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 advice 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.

Not 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 in the 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" dude 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 from what I understand, 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...).




5.02.2015

We didn't start the fire... the suits did.
Food Issues Book Club - Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 1

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 1: Introduction

Summary:

"Global hunger and obesity are two symptoms of the same problem."  That problem, namely, is the modern food industry.  Because corporate interests dictate our food choices, even the most affluent among us can access only a small variety of produce (which is difficult to ship and has a short shelf life) when compared to the seemingly boundless options for heavily processed, sugar- and fat-laden packaged foods (which can be shipped much like non-food goods and have a next to infinite shelf life) that fill the "middle aisles" of our supermarkets.

This pic comes from a really alarming article
about *employers'* rights when
their farms are inspected...
This model of food has created suffering for farmers, which goes largely unnoticed by a public still convinced that cows live next to big red barns on bucolic rolling green hills.  Rather than choosing what to grow, farmers plant the crops demanded by a global food market - and are vulnerable to its whims.  Farms are no longer really owned by farmers, but by banks and grain distributors that are quick to punish if a farmer defaults on an agreement, regardless of the reason.  In this way, farmers can wind up as laborers on what use to be their own land.

Through the tireless efforts of the food industry, "[w]e are dissuaded from asking hard questions, not only about how our individual tastes and preferences are manipulated, but about how are choices at the checkout take away the choices of those who grow our food."

Learn about coffee issues here.
The "laws of supply and demand" assume that if farmers can't make a living wage growing their crops, whey will find other employment.  "This would presuppose that there is something else they can do.  Too often, there isn't."  Unskilled labor jobs are dwindling, and frequently land can't be converted for different uses.  Coffee, for instance, is grown on land that doesn't support other crops.  If something goes wrong during the season, farmers have little or no recourse.

For such an expensive crop as coffee, it seems that growers should not struggle financially.  Yet it is the food processors and distributors, one step from the retail level, that harness enormous profits on such crops - farmers are paid pennies.  "Nestle is in the position to raise the price that its growers receive.  But why would it do that?"  Corporations do not subscribe to ideas such as fairness.  They strive only to maximize profits.

"The food system is a battlefield, though few realize quite how many casualties there have been."  Farmers worldwide have organized to fight back against the unjust system, to varying degrees of success (and danger).  Consumers also try to fight back by voting with their forks and dollars, and yet "the choice between Coke and Pepsi is a pop freedom - it's choice lite."  When the only choice is to support the food industry, choice becomes specious.

Discussion:

As any good introductory chapter does, this first section briefly touches on many topics that (I believe) will be more thoroughly examined in later chapters.  As such I'm not going to discuss each idea in depth.  I do want to address the idea of voting with our forks, though.

Not everyone sees it this way, but I have long seen veganism as an industry boycott.  For this reason, I go out of my way to purchase products which are not only vegan, but that are made by vegan companies.  I also refuse to buy chocolate, coffee, tea, or flowers that aren't fair trade certified, because if it's vegan but the product of slavery it is in no way "cruelty free."  I buy organically grown produce whenever possible - not for my own personal health, but for the health of the land, and the workers in the fields who are directly exposed to agricultural chemicals, and the people whose air and water those chemicals could affect.

The question I struggle with is, does it matter?  In the great scheme of things, does it matter if I refuse to purchase the products of oppression, refuse to hand my money to exploiters?  Will it impact anything, ever?

The short answer is no.  There is no corporation or government that will ever feel the impact of my personal grocery store choices.  But.  There's a big but!  I do think that veganism's collective choice to boycott these products can have an impact, particularly if we keep growing as a movement, and if we choose whenever possible to support truly ethical and vegan companies.  Of course not everyone has these products available to them, or has the means to buy them (rather than, say, what's on sale that week), but those of us who do must spend wisely and in an informed way for our choices to have the greatest impact.

But... there's another but.  Which is that our purchasing choices alone are unlikely to ever be enough to change the food system.  They might push things in the right direction, but until or unless animal foods become unprofitable, corporations will continue to sell them - and to abuse human labor to make them cheap.  This "purchasing power" tactic also leaves out everyone who does not have the means to "just make different choices," which in a poverty-wracked state such as Louisiana is quite a large number of people!  For these reasons, any of us who are able must also exert systemic pressure on the food industry.

How?  There are many options.  First, we should look to our local and national legislatures and pay attention whenever a bill comes up that involves food - access to it or the regulation of it or its purveyors.  Ask your legislators to support bills that strengthen SNAP and increase access to healthy food, and those that increase industry regulation.  Ask them to vote against bills that loosen regulations for food industry workers, inspections, and the like.  Get involved by talking to your city council members if there are any local initiatives on food.  For local folks, the Louisiana legislative session is currently under way, and I've put together a small list of bills that I believe are worthy of support.

More broadly, we should support efforts like the Fight for $15 - it was, after all, the fast food industry that pushed wages down for "unskilled" workers, and many other food industry workers perform difficult and dangerous work for less than a living wage.  And don't forget, the food industry pays its employees substandard wages not to keep our food cheap but to keep their profits high.

Also, we must support all anti-discrimination efforts, whether they are fighting discrimination based on age, race, gender / sexuality / gender expression; whether ableism or sizeism or healthism is at issue.  Why?  Because oppression for some is oppression for all.  What we need to create is a paradigm shift - not just in how society sees and treats animals, but how it sees and treats everyone of less than the highest ranks of privilege.

We must eradicate the idea that some beings are "less than" and therefore exploitable.  It is from this mindset that all oppression stems.  If we stamp out the fire only in one corner, yet allow it to rage elsewhere, that corner remains in constant peril of reigniting.  (Not to mention, who wants to live in the one fire-free room of a house that's burning down?)  We must stamp it out entirely.  We must learn to be intersectional.

We all get frustrated with so-called environmentalists who believe that, since they've switched over to more efficient light bulbs, they're all done, hands clean.  Veganism without intersectionality is the lightbulb-switch of food justice.  I implore you: don't assume that, since there's no animal in your food / clothes / products, you've done all there is to do.  Don't be a single-issue vegan.  Wherever and for whomever it crops up, see the fire and work to stamp it out.

And now, because how can I not make fun of myself after that lil speech:



Billy Joel - We Didn't Start The Fire by harrison73

5.01.2015

Food Issues Book Club: May!

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...

New month, new book!  I've been meaning to read Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel for years.  So many years, in fact, that this is a "revised and expanded" edition!  Updated in 2012, this book on "the hidden battle for the world food system" is bound to be an edifying read.

I personally am guilty of being hyperfocused on what's happening in the US, and actively scoffing at looking at how the food industry is developing elsewhere - which is of course ridiculous because all of the major players shaping the industry are international corporations.  I'm looking forward to the new insights that a global lens will undoubtedly bring.

Are you reading it now?  Have you read it before?  Do you just want to comment on what I write about it here?  PLEASE DO!!