Tag Archives: agri-business

The Politics of Strawberries

19 Jul

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The other day I went to pick strawberries. Since I live near countryside these days, that’s easy to do. In ten minutes I was at a strawberry farm, several acres of long, low, leafy rows, and no trees. Among the rows, small groups of foreign workers from Jamaica were filling green, plastic mesh quart boxes that then go into a cardboard flat, ready to then go on to a supermarket somewhere.

When you bend down to pick the strawberries here, you find that they do not in any way resemble the enormous red globules that come in plastic clamshells from Mexico or California. These berries are small and clustered beneath jagged leaves, close to the ground, on runners. They really are what their name in Dutch is – aardbaien, or earth berries.

In fact, it reminded me of the last time I picked berries, which was maybe ten or fifteen years ago, with my mother, who was from Holland. And the taste of the berries, again utterly unlike the kind I buy all winter long, also remind me of the past. At one time in my life, I think, this was the only kind of strawberry I knew or had tasted.

I am glad to buy berries from this local farm but at the same time, I wonder how the owners make much of a living from their berry fields. Because the other thing that has changed radically from my earlier years is the whole financial aspect of farming.

The hundred-acre farm on which I grew up, which in the 50s might have been worth $9000 or $10,000, is now priced at more than a million, from what I’ve heard. According to a 2013 article in the Globe and Mail, prices on average ranged from $6000 an acre to $14,000, across ten counties near me. Thanks to higher commodity prices and lower interest than in my Dad’s day, some are as high as $20,000 per acre, an amount he’d have never imagined.

But it also means viable farms are much bigger, highly leveraged, and more mechanized. Produce has to sell, and that also means that fruit and vegetables that are not perfect get trashed.

A recent study done in the U.S. found that half – that’s right, one half – of produce is thrown away or left rotting in the field or fed to animals. Food waste accounts for 8 per cent of global climate pollution and, according to the EPA, is the single largest component of landfill and incinerator waste. That makes it a significant source of methane, a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide. Add to that the waste of water, land and other resources and the picture just seems head-shakingly stupid.

How did we get here? Why are people going hungry while potatoes, apples and strawberries have become the Stepford Wives of the food chart?

I honestly can’t figure it out, despite the economists’ explanations. All I can do is look for alternatives in my small corner of the agricultural world and turn those fresh berries into ruby-coloured jars of strawberry jam.

But yes, someone should write a book about it.

What’s for Lunch?

1 Oct
CC Photo by B.Adams

CC Photo by B.Adams

Well, if you are poor, these little creepy crawlies apparently.

A group of McGill University MBA students won a prestigious award from Bill Clinton last week, for having the best idea for a new social enterprise. This year’s challenge for the annual Hult Prize, which consists of a million bucks and some mentoring from top international business persons, was to come up with a solution to secure food for undernourished communities, particularly in urban slums. Their idea: insect farming.

That’s right. Along with Golden Rice, the urban poor might now improve their diets with ground up insects, which are nutritious, sustainable, already consumed by lots of people in the Global South and, I assume, cheaper than other protein sources like pulses or meat.

But I have an even better idea for Mr. Clinton and the Hult B-School poobahs. Land Reform!

Here’s my business plan: An astonishing number of Third World countries have both big populations of rural landless or land poor and, at the same time, enormous tracts of empty fertile land belonging either to the state or to very rich, absentee landlords. (So much in fact that they can afford to lease such land for mere pennies to multi-national corporations based in other nations.)

Take this land and divide it up among these rural families so that each one has enough to cultivate and earn a decent living. Those families will then be able to feed themselves, instead of being net buyers of food as most of them are, taking some pressure off of markets.

With the money they earn from actually selling to those markets instead of buying, they will be able to send their children to school, helping to end illiteracy and ignorance.

They will also be able to purchase things they need, helping to boost local economies, instead of abandoning their tiny plots and actually swelling urban slums seeking jobs that don’t exist.

Having enough land will also allow them to plant more trees to protect their water sources and help halt global warming. And lots of rural grassroots social movements are already organized to facilitate such transfers in an equable manner and offer agricultural advice and support.

Oh, and did I forget to mention this? It’s also inherently fair.

Maybe my idea is too logical for global decision-makers, because I don’t think any MBA students have ever thought of this. World Bank economists and big donors have also failed to suggest this as a solution to poverty. (Look at Zimbabwe! They say. Look at South Korea! I say.)

No, it is somehow more logical — and let’s face it, the market is based on rational behaviour, right?  — to spend millions of dollars tinkering around the edges of the real issue, the real cause of Third world poverty, which is the unequal distribution of resources.

Those MBA students may be congratulating themselves for their million-dollar windfall by putting bugs on the menu of the urban poor — while fighting off accusations of plagiarizing the research of a fellow student — but I’m not buying it. Nor should you, and nor should the poor. We can do better than this. And if we don’t, it’s because we don’t really want to.

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Fool’s Gold

4 Sep

Fields of Fool's Gold So- called ‘Golden Rice’ is back.

If, that is, it ever really went away.

I remember people talking about Golden Rice several years ago — and not in very complementary terms either. What’s with spending millions of dollars figuring out how to get more vitamins into white rice when it could be spent on promoting small-holder agriculture, land reform and anti-urban-poverty initiatives in general so people could add some vegetables to their rice?

Or on food education showing how cheaper brown rice is much healthier?

But now the spectre of this genetically modified rice is coming at the urban poor again, this time with a golden halo of self-righteousness that imbues it with altruistic life- and sight-saving miracle powers.

“We’re talking about saving millions of lives here,” said Nina Fedoroff, a professor and former science adviser to the Bush administration, in the New York Times recently. Dr. Fedoroff even helped spearhead a petition supporting Golden Rice, signed by thousands of like-minded scientists, many of whom “vented a simmering frustration with activist organizations like Greenpeace, which they see as playing on misplaced fear of genetic engineering in both the developing and developed worlds,” said the Times.

Yes, at issue now is not the absurdity of going to extraordinary, typically technical, First World lengths to deal with malnutrition instead of acknowledging that we already produce enough food for everyone on the planet, but just don’t have a system whereby the poor can afford to buy it. It has instead been cloaked with an aura of legitimate scientific research, the kind that could see all kinds of foodstuffs beefed up with nutrients and other cool stuff. Complaining about genetically modifying — as opposed to using natural hybridization techniques to improve  — what we eat is like complaining about progress itself, in this scenario. After all, as former Monsanto engineer Gerard Barry puts it, the idea of the poor eating healthy, abundant and varied diets is both expensive and logistically challenging.

Right.  So it’s okay for the poor to eat nothing but a couple of bowls of white rice everyday — or roti or tortillas — as long as it contains some beta-carotene.

It reminds me of something the International Institute for Environment and Development’s Diana Mitlin said to me in London earlier this year, about how “one of the appalling things about development is it’s lack of ambition.”

This came up actually in the context of the Millennium Development Goals and its (still unachieved) plan to halve extreme poverty by 2015. Indeed. Why half? “The whole concept almost goes back to, you know, Sophie’s Choice,” said Ms. Mitlin. “Which of her two children is she going to save? Which of my two children am I going to give water to?”

Today’s critics of Golden Rice are calling it a “Trojan Horse” that will help convince farmers that GM products are, in general,  not such a bad thing after all. They won’t even have to pay royalties to plant it.

But for me the very notion that someone even thought about devising something like Golden Rice is a seriously dangerous one. An either-or proposition that actually reinforces the status quo of inequality that creates entire populations of people who are dying of hunger, it’s one that says, “We really don’t care if you  are poor and hungry. We just want to make your paltry rations slightly more nutritious.’

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The Dangerous Prospect of Protesting Palm Oil

24 Feb
Photo: Lian Pin Koh, Creative Commons

Photo: Lian Pin Koh, Creative Commons

What’s worse than a palm oil company destroying acres of rain forest in Asia to plant palm trees for palm oil?  Those same companies doing the same thing in Africa.

And while they may not get away with threatening the life of someone organizing resistance to their bulldozing the forest and forest dwellers in Indonesia, it appears they are doing so in Nigeria.

The Indonesian Peasants Union, or SPI,  brought attention last week to the death threats and police harassment Odey Oyama is dealing with right now. Mr. Oyama, a barrister by profession, looks like a mild-mannered type of guy. He is the director of the Rainforest Resource Development Centre in Calabar, Cross Rivers state. He has charged one of the largest palm oil companies in the world, Singapore-based Wilmar International, with breaking Nigerian law by grabbing 50,000 hectares of land belonging either to a protected forest reserve or to local farmers for their business. And he has charged the local government for letting them do so.

Working to stem environmental havoc in his country for some 20 years now, Mr. Oyama previously tried to stop a cacao plantation in his state, one that would take over more than 5000 square kilometres of virgin rain forest part of which was under community management.

Wilmar is also going to take over dozens of small farms leased for 25 years to small holders in a poverty-alleviation scheme that allowed them to produce and sell palm oil , although not anywhere near the quantities a multi-million dollar multinational can.

Nigeria has enough problems, both environmental and social, without adding land grabbing to the mix. Despite its vast oil wealth, 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. It is also one of the most corrupt countries on the Transparency International list, with even presidents slicing large chunks of palm-oil pie for themselves on land that is not theirs.

Nigeria is not the only poor — although I hesitate to write that word in an country that earns billion in petroleum revenue, but it is — nation in Africa to have come to the attention of palm oil magnates.

In Liberia, still recovering after years of brutal warfare characterized by drug-fueled child solders and a gleeful predilection for mutilating people,  palm oil companies are grabbing almost  a million hectares of land whilst violating the human rights of local communities.

And in Cameroon, an American company called Herakles Farms is currently clearing land for a 70,000 hectare palm oil plantation that will sit between and partly within two National Parks. Herakles says it is a champion of sustainability with its biofuel business, and claims that a) much of the forest land is already degraded anyway, and b) the local villagers using the forest for its renewable resources would actually prefer to have the employment instead.

It counters the complaints of various environmental organizations like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace by saying that the backing of local chiefs is proof that they have the communities’ support.

But just how democratic was the decision-making process in those communities? Do some people stand to gain more than others within them when a multinational comes to town?

After all, whether national or at the district level, cash-crunched local governments often like to think that these enormous plantations will bring economic growth, but like any gigantic agri-business, they only seem to improve the livelihoods of their CEOs and shareholders. As Silas Siakor, a campaigner for the Liberian NGO Sustainable Development Institute put it, “Allocating large swathes of fertile agricultural land to foreign companies for several decades will push people further into poverty, as local income generating activities are curtailed and peoples’ earning capacities become limited.”

One can only hope that Mr. Oyama does not meet the same fate as Antonio Trejo, another lawyer who took on the biofuel bigwigs. After three years of representing peasant movements fighting land takeovers and palm oil plantations in Bajo Aguan, Honduras, he was gunned down last September.

This is a post about Cambodia …

9 Oct

People who keep up on these things — and it’s too bad that there aren’t more who do — are already probably aware of the troublesome spread of corporate agriculture into some of the world’s poorest countries, and how this cruelly deprives some of the most economically distressed people on the planet — small-holding peasant farmers — of their land.

But did you know that the World Bank actually helps them do so? And with your money?

A study by the WB’s own monitoring arm actually admitted that about 30% of its agribusiness-investment projects involved what it euphemistically called “involuntary resettlement” and impacted the lives of more than a million people.

This year the WB earmarked $5 million in soft loans for agribusiness in Cambodia, a nation where more than 2 million hectares of farmland has been cleared over the past several years so that the government can lease it to corporate agriculture.

Interestingly, the WB’s receiver bank in Cambodia didn’t get much interest (no pun intended) from potential borrowers. Other local banks were apparently offering loans at cheaper rates, according to a project report.

The WB also said that a portion its/our money was going to help “SMEs” — small and medium sized growers. While the Bank has no stats on its website to show sizes of acreages of the farmers who did borrow, I am guessing that the guy with a big family and a hectare or two would not be seeking help from the World Bank, then finding somewhere else with lower rates. It just doesn’t make sense.

And who certainly is in no position to borrow are the estimated 400,000 small-holding farmers who have been evicted by the Cambodian government in order to clear it for foreign takeover.

Violence has also been part of this whole enterprise. So far, three people have been killed, including a teenage girl during one of the forced evictions. And thirteen women are in jail for trying to stop the loss of their families’ lands and livelihoods.

According to a study by the Cambodia Development Research Institute, or CDRI, international banks are buying most of the vast leases on offer, and some 85 companies utilizing the areas to grow everything from teak to rubber to biofuels to sugar cane. There is even a Canadian company, based in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, of all places, that is about to expand onto 5000 acres to grow stevia, a plant that offers us first world fatties a zero-calorie sweetener.

According to the Guardian, perhaps the only paper covering these atrocities, “Those evicted to make way for superfarms are entitled to compensation, but rarely get it. Cambodia’s land title system is in shambles, and poor farmers rarely hold deeds for their land – even if they are legally entitled to them, based on possession rights.” (Actually it was Khmer Rouge psychopaths who destroyed all of the country’s landownership data.)

But today’s violence is indicative of something else: a fight back from below by peasant farmers, organized to demand justice. It includes human rights activists, land and environmental activists and even monks.

This follows the strike last May of 5000 garment workers, demanding a $30 pay rise on their incredibly meager monthly salary of $61. They are part of a $3.4 billion industry in Cambodia, making clothing for companies like J.Crew, Old Navy, Levis and The Gap.

We are increasingly dependent, it seems, on the global poor, who make the clothes we wear and give up the land on which the ingredients of our everyday possession are made, from soap to tires to furniture. They get a few dollars a day to make what we buy, all of this mediated by businessmen and banks.

But we should at the very least be aware of what the poor, whether in Cambodia or Haiti, are putting up with to supply us with our ‘things.’ And to recognize the strength and determination of the human spirit when they do their bit, at least, to push back against the machine.

Six Things I Just Learned About Land Grabs in Post-Kony Uganda

18 Mar

Last week I suggested that digging deeper into the roots of conflict and injustice in Africa should be on the cards for many, what with the mega-blow-up (and bizarre melt-down) of the whole Kony 2012 affair.

And so, since my movie date was cancelled, I have taken the past two hours I would have spent in a cinema researching land grabs in Uganda.

I was specifically looking at northern Uganda, nominally at peace now, but for how long? I found evidence of one spectacular case in the area of Amuru. There, the Madhvani Group of Companies, one of Uganda’s largest consortiums, looks to have successfully managed to get hold of a whopping 40,000 hectares of land on which it will grow sugar cane. Not surprising since its owner is a good pal of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. There was no information on how many people this will effect.  But one plaintiff, Jackeo Oballim, who tried to stop the deal in court, put it, “If they try to use force against our people, there will be another LRA in name of the land.”

It was easier to find cases in central Uganda, where a British company called New Forest is leasing 20,000 hectares of forest to grow pine and eucalyptus. According to an Oxfam report for 2011, more than 22,000 people have been evicted from three areas in order to give New Forest free rein.  Meanwhile another 2,000 people have been evicted in the Mubende region by the Ugandan army so that a German company called Neumann Koffee Gruppe can use it for coffee plantations.

But the largest deal involved the government of Egypt that began talks three years ago with the Ugandan government to take over an astonishing 840,000 hectares throughout the country for wheat and corn production. Its test farm will be located in Gulu.

According to a study by Samuel Mabikke, ever larger percentages of the arable land in poor African countries are slated for lease by all manner of moneyed multinationals. Citing the Global Land Project, he points out that in Uganda the deals represent more than 14 per cent of its farmland, 21 per cent in Mozambique, and an astonishing 48 percent in the D.R. Congo. “ Thus,”  he writes, “the consequences of these land deals can be expected to be very large for the local population and environment, with impacts such as agricultural intensification, forest degradation, and displacement of local populations, increasing local food insecurity and increasing poverty.”

Is that six things? I have no idea. But the point is that, as I’ve argued in previous posts, injustice and land poverty continues to thrive in some of the poorest and most conflictive parts of Africa. But apparently while there are still profits to be made, land grabbing will not be receiving the kind of attention Kony 2012 did. And it is more than likely that, as Mr. Oballim suggests, wars and conflicts won’t be going away any time soon.

Check the Fine Print

20 Feb

A couple of weeks ago, the official American aid giant USAID announced that, at long last, it was going to allow non-US firms to bid on development contracts, potentially opening up its vast reserves of cash to companies actually based in the poor countries these are supposed to help.

This caught my attention, because in two books that explore and criticize the workings of the aid industry — or certainly aspects of it — USAID comes in for a fair share of the flack.

In Travesty in Haiti: a true account of Christian missions, orphanages, fraud, food aid and drug trafficking, anthropologist Tim Schwartz looked at the harmful effects of CARE’s food program in Haiti, part of which consisted of selling American (and Canadian)-grown grain and other foodstuffs on the open market.

Why was a charity engaging in commerce, and competing with poor farmers trying to sell their grains and produce? Well, instead of giving CARE, let’s say, a million dollars to spend on projects, USAID gave it something to sell instead and to earn those million dollars that way. Tim Schwartz — and many others — pointed out the immense harm created by the practice, but it took many years for the charitable organization to finally stop doing this. And according to CARE Haiti’s Yves-Laurent Regis, when it finally did, the resulting reduction in funds saw the firing of over 500 staff members.  (Some of their programs were offloaded to the UN’s World Food Program, and I can only guess from where it is getting its food, but I am assuming most, if not all, of it isn’t locally procured.)

Now I am reading Michael Maren’s The Road to Hell: the ravaging effects of foreign aid and international charity. In it, Maren looks at the play of circumstances unleashed by USAID’s supplying of US-grown food in Somalia in the 1980s. Here too, this influx of grains destabilized and gutted the local agricultural economy, sending peasant farmers into a deepening spiral of penury. How? Working as a food relief monitor, Maren writes, “After checking ledgers at refugee camps, I figured that most of the relief food being sent to the region –probably about two-thirds — was being stolen. Some disappeared from the docks in Mogadishu. Some disappeared from the trucks along the way to the camps. Sometimes entire trucks would leave the port and vanish forever. Most of it, it seemed, disappeared from the camps, sold by camp commanders, who were usually Somali military men, or were taken by … members of the Western Somalia Liberation Front. Along with the food, the WSLF also raided camps for able-bodied young men, unwilling conscripts for their murky guerilla war across the Ethiopian border in the Ogaden desert.”

For Maren, it was all part of complex political strategy on the part of Somalia’s dictator-president Siyaad Barre, to take over the piece of neighbouring Ethiopia inhabited by ethnic Somalis.

Even so, there was so much food being delivered to the camps that the refugees themselves — their numbers hugely inflated so that Siyaad Barre could access ever-larger amounts of it  — were selling the surplus. “We were getting too much food, so we would take it and sell it to buy soap and cloth and kerosene, a refugee named Aden Farah told Maren. “Several refugees opened shops …  and started selling the food. It was cheap, so the people were buying it. And it was cheaper than in Mogadishu, so merchants from the city came to buy the food.”

So the idea that USAID might buy food locally would be a welcome change, right? But unfortunately, the new policy rules are not quite as revolutionary as one might think and, according to the Guardian, “do not extend to US-funded food aid. Under federal law, the vast majority of American food aid must be bought from US suppliers and transported on US ships.” (This also makes the aid fair more expensive for the U.S. tax-payer.)

What’s more, as if such potential good news were being completely disemboweled in the regulatory fine print, food isn’t the only exemption. Motor vehicles and pharmaceuticals must also be purchased from American firms.

In other words, one of the biggest problems caused — as opposed to solutions offered — by USAID remains unchanged and as wrongheaded as ever.