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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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Why Bother?
A NYTimes essay by Michael Pollan that asks why, amidst so much conflicting information, we should bother changing our habits to become more enivornmentally-friendly, especially when the problem is so large and individual changes make a marginal at best difference. I really liked his argument on why those changes are worth making, but like I said on the pollaneque comm, I hated the way it was framed, setting up the socially-responsible US citizen against his evil Chinese twin counterpart who's busy buying fuel-inefficient cars, when the evil Chinese twin leaves half the carbon footprint that the average US citizen does. Way to deny national guilt right there.

how we're wrecking our feet with every step we take
A NY Magazine article on why shoes are bad for our feet that I found eye-opening.

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The 7 Wonders Of The Food Coloring World
Lists the most common food colorings and where they come from (in most of the cases, coal tar).

pharmaceuticals found in drinking water
As frightening as this is, I think the most dangerous thing we have in the tap water system is fluoride, which wrecks havoc on the thyroid gland.

guide to choosing water-filtration units
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Unhappy Meals

A (quite long) NYT article on food & nutrition & American culture (and why it sucks when it comes to this stuff). My favorite part came about 2/3rds of the way down, when the author characterized eating as a relationship among species in the food chain. I'd never quite thought of it that way before, but it makes sense.


“Health” is, among other things, the byproduct of being involved in these sorts of relationships in a food chain — involved in a great many of them, in the case of an omnivorous creature like us. Further, when the health of one link of the food chain is disturbed, it can affect all the creatures in it. When the soil is sick or in some way deficient, so will be the grasses that grow in that soil and the cattle that eat the grasses and the people who drink the milk. Or, as the English agronomist Sir Albert Howard put it in 1945 in “The Soil and Health” (a founding text of organic agriculture), we would do well to regard “the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man as one great subject.” Our personal health is inextricably bound up with the health of the entire food web.

In many cases, long familiarity between foods and their eaters leads to elaborate systems of communications up and down the food chain, so that a creature’s senses come to recognize foods as suitable by taste and smell and color, and our bodies learn what to do with these foods after they pass the test of the senses, producing in anticipation the chemicals necessary to break them down. Health depends on knowing how to read these biological signals: this smells spoiled; this looks ripe; that’s one good-looking cow. This is easier to do when a creature has long experience of a food, and much harder when a food has been designed expressly to deceive its senses — with artificial flavors, say, or synthetic sweeteners.

Note that these ecological relationships are between eaters and whole foods, not nutrients. Even though the foods in question eventually get broken down in our bodies into simple nutrients, as corn is reduced to simple sugars, the qualities of the whole food are not unimportant — they govern such things as the speed at which the sugars will be released and absorbed, which we’re coming to see as critical to insulin metabolism. Put another way, our bodies have a longstanding and sustainable relationship to corn that we do not have to high-fructose corn syrup. Such a relationship with corn syrup might develop someday (as people evolve superhuman insulin systems to cope with regular floods of fructose and glucose), but for now the relationship leads to ill health because our bodies don’t know how to handle these biological novelties. In much the same way, human bodies that can cope with chewing coca leaves — a longstanding relationship between native people and the coca plant in South America — cannot cope with cocaine or crack, even though the same “active ingredients” are present in all three. Reductionism as a way of understanding food or drugs may be harmless, even necessary, but reductionism in practice can lead to problems.
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I've been absently following the debates over the new farm bill. An article I found interesting:

in the fight over farm aid, this is the front line

"Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat from the big-farming territory of western Minnesota, is pushing a farm bill that continues big crop subsidies, while Rep. Ron Kind, a Democrat from western Wisconsin, is leading a revolt to focus the farm bill more on topics like clean water, nutrition and global trade.

"A lot of my colleagues in Congress are connecting the dots' between corn subsidies, obesity, and the use of cheap sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup, Kind said. 'Is it any wonder we have a Type 2 diabetes epidemic in this country?'

"Thus far, Kind's reformers have only slightly budged the farm lobby. The Agriculture Committee reluctantly voted to cap subsidies - but only to farmers earning $1 million a year ($2 million for married couples). It extended a welcome mat to organic farmers. And it promised to be fairer to vegetable and fruit growers."


he only saved a billion people

An article that uses Borlaug's (the man behind the green revolution) relative anonymity to argue about how shallow our culture has become. It's - hm. I don't disagree with its main point - our culture is shallow - but dude, Borlaug (and by extension the methods he champions) has also done a lot of harm, and portraying him in such an unqualified positive light is a bit disingenious.

Parts like:

Borlaug scoffs at the mania for organic food, which he proves with calm logic is unsuited to fight global hunger.

um, what? Where is the so-called calm logic? I need more than a claim that cow dung is an inefficient source of nitrogen, especially when weighed against studies like these which prove that organic farming can yield up to three times as much food as the methods championed by Borlaug and the big agribusinesses.

There's "no evidence the food is any different than that produced by chemical fertilizer."

Some of the major drawbacks of using chemical fertilizers. There are tons of links about this on the internet.

Even if the above wasn't true, eating organic isn't just about avoiding foods that have been grown using chemical fertilizers, it's also about avoiding foods that have been genetically modified and use pesticides. How is addressing only one of these issues a refutation against the practice?

Another point to note - there has been controversy over the claim that this entire article is based on, that the Green Revolution saved the lives of a billion people. According to the wikipedia article:

Increasing food production however is not synonymous with increasing food security, and is only part of a larger equation. For example, Amartya Sen’s work has found that large historic famines have not been caused by decreases in food supply, but by socioeconomic dynamics and a failure of public action. [21] There are several claims about how the Green Revolution may have decreased food security for some people. One such claim involves the shift of subsistence-oriented cropland to cropland oriented towards production of grain for export and/or animal feed. For example, the Green Revolution replaced much of the land used for pulses that fed Indian peasants for wheat, which did not make up a large portion of the peasant diet.[22] Also, the pesticides involved in rice production eliminated fish and weedy green vegetables from the diets of Asian rice farmers.

Add to this what I talked about before, that organic farming yields several times more than conventional farming in third-world countries. Also, there is the question of whether the increased food production from conventional farming practices is sustainable, for the use of chemical fertilizers in the long run depletes chemicals from the soil, the use of pesticides in the long run creates weeds and insects that are pesticide-resistant, and the mass farming of only a few crops leaves the population as a whole more vulnerable to famine. And we're not even getting to the issue of the severe health effects of being exposed to pesticides, the hundreds of thousands of people that have died as a result of accidents in plants that create such things, that the safety of genetically modified foods are based on a theory that has been scientifically proven as false, etcetc.

That the author of this article did not bother to do any research, and just took Borlaug's word on this and other issues, is something I find very sloppy, turning what could have been an interesting, informed article into a misleading PR piece.

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site links:

organic consumers association
This site links to a lot of interesting news articles.

local harvest
If you live in the US, this is a great site to find farms & farmer's markets near your area.

sustainable agriculture listserv
Still checking this out.


china not only worry on imported food
About the dangers of a centralized & international food supply. Only 1% of the food imported here is inspected by the FDA, and in the past they've found things like Mexican cantaloupe irrigated with water from sewage-tainted rivers & candy laced with lead.

bylaws to curtail pesticide use in Canada
This was rather scary. Apparently pesticides can lead to severe cases of rash, cancer, such horrific cases of diarrhea that you lose control of your sphincter muscles.

gene theory flawed
A New York times article that describes how genetically engineered foods can be much more dangerous than previously assumed. The biotech industry is based on the idea that the human genome is a collection of independent genes with each sequence linked to a single function. However, research shows that genes operate in a complex network, so the gene that makes tomatoes redder could also presumably produce intestine-eating toxins, and scientists probably wouldn't know until enough intestines have been eaten that the link is clear.

Welcome to Richistan, USA
There is something very wrong with our country if someone like Warren Buffet pays 17% tax and his secretary pays 30%.

how high fructose corn syrup damages your body
"I am HIGHLY confident that the health improvement [from giving up soft drinks] would be FAR more profound than if everyone stopped smoking because elevated insulin levels are the foundation of nearly every chronic disease known to man, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, aging, arthritis, osteoporosis, you name it, and you will find elevated insulin levels as a primary factor."

the obesity epidemic
An interview with Dr Robert Lustig, Professor of Pediatric Endocrinology at the University of California, on how food manufacturers by adding fructose to our foods, are making the obesity epidemic worse. One fact I found surprising: "In fact fructose, because of the way it's metabolised, is actually damaging your liver the same way alcohol is. In fact it's the exact same pathway, in fact fructose is alcohol without the buzz."

reasons to buy organic
Some reasons that I'd never thought of or known of. An example - "Done properly, organic farming builds up healthy soil through moisture retention, composting, crop diversity and fostering of beneficial organisms. It takes soil so long to form that most scientists essentially consider it a nonrenewable resource, and enormous amounts are lost through erosion, chemical inundation and overly intensive commercial agriculture. Check out a satellite image of the gigantic plume of brown at the mouth of the Mississippi River to get a visual sense of what the next generations are losing to poor management."

FDA moves to stop requiring labels on irradiated foods
This was so depressing. Another example of how the government is so completely controlled by the big agribusiness companies.



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