7.01.2015

Food Issues Book Club: July!

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Hello all!  Long time no see!  June was a busy and difficult month for me, and I find myself jonesing to get back to the books.  So I'm excited to dive into Bringing It to the Table, a collection of essays by Wendell Berry.  I've intended to read Berry for at least a decade so it's really about time!

Given the essay format of the book, I'm not quite sure how blog posts will shape up.  They may be in a bit of a different format than other months.  I hope you'll enjoy reading them regardless!  Have you read Berry?  Are you reading him now?  Chime in!  Comments are always appreciated as everyone benefits from intelligent discourse.  Look out for the first blog entry in the next few days!


6.21.2015

Updates including vegan stuff from Puerto Rico!

Hi all!  I've gone from 60mph to zero on the blog here, and I have guilt.  There are reasons that you probably already know about if we're IRL friends.  Otherwise you likely don't want to be bored with the details.

What I hope you won't be bored with is visions of the things I got to eat in Puerto Rico!  I didn't have too much of a chance to eat, but what I did try was pretty fantastic.  As follows:

To begin with: the ultimate beverage.  Fresh coconuts, called coco frio, are available at little stands everywhere.  Roadsides, beaches, festivals - wherever people congregate or pass by regularly.  Hack off the top, stick in a straw.  Delightful!


Lunch at La Familia, the only vegan restaurant on the whole island of PR (I think)!  Malta (the most popular soda), tofu veggie mix, mashed potato casserole, oatmeal cookies, and pigeon peas.  Healthy and delicious!

A quick breakfast on my last day: puff pastry with guayaba (guava) and guanĂ„bana (soursop) juice.  Not sour!  Quite sweet and a little bit citrusey.  I want to try a fresh one - thinking they may have them at Hong Kong Market!

Puerto Rico is very much like the mainland states in many aspects, and food is no exception.  The island sadly proliferates with fast food joints.  But!  I was also able to find vegan products in a normal grocery store in a small town.  You really can be vegan anywhere!

Not pictured:
  • mofongo: a traditional dish found EVERYWHERE, usually made with seafood or chicken, but made with veggies if you ask real nice at the right places (or happen to be friends with the daughter of the restaurant manager!). 
  • grilled plantains (plĂ„tanos) on a stick, slathered in ground fresh garlic at the beach
  • incredible produce stands everywhere
  • mango trees dropping fruit like rain everywhere you turn
Next time I go to PR (and there WILL be a "next time"), I will *not* get strep throat and I *will* eat all the things - and take pictures of them!

6.07.2015

AND THE WINNER IS...



The results are in!  From the numerous excellent answers received to the question "a) What do you think is the most effective way to advocate for animals?  and b) How do you think that Morrissey is (or is not) advocating effectively for animals and veganism?", the randomly selected winner is...


***treeninja504!!***


Congratulations treeninja: you and a friend are going to Morrissey at The Saenger Theater on Thursday, June 11 2015!  While the winner was not chosen based on quality of answer, treeninja's answer is an great one that I want to share with you now.  And I quote:
a) The best way to advocate for animals is to take actions that will eventually lead to legal changes that protect animals. I have argued with many people in the past, stating my case about how pitiful animal welfare is today, and it's incredibly frustrating to hear people say things like, "Well if it's legal to buy, then it really can't be all that bad." Keep in mind, these are people who will also adamantly refuse to see a short video of where their meat, leather, and animal-tested products come from. I find myself reminding these folks that only 50 years ago, it was also very legal to tell blacks in America that they could not drink from the same water fountains as whites or ride in the same section of the bus. {Meaning, just because it's legal that doesn't make it right.}
Sadly, most people still don't get it, and can't make the connection in their brain. They refuse to accept that animals ought to be treated with similar or the same decency that we are legally required to treat fellow humans. Just because something is currently legal does not make it right, but many people can't wrap their mind around that concept, so I think we really need laws in place that will require all people to have to take the treatment of animals more seriously. Without strict laws, we unfortunately can't count on people or businesses to "do the right thing." In any population, there will always be a large number of individuals that would be willing to do something unethical if it brings themselves pleasure or wealth. That's one of the terrible and most basic flaws of the human race. Even if it’s completely evident to them that it’s wrong, they’ll still go and do it anyway with no qualms!
So laws are what we need so that we can put an end to so much of the misery and suffering that our human race inflicts upon the rest of the beings we share this planet with. All of the “ag-gag” legislation going on state by state over the last few years makes this even more evident. I hope that some day in the future, people will look back on the time we are living in today and view our current injustices towards animals in the same light as how we currently view slavery or the holocaust. Wrong is wrong, even if it isn't illegal (yet). We can and we must do better!

b) Morrissey is advocating effectively for animals because he is very outspoken and public about his views on the matter. I know there are many celebrities and people in the public eye that share Morrissey's views but keep it private, maybe to avoid the possibility of it damaging their career or reputation. Morrissey has the courage and boldness to do what so many others don't-- to use his fame and art as a voice for the voiceless!
Excellent points, treeninja!

Thanks again to all of the wonderful entrants, and to The Saenger Theatre for sponsoring this giveaway!  Don't forget to stop by the PETA table where great folks will be ready and waiting to talk to you about advocacy in action.

6.02.2015

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: Morrissey Ticket Giveaway!


You heard right, friends.  New Orleans in Green is giving away TWO TICKETS to see the one and only MORRISSEY!

(You know, the guy from a little band called The Smiths. Yeah, that one.) 

The show is right here in New Orleans at the recently renovated and stunningly gorgeous Saenger Theatre on June 11, 2015.  ARE YOU EXCITED YET?!  Good!  So get to it!


How to enter: leave a comment on this blog post answering this two-part question: a) What do you think is the most effective way to advocate for animals?  and b) How do you think that Morrissey is (or is not) advocating effectively for animals and veganism?

The contest begins RIGHT NOW, and entries will be accepted until 11:59pm (CST) on Saturday, June 6th.  So don't delay!  A winner will be announced here on the blog on Sunday, June 7th!

PLEASE NOTE: Some folks are having trouble leaving a comment.  I make the following suggestions: 1) in the "comment as" menu, choose anonymous.  2) copy your response before you post.  3) if your post doesn't publish, please paste it in a Facebook message or email to me.  Rest assured that anyone who lets me know they've tried to post will be entered (honor system y'all!).  Apologies for the difficulties!



 The nitty gritty:
  • Your answer can be as short as one sentence or as long as you'd like; as long as it answers the questions posed, you'll be entered to win.
  • You can't win if I can't contact you! Please make sure to put some identifying name in your comment, and that I have at least an email address from you.  You can email me at bastian613 at gmail dot com if you'd prefer not to leave info in the comments (understandable!) or message NOiG on Facebook.  (To be clear, your answer must be left in a comment on this blog post to enter the contest; you'd only be sending your contact information elsewhere.)
  • A winner will be chosen at random from among all qualifying entries; the content of your answer to the question does not affect eligibility.
  • The winner, once chosen on Sunday June 7, will have 12 hours to respond.  If no response has been received by that time, another winner will be chosen.  
  • Tickets for the winning entrant will be retrieved at will-call on the day of the performance (June 11, 2015) - you must be willing to provide me with your legal name (as reflected on an ID) to provide to the Saenger so that you can collect your tickets.
  • This should go without saying: be respectful please and thank you.
  • Obviously there is no purchase necessary.
  • Many thanks to the Saenger Theatre for sponsoring this giveaway!
Best of luck!


6.01.2015

About the Book Club: On my health and how it kinda sucks sometimes.

Hi all!  I want to let you know that I'm cutting out the June book club choice, Salt Sugar Fat.  It seems that while my brain wants to keep up with the ambitious schedule I laid out, my body cannot - at least not along with all the travel plans that I made after I set my reading schedule.  Alas.

This month I will complete last month's blog posts for Stuffed and Starved - a really excellent read - and let y'all know what it's like to travel through the countryside of Puerto Rico as a vegan.  And never fear: the book club will pick up again in July!

Thanks for understanding.  And enter to win Morrissey tickets tomorrow!  (Yep, that's happening!)

5.17.2015

GMOs: whether you like it or not.
Food Issues Book Club - Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 6

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 6: Better Living Through Chemistry

Summary:

The "Green Revolution" - the developing of hybrid crops with greater yields and accompanying agricultural practices that occurred after WWII - briefly alleviated hunger in some parts of the world.  "But the social and ecological costs were high," and the alleviating effect was temporary.  Hunger has returned (though not for any lack of food).  As a result, the companies that benefited from the first "revolution" are now pushing a second: GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Did DDT end up causing problems ever?
As with GMOs now, some farmers rejected the first wave on new "miracle" crops decades ago.  While under the exact right conditions the new plants could produce incredible yields, "circumstances were almost never right."  The crops required irrigation, leading to water competition, and ultimately leading to drops in groundwater levels and salinification that rendered farmlands useless.  They also required monocropping, destroying biodiversity (and its accompanying natural resilience to environmental stressors) and eliminating the growing of heritage crops grown for millennia.  They also required expensive fertilizers.  These costs together meant that smaller, poorer farmers were left out, and ultimately pushed off their land altogether.

The increased yields and decreased hunger of the first Green Revolution were temporary, lasting just a few decades.  In India, for instance, available food per capita by 2001 was less than or equal to what had been available in the 1920s and 30s.  Additionally, as has always been and as remains the case, presence of food does not automatically lend to absence of famine.  In examining a famine that had occurred in India in 1943, "economist Amartya Sen observed that modern famines aren't related so much to the absence of food as the inability to buy it.  Per Patel, "those who owned it had hoarded it, knowing that less food meant higher food prices.  those who died in the street died because they simply weren't able to pay enough for the food locked up in the granaries."

This example is not the exception.  It is the rule.  Despite this fact, world leaders continue to tout biotechnology advances as the best way to feed the world's hungry - even when we are already producing more food than we need and wasting inconceivable amounts of it.

Asbestos is the bestos - totally safe!
Along with this second revolution has come an ever-increasing practice of patenting not just seeds, but all manner of agricultural knowledge.  Being developed by the same chemical companies behind the first revolution, the new GMO seeds "have come not from any deep desire to improve the lot of the rural poor, but as an extension of their pesticide product line.  It is for this reason that pesticide companies are now the world's largest owners of seed companies."

GMO seeds come with long legal contracts in the name of patent protection.  If farmers save seed generated from growing these crops, as farmers have always done, the seeds won't grow - they've been engineered not to.  Further, the farmer can be sued for trying.  This makes the idea that these technologies intend to make farmers' lives easier specious at best.

Golden Rice has been much lauded as the solution to the Vitamin A deficiencies that blind and kill children in Asia.  While industry claims just two bowls a day will cure the problem, independent studies have arrived at an estimate of fifty bowls - that, or one carrot.
"The technology presents itself as a feel-good solution for politicians who'd rather not face the more profound, persistent, and difficult questions of politics and distribution... The plain fact is that the majority of children in the Global South suffer and die not because there is insufficient food , or because beta-carotene rice is nationally lacking.  They are malnourished and undernourished because all their parents can afford to feed them is rice."
Scientific research, considered to be a bastion of Truth, is unfortunately not immune from biotech's long arm and large checkbook.  University research departments receive large contributions from biotech companies, and are compelled or even strong-armed into creating industry friendly research results.  This is prticularly alarming given that the US government does not do any testing of biotechnology crops.

Radioactive water - it's healthy!
"In the US, the wording of the Food and Drug Administration's approval statement for new GM crops says that they believe that the corporations have performed all necessary tests to be in compliance with existing safety law."  This means that all research on GMOs is being conducted either by the companies trying to sell them, or by the universities competing for research grants from the companies trying to sell them.  These conditions, the ideal setup for impartiality do not make.

Ultimately, "[i]t is pesticide companies [that] will benefit most directly from [the] second Green Revolution, as they benefited from the first."

Discussion:

The general conversation about GMOs has become incredibly polarized - "they'll kill us all (you must be an industry shill)!!" on one side, and "bro, do you even science (you must be an effing moron)?" on the other.  Either they are COMPLETE EVIL or THE BEST THING SCIENCE EVER MADE.  This bifurcation has made it too exhausting for me to keep having these conversations in social media, taking as I do a sort of middle road on it.  I'm relieved to find that Mr. Patel and I see very much eye to eye on this subject.  Briefly, here's where I'm at:
  • Are they safe to eat? Maybe? Probably? The studies conducted so far seem to show that they are. We won't really know until they're being eaten for a few generations, and it could also vary wildly depending on the exact genetic manipulation being performed and the chemicals they're treated with.  We've... been wrong before about the safety of profitable products.
  • Do they use more or less pesticides / herbicides / other ag chemicals? It seems to be first less, then more, but again this will take a while to really know.
  • Do they increase yields? That seems to be a definite yes.  Whether farmland can sustain those greater yields season after season is a different question.
  • Do they decrease the amount of land that's used to grow food as a result of increasing yields? So far they seem only to be increasing the quantity of food grown. Since we don't actually need more food (again, we have more than enough to feed everyone on earth and waste incredible amounts), I don't see this as a benefit.
  • Do they help feed the hungry? They could, potentially, if we vastly change the way we distribute food and who we allow to have access to it. (Read: poor people are still starving because we want money for food, not because there's not enough food. Also see above re: we already have enough food.)
  • Are GMOs just exactly the same as hybrids and/or genetic marriages that have occurred without human intervention? DECIDEDLY NO. When bacteria and sweet potatoes work together to make a big tuber-type root, that is endosymbiosis, not creation of a GMO. Yes, genes are modified - as they are every single time a cell divides. And yet, not every living thing on earth is a GMO now is it? This bit frustrates me the most I think.  Here's a hint: if horticulturists created in their gardens it by using a q-tip to transfer some pollen, or if breeders created it by getting the right two dogs to have sex, that's a hybrid.  If geneticists created it with expensive laboratory equipment by directly altering gene sequences, that's probably a GMO.
  • Are GMOs a humanitarian effort to help the downtrodden? Nope! They are an attempt by an enormous industry to put a bandage on unsustainable but profitable practices, so that that industry can continue being profitable. Any good that does come of them beyond corporate profit is sheer coincidence.
 If you're worried about GMOs, my best is don't listen to either pole of the conversation.  Look at the facts that are available.  If you're really against them, you'll need to stop buying any processed food that isn't organic (and possibly any processed food at all).  It's sort of like trying to avoid sugar or soy - it's in *everything.*  Ain't modern food great?

Sound familiar?

5.14.2015

Bananas! No, really.
Food Issues Book Club - Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 5

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 5: The Customer is our Enemy

Summary:

"Suicide, poverty, and displacement have met many in rural areas who have been unable to survive the global [food] market."  Trade agreements, rather than benefiting the many, benefit only the wealthy few who are able to control commodities.  The United Fruit Company, for example, profited enormously in its exports of bananas even while its fruit growers in Guatemala languished in abject poverty.

So powerful was the UCF that it convinced the US that the Guatemalan president, when he crossed company interests, that he was actually a budding communist.  Given the Red Scare fever that the US was in at the time (1954), the US invaded and killed over 200,000 people.  All because UCF didn't want to sell a bit of its land back to the country it was pillaging.

Unsurprisingly, New Orleans served as a main port for UFC
So-called "Banana Republics" jokingly referred to by developed countries and known for being backward, are in fact "the comically inept regimes installed by the [banana] export corporations" rather than a genuine representation of these countries' chosen governing.  Nevertheless, the perception "sullies the reputations of these countries' citizens, rather than reflecting back on the cause of their impoverishment."  UFC is, of course, now known as Chiquita.

Though the example of UFC is a dramatic one, it is illustrative of the pervasive trend in the modern food industry: the already powerful see profits, while those of less means (and those who do the work that make the rich rich) struggle and die.  While food prices increase for consumers, profits decrease for farmers.  Given that corporations control the food industry, this should not come as a surprise.  "Corporations are the first to admit that they're in business not for any wider social goal, but for profit.  Although there's sometimes talk of 'wider social good,' it is always done with a wink to the investors."

All that money allows food corporations to exert an alarming sway over federal government.  "Up and down the food system, from seed to sachet, food system corporations lobby, threaten, plead, and demand political favour."  Further, courts of law are as likely to rule in favor of corporations as they are to rule for the good of the people when business practices are brought under scrutiny of law.

Discussion:

I'm Chiquita banana and I'm here to say
Bananas like to ripen in a certain way
When they are flecked with brown and have a golden hue
Bananas taste the best and are the best for you

Anyone else learn the Chiquita Banana song in grade school?  It gets stuck in my head any time I purchase bananas.  Funny, though, in school they didn't mention the destruction and death upon which the Chiquita empire was built.  That's no surprise though; they barely mentioned the death and destruction upon which our whole country was built.  At least they're consistent.

Let me implore you at this time to source your bananas carefully.  Do. Not. Buy. Chiquita. Or. Dole.  Please!  (Dole has a similar company history.)  Whether from one of the area Whole Foods, or Robert's, or Dorignac's, or the Nola Food Coop, please seek out bananas that are fairly traded.  If you can't find them, maybe just don't eat bananas that week. I'm positive you'll get by just fine without them.

My favorite bit in this chapter is the part about how corporations only do things for money.  It's not the first of this year's readings to mention this fundamental fact of capitalism, and it's one I'd like y'all to keep in mind any time you come across a discussion about GMOs - like for instance in the Chapter 6 post for this book!

Truth in advertising?

5.11.2015

We're helping people! (They're US!)
Food Issues Book Club - Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 4

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 4: Just a Cry for Bread

Summary:

The modern food system can trace its roots back to 18th century England, when free men without land of their own worked the land of the rich for low wages.  Simultaneously, imports created a taste and demand for exotic luxury foods.  For example, hot (imported) tea with milk and (imported) sugar, a beverage utterly unknown and unavailable in the western world in 1600, quickly replaced (locally grown and made) beer - which held the title as most popular beverage for centuries - as England's preferred beverage.  This was accomplished through the development of the plantation system of farming and "and endless supply of almost disposable people from the Global South."  (Table sugar, in other words, is the direct result of slavery.)

Slave labor allowed food to be sold cheaply, which in turn allowed low wages for workers in the factories of the industrial revolution.  As crops were produced on the backs of slaves, goods were produced on the backs of the working poor.  As is so frequently the case, women suffered most in conditions of hard labor and low quality and quantity of food.  By the mid-1800s, slaves and workers alike began to organize and push back against the small ruling class, some successfully, others to dire punishment.  "The solution to worker dissatisfaction in Europe involved blunting the edge of discontent," namely by ensuring a sufficient quantity of cheap food.  Without cheap food, industrial workers rebelled.  Without slaves and low paid agricultural labor, there could be no cheap food.

And thus, slave rebellions were met with ferocious retribution.  It was upon their backs that the entire industrial pyramid was built.  "The slaves mistakenly thought that the words of the American or French Revolutions, which were led in large part by the middle classes against the aristocracy, might apply to them.  That they too might qualify for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  They were not, however, the intended audience for this rhetoric, being too poor, too black, and too indispensable to the production of food for Europe...  It served not at all to have slaves up in arms, bandying the slogans of European revolution, when they had been captured and brought to the Caribbean expressly to prevent it."

After WWII, the US began sending food aid from its abundance to England, which was struggling with shortage.  When it had recovered in the mid-1950s and no longer wanted cheaper American imports skewing its markets, the US turned its attentions to the Global South.  Developing countries "might be rendered less troubled, more grateful and, in a new twist, more dependent if provided with cheap food."  Used particularly as a method of subduing socialism's increasing hold, "[a]ny US-aligned government that found itself battling worker-led organizing or, indeed, any plausibly left-wing political opposition could gain access to the US strategic grain reserve" though Eisenhower's Public Law 480.

No accidentally, "third world" residents became hooked on US-made processed wheat products.  As explained by the infamous Earl Butz, "[h]ungry men listen only to those who have a piece of bread.  Food is a tool.  It is a weapon int he US negotiating kit."  Food aid largely ended when the price of oil exploded in 1974.**  However, [t]he donation of food as aid continues to be a strategic tool in the negotiating kits of rich and poor countries alike."

This would be hilarious
if it weren't so frightening.
Countries in the Global South sought loans from oil-rich countries which, with the high price of oil, were well situated to loan.  When, inevitably, oil prices again dropped and loans came due, interest rates soared.  Loanees, still in dire economic straits in a global recession, borrowed more money in order to pay the interest of their original loans, entering an impossible cycle of debt.  "[W]ith high interest rates and global recession at the end of the 1970s, the accumulated debt set large parts of Latin America, Africa, and eventually Asia on the route to bankruptcy."  It was during this time that the international financial institutions such as the World Bank rose to power.  "[T]he World Bank was one of the four organizations that had both the means and the will to extend credit to governments in the Global South."

The Bank, though, attached contingencies to its loans through so-called Structural Adjustment Programs.  Governments that entered such loan agreements were required to make changes to their countries' economic policies, ultimately making those economies friendlier and more easily exploited by developed countries.  Suspiciously, developed countries were following nearly opposite economic courses to those prescribed by The Bank.  Since 1995, the WTO has taken up a similar mantle, much to the detriment of the developing world.

Discussion:

To begin, can we just take a moment with the following sentence: "It served not at all to have slaves up in arms, bandying the slogans of European revolution, when they had been captured and brought to the Caribbean expressly to prevent it."  WOW.  I mean, really, wow.  I don't know about y'all, but for me this puts slavery in a whole new light.  I have always thought of it as a loosely associated group of powerful white men being greedy.  This description allows us to view slavery through a whole new level of structural violence.  Mind blown.

Another mind blown moment: the ** about Earl Butz.  I've long known that he is the "fence row to fence row"who transitions American farmers from being paid not to overproduce to producing as much as possible.  I also recently came to understand that this was the result of a massive sale of grain to the USSR.  What this book explained was why such a sale was made: oil!  History is like that: it's like looking at a sculpture.  You can't just look at its face; you've got to walk all the way around to get the whole picture.

This chapter moves from discussing slavery economics to world bank-style economics.  This is not a non-sequitur.  When slavery became distasteful to the mainstream world, a new method had to be devised to continue to exploit people of color.  That may sound like some kind of conspiracy theory.  And yet, as explained in this chapter, our entire capitalist system depends on this exploitation.  Without the slaves to enable cheap food there is no cheap labor; without cheap labor there are no cheaply made but expensively sold goods; without profitable goods there are no corporate moguls.  And the corporate moguls don't like that math, not at all.  And so, what is done in the guise of "helping" developing countries is, in fact, only helping to keep those countries subservient.  This isn't done because those at the top are evil or cruel; it's done for the love of money, and a shaky enough moral compass that the ends (money) justify any and all means.

Here in the South we really, really don't like to talk about the history of slavery.  You can go down to Louisiana's River Road and take a plantation tour - they'll show you the lovely mansions and the beautiful oaks, and if you're lucky they'll wave toward where slaves' quarters used to be, moving quickly past.  At least one plantation is trying to change that: the Whitney Plantation focuses on its history of slavery. Although still slightly disorganized, its presence creates an invaluable opportunity to confront our country's history rather than dismissing it.  Additionally, a slave ship museum has been proposed for the New Orleans riverfront.  While such a place would undoubtedly be informative, some fear that entertainment aspect added to attract tourists would trivialize the experience of slaves transported on such ships.

However it is accomplished, we must not allow this dark time in our history to be forgotten or downplayed - particularly because slavery hasn't ended.  It is not - NOT - some distant part of history that people need to "get over."  It has for the most part changed form, and yet its effects are easily seen in all corners of the earth.


5.08.2015

Unfair Trade
Food Issues Book Club - Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 3

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 3: You Have Become Mexican

(This is a really long, detailed chapter about trade agreements.  tl/dr: Trade agreements suck for most farmers and for consumers, and they're a driving force in Mexicans' (and likely others') emigration to the US.)

Summary:

Mexico's government has frequently been among the frontrunners in exploring free trade agreements, particularly with regard to food.  As such, its farmers are all too often on the losing end, allowing them to find solidarity with other such afflicted farmers around the world.  After South Korean farmer Lee Kyung Hae's suicide, believed to be the result of WTO influence, Mexico's campesinos (peasant farmers) chanted "Lee, hermano, te has hecho Mexicano" (Lee, brother, you have become Mexican).

As a case study of the effects of trade agreements on farmers, we will look at the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), enacted in 1994.  Its primary effect was to lift tariffs among Canada, the US, and Mexico.  While a minor percentage of Mexican farmers have broken into the US market as a result of the agreement, the majority of its small farmers (who make up 85% of Mexico's farms) are suffering beneath its weight.  This is due primarily to NAFTA's treatment of Mexico's main crop: corn.

NAFTA allowed US-produced corn, which was much cheaper due to subsidization and economies of scale, to flood into the Mexican market free of its previous tariffs.  Mexican farmers grew more corn in response - to try to sell more corn to make up for the drop in price.  Despite the laws of supply and demand, which would dictate that less of a commodity be produced as its price drops, farmers cannot easily switch from one crop to another and frequently have few or no other employment options.  "Lacking money, technology, and access to distribution networks, already relegated to the poorest-quality soil, without irrigation, and with indigenous corn so well suited to these conditions, there was little else farmers could do."

Though ostensibly designed to reduce the price of goods for consumers, fair trade agreements tend to have the opposite effect.  For example, while NAFTA reduced corn prices in Mexico (via the aforementioned flood), it increased the price of corn tortillas - the product in which most corn is sold and eaten in Mexico - by seven fold within five years of enactment.  This is but one demonstration that it is food processors, not consumers, that benefit from raw commodity price drops.  Far from being beneficial for farmers or consumers, "[a]s a result of NAFTA, 1.3 million Mexican farmers were forced off of their land.  The flood of labor into the cities caused a 10% drop in industrial wages.  Female headed households have seen their poverty rate increase by 50%."  So, why would the Mexican government enter an agreement that was sure to have such devastating effects on its populace?

Simply put, the US mindset had come to Mexico, becoming thoroughly embedded in the 1980s (during the Reagan administration).  US-trained economists replaced Mexican-educated government officials and brought neoliberal values with them.  Similar to the US, this led to massive budget cuts and slashed social supports during times of economic hardship.  The one area in which the economy was able to grow was in agricultural exports.  Allied with the largest businesses - those that stood to benefit - Mexico's "liberalized" government negotiated NAFTA's and its impact on agricultural products, making agreements on food trade that even the US warned against.

"The negotiation of NAFTA represented a shift away from a commitment, however fragile, to poor people's livelihoods and towards a technocratic arrangement designed to benefit the extremely wealthy."  In the years after its enactment, the campesinos fought to stay in the countryside and continue their way of life.  Many participated in huge demonstrations against the banks and powerful entities that had begun making their lives untenable.  And yet they continued to be forced to move away due to financial unsustainability, toward cities or even to the US.  "With [Mexican] government policy tilted firmly against them, Mexican migrants found themselves not only pushed off their land, but pulled forcefully to the United States."

Mexican immigrants now send over US$20 billion back to Mexico from the US each year - they have found a way to redistribute the US's concentration of wealth, if only slightly.  This movement is representative of a worldwide trend of workers leaving the countrysides of the Global South to find work in richer cities "up north."  "Those who are able to migrate across international borders are profoundly important in keeping their home countries, their families, and their communities alive."

The workers who do find employment in the US also find abuse, however.  "Workers entering the country in desperate circumstances are vulnerable to exploitation, and there has been no shortage of those willing to sink to the task."  United Farm Workers (UFW) and other organizing groups that followed have long fought for farm workers' basic human rights, but little progress has been made.

Those legally employed endure long hours, low wages, and unsafe working conditions.  Undocumented laborers suffer these but with even lower wages, as well as the constant threat of deportation.  When their status is discovered it is they, and not their employers (who have often employed undocumented workers because they can be paid less and can't safely complain about conditions), who are punished.  "[W]ith few exceptions, the era of trade agreements has also been the era of increasing inequality."

Discussion:

OMG THIS IS REAGAN'S FAULT TOO!  OK, only kinda.  Not really.  Whatever I'm blaming him anyway. It's got his taint allll over it.

For all that this chapter says, I have little to add to it.  There's one passage, though, that you need to read for yourself, verbatim, that sums up its spirit beautifully:
"On the Mexican side of this patrolled invisible divide, things have changed quite dramatically.  At the interface of rich and poor countries, there certainly has been increased employment and job creation.  But, again, it is those already in positions of relative power who have benefited at the border.  The success of men with land and wealth in the horticulture industry stands in bleak contrast to the fates of hundreds of women, predominantly those working in the foreign-owned factories brought by NAFTA, who have been killed in Ciudad Juarez, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, on the border with the United States.  It is through their bodies that the charge of the free market has been grounded."
Holy shit Raj Patel, that is some heartbreaking poetry right there.

This chapter ends with a brief mention of the South Central Farm, which ended in one of the more egregious actions against farmers / Latino community members that California has ever seen (and that is really, really saying something).  Rather than talk about it more here (since I've previously written quite, uh, excitedly about what happened there) I suggest you watch the documentary about it.  I have a copy!  Come on over!  I'll make some (organic fair trade) popcorn with (vegan) butter.  :)

5.05.2015

Who remembers the No to the WTO Combo?
Food Issues Book Club - Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 2

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 2: A Rural Autopsy

Summary:

Rural lands, so often romanticized by urban mythologies, are home to enormous strife and suffering.  During times of bad farming conditions it is all too common for desperate farmers to take their own lives, frequently by ingesting the highly toxic pesticides used on their farms.  The pain of watching their families struggle and their ancestors' labor of love fall to ruin is to much to bear, it is thought.  These deaths occur not only in poor developing countries but also in wealthy, developed nations such as Australia and the US.

After the death of a farmer, his family and community must figure out how to continue - a burden which is borne most often by women.  In some instances in India, farmland is handed to a farmer's brother after death, his wife and children treated as little more than property in the transaction.  Through India's efforts to rebrand itself, "the rural poor in India have become works of creative fiction," their plight brushed under the rug by way of statistical manipulation.

As in the US, poverty in India is driven by high levels of debt.  "Debt has its origins in the entrepreneurial impulse.  Urged towards cash crops by the government (and, as we shall see, the large seed companies), farmers adopt plants that they can buy and sell in the market."  Farmers' movements provide community and hope for farmers living in poverty, and as such may be saving some from suicide.  But of course they are not a complete answer.

In South Korea, trade agreements have made local farmers' lives difficult: after lifting restrictions on Australian beef imports, the government "knew that the price for cattle would fall... and so encouraged Korean farmers to make ends meet by upping the size of their herds."  Farmers took out loans to do so.  Ultimately small farmers were unable to keep up with the loans, and lost their land as a result.  At least one farmer's dramatic suicide, that of Lee Kyung Hae in front of a World Trade Organization meeting, has been attributed to this policy change.

Farmers' movements have also been met with deadly violence, particularly in the Global South.  "[W]hen farming groups and workers try to assert their rights collectively, they face the wrath of local police, hired guns and, at best, judicial apathy."  Far from being unreasonably demanding, these farmers are seeking a price that covers the cost of production for their crops, freedom from being literally worked to death in the fields, and the elimination of plantation-style slavery.

Poverty among farmers is a global crisis, and governments find it all too easy to point a finger at trade organizations like the WTO - conveniently forgetting that it was they, and not the farmers, who engaged those groups to start with.

Discussion:

As vegans we are too often lulled into a pleasant idea that, if our food is made of plants, no one suffered in its making.  Unfortunately this is rarely true.  Agricultural workers are some of the most abused people on the planet.  This has occasionally left me feeling like there is no food available that someone hasn't been tortured for.  Luckily I don't think that's entirely true - at least not yet.

I believe that the Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance certifications really do mean something.  Food Empowerment Project can let you know how not to buy exploitation along with your chocolate.  And while "local" doesn't guarantee that workers are treated well, it's far more likely that they're treated like human beings by the small scale farmers that show up at farmer's markets and places like Hollygrove and Sankofa.

I don't know that there is a perfect answer, but we must do the best we can.  Whenever possible we should also support the farmers who are pushing back, such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' protest against Publix stores (for our Gulf Coast neighbors to the East), and the ongoing boycott of Driscoll's berries.  Do the best you can with the means you have, and tell food corporations how you feel about their practices whenever possible.  For instance, please join me in telling Whole Foods stores that they should stop buying Driscoll's berries until workers receive the pay raise they deserve!

And finally, please keep educating yourself: the movie Food Chains is a great place to start.  It's available on Nexflix instant, or for about ten bucks on iTunes (yeah, don't get me started on Apple's worker issues...  oppression is everywhere...).