The fact that milk prices could go up as high as $8 a gallon because of a Truman-era policy that kicks in without a new farm bill is exhibit #113421 that we need a serious reexamination of our entire broken agricultural policy.
A cup of morning coffee could be much harder to find, and much more expensive, before the century is out thanks to climate change and the possible extinction of wild Arabica beans.
That’s the warning behind a new study by U.K. and Ethiopian researchers who say the beans that go into 70 per cent of the world’s coffee could be wiped out by 2080.
Researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew and the Environment and Coffee Forest Forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia looked at how climate change might make some land unsuitable for Arabica plants, which are highly vulnerable to temperature change and other dangers including pests and disease.
They came up with a best-case scenario that predicts a 38 per cent reduction in land capable of yielding Arabica by 2080. The worst-case scenario puts the loss at between 90 per cent and 100 per cent.
There is a “high risk of extinction” says the study, which was published this week in the academic journal Plos One.
I personally think coffee is disgusting. But an old organizing mantra is that you have to meet people where they are at. And a lot of you really like coffee. Coffee is a very sensitive plant. I’ve seen hillsides in Central America where coffee will grow on part of it but not the other part. It needs a very particular climate. That could get much, much harder to find.
This month’s Sidney Award went to Jina Moore for her excellent article on poverty in modern America. Asking what is poverty, Moore notes that no one can agree on it. But a really good definition of poverty is lack of access to a healthy variety of food. Variety matters here–in the United States choice is so ingrained in our culture that without it, you are almost automatically defined as poor. Eating canned peas 20 straight days is not only monotonous and dispiriting, but also a mark of class. Really good piece.
Exhibit A: The rise of 8-legged frogs. These happen at the end of a long ecological chain that begins with farm runoff from our heavily fertilized agricultural landscapes.
Exhibit B: Farm towns in California that can’t drink the water because of agricultural run-off. Not surprisingly, these towns are poor and populated mostly by Latino farmworkers. Typically, those who have the least power and money are disproportionately affected by environmental problems. This story of environmental injustice means that already impoverished schools have to spend precious resources on bottled water instead of playgrounds or teachers or laptops. But hey, I’m sure if we just busted teacher unions that these schools would perform better…..
In short, since 1982, the number of hog farms in Iowa has declined rapidly while production has skyrocketed. This means more pigs concentrated into huge farms. Those megafarms not only force pigs to live terrible lives but are also massive environmental hazards in places people don’t want to work or live unless they lack the sense of smell. This has happened because the Big Four meatpackers have consolidated control of the hog markets and have forced small farmers out of business in the name of efficiency. One might think that the counties with megafarms would have benefited economically, but this isn’t true. Today, hog-centric counties in Iowa have slightly lower per capita income rates than non-hog counties, a quite different picture from 30 years ago. That’s partially because the corporations have pushed down real wages for meatpacking workers.
Our internalized rhetoric of market efficiency (which even most progressives subscribe to without thinking) means that we think that this consolidation (even with its unfortunate side effects) is obviously worth it because it means lower food prices. But Philpott shows that corporations have little incentive to pass on lower prices to consumers while they have tons of incentive to pass on costs when food prices go up. So essentially, consolidation in the Iowa hog industry has led to more money in the pockets of corporate shareholders at the cost of everyone else involved. Just like the rest of the American economy since the 1970s.
The inevitable cycle of capitalism continues. Small businesses, designed to have tight community values and reject older ways of capitalism, become the next state of centralized big capitalist development. This time it is with once small urban farms that are growing increasingly larger and more centralized, spurring fears of big growers dominating the urban landscape, food sprawl, and social and environmental inequality.
In food, this is not unlike what happened with the organic label. What was once a rejection of an industrialized food system soon become dominated by huge companies like Cascadian Farms and lobbying groups looking to redefine the term in the interests of those companies.
I’m not entirely sure this is a bad thing per se. Local food is probably better than a worldwide food system. If we do want to solve the food problem, bigness has to be part of the equation. But that bigness comes with inherent environmental, planning, and equality problems. And thus, another movement will come along to challenge this latest manifestation of food capitalism.
Food is simply too good to waste. Even the most sustainably farmed food does us no good if the food is never eaten. Getting food to our tables eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. That is more than 20 pounds of food per person every month. Not only does this mean that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also 25 percent of all freshwater and huge amounts of unnecessary chemicals, energy, and land. Moreover, almost all of that uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills where it accounts for almost 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions.
What’s particularly outrageous is that 50% of the seafood in the United States goes to waste. 50%!!!!! These are wild animals, the last wild animals we harvest commercially for food. Some of these species are in severe decline and are becoming endangered. Yet we treat this food so casually as to dump 1/2 of it in landfills. This is outrageous.
Of course, the national appetite for government-led environmental initiatives is now close to zero so I suppose nothing will get done.
Philip Bump has a nice run-down of the important things to look for in the upcoming farm bill/massive subsidization of agribusiness thanks to the incredible power held by rural state senators. One point I would like to bring your attention to is an amendment that would limit meatpackers to owning animals directly for no more than 2 weeks before slaughter. This is important because the big meatpackers are monopolizing the market:
Meatpackers increasingly own their own cattle in order to manipulate the market. The companies buy livestock on the open market when prices are low but slaughter their own livestock when bidding prices rise. This puts long-term, downward pressure on the price of livestock and allows meatpackers to manipulate what farmers and ranchers earn. These persistently low livestock prices effectively work to push small and medium-sized farmers out of business, while still leading to increased consumer food prices because large meatpackers don’t face enough competition to force them to pass on savings to consumers.
Grassley and Conrad are the co-sponsors so maybe it does have a chance to pass.
Twilight Greenaway’s piece entitled, “The Food Movement’s Final Frontier: Taking Care of Workers,” is a bit of a misnomer, since the food movement has a lot of frontiers to deal with (and I’d prefer avoiding the use of a loaded term like “frontier” with all its conquest over indigenous people meanings). But certainly it’s about time that the food movement start taking worker justice seriously. After all, who produces that food at Whole Foods? What kind of lives do these people live? Are they paid well? Do they have access to decent lifestyles?
And the answer to these questions is that food producers are impoverished and overworked, subject to disease and workplace accidents, and without good housing or educational opportunities. Basically, food production is a really hard job.
There’s an excellent report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance laying these conditions out. It’s pretty depressing–very high rates of workers on medicaid, long working hours, racial and gendered discrimination, etc.
What are the answers? The FCWA suggests:
There is tremendous potential to engage consumers, small-to-midsize employers and workers to change the food system for all. For starters policymakers can increase the minimum wage and guarantee workers health benefits and the right to organize. Consumers can support businesses that are providing livable wages and benefits, and speak out against those that are not. Employers can increase wages and benefits; adopt systematic and fair hiring and promotion practices; and adopt benefits, such as paid sick days, that would allow employees to care for themselves and their families.
OK I guess. But that’s awful vague.
Here’s my answer:
Unions. Or some kind of worker organization, however defined.
Store chains that care about organic/local/grass-fed/etc should also care about the workers who make the food. These stores should highlight companies that treat workers well and specifically cut deals with farms and suppliers who use union labor, broadly defined. Could be tomatoes picked at farms that have deals with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida for instance. Workplace justice should be made into a marketing tool for consumers to choose, knowing that the tomato they bought was not picked by quasi-slave labor.
Of course this would also force the food movement to confront its own libertarian, individualistic, anti-labor mentality, perhaps most personified in the hard-core anti-union stance of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who has compared a union shop to having herpes.
But this is the answer. If foodies care about the planet and the people upon it, they have to care about food production workers. And the way to show that care is to support labor organizing so those workers can have a voice in their wages, hours, and working conditions to live a dignified life.
So it seems Quebec has started the Casserole Revolution. When I was growing up, casseroles were something I ate at hot dish night every Wednesday at our local Lutheran church. Today, they are revolutionary. Does this revolution include tater tot pie? Or canned green beans (french cut naturally)? If there’s no cream of mushroom soup, I can’t support it. After all, as the old leftist slogan goes, “It’s not a revolution unless you can eat gray food with it.”
It’s hard to imagine a more hackish book review than what Ira Stoll pulls off at Reason. Reviewing Rich Cohen’s new book on the United Fruit Company (this is the first I’ve heard about the book although I’ll probably take a look at it), Stoll notes that the story of Sam “The Banana Man” Zemurray and capitalism writ large is a story of great things, with the occasional blemish.
What are the great things Stoll ties to Zemurray and United Fruit? Upward mobility! Technological innovation! “Bias-free marketing creativity!” Egalitarianism! Decentralization! Philanthropy (properly used to help create Israel of course)!
And then there’s a tiny paragraph showing the supposed downside:
And the United Fruit story also reminds us of some of the hazards when capitalism becomes cronyism. The book recounts all the Washington insiders hired by Zemurray as lobbyists, including Tommy “the Cork” Corcoran. A business that lives by Washington is finally at its mercy, as United Fruit learned when the antitrust cops came after it.
Let’s see, so the story of United Fruit is almost perfect, like an almost unblemished banana with one tiny bruise. I wonder if United Fruit had any negative connotations. Oh let’s see, there’s only like 100 books on the utter evil of United Fruit and the banana trade. So there’s the destabilization of Guatemala through the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz because he threatened to nationalize unused United Fruit lands. There’s the horrible labor and environmental practices of the fruit companies that led to, among other things, workers turning blue. There’s the monocultures that led to banana diseases that continue to threaten the long-term supply of the fruit. There’s the time that Guatemala and Honduras almost went to war when each was controlled by a particular banana company that both wanted on the border. There’s the fruit company not respecting the sovereignty of their respective hosts, quite literally creating the term “banana republics”; capitalist hero Sam Zemurray himself hired mercenaries to overthrow the Honduran government in 1910.
And there’s so many more terrible things that these companies did to Central America.
But none of this matters for Ira Stoll or Reason. No cost to labor, nature, or human life is high enough if the end is a justification of extremist capitalism.