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I haven't been too impressed by Obama's cabinet appointments so far, and Vilsack as the head of the USDA is no exception. I mean, what is this? Obama promises to work against corporate interests, and then turns around to select a Monsanto lackey as head of the Department of Agriculture? (And, unsurprisingly enough, the MSM seem to see nothing wrong with this.)

I liked this article from Daily Kos, explaining why GMOs are a bad idea.

excerpt:

So what about GMOs? Well, we tinker with a gene or two, and then we put it out in nature for a test run. Over time, nature will work it out. Nature always does. But it does it on nature's schedule... the resulting chaos in the ecosystem could even take thousands of years to be resolved. Nature and humans work on very different timelines. In other words, we can really screw ourselves with GMOs in the short run, even if nature successfully incorporates our GMOs into the ecosystem in the long run.

The difference between GMOs and pesticides is that GMOs are forever. Some pesticides stay in the environment for a long time. Others can break down in the environment rather quickly. But what's a long time for a pesticide? A century? That's the blink of an eye in the evolutionary process. The amount of risk involved in putting GMOs into the environment WILL NEVER equal the benefit, particularly considering the non-risky options we have at our fingertips for accomplishing the same goals.

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Some of you are probably aware of how idiotic I found the arguments in hack-economist Friedman's The World is Flat. Imagine my glee when I found out that there has been a recently published book that says the same, though using nicer words: The World Is Flat? A Critical Analysis of NYT Bestseller by Thomas Friedman. I like the reviews like this:

"However, Thomas Friedman's runaway bestseller, The World is Flat, is dangerous. Friedman makes "arguments by assertion," assertions based not on documented facts, but on stories from friends and elite CEOs he visits --not even one footnote reference. Yet his book influences business and government leaders around the globe. By what it leaves out, it does nothing more than misinform the American people and our leaders.

Aronica and Ramdoo show that the world isn't flat; it's tilted in favor of unfettered global corporations that exploit cheap labor in China, India and beyond. This concise monograph brings clarity to many of Friedman's misconceptions, and explores nine key issues that Friedman largely ignores, including the hollowing out of America's debt-ridden middle class. To create a fair and balanced exploration of globalization, the authors cite the work of experts that Friedman fails to incorporate, including Nobel laureate and former Chief Economist at the World Bank, Dr. Joseph Stiglitz."

And, especially this review by Bharat Raj:

"Thomas Friedman's book was triggered by the CEO of an Indian software company in Bangalore who said the playing field was being leveled. Then, as only a celebrity pundit can do, Friedman spun a sound bite, "The World is Flat," and garnished story after story from his elite contacts, while avoiding contact with the likes of Dr. Vandana Shiva, Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology & Ecology and others who have a different perspective on what's really happening in India.

Here's a snippet from Dr. Shiva in Aronica and Ramdoo's book, "Friedman presents a 0.1% picture and hides 99.9%. And in the 99.9% are Monsanto's seed monopolies and the suicides of thousands of farmers. In the hidden 99.9% economy are thousands of tribal children in Orissa, Maharashtra, Rajasthan who died of hunger because the public distribution system for food has been dismantled to create markets for agribusiness. The world of the 99.9% has grown poorer because of the economic globalisation. Free-trade is about corporate freedom and citizen disenfranchisement. What Friedman is presenting as a new `flatness' is in fact a new caste system, a new Brahminism, locked in hierarchies of exclusion. By presenting open sourcing in the same category as outsourcing and off shore production, Friedman hides corporate greed, corporate monopolies and corporate power, and presents corporate globalisation as human creativity and freedom. This is deliberate dishonesty, not just result of flat vision."

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From [livejournal.com profile] pollanesque, the benefits of buying fair trade coffee. I like how Cafe Direct seems to have as one of its primary objectives the empowerment of farmers through education & other means; will have to look out for the brand the next time I buy coffee.

I also went to the blog of the writer, and found the convo in the comments about the benefits/drawbacks of free trade interesting.

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Beginning with an article I whole-heartedly endorse.

This article talks about the food crisis that we're facing today, the real extent of which I hadn't even realized. One of the things that struck me was when it discussed the migration of farmers to cities. An excerpt:

One of the major factors pushing this mass and continuing migration to the cities—in addition to being landless or forced off land—is the difficulty to make a living as a small farmer. This has been made especially difficult, as countries have implemented the “neoliberal” policies recommended or mandated by the IMF, the World Bank, and even some of the western NGOs working in the poor countries of the third world. The neoliberal ideology holds that the so-called free market should be allowed to work its magic. Through the benign sanctions of the “invisible hand,” it is said, the economy will function most efficiently and will be highly productive. But in order for the market to be “free” governments must stop interfering.

This is just one in a long list of examples that can be cited of how international organizations have messed up when it comes to third-world countries, waving the banner of free-market capitalism to advocate short-sighted and harmful policies. It makes me rather cynical, especially when I read about economists like Jeffrey Sachs (whose advocation of shock-therapy privatization led to such harm in Russia, not to mention prolonging the East Asian crisis). In the case of Sachs, he'd been advocating his flawed policies for decades, and that it took him this long to realize that perhaps there was something wrong with his theory, that most other economists like him still haven't realized this, is rather sobering. What makes the situation unintentionally ironic is that, in this article, (the new! reformed!) Sachs is using Malawi as the support for one of his arguments, when the only way Malawi was able to make such drastic improvements was by ignoring everything that experts like him, from atop their Ivory Towers and their positions in the World Bank and the IMF, were advocating. Not to mention, some of the policies he now advocates are just as, ahem, reality-challenged as those he used to, just in a different Bono-endorsed way. And this seems to be an endemic failing of many economists, how convinced they are of the rightness of their simplistic Friedman-style models, that yes, do work sometimes, but only in limited real-world situations, and failing to acknowledge these limitations can result in wide-scale damage.

Now, to address what Professor Bhagwati says in the same article, about what's required to deal with the food crisis:
"For the long term, the measures to moderate the prices of foodgrains will require attention to at least three policies where we will have to rethink matters: (1) a moderation of the planned reliance on biofuels and turning to nuclear energy instead; (2) the acceptance of genetically modified foods which promise to continue the green revolution in the modern age; and (3) the shift in governmental investment priorities to agriculture."

I don't exactly disagree with (1), in that I do think planned reliance on biofuels is a mistake, but I think he's missing the larger picture here. He's doing what politicians and economists generally do, assuming that the problem is the type of energy we consume, when the real problem is the amount, that what we have to do is find ways to cut back.

As to (2) - ohboy, where to start? The assumption that the "Green Revolution" (I hate this name) was a great thing, which is problematic for some of the reasons I talked about here, but most importantly this. Using synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is probably the linchpin of the green revolution, the reason that it became so successful, for such fertilizers were able to dramatically increase yields. Now, forget for a moment that their use reduces the nutritional value of the foods, results in long-term degradation of the soil, and that their runoff bleeds into rivers and creates dead zones. Even without this, the statement that Bhagwati made would still be tremendously dumb, because synthetic fertilizers require fossil fuels to make. So when someone so unthinkingly promotes the policies of the Green Revolution, what they are promoting is the substitution of fossil fuel energy for solar energy, a renewable resource that we don't have to worry about for at least a few million (billion?) years, and just looking at the sky-high oil prices today reveals the folly of doing so.

And um. Genetically modified foods are going to be the magic bullet that solves everything? Because we all know how safe such foods are and how solid the science underlying them is? Because they're magically going to create farmlands out of desert or ocean or land depleted by Green Revolution farming methods or perhaps yield a beanstalk so high that we can climb it into the land of never-ending Cargill-endorsed fertility?

Also, (3), while I can't speak for India or other countries, the government in the US already invests billions of dollars into agriculture. It's just investing in the wrong things, providing incentives not for sustainable small-scale farms but the chemical-rich pesticide-rich large-scale farms that've brought us to the impasse that we're in today.

Andd, I'm running out of time. More on this issue later.

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