Davis’ books, “Let’s Get Well” and “Let’s Cook It Right.” Both books had raised a new public awareness in the 1960s to the fact that unprocessed organic food, grown without pesticides and herbicides, can determine our health. What about Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Frances Moore Lappé, Mark Bittman, Robert Kenner, Paul Newman, A.E. Hotchner and Wendell Berry, to name a few contemporary food activists? Or even more recently, Anna Lappé, Bryant Terry, Jeremiath Gettle, Daniel Salatin, Katrina Blair or Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney.
I’m also frustrated that there is so much work to be done, but everywhere I look I see evidence of how far we’ve come on the issue.
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I argued that things had dramatically changed in simple ways. For instance, yesterday I wanted to make a chicken tagine with plums and olives. The recipe called for chicken thighs, onions, butter, dried plums and lemons. I needed some lamb for another recipe and some hamburger. I also needed milk, half and half, and yogurt. It was midweek, and I didn’t have time to go down to the farmers market so I shopped at my corner market.
I was able to get full-fat yogurt, a coup these days because in the last 20 years almost everything has become either non-fat or low-fat. This, by the way, does not necessarily mean they are good for you. Fat-free foods may also have added thickeners, flour, sugar or salt. Also you don’t want to avoid all kinds of fat because there’s a decent argument to be made that foods contain both “good” fats and “bad” fats. In the meat department, I was able to get hormone-free, antibiotic-free, organic grass-fed lamb, beef and free-range chicken. I also noticed they had organic, grass-fed bison. In the produce department, I was able to get organic lettuces, organic berries, avocados, apples, pears and bananas. In the dairy case, I had a choice of free-range eggs from three farms, and I also found organic milk, organic half and half, and butter. There are farms all over the United States that sell raw milk. Laws regarding raw milk vary by state, but it is available if you want it. I found dried plums that had not been sprayed with sulphur dioxide, which is great because I definitely didn’t want any of that pesticide on my food because children in my family are allergic to sulphur. I know, of course, our future begins with our children and grandchildren. And I remind my friends that in 1996, Alice Waters created her first edible schoolyard in Berkeley, Calif. Since then the program has expanded to New Orleans and Brooklyn, N.Y.
The health food movement goes mainstream
When President Obama was elected, Michelle Obama told the world she was going to grow a garden. When he ran for reelection in 2012, the First Lady was promoting her new book, “American Grown” about the White House garden.
“The garden is the way to begin the conversation [about healthy food decisions],” she told the National Review. “I learned, in changing my kids’ habits, if they are involved in the growing process of food and they get a sense of where it comes from, they tend to be excited about it. The garden is a really important catalyst for that discussion.”
All over New York City public schools now have roof-top gardens or other areas set aside for gardens. The students at Manhattan School for Children on West 93rd Street give guided tours of their rooftop gardens.
Most colleges and universities offer programs in sustainability and integrated nutrition. We have new words in our vocabulary and dictionary that apply to quality food produced responsibly, such as locavore and sustainability. Most everyone knows about fermentation now because of Sandor Katz’s book, “The Art of Fermentation,” which was on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks and nominated for a James Beard Award. Although California voters didn’t approve Proposition 37, which would have made the labeling of GMOs mandatory, the big news is that Whole Foods, the grocery chain with 339 stores across the nation became the first retailer in the United States to require GMO labeling on all foods sold in their stores.
Genetically modified ingredients are in much of the food we eat on a daily basis. Food labels give us information about nearly everything else we need to know about the food we’re eating, but there is generally no information about food grown with GMOs. Now, at least at Whole Foods, all foods will be labeled if they contain GMOs.
There are many more ways in which the food movement in the United States has dramatically changed. But in a way, my colleagues are right. Although we’ve done a lot, there is still more to do to protect our good food. And next we need to turn our full attention toward the issue of hunger, and getting that good food to those in need.
Organic produce at Eli’s Market in New York City. Credit: Andrew Lipton
The holidays were nearing when I eagerly skipped down the yellow-brick road into Dr. Mehmet Oz’s world of “What To Eat Now: The Anti-Food-Snob Diet.” His opener — that “some of the tastiest and healthiest food around is also the least expensive and most ordinary” — was indisputably welcoming.
ZESTER DAILY GIVEAWAY
Finally, I sighed with relief, our nation’s favorite star doctor will set the record straight. Eating healthy food doesn’t have to be rocket science. And it doesn’t have to be expensive. OK, yes, all the Google-smart news-speak mavens can choose to buy their fresh foods at the most expensive markets and thereby confirm their conspira-stories that healthy, local food is elitist.
But now, finally, we would get the straight dope on how we can eat well without breaking the bank.
I happily entered Dr. Oz’s world of bright and colorful frozen green peas and carrots. I read that we can enjoy some of our favorite foods — tacos, peanut butter, salsa and guacamole — and we can also “eat frozen and never feel that you are shortchanging yourself.” Hallelujah!
An egg is an egg?
But when Dr. Oz said “organic is great, it’s just not very democratic,” I stopped skipping. What he means by organic is revealed in his next sentence: “truffle oil, European cheeses and heirloom tomatoes.” No mention of everyday organic foods like apples, peas, carrots, beans. A bit later he confesses that he’s doing a “public-health service” to folks who are “alienated and dejected” because “the marketing of healthy foods too often blurs into elitism.” His public health service includes telling us there is no difference between organic and conventional foods. “An egg is an egg,” he says. What’s more, there’s “not much difference between, say, grass-fed beef and the feedlot variety.”
Let me get this straight: Organic is not democratic because … not everyone can afford truffle oil or European cheeses? The only organic food is the kind he shops for? Following that logic, if the only British car I bought was a Rolls-Royce, I could soundly conclude that British cars are not democratic because not everyone can afford a Rolls. That is, of course, ridiculous.
Affordable organic food is available
A real public health service from Oz would be giving devotees the low-down on organic: telling them that eating organic doesn’t mean buying truffle oil. Eating organic can mean consuming affordable, common foods. And eating organic can mean eating more nutritious food. This is where I get to thank Wal-Mart, which, like Dr. Oz, positions itself as serving the common person. Last November, Wal-Mart’s Economic Customer Insights Report announced that its “natural and organic food sales are growing almost twice as much as traditional food products.” This is not truffle oil. This is everyday organic and affordable food.
A real public health service was this recent study, “Is Local Food Affordable to Local Folks?,” which overturned many assumptions about the affordability of local and organic. Comparing prices between supermarkets and 24 farmers markets in 19 communities across six states in Appalachia and the Southeast, the study found that in 74% of the communities, local farmers markets produce was actually less expensive on average by 22%. In 88% of the communities, even organic produce was less expensive, on average by 16%. Overall, although local meats and eggs tended to be more expensive on average, when the costs of similar items were compared, the local food found at farmers markets was either the same or less expensive than in supermarkets in 74% of all cases, with an average of 12% lower cost. What’s more, the great news is that farmers markets are proliferating, meaning more affordable local and organic foods are available to low-income folks. Since 1994, according to a USDA report, farmers markets in the U.S. have more than quadrupled to 7,864 to date, with no end in sight.
Let’s not forget the nutrition argument. An important study showed grass-fed beef is nothing like conventional beef: it’s hugely healthier! Less fat overall, more healthy fats, more minerals, 300% more vitamin E, 400% more vitamin A and 500% more conjugated linoleic acid, which combats cancer, body fat, heart disease and diabetes. Yet another recent study by Penn State revealed striking differences between organic and conventional chicken eggs, with organic boasting twice the healthy fats, 38% more vitamin A and twice the vitamin E.
In my world, a real public health service would spread information not rumors. It would showcase the multiple benefits, including higher nutrition, of organic food. And it would show that, thanks to providers ranging from local farmers markets to Wal-Mart, more and more low-income people now can find — and afford – more healthy, nutritious, organic foods.
I applaud Dr. Oz for addressing the topic of affordable healthy food. Making healthy food more accessible to all is the right goal. But we don’t ridicule those who buy the latest smartphone as snobs and tell the rest to be happy with a rotary dial. Low-income folks don’t want rotary dial phones any more than they want sub-par food. So, Dr. Oz, please come back to the real world where everyone deserves to know the real dope on food: healthier, nutritious food can indeed mean organic foods — and if we look they’re becoming more available and affordable to us all.
Photo: Tanya Denckla Cobb. Credit: Dan Addison
Pick up a pack of beef or a carton of eggs in any supermarket and the chances are the label will proudly display a bucolic farm scene and one of a range of positive sounding claims — usually implying that the food is produced with animal welfare or the environment in mind.
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As consumer interest in how our food is produced has increased, so too has the use of subtle imagery of happy livestock grazing in lush pastures on food packaging. They’re backed up by claims like “all natural,” “cage free” and “organic.” Yet in many cases these labels bear no resemblance whatsoever to how the animals are raised.
While you might think you’re buying food that’s better for animals, for the environment, and/or for your health, the sad truth is that many of the terms and claims on meat, milk and eggs actually mean very little. They are used to hide the same old intensive farming systems that have been used for decades, a billion-dollar business that does not have animal welfare on its short list of priorities.
The intensive farming industry doesn’t want you to know what goes on behind its locked gates, because the chances are if you did, you wouldn’t want to touch your food — let alone eat it. If food manufacturers were legally required to use actual images from the farming systems, most standard egg cartons would be adorned with horrific images of row upon row of caged hens, all with their beaks trimmed to prevent them pecking each other. Pork products would display images of pigs packed indoors in concrete-floored pens, the sows confined in gestation crates. Most of the beef products would have to show the thousands — sometimes tens of thousands — of cattle crammed together on each of the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that supply 90% of all U.S. beef, where they have no access to pasture and are fed an unhealthy diet of corn and grain and antibiotic growth promoters.
Nothing natural about it
Two of the most common terms you’ll find on meat products are “All Natural” and “Naturally Raised.” Both terms arguably suggest that livestock have a “natural” life, with access to pasture. Yet the term “All Natural” has nothing to do with how an animal was raised and simply means the product contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it was minimally processed. “All Natural” ground beef in stores almost certainly comes from cattle who spent their last three to six months on a dirt-yard CAFO. And while manufacturers who use the “Naturally Raised” label must take steps to ensure the livestock involved were raised without growth promotants and not fed animal byproducts, the animals are usually confined in feedlots or cages. Although there are no independent checks to make sure the rules are being followed.
“Cage free” eggs are becoming increasingly popular as more people refuse to buy eggs from battery cage systems. While “cage free” eggs may come from hens raised without cages, they almost all spend their lives indoors in vast barns or warehouses with thousands of other hens in overcrowded, unhealthy conditions, and receive routine antibiotics to prevent the spread of disease. As the “cage free” hens still don’t have much space to move around, beak cutting is routinely practiced on them as well, to stop them from pecking each other to death.
When food labels that say organic aren’t
Many people put their faith in the “certified organic” logo. Yet an increasing number of headlines show unscrupulous operators are exploiting the weaknesses in the organic rules to introduce practices associated with industrial farming. In 2010, the Cornucopia Institute investigated organic egg production and found numerous instances across the U.S. where industrial-scale operations were managing thousands of hens in single houses without offering adequate access to the outdoors — yet they could legally sell their eggs as organic. These operations make a mockery of the organic principles and threaten the livelihoods of countless real organic poultry farmers who are farming to the high standards consumers rightly expect.
There are even problems among some of the “humane” certified labels. Despite claims that products carrying the American Humane Certified label have met rigorous welfare standards, this animal welfare certification supports caged production for chickens and doesn’t require pasture access for any farmed species. Hardly what most people would consider “humane” practice.
So how can you spot a meaningful label from a spurious claim? Animal Welfare Approved — the industry leader in auditing and certifying family farms to the highest welfare standards — has published “Food Labeling for Dummies.” This free 16-page guide is designed to help decipher the most common terms and claims found on food packaging and, most important, determine whether they have been independently verified. Download a free copy or call (800) 373-8806.
Top photo composite:
Andrew Gunther and guide cover. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Institute
Food-producing communities from 150 countries came to share ideas and experiences at the Slow Food joint Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre event this week in Turin, northern Italy. (Follow this link to my first report on it). Of the many food-related issues that were brought to the table at this extraordinary five-day event, one of the most pressing is land-grabbing.
TERRA MADRE AND
SALONE DEL GUSTO
Carla Capalbo reports from Slow Food's joint event at Turin, Italy, this week.
Part 1: Terra Madre's global fraternity of food producers
Part 2: Land-grabbing seizes the spotlight at Terra Madre
Land-grabbing is when private groups buy or gain control of vast areas of farmland in developing countries for producing food and biofuel crops for the first-world market. Africa, Asia and South America are particularly at risk in this modern land rush. Data compiled by the Land Matrix Project shows that 200 million hectares (772,000 square miles) — an area of land eight times the size of Great Britain — were sold or leased for foreign agricultural use between 2000 and 2010. Of these, 143 million hectares (552,000 square miles) are in Africa.
“Hungry for land,” a two-hour session on land-grabbing, brought together an international panel to discuss this serious and troubling trend that participants referred to as “neocolonialism,” before an equally international audience of farmers, students, journalists and other interested parties.
Stefano Liberti: ‘Just think of the so-called banana republics’
Stefano Liberti, who chaired the meeting and is the author of an Italian book on the subject (an English edition is on the way) explained: “There’s nothing new about the practice of using land in other parts of the world to facilitate food imports: Just think of the so-called banana republics of Central America.
“Two factors make the current situation very different: the speed at which it’s happening, and the type of people involved in the acquisitions. It’s no longer traditional agribusinesses or farmers who are buying up land in Africa, but speculative capitalists looking for quick returns: hedge funds, private equity, even pension funds now consider this type of action a safe investment. And they have been mushrooming at an alarming rate since 2008.”
In some cases, it is the governments of the African, Asian and South American countries that have enabled these acquisitions in an attempt to bring outside investment and capital into their countries’ coffers — at the cost of the local communities, which rarely see any of the benefits.
The attraction of lax laws, cheap labour and fertile land is proving irresistible in the run-up to the planet’s population boom and its growing search for food. Industrialised countries are increasingly supporting themselves from land outside their own geographical confines.
Karin Ulmer: ‘A very inefficient use of land’
“Globally, 70% of all arable land is being used to grow feed for animals,” said Karin Ulmer, Senior Policy Officer on Trade, Food Security and Gender at APRODEV, in Brussels. With the intensive industrial farming methods that are prevalent in Europe and the U.S. today, it takes 12 to 14 calories of cereal to produce 1 calorie of meat. “This is a very inefficient use of land, as opposed to grass-fed animals, sustainable and integrated farming. We need to source less from other countries.”
Liliana Marcela Vargas Vásquez, of Asociación de Trabajo Interdisciplinario-ATI, Colombia, agreed. “There’s been a huge increase of soya being grown in Patagonia to satisfy the ever-increasing demand in India and China for animal feed. Latin America is prey to land looters from within its countries and without, and life is becoming increasingly violent for many rural farmers seeking to defend their land against those who want to steal it.”
“Land used by local communities is being leased or sold to outside investors, including corporations and governments,” said Anne Van Schaik of Friends of the Earth Europe. In Africa, much of the land used by herdsmen is “commons” land, with no specific ownership, yet swaths of that land are being fenced off and converted to monocultures by and for the developed countries. “Access to land and water is a human right,” she declared. “We don’t need corporate control to feed the world. Unlike what we are being led to believe, 70% of the world is currently being fed by peasants, with 30% being fed by industrially produced food. The traditional models can work.”
Mwanahamisi Salimu: ‘farmers who resist are being evicted and killed’
Mwanahamisi Salimu, Campaigns and Advocacy Manager for Economic Justice of Oxfam Tanzania, gave a stirring account of the situation in her country. “Agriculture is very risky in Africa, as people may grab your land, and farmers who resist are being evicted and killed.” She highlighted the role of women in this battle. “Women farmers are heroes in Africa. It is very difficult for them to own any land due to the patriarchal structure of society, and they are always at the bottom of the totem pole, with no access to credit and few rights. Yet they do the majority of the work.” When they do have land, it is often the worst, least fertile land, on the margins of their villages. “Yet many courageous heroines are working the land despite the risks of violence they face.”
So what can be done? Several speakers encouraged the audience not only to spread the word about land-grabbing, but specifically to put pressure on their banks, funds and other financial institutions to disclose where their investments are being made. Often, individual investors are unaware their money is being used for this purpose, and object when they discover it is.
Terre de Liens in France: buying and restructuring abandoned farms
A speaker in the audience from Terre de Liens, a civil society in France, recounted how a group of French farmers, worried about the buy-up of French farms by outside investors, had collected 26 million euros (nearly $34 million U.S.) to buy and restructure 100 abandoned farms, thereby ensuring they remained in local communities and were run sustainably and organically.
“In rural communities of the developing countries, more efficient agricultural models must be developed for Asia, Africa and South America,” Liberti said. “Foreign investment in agriculture was initially encouraged based on the misguided assumption that it would aid local communities. The result has been the opposite. Local farmers must be supported and helped towards sustainable methods of agriculture, using modern technology when necessary for irrigation, storage and transportation, so they can be self-sufficient and retain their rights to their own land.”
Main photo: Mwanahamisi Salimu of Oxfam Tanzania. Credit: Carla Capalbo
In the face of global economic uncertainty, a nail-biting presidential election and record-breaking temperatures, my problem might seem small. Even at a half-inch long. Let me assure you, it isn’t.
For as long as I can recall, my guilty pleasure was Jelly Bellies, a mouthwatering burst of exquisite flavor. Toasted Marshmallow. Cream Soda. Café Latte. Until last Halloween that is, when I discovered that my high-priced sugar fix was being used to game the democratic system. Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, the floodgates were opened for Herman Rowland Sr., chairman of the board of the Jelly Belly Candy Co., to put his money where his heart is. And apparently, his heart is filled with the causes embraced by the Tea Party, Rick Santorum and other uber-conservatives.
It was OpenSecrets.org, the nonpartisan guide to money in politics, that burst my Jelly Belly bubble. I knew of Ronald Reagan’s jelly bean fixation. But I had no idea how far right of the Gipper the company tilted. Over the past two years, Rowland, his family and the Jelly Belly company (which also makes candy corn) have poured more than $100,000 into conservative candidates and causes, including political action committees and super PACS with flag-waving names like Tea Party Express, Citizens for Economic and National Security, and Americans for Accountability in Leadership.
No easy sweet spot for politically progressive candy
I clearly needed a new sugar fix. A Google search for “progressive jelly beans” returned 567,000 hits. Topping the list was a customized jelly bean gift company and a record titled “Jelly Bean” by a musician named Kinky Koala. How about “progressive companies”? Up popped Progressive Insurance and an article from Daily Kos about how to be a progressive company. Hint: Focus on core values. Nice advice, but no closer to filling my candy jar.
I’d already shared the bad news with my daughter, who immediately shelved her plans for a Jelly Belly candy table at her wedding. Honestly, it didn’t take much persuading. She’s a marine biologist, and for years, she has been helping me align my stomach and a better world. Thanks to her – and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch — I will never again enjoy Beluga caviar with sour cream and blintzes.
The helpful folks at OpenSecrets.org sent me a copy of the “The Blue Pages,” their in-depth ranking of companies based on their political contributions and practices. But a quick perusal of the 4,500 listings found no jelly bean producers, progressive or otherwise.
My next Google search – “rating companies by politics” — seemed promising. It took me to the GoodGuide’s Vote With Your Dollars Web page, which ranks major corporations based on their political contributions. Unfortunately, no candy producers were listed there either. GoodGuide’s smartphone app, where consumers can scan bar codes and retrieve product rankings by health, environmental and social performance, has been downloaded more than 1 million times.
But Dara O’Rourke, a University of California, Berkeley associate professor and co-founder of GoodGuide, said his job is getting tougher. Citizens United has made it much easier for corporations and wealthy individuals to disguise their political leanings while tilting the electoral playing field to their advantage. ”A lot more money is flowing and it’s harder to see even than it was two years ago,” he said. “We’re really trying to play catch-up.”
O’Rourke warned me that consumer advocates aren’t big fans of the candy industry, citing concerns about links to childhood obesity and exploitative labor practices, particularly in the cocoa bean industry. “Have you considered making homemade jelly beans?” Clearly he hadn’t toured the Jelly Belly factory in Northern California, where visitors learn about the French-inspired, 21-day process that goes into the creation of a single jelly bean.
And then … the buzz words for politically progressive candy
O’Rourke’s advice? Look for a jelly bean made by a fair trade or organic company committed to progressive causes. That led me to Bert Cohen, the president of TruSweets, the Illinois-based producer of SurfSweets jelly beans and gummy bears. His candies are made with natural or organic ingredients, such as fruit juice and tapioca syrup.
Cohen set me straight. “We are politically agnostic. We are solely focused on producing better-for-you products that people can enjoy whether they have food allergies or not.” (Cohen came up clean in the OpenSecrets.org database.) But apolitical doesn’t necessarily mean uninvolved. Cohen donates a portion of his company’s profits to causes his customers deem important: energy conservation, a healthy ocean, dealing with food allergies. “We’re more about bringing people together than dividing them,” he told me.
I could live with that. More than anything else, I value transparency and honesty in politics. If the profits from my jelly bean addiction are funding solar panels in schools rather than misleading, anger-filled political ads, I am happy. So I’ve made the switch. If you come to my door on Halloween, expect to find SurfSweets Gummy Spiders in your bag. Or maybe an organic apple.
Photo: Jelly beans. Credit: Evelyn Iritani