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Posts tagged ‘biofuel’

The Root of the Evil

Over the past few weeks I’ve been watching with barely-disguised glee, the evisceration of a recent Newsweek article by Niall Ferguson – pet historian of the American right – in which he provides a deeply flawed analysis of Barack Obama’s past four years in power. As Matthew O’Brien notes, before systematically working through Ferguson’s argument (or, indeed, ‘argument’), ‘He simply gets things wrong, again and again and again.’

I’m no fan of Ferguson’s. This has less to do with our political differences – in relation to him, I’m so left-wing I should be living in a Himalayan hippy commune practising an obscure form of yoga while teaching Capital to peasants – but because of the way he shapes his interpretations of the past to suit a particular neoliberal agenda.

Of course, no historian is capable of writing an absolutely objective history of anything – nor would we want to because it would be dreadfully boring – but Ferguson presents, and defends, his arguments on the grounds that they are absolute truth.

He was called out on this last year by Pankaj Mishra, in a fantastic review of Civilisation: The West and the Rest for the London Review of Books. In Civilisation, Ferguson argues that

civilisation is best measured by the ability to make ‘sustained improvement in the material quality of life’, and in this the West has ‘patently enjoyed a real and sustained edge over the Rest for most of the previous 500 years’. Ferguson names six ‘killer apps’ – property rights, competition, science, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic – as the operating software of Western civilisation that, beginning around 1500, enabled a few small polities at the western end of the Eurasian landmass ‘to dominate the rest of the world’.

Leaving aside the strange question of why an historian writing in the twenty-first century thinks that it’s possible to divorce the ‘West’ (whatever we may mean by that) from the rest of the world – and even why an historian feels like writing a triumphalist history of Europe and North America (I thought we stopped doing that in the sixties?) – this is a history which largely ignores, or plays down, the implications of modern capitalism and globalisation for those people outside of the West.

As in his writing on the creation of European empires, Ferguson has a problem with accounting for the widespread resistance of Africans, Asians, and others to European conquest – and the violence and exploitation which followed colonisation. Mishra writes:

he thinks that two vaguely worded sentences 15 pages apart in a long paean to the superiority of Western civilisation are sufficient reckoning with the extermination of ten million people in the Congo.

Recently I’ve been thinking a great deal about a comment which Roger Casement made in a report for the British government about atrocities committed in the Congo Free State during the late nineteenth century. Writing in 1900, he concluded:

The root of the evil lies in the fact that the government of the Congo is above all a commercial trust, that everything else is orientated towards commercial gain….

The Congo Free State came into being at the 1884-1885 Berlin West Africa Conference, where the assembled representatives of European states acknowledged the Belgian king’s right to establish a colony in central Africa. Leopold II’s International Association – a front organisation for his own commercial interests – was allowed to operate in the region.

There were strings attached to the deal – Leopold had to encourage both humanitarianism and free trade, for instance – but with the sharp increase in international demand for rubber in the 1890s, after JB Dunlop’s invention of inflatable rubber tyres, Leopold’s interest in the Congo, which had only ever extended to exploiting the country for its natural resources, narrowed even further. Leopold operated his own monopoly on the rubber trade, leasing some land to other companies on the proviso that they pay him a third of their profits.

The ‘evil’ to which Casement referred was the transformation of the Congolese population into a mass of forced labourers compelled to contribute quotas of rubber to the various businesses operating in the Free State. Those who failed to do so, those who refused to do so, or those who were suspected of not doing so, faced brutal reprisals from the State’s Force Publique, including being killed, often along with their families; having their hands cut off; and seeing their villages and property burned and destroyed.

It’s estimated that ten to thirteen million Congolese died as a result of murder, starvation, exhaustion, and disease between 1885 and 1908, when international condemnation of Leopold’s regime forced the Belgian government to take control of the Free State.

Although other colonial regimes in Africa could be brutal, violent, and unjust, none of them – with the possible exception of Germany in (what is now) Namibia – managed to commit atrocities on the scale that Leopold did in the Congo. As Casement makes the point, ‘the root of the problem’ was that the Congo was run entirely for profit, and that the businesses which operated in the region were not regulated in any way. This was capitalism at its most vicious.

But what does this all have to do with food? Well I was reminded of Casement’s comment when reading about Glencore’s response to the current droughts – chiefly in the US, but also elsewhere – which are partially responsible for global increases in food prices:

The head of Glencore’s food trading business has said the worst drought to hit the US since the 1930s will be ‘good for Glencore’ because it will lead to opportunities to exploit soaring prices.

Chris Mahoney, the trader’s director of agricultural products, who owns about £500m of Glencore shares, said the devastating US drought had created an opportunity for the company to make much more money.

‘In terms of the outlook for the balance of the year, the environment is a good one. High prices, lots of volatility, a lot of dislocation, tightness, a lot of arbitrage opportunities [the purchase and sale of an asset in order to profit from price differences in different markets],’ he said on a conference call.

This weekend, it was revealed that Barclays has made more than £500 million from food speculation:

The World Development Movement report estimates that Barclays made as much as £529m from its ‘food speculative activities’ in 2010 and 2011. Barclays made up to £340m from food speculation in 2010, as the prices of agricultural commodities such as corn, wheat and soya were rising. The following year, the bank made a smaller sum – of up to £189m – as prices fell, WDM said.

The revenues that Barclays and other banks make from trading in everything from wheat and corn to coffee and cocoa, are expected to increase this year, with prices once again on the rise. Corn prices have risen by 45 per cent since the start of June, with wheat jumping by 30 per cent.

What bothers me so much about these massive profits is partly the massive profits – the fact that these businesses are actually making money out of a food crisis – but mainly it’s that these monstrously wealthy businessmen are so unwilling to admit that what they’re doing is, even in the most charitable interpretation, morally dubious.

Barclays’s claim that its involvement in food speculation is simply a form of futures trading is disingenuous: futures trading is an entirely legitimate way for farmers to insure themselves against future bad harvests. What Barclays and other banks, as well as pension funds, do is to trade in agricultural commodities in the same way as they do other commodities – like oil or timber.

In 1991, Goldman Sachs came up with an investment product – the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index – which allowed for raw materials, including food, to be traded as easily as other products. When the US Commodities Futures Trading Commission deregulated futures markets eight years later, for the first time since the Great Depression, it became possible to trade in maize, wheat, rice, and other foodstuffs for profit.

The current food crisis has been caused by a range of factors – from the drought, to the excessive use of maize and other crops for biofuel – and exacerbated by climate change and pre-existing conflicts, corruption, inequalities, and problems with distribution. In Europe, unemployment and low wages will add to people’s inability to buy food – hence the rise in demand for food banks in Britain, for example.

Food speculation has not caused the crisis, but it does contribute to it by adding to food price volatility. I’m not – obviously – comparing Glencore or Barclays to Leopold II’s International Association, but the atrocities committed in the Congo Free State provide an excellent example of what happens when capitalism is allowed to run rampant. Let’s not make that mistake with our food supply.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

A Hungry World

One of the best parts of teaching a course on African history is being able to introduce students to Binyavanga Wainaina’s amazing essay ‘How to Write about Africa’. In my first lecture, I wanted to emphasise the disconnect between the (powerful) narratives which have been developed about the continent – by travellers, politicians, journalists – and its history, societies, politics, and economics. Wainaina’s achievement is that he draws attention to a range of usually unchallenged assumptions about Africa, and shows them to be ridiculous:

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. …

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion, particularly in the United States, about how the western media covers Africa. Laura Seay writes in an excellent article for Foreign Policy:

Western reporting on Africa is often fraught with factual errors, incomplete analysis, and stereotyping that would not pass editorial muster in coverage of China, Pakistan, France, or Mexico. A journalist who printed blatantly offensive stereotypes about German politicians or violated ethical norms regarding protection of child-abuse victims in Ohio would at the least be sanctioned and might even lose his or her job. When it comes to Africa, however, these problems are tolerated and, in some cases, celebrated. A quick search of the Google News archives for ‘Congo’ and ‘heart of darkness’ yields nearly 4,000 hits, the vast majority of which are not works of literary criticism, but are instead used to exoticise the Democratic Republic of the Congo while conjuring up stereotypes of race and savagery. Could we imagine a serious publication ever using similar terminology to describe the south side of Chicago, Baltimore, or another predominately African-American city?

Similarly, Jina Moore makes the point in the Boston Review that believing that journalists should only report incidents of violence or suffering, instead of other aspects of life on the continent, is

a false choice. We can write about suffering and we can write about the many other things there are to say about Congo. With a little faith in our readers, we can even write about both things – extraordinary violence and ordinary life – in the same story.

These narratives – these stories, these reports and articles about Africa – have a measurable impact on the ways in which the rest of the world interacts with the continent. Tracing a shift in American attitudes towards Africa from around 2000, when concern about the AIDS epidemic was at its height, Kathryn Mathers writes:

Suddenly there were no conversations about new democracies in Africa, or investment opportunities; the potential consumers were represented as too sick to labour, let alone to shop. This became the burden of caring Americans whose consumption practices can give a sick child in Africa ARVs or provide mosquito nets against the ravages of malaria.

To coincide with the final day of the 2012 Olympics, David Cameron and the Brazilian vice-president Michel Temer will host a summit on hunger and malnutrition in the developing world. It will be attended by officials from the US Department of Agriculture and the UK Department of International Development, as well as a clutch of celebrities. As an editorial in the Guardian puts it, ‘when tackling malnutrition involves photo-opportunities with icons such as Mo Farah and David Beckham, it’s hard not to be sceptical’ about the impact that this summit will have.

Although the summit was planned months ago, its timing is particularly apt: the world is facing another food crisis. Since the end of July, it’s become clear that the bumper harvest predicted, globally, for 2012 was not to be – in fact, maize and wheat yields are down. This year’s soybean crop is the third worst since 1964. Reading about this crisis, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it is exclusively the problem of poor nations: we know that Zimbabwe, the Sahel region, the Horn of Africa, and Yemen all face severe food shortages, and that the price of food is increasing in Egypt, Mexico, South Africa, and other middle-income nations.

However, the immediate cause of this food crisis lies far away from the regions worst affected by malnutrition and high food prices: in the United States, which is currently experiencing its worst drought in almost a century. More than half the country’s counties – 1,584 in 32 states, including Iowa, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Wyoming – have been declared disaster areas.

It’s difficult to underestimate just how devastating this drought has been (and is):

Wherever you look, the heat, the drought, and the fires stagger the imagination.  Now, it’s Oklahoma at the heart of the American firestorm, with ‘18 straight days of 100-plus degree temperatures and persistent drought’ and so many fires in neighbouring states that extra help is unavailable. It’s the summer of heat across the U.S., where the first six months of the year have been the hottest on record…. More than 52% of the country is now experiencing some level of drought, and drought conditions are actually intensifying in the Midwest; 66% of the Illinois corn crop is in ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ shape, with similarly devastating percentages across the rest of the Midwest.  The average is 48% across the corn belt, and for soybeans 37% – and it looks as if next year’s corn crop may be endangered as well. …according to the Department of Agriculture, ‘three-quarters of the nation’s cattle acreage is now inside a drought-stricken area, as is about two-thirds of the country’s hay acreage.’

There are suggestions that the Midwest is in danger of experiencing a second Dust Bowl. But the drought is not limited to the US: unusually dry summers have reduced harvests in Russia, the Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. And the effects of these poor yields will be felt around the world. Even if, as the Financial Times reports, the drought will push up prices of beef, pork, and chicken in the United States and Europe, the countries most at risk of food shortages, and, indeed, of social unrest, are those which rely on food imports to feed their populations.

If rates of malnutrition are to be reduced and food shortages, addressed, then politicians will have to consider them in global context. They will have to rethink America’s energy policies, which have allowed for almost forty per cent of the country’s corn crop to be devoted to ethanol production. They will have to address the impact that financial speculation has on the price of food commodities. A report published by the New England Complex Systems Institute suggests that food price increases are likely to be exacerbated by the unregulated trade in staples like maize and wheat.

Even these measures will not be enough to ensure adequate access to food for all people: we need to find strategies to slow down and mitigate the effects of climate change; social and economic inequality in the developing world must be addressed; land grabs need to be halted; and agricultural policies in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere need to favour small farmers.

In the same month in which the tofu industry in Indonesia has threatened to down tools over rising soybean prices, the cost of maize meal is increasing in Mexico, and there were protests in Iran over price of chicken, the grain trader Cargill announced revenues of $134 billion. This state of affairs is not sustainable.

While it’s certainly the case that famine and malnutrition in parts of sub-Saharan Africa are the products of dysfunctional and corrupt governments, it’s also true that as part of a globalised food system, food insecurity in Africa – and the rest of the developing world – is connected to a set of problems which can only be solved on an international scale.

This is, then, a global crisis. But reporting has tended to disassociate its cause and effects: hunger in Africa is reported separately from the drought in the northern hemisphere and the spike in food prices. Cameron’s summit on malnutrition focuses exclusively on the developing world. I think that this is partly as a result of the narratives which inform reporting on these regions: America is an agricultural superpower, while Africa is a site of terminal decline and disaster. It’s worth noting that America’s poor harvest tends to be reported on in the environmental or financial sections of newspapers and websites, while hunger and malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia are relegated to the sections dealing with aid or development. Linking malnutrition in South Sudan to the maize harvest in Indiana would upset these ways of thinking about Africa and the United States.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 08.08.2012

The corn harvested in the US for biofuel could feed 412 million people.

Raj Patel’s new project: Generation Food.

Americans drink more fizzy soft drinks than anyone else.

Why Britain’s food ‘traffic light‘ labels were never implemented.

The link between food and addiction.

Why does fast food love Mitt Romney?

The battle for London’s markets.

Cooking along with Elizabeth Ellicott Lea’s Domestic Cookery (1845).

Food at the Olympics.

Sean Brock, the tattooed chef who’s reinventing southern cuisine.

An interview with Michael Pollan.

How to explode a watermelon with rubber bands.

The UnFancy Food Show.

All about hummus.

Why do some restaurants fear the number thirteen?

Stick twist bread.

Darina Allen on collecting sea urchins.

Marion Cunningham’s baking powder biscuits (scones to the rest of us).

Freezing herbs in olive oil preserves them.

How to make your own creme de cassis.

Looking for loganberries.

Papercraft food.

Has the mania for bacon gone too far?

Eat more beetroot.

Maslow’s hierarchy of coffee chains.

Recipes for blueberries.

A tablecloth which turns the table into a fort.

An advertisement for coffee from the 1650s.

Henna-patterned spiced cream cheese.

An interview with James Ramsden.

Food t-shirts.

Photographs of meals in literature.

How to make perfect rice.

Cupcakes vs pie.

Dead celebrities reborn in food.

Food Links, 30.05.2012

Development organisations and mixed messages about food prices and food security.

Eric Schlosser reflects on the state of the American food industry.

The politics of urban farming.

Loquats in Spain.

Leveson Inquiry cake pops.

Magic cheese chips.

The strange things added to processed meat.

How to forage for wild garlic.

Four restaurants where it’s impossible to get a table. (Thanks, Sally!)

Can cooking at home end America’s obesity crisis?

Bacon Ipsum.

The ‘special relationship’ between the US and UK through food.

An interview with the excellent Claudia Roden.

The emergence of a food black market.

Thoughts on food packaging.

Iranian cuisine.

A cheap food project in Greece.

Top ten tips for food bloggers.

How to make your own biltong.

Jay Rayner on the joy of cooking for one.

Chocolate cake from The Hunger Games.

A food tour on horseback in Andalucía.

A guide to making pancakes.

Dan Lepard on marble cake.

From whisky to biofuel.

The gourmet food of the 1950s and 1960s.

The anatomy of a pinata.

Minimalist food still lifes.

Quick frozen yogurt lollies.

The food truck phenomenon in the United States.

Weightwatchers cards from 1974.

The almost infinite varieties of beer.

Tom Philpott on falafel.

Mutant carrots.

The shape of fruit to come.

Pantone tarts.

Restaurant signature dishes (urgh, hateful term).

On Mexican food and identity.

How to make children eat everything.

Gourmet dog food.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s recipes for left over turkey.

The long history of eating corpses as medicine.

Dining on cruise ships.

Pasta as architecture.

Alternative uses for specialised cooking gadgets.

A neatly organised sandwich.

Food Links, 27.04.2011

New Mexican sheep farmers describe their busiest time of year, Easter.

‘last year, 98 percent of cassava chips exported from Thailand, the world’s largest cassava exporter, went to just one place and almost all for one purpose: to China to make biofuel’ – the New York Times reports on the link between high food prices and the production of biofuels.

Check out Rene Redzepi (the chef proprietor of Noma, voted the best restaurant in the world last year) speaking at the TEDxObserver 2011 event. (The link comes courtesy of the lady who writes this blog.) And speaking of Redzepi, John Crace’s digested read of his recipe book is uncannily similar to the original.

Monsanto seems to be playing a role in Iowa’s anti-whistleblowing bill which, if passed, will make access to information about food production even more difficult.

In China, McDonalds becomes surprisingly open about how it sources its chicken. (And, yes, the campaign is called ‘Chickileaks’.)

One of the major obstacles to small-scale farmers in the US (and elsewhere too, I imagine) is the lack of abattoirs.

Arizona – yes, a red state – mulls over a suggestion to tax the obese.

‘Even the simple pleasure of a good bowl of cereal is touched by global policy shifts.’ On how shifts in global food prices and policies impact on what we eat.