Saturday, July 5, 2008

Weekend Update

The Bushites are fond of shifting blame for the current world food crises away from their project to turn corn into ethanol and toward other phonemena, such as the increasingly Western diet demands of China and India. Charles Grassley, the cranky Republican senator from Iowa, also loves to thumb his nose at biofuel critics, saying corn ethanol plays only a small role in the unfolding hunger disaster.

So it must have come as quite a shock when a British newspaper this week published a confidential World Bank report estimating that biofuels in fact have jacked up the cost of food by a whopping 75 percent.

The report is certain to add to pressure on governments in Washington and Europe, which have turned to biofuels to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and reduce their dependence on imported oil. The U.S. government is holding to a position that converting plants into fuels is responsible only for 3 percent of the rise in global food prices.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick has said that the use of corn for ethanol by the United States had consumed more than 75 percent of global corn production over the past three years. Zoellick has called on the United States and Europe to ease subsidies and tariffs on biofuels derived from corn and oilseeds.

The World Bank report was written back in April and apparently was being supressed so as not to put the development bank at odds with the White House. Rising food prices have pushed at least 100 million people below the poverty line, according to the World Bank, and have sparked riots in countries around the globe.


Question: How many ways can the U.S. Department Agriculture distort our food system to benefit big corporations?

Small farmers were already in an uproar over the USDA proposal to tag and monitor all farm animals through something called the National Animal Identification System. Few other government proposals have stirred as much ire in the farm community as this one. It would impose incredible burdens on farmers, as it would require them to attach tracking information to every animal they own, register each animal with the government, and file a report any time one of them goes missing, falls ill or dies.

Imagine the impact on a farm where Mom and Pop, while away at the day jobs they keep so they can afford to farm, allow a few cows, pigs, goats and chickens to romp on pasture. It would give a clear advantage to huge industrial livestock operations, or CAFOS, where all the animals are locked up with nowhere to go.

A little known provision in the House Agriculture Appropriations bill now before Congress tilts even more toward Big Ag and the NAIS scheme. This provision would force school lunch programs to purchase their meats only from livestock producers that are participating in the National Animal Identification System.

One thing we've noticed in the food news lately is the number of school systems trying to direct more of their food purchases to local sources. Those efforts would certainly be compormised if the USDA manages to put its dream of universal animal ID ahead of locally grown food.

We will be watching this one closely....


While our own federal government is erecting roadblocks to local products, the world's largest retailer says it is on a mission to stock its food aisles with local produce.

We all love to hate Wal-Mart. But the retailing giant that has done so much to put small businesses out of business and gut the downtown areas of America's cities and towns is starting to play smart with food in ways that could benefit local agriculture.

During the last two years, partnerships between local farms and Wal-Mart have jumped 50 percent, and the company anticipates it will source about $400 million in local produce this year, making it the country's largest buyer of produce that is grown and sold within a state's borders.

At one time, Wal-Mart loved the idea of a warehouse on wheels, its fleet of trucks moving tons of stuff all over the country on a round-the-clock basis. A move to local produce makes more sense when fuel costs are going through the roof.

For instance, instead of buying peaches from just two suppliers nationwide, Wal-Mart can buy peaches from growers in 18 different states and save 100,000 gallons of dieself fuel. Wal-Mart says it plans to get aggressive, enouraging states to start growing a greater variety of crops to fill those produce department bins.


The spike in global food prices has put a billion people at risk of going hungry. Some people wonder, Why can't those people grow their own food?

The answer is, many of them used to. But thanks to the policies of big development banks such as the World Bank and the Bank for International Development--supported, by the way, by our own tax dollars--millions of small farmers have been driven off their subsistence plots and forced to scratch for imported food.

The international system of debts encouraged by "developed" nations such as the U.S. and the European Union have turned previously self-sufficient Third World countries, especially in Africa, into food importing nations. In fact, many of the most needy African countries once were net food exporters. But lending schemes devised in the name of free world trade and international development convinced governments to turn the best land increasingly over to export crops, forcing local farmers onto poor soil to grow the food they need to feed themselves and their countrymen.

While forcing people into poverty and hunger, the arrangement has worked out nicely for big corporations that sell food back to those African countries that can no longer feed themselves. But don't take my word for it. Read all about it here.


Having built a big container garden at my daughter's charter school here in the District of Columbia, I know a little bit about how a garden in the inner-city can benefit small children.

Here's an uplifting story about how 40 volunteers got together to create a school garden that is changing small lives in big ways in San Diego, California.


Julia said...

Are you familiar with what Alice Waters and Ann Cooper are doing in Berkeley, CA? They are working hard towards providing nutritious and local meals in the school systems there. It's truly amazing how challenging the task of feeding our children has become! Check out:

Bob said...

The increase of food costs due to biofuel production highlights not only the unintended consequences of shifting to ethanol production, but also the importance of checking out of the industrial corn and petroleum-based fertilizer food chain. Ethanol production hasn't impacted CSA veggie prices or grass-fed beef and pastured egg prices. Remember the prices that are going up are the industrial "foods" that deplete the soil and use more than their share of natural resources to get from farm to plate.

Ed Bruske said...

Julia I am familiar with Edible Schoolyards and I have a permanent link to Ann Cooper aka Lunch Lady here on this blog. At one point we were told that Edible Schoolyards would be setting up shop here in the District of Columbia, but we are still waiting.

Bob, we certainly wish that they industrial food system would fade away and give us the food system we used to have--small farmers everywhere growing diverse foods. Your CSA or local farmers market may not be impacted by ethanol production, they certainly are going to feel the pinch of raising fuel costs and skyrocketing land prices caused by urban sprawl.