by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Agriculture

Feb 14 2013

Barclays agrees to stop speculating on food. Is Fred Kaufman responsible?

World Development Movement proudly announces that Barclays bank has agreed to stop speculation on food commodities.  Betting on food drives up world food prices.

Until now, Barclays has been the leading UK bank involved in speculation on food including staples like wheat, maize and soy. The bank made up to an estimated £500 million from speculating on food in 2010 and 2011.

The effects of speculation on world hunger is the reason why Fred Kaufman wrote Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food (Wiley, 2012).  As I noted in an earlier post, his book is a riveting account of how banks make money by treating food as a speculative widget, driving up prices, and adding global hunger.

Did Bet the Farm have anything to do with shaming Barclay’s into doing the right thing?

World Development Movement takes credit.  Kaufman should too.

Jan 15 2013

Reading food and food politics

I’m also catching up on reading.

This just in:

Wenonah Hauter.  Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America.  The New Press, 2012.

Hauter heads up Food and Water Watch, a tough-minded advocacy group in Washington DC working to preserve and ensure a safe, accessible, and sustainable food supply.  Foodpoly is her manifesto.  She has a lot to say about the problems with food policy, food chains, the organic-industrial complex, the food safety system, factory farms, and corporate control of the food supply.  She urges: “eat and act your politics.”  I’m using it as required reading in my food advocacy course this spring at NYU.

And here are a couple of others I’ve been saving up:

Bee Wilson, Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, Basic Books, 2012.

I blurbed this one:

Consider the Fork is a terrific delve into the history and modern use of kitchen tools so familiar that we take them for granted and never give them a thought.  Bee Wilson places kitchen gadgets in their rich cultural context.  I, for one, will never think about spoons, measuring cupts, eggbeaters, or chopsticks in the same way again.

W.A. Bogart, Permit But Discourage: Regulating Excessive Consumption, Oxford University Press, 2011.

I blurbed this one too:

Permit But Discourage is an engagingly written examination of a hugely important question: How can laws best be used to protect individuals and societies against out-of-control consumption of such things as alcohol, junk foods, sodas, and other unhealthy indulgences, without doing more harm than good?  The book clearly and compellingly argues for a mix of laws that permit consumption but discourage excesses, and for finding that mix through trial and error.  This fascinating book is as must read for anyone who cares about promoting health as well as human rights in a market-driven economy.

Nov 13 2012

Food books worth blurbing: just published

I get asked to blurb books every now and then and say yes to the ones I especially appreciate.  Here are three recently published books, well worth having and reading: 

Fred Kaufman, Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food, Wiley, 2012.

In Bet the Farm, Fred Kaufman connects the dots between food commodity markets and world hunger.  Kaufman is a wonderfully entertaining writer, able to make the most arcane details of such matters as wheat futures crystal clear.  Readers will be alternately amused and appalled by his accounts of relief agencies and the interventions of rich nations.  This book is a must-read for anyone who cares about feeding the hungry in today’s globalized food marketplace.  It’s on the reading list for my NYU classes.

Counihan C, Van Esterik P, eds.  Food and Culture,  Routledge, 2012.

Food and Culture is the indispensable resource for anyone delving into food studies for the first time.  The editors have conveniently gathered readings from classic texts to the latest writings on cutting-edge issues in this field.  Although in its third edition, the book has so much new material that it reads as fresh and should appeal and be useful to students and others from a wide range of disciplines. 

Jon Krampner, An Informal History of Peanut Butter, The All-American Food, Columbia University Press, 2012. 

Creamy and Crunchy is a fast-paced, entertaining, and wonderfully gossipy look at the history of everything about peanut butter, from nutrition to allergies and genetic modification—and with recipes, yet. Everyone who loves peanut butter will want to read this book (personally, I prefer crunchy).

Oct 17 2012

The latest dismal report on world hunger

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has just released the latest iteration of its annual report on the State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012.

It’s bottom line estimate: 870 million people in the world are hungry, 852 million of them in developing countries.

The good news is that this figure represents a decline of 132 million people from 1990-92 to 2010-12, or from 18.6 percent to 12.5 percent of the world’s population.  In developing countries, the decline is from 23.2 percent to 14.9 percent.

The not-so-good news: Since 2007-2008, global progress in reducing hunger has slowed and leveled off, and hunger in Africa has gotten worse.

Much of the press attention to the report yawned at the major message but instead focused on errors in the previous estimates, which were higher.

the projections were wrong. They were calculated using figures from non-U.N. sources that were fed into the U.N.’s number-crunching model, because FAO was expected to quickly come up with an estimate of how many people might go hungry from the dual crises of high food prices and the global downturn

The UN bases its hunger projections on figures on population, food supply, food losses, dietary energy requirements, food distribution, and other factors.

The report contains other bad news.  While 870 million people remain hungry, the world confronts a double burden of malnutrition: 1.4 billion people are dealing with the consequences of overweight and obesity.

Focusing on the need to address world hunger Sir Gordon Conway, Professor of International Development, Imperial College, London writes in the Huffington Post:

as I set out in my latest book One billion hungry: can we feed the world?, I believe there is reason for optimism. Yes we can feed the world, but only if we accept that agricultural development is the best route to achieving sustainable economic growth in developing countries, and achieve an agriculture that is highly productive, stable, resilient and equitable.

Sounds like a good plan to me.  Let’s get busy.

Aug 17 2012

To ponder over the weekend: What to do about corn and biofuels

Think about this over the weekend.

Among the other consequences of the current drought—along with the ruin of this year’s corn crop—is a complicated political battle over who gets the corn.

The players:

  • Corn producers: Want high prices.  Don’t care whether meat or ethanol producers get the corn.  Note: Many own their own ethanol refineries.
  • Meat producers: Want the corn at low prices.  Do not want corn grown for ethanol.  Want the ethanol quota waived.
  • Ethanol producers: Want the corn at low prices.  Want to keep the quota.
  • International aid agencies: Want corn to be grown for food and feed, not fuel.  Want the ethanol quota waived.

The ethanol quota:

Three big industries—corn agribusiness, industrial meat, ethanol—plus international agencies have a stake in the U.S. corn crop.

How should the Obama administration handle this?

  • Waive the ethanol quota?
  • Keep the ethanol quota?
  • Do nothing?
  • Do something else?  If so, what?
Aug 8 2012

Question for today: how should we support mid-size dairy farms?

My “thought for a summer weekend” post elicited interesting comments.

Let’s start with the one from FarmerJane, a mid-size dairy farmer who is a frequent contributor.

She asks: How can farmers and consumers find ways to dialog and share information?

She says (and I’m doing some heavy editing here, with her permission):

Thoughts about ag are dominated by a few powerful big media writers.  When we farmers try to speak, we find ourselves excoriated….Rural America does not seem to have any sort of spokesperson who has access to national media.  The issues are framed by a handful of urban food-elite writing whose thoughts then trickle down to how rural farmers are perceived…I think the inclusion of farmers in food dialog would bring a multidisciplinary approach to the issue of food:  environment, ag economics, animal welfare, food systems to name a few. But what are the ways this could happen?

I feel that we, the average farmer of the middle are being marginalized.

I asked: What would you like to see done for farmers like you, neither CAFO, nor small.  She had several suggestions, which I summarize here mostly in my words (hers are in quotes):

Fix milk marketing orders and “end-product” pricing.  Right now, prices are paid to farmers according to the use of the milk.  From high prices to low: Class I (fluid milk), Class II (yogurt), Class III (cheese), Class IV(butter/powder).  If the push is to turn milk into yogurt, cheese, or butter, dairy farmers don’t get paid as much.

Encourage local production.  “The eastern half of the country is actually in “milk deficit” of about 3.2 billion pounds per month, while the western half is pushing the milk out like there is no tomorrow…Farmers in the western part of the country are calling for supply management to rein in some of this rapid growth, while we here in the east are generally opposed to it.”

Make pricing more transparent.  “Farmers don’t know instantly what dairy prices are (hopefully this will change as farmers have pushed hard on this issue to come out of the Stone Age).”

Cap supports on CAFOs.  “Some of the major NY CAFO’s got millions in terms of ‘corn subsidies’ in addition to dairy payments.”

Support mid-size dairy herds: The trigger point at which a farm becomes a CAFO in NY is only 200 cows.  Extension estimates that meeting CAFO requirements at this limit keeps farmers at 199 cows because the compliance cost is something like $162,000.

Reregionalize dairy processing: “meaning more processors in NY who can compete for the farmers’ milk….The more competition for milk the better, especially from a number of smaller processors that farmers and smaller coops can negotiate with.”

Deal with anti-competitive forces. Large dairies are engaged in market collusion and this hurts smaller dairies.  “ Massive retail level buyer consolidation is another issue… Walmart has the power to drive down farmer prices in all dairy categories… The more we can do to break the Walmart grip, the better off we all will be.”

Look at the trends.  “ I know that NY has gone from 30,000,000 acres of farmland when we were kids, to just 7,000,000 today.  There are some 3,000,000 acres of abandoned grazing farmlands Upstate, with empty barns as far as one can see in some areas.  And, I see an increasing number of huge CAFO’s with all-immigrant work forces who send every penny home, cows that never go outdoors, and emptied out Main Streets up here….I wonder how it could possibly make sense not to encourage farms of all kinds, especially making use of the grasslands that are close to NYC.”

Her overall question: “How does one move these questions into the public realm for intelligent discussion?

Senator Gillibrand has made it her business to understand dairy policies as they affect New York State.  For anyone who has ever tried to understand milk marketing orders, that’s an achievement (see below).

Responses?  Any good ideas for FarmerJane?

Jun 6 2012

What’s at stake in the farm bill?

Whoever at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is doing the analysis and summaries of the farm bill deserves much praise for performing a major public service.

The Senate version of the bill under discussion right now is 1009 pages long and estimated to cost taxpayers $969 billion over the next ten years, of which nearly 80% goes for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps).

The NSAC account deals with the big issues: the lack of conservation requirements attached to taxpayer subsidies for crop insurance, the enormous complexity of the bill, and the lack of an overriding vision of what the farm bill should do. 

In one sense, the Senate bill reflects not so much a new farm policy as a new, confusing, and costly set of options targeted at different segments of commodity agriculture…the emerging bill is a bundle of contradictions with respect to subsidy caps and conservation requirements…. This results from, among other things, the complete lack of clearly identified policy goals.…All of this would be complicated enough by itself, but as the headlines and hearings of the past several weeks amply demonstrate, before this farm bill is finished, it will very likely get more complicated still.

As I have said repeatedly, the farm bill is a vast collection of specific programs aimed at specific constituencies, each with its own lobbyists and congressional supporters.  It is so big and covers so many issues that nobody in Congress can possibly be expected to understand more than a tiny fraction of what is involved.  Hence: lobbyists.

I will leave consideration of the big issues to the NSAC analysts, and just focus on a few very small ones that caught my eye as an example of the absurdity of conducting farm policy through this mechanism.  The current Senate proposal:

Adds popcorn to covered commodities: Only some crops are eligible for federal support.  These include wheat, corn, grain sorghum,barley, oats, long grain rice, medium grain rice,pulse crops, soybeans, other oilseeds, and peanuts.  Now: “The Secretary shall study the feasibility of including popcorn as a covered commodity by 2014.”

Specifies use of fortified foods in international food aid: “adjust products and formulations,including potential introduction of new fortificants and products, as necessary to cost ffectively meet nutrient needs of target populations, to test prototypes;to adopt new specifications or improve existing specifications for micronutrient fortified food aid products.”

Calls for a report on honey: “Not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary, in consultation with affected stakeholders, shall submit to the Commissioner of Food and Drugs a report describing how an appropriate Federal standard for the identity of honey would promotes honesty and fair dealing and would be in the interest of consumers, the honey industry, and United States agriculture.

Removes Canada geese from within five miles of airports, especially JFK: “by the first subsequent molting period for Canada geese that occurs after the date of enactment of this Act, publish a management plan that provides for the removal, by not later than 1 year after the date of publication, of all Canada geese residing on the applicable land.”

On the brighter side, it also:

Expands farmers’ market promotion to include local food: “domestic farmers’ markets, roadside stands, community-supported agriculture programs, agritourism activities, and other direct producer-to-consumer market opportunities; and local and regional food enterprises that are not direct producer-to-consumer markets but process, distribute, aggregate, store,and market locally or regionally produced food products.”

NASC’s assessment:

that may be, as the saying goes, the best that can be accomplished under current circumstances.  If so, one would hope that if nothing else, it would spur a major re-evaluation and thorough overhaul between now and the next farm bill to create something that might begin to approximate a goal-driven, fairer, less costly, more rationale, less environmentally damaging, more economic opportunity-creating, and less market distorting approach then where it appears the current process will end up. 

Hey—we all can dream.

May 22 2012

Get your kids interested in farming: here’s how?

 

This appeared in my e-mail.  I tried to find out where it came from, but no luck.  Can anyone tell me its source?

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