Category Archives: Food Justice

What Is Important In Iowa? Food!


With so much political noise coming from Iowa in the last few days, one curious bit of news went almost unnoticed: a Chinese citizen pleaded guilty to the charge of stealing corn seeds on behalf of a biotech company in Beijing. Why would corn seeds be of such interest to China?  The answer came from an article shared on Twitter.  This piece on the battle between China and the US to control the global food supply was a revelation.

It provides details of how the theft was uncovered and the offenders caught and also reveals what motivated this act :” Despite its remarkable landmass, China simply can’t grow enough food to feed itself, particularly now that the country’s burgeoning middle class has acquired an appetite for meat. (Most corn in China is used as feed for livestock.) Water shortages and lack of arable terrain have forced their government to buy between two and five million metric tons of American corn annually, approximately 94 percent of all corn imported into China each year.”  In its efforts to throw off their dependence on US food production, China is pursuing a plan to grow more at home, and a crucial tool in this effort is high yielding seeds, hence the interest in insect resistant bt corn.

Further, while the theft was set up by a Chinese company, it seems to have the tacit approval of the Chinese government. The matter was treated by the FBI as one of national security: “The federal government, thereby, has implicitly acknowledged that it considers agricultural products both an asset and a weapon in a long-range geopolitical chess match with China, a resource of near-military value and importance, one that must be protected by all available means. By that logic, those Chinese nationals stealing corn are spies, no different—and, indeed, perhaps more important—than those who swipe plans for a new weapons system.”

The place of corn as a weapon in international political strategy is not new, as we learn from the narrative; the development of hybrid seeds to maximize output was part of the strategy to outperform the collective farms of Russia and China. In a time of growing population and climate uncertainty impacting food production, the use of agricultural biotechnology to ensure food security remains crucial.

If international policy matters seem somewhat removed from our daily reality, there is another aspect which is easier to recognize: who is working in the fields to grow all this corn (among other crops)? It is usually an immigrant farm worker, perhaps living here without legal papers, filling in the vacuum of labor created by an ageing farming population and urban migration of young people. They are a crucial part of food production but how does the system treat them? Can we demand a just food system yet ignore farm workers? For while the candidates may talk about sending people back and local residents might resent the influence of a very different culture in their midst; they are both constrained by the need for labor to grow the crops which fill plates at home and in the world.

Food is not just about what we eat, it shapes the world in ways that might not always be evident. There are often no simple and easy solutions. All the more reason why we need to debate the issues with patience and honesty.

(Image Courtesy: “Fresh Corn Cobs” by foto76 at

Discussing The Food System: Beyond GMOs


Lately it seems like every discussion in the food world  centers around GMOs/organic/local. It is all about what we see on the plate and getting caught up in it, I realized I was no longer paying attention to the journey of food from the fields to the fork as is the stated goal of my blog.

That got me thinking about the people who make this food journey possible: farmers and farm workers.  And around the globe, it would seem, crises are everywhere: in Mexico, farm workers are striking and stopping work to demand better wages and conditions; in Bangladesh farmers specially from minority groups are being forcibly dispossessed of their land, an issue which resonates next door in India as well; a theme that is echoed in Egypt. And in a closing of the circle, Chipotle says it is paying close attention to its customers and banning GMOs, but perhaps need to better care of their workers who bring the food to our plates.

(Image Courtesy: noppasinw at

Recipe for a National Food Policy


 Recently, The Washington Post featured a piece calling for a national food policy. It started off with the statement that food impacts every sector of the economy and the lives of every person in the country and therefore it is essential that it be regulated by a national policy. The first idea we can agree with, regarding the second though, many may have reservations. The writers then go on to assert that the food system has caused “incalculable” harm to the health of people and the environment, and such harm would warrant waging a war in response, if it were the act of a foreign power. Yes, there us much that needs a strong effort: from the obesity crisis to hunger in our communities; fair working conditions for farm workers to the challenge of growing food while facing climate disruption but we could surely agree on ways to find solutions in a productive way without call to hostilities.
And exactly how would the national food policy tackle the situation (first step, of course, would be to nominate a Food Czar!)? The recommended objectives are:

  • to assure access to healthful food for all: no disagreement there although how the access would be ensured remains to be determined
  • support public health and environmental objectives: ditto
  • climate resilience: how? not discussed. Would the application of biotechnology be considered an option, for example?
  • care for livestock: agreed
  • “our food supply is free of toxic bacteria, chemicals and drugs” ,which looks very much like “organic or nothing”
  • “Food marketing sets children up for healthy lifestyles by instilling in them a habit of eating real food”: some confusion here, children acquire eating habits in the context of home and family. As a parent, I cannot imagine letting a corporation teach my children what to eat, that is my responsibility and most parents would agree.
  • Production and marketing are transparent and the food industry pays a fair wage: while laudable, this refers to the food processing stage, what about farmers and farm workers?
  • To increase carbon sequestration on farmland and reduce the food system’s carbon footprint: what changes or innovations this might require in agriculture are not discussed.

The first thing that stands out is the consumer centric nature of the demands.  It makes demands about how workers should be paid, livestock should be cared for and how agriculture should respond to climate change. What, one wonders, would those who grow food actually think about this? How would they define a food policy?

And there we come to a core question: what is a “food policy” anyway? The piece states that “an agriculture policy is not the same as a food policy” but then neither is a food consumption policy a true food policy. If we want to chart out the path ahead for the food system, we need to take into account both the growers and the consumers of food, and reconcile these interests instead of pitting them against each other. A long argument is made on how and why the government needs to put a policy in place but it mainly comes down to dismantling the “agricultural-industrial” complex. That is a good objective but that alone cannot fix the food system.

No industry can flourish if there is no demand for their products and that demand comes from the consumers. If there is a demand for mashed potatoes in a box, then that is what we will find on the shelves. Of course we should be boiling and mashing our own potatoes, but for that, deep rooted lifestyle changes are required, changes which cannot simply be mandated by policy, and changes which, if we are honest, we are rather reluctant to make. Getting back from work only to have to ferry the kids to classes and practice games or even to have to go to a second job to make ends meet leaves little time for cooking. We need a discussion and changes in why we are living this way and how we can make changes. You can mandate whatever food policy you like but the basic question is how do I find the time to cook? And I say this from the experience of someone who does cook everyday. It is hard, and it is exhausting, it is nothing like the cooking shows on TV, that is for sure. So blaming the food industry for all our problems is  not sufficient for change.

This gap in perceptions was highlighted at another event convened by the New York Times to discuss the future of food which initially had no farmer or rancher involved in the discussions! Once this was rectified, a participating farmer was able to urge the panelists, to involve farmers in the discussion on food, a sad disconnect! But it was encouraging to learn that there was at least an awareness of the need to work together. The food movement  seems to have fallen into an us vs the food companies pattern, but in reality any successful food movement would need to include everyone: those who grow, process and sell, and consume food. Yes, food impacts everyone and everything and it is precisely for that reason that there are no easy answers here, the solutions are complex and everyone has to make an effort.

Finally, a national food policy will find it increasingly constrained by outside factors. Climate disruption is impacting agriculture everywhere and lack of food is expected to spark social unrest and large scale migration of people from affected areas. The struggle for resources could lead to actual wars, not just ones that can be debated in newspaper columns. An effective food policy will build a path forward which is able to respond to climate change and achieve goals of conservation and food production for the planet’s inhabitants at the same time. So it might be tempting to reach for avocados for that healthy lunch salad but it is also important to remember that it embodies a cost in terms of depleting water resources in another country that has to be accounted for as we set policy goals.

(Image Courtesy:

#Farming Friday 26: How Immigration Action Will Change the Life of Farm Workers


In advance of Friday, because it is so relevant right now: the frank account of the life of an undocumented farm worker and how her circumstances will change under the new immigration policy; the first steps toward a just food system begins with those who are integral to growing the food.

(Image Courtesy:

#Farming Friday 15: Land Grabs in Laos


This post in the Farming Friday series is delayed but the issue it highlights is crucial today as farmers are being displaced in many parts of the world as they lose their land to outside forces, sometimes government projects or corporate interests or urban expansion. This is the experience of specially of farmers from minority ethnic groups in Laos who are being deprived of their lands. While the framework to protect their rights does exist, it is not being put to use.

(Image Courtesy:



How “Real” is the Hunger Games


The second movie in the Hunger Games series is out in theaters and is , as expected, doing extremely good business. The plot line of the series is fairly bleak but is it also a peek into a future that could happen to us. The story unfolds in a world ravaged by climate change and the conflicts that followed as people tried to grasp whatever resources they could. The heightened tension over sharing water, land grabs in countries far from home, the people killed or displaced by unstable weather that fill the headlines; all this is mere degrees away from the description of life in the Hunger Games books.

What is also striking is the contrast in living conditions in District 12 and the Capitol. It immediately calls to mind the classic descriptions of the colonial system taught in basic economics: resources extracted (often by coercion) from areas of the “periphery” to serve the needs of the rich and powerful “center”.  A more detailed analysis is here.

So ,while we eat more popcorn than is good for us and watch Katniss blaze on the big screen, it is a good time to reflect on the economic and historical paths we have walked and where we want to go in the future.



“I Have Measured Out My Life With Coffee Spoons”


T.S.Elliot spoke for so many of us when he wrote that, but now, this warm indulgence so crucial in equipping us to fight the cruel world is under threat.  Coffee plants in Central America  face the possibility of being wiped out by a pathogen called Coffee Leaf Rust (Hemileia vastatrix).  This pathogen was earlier responsible for the devastation of coffee plantations in Ceylon.  Is there a way to avoid this? Yes, it can be dealt with by using a synthetic fungicide called Triazaline. The problem? Coffee drinkers in the US and other prosperous countries want their coffee to be organic. The organic fungicide that is used by farmers who grow organic coffee is copper based, much less effective and the run off from the plants poses environmental problems. Most of the organic coffee is grown by smallholder farmers who would lose their organic certification if they used the synthetic fungicide. However, if they had the option of using the synthetic fungicide  solely in order to deal with this crisis, they could save their crop (coffee is grown from seeds which could be saved from the current year’s crop) and be re-certified after 3 years. But faced with the consistent insistence on the organic label, these smallholder farmers may have to lose their livelihood.

How important is the “organic” label anyway? We already know the organic fungicide is not a good option. For farmers to receive certification, they have to pay stiff fees which puts a huge burden on them. Unless the coffee is shade grown, it means forest cover has been cut down to make way for farms (even organic ones) which is not environmentally optimal. Often, middlemen buy from the poor, smallholder farmers paying them a fraction of what this coffee will eventually earn in a market driven by the drinking tastes of consumers who remain unaware of the ground reality of those who produce the coffee.

Colombian coffee growers with the help of their government were able to eradicate leaf rust. Could these results be replicated elsewhere? I am still trying to research what methods were used there. Accessible and detailed information on the leaf rust issue is here at Applied Mythology. Solutions are available, the outcome is not inevitable. In this as in so many problems with the food system today, two things are essential: first, the voice of the farmer has to be heard on par with the consumer; second, a pragmatic perspective that brings us a good outcome for all and not just a few privileged people.  Otherwise those coffee spoons might just be left there, unused…

The Real Price of Food


Looking back on grocery budgets for a few years , you might notice that almost all the items cost more today. Sure, prices rise with time and the weird weather impacting harvests everywhere also has a role to play, but there is another underlying factor which is at work here.  While commodities like corn or soy have historically been traded on exchanges, today the market is being changed by the entry of financial institutions and people that have no connection with the actual growing or selling of food. This type of trader deals in derivatives which are not positions on actual crops grown but some financial version of them. This means that the price of wheat, for example will not be influenced by the actual yield but speculation based on artificially created numbers. This creates much more volatility in the price of food grains than would normally be the case. The food system is already going to face the pressure of climate change, now we need to add to that an artificial and unnecessary pressure created by trading in commodity derivatives. It is precisely this type of speculation that fueled the disastrous housing bubble. That it should be permitted to function in the domain of food when nations and people are all struggling with food security is troubling.  The chances of such speculation being stopped entirely are slim but some effort for regulation and oversight is crucial. For more reading:

Click to access presspb2012d1_en.pdf

And just as I was getting ready to post , news on futures trading in turmeric! It seems that in a time of continuing global economic crisis, speculators have decided to put their bets on food and that is an ominous development.

The Race to Grab Farmland


“But land is land, and it’s safer than the stocks and bonds of Wall Street swindlers.” —- Eugene O’Neill, “Long Day’s  Journey Into Night

Today, though, land is not safe anymore as the increasing population, volatility of food prices and leveling off of yield is leading to a global rush to grab farmland before it runs out. Investors, agribusinesses and governments  are buying up land mostly in less developed areas where the population can be easily displaced as land records are not easily available. Some of these may be communal lands , held in trust over centuries so when they are taken over, the community is displaced and scattered and deprived of a livelihood.

Recent reports show that approximately 203 million acres of land has been acquired and the top land grabbers include the UK, the USA, China and Saudi Arabia. In Cambodia, about 55% of  the arable land is now under the control of agribusiness and foreign investors.  The investors who make these deals often make promises about providing employment to local workers or introducing new technology but these are seldom fulfilled. And what  about the actual crop that is grown? Chances are it would not be the traditional crop but one that is destined solely for export. In one case, Saudi Arabia decided to grow sorghum in Sudan, not for the Sudanese market where it is a food item, but for consumption by camels in their own country. As the decisions regarding crop choices changes, this might take food choices out of the market and exacerbate the problem of hunger in already vulnerable populations.

Last year’s drought in the US brought home the importance of water, a fact that will only become more evident as we deal with the impact of climate change. Land grabs also put this resource out of the public domain and into the hands of private investors. This presents a daunting challenge for poor rural populations depending on farming for a living. In future, they might have to pay extra for drinking and irrigation water.

How did we get here? Perhaps the first step was the morphing of agriculture into big business, the disconnect between profit and the provision of food on the table, and the second was the sad collusion of corrupt governments and predatory investors.This trend toward land grabs poses a grave challenge to food and livelihood security in the countries and communities where it occurs and also impacts what people elsewhere can put on their plates and how much they have to pay for it.

What Should Tomatoes Cost?


In keeping with my resolution to cook and eat in season, I have been trying to limit my tomato purchases. Still, I find myself gazing longingly at the piles of tomatoes at the grocery store. The price sticker shows the same price as it did over the summer. This puzzles me: should they not cost more as they are not in season? What determines the price of tomatoes anyway? It would include the cost of resources: seeds, water, fertilizers, labor, to start with. If any of these sees a rise in prices, tomatoes will cost more as well. So far land and water have not been an issue in the Unites States but with rising population and climate change these resources are the source of tension in many parts of the world. Farmland grabbing is now  a major phenomenon on several continents.

Cheap labor has also helped to keep food prices low but as countries like Mexico improve the standards of living, the flow of migrant labor will slow down. Will there be enough people to meet the demand for farm labor in America? Farm work is hard and the wages are very low. One way to resolve this would be to ensure a fair wage for farm workers, this might induce some current unemployed workers to move into this sector. This would make the food system better by ensuring that it is just and that we are not in the position of watching fruit rot on trees as there is no labor to harvest them while children go to bed hungry.