Think Forward blog

Electric Cars vs. Big Mac

Posted July 13, 2009

Earlier this week, the green machine known as McDonald’s (I say this with tongue in cheek, of course) announced they’re getting into the alternative energy biz. That’s right—the hamburger chain will soon open an electric vehicle charging station at a restaurant in Cary, NC, with other stations to follow.

Says the press release, “The new McDonald's will deliver yet another new facet of energy conservation by enabling EV drivers to have a place to recharge their vehicles, while enjoying their meal.”

Well, okay, I’m on board with expanding EV charging stations, something we’ll need if electric cars are to become widespread. But the irony here is simply too great to ignore.

This “green” McDonald’s, as they call it, is still a hamburger restaurant, and feedlot beef is the most greenhouse gas (GHG) intensive food we can eat. A 2006 FAO study estimated that 18 percent of GHG emissions come from livestock production, more than transportation. And beef production makes up a Whopper whopping 78 percent of those emissions, even though beef consumption only accounts for 30 percent of meat consumption in the developed world.

Driving a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle will save you on average about 100 grams of CO2 per mile compared to a conventional car, according to a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency study. Cutting out the quarter pounder will net you somewhere around 3,600 grams of CO2, according to low estimates. That’s 20 miles worth of savings, in just one cheeseburger. Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

Of course, this works out very well for McDonald’s, which gets to claim even more green-ness than they already do. But for the rest of us, it’s clearly better to skip the burger (or if you can’t give them entirely up, as I haven’t, choose 100 percent grass-fed beef from a rotationally grazed system and eat them sparingly).  And, if you can, leave the car at home.

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The Coming Carbon Bubble

Posted July 10, 2009

Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone has a written an explosive article on the exploits of Goldman Sachs. The article charts the bank's remarkable political influence, and its role in creating a series of inflationary bubbles (the Great Depression, tech stocks, housing and food/fuel), while somehow always emerging intact and lavishly compensating its employees.

Last year, IATP documented how Wall Street speculators, including Goldman Sachs, drove up agriculture commodity prices and contributed to the global food crisis. Taibbi reports on how Goldman is positioning itself once again to take advantage of the new U.S. carbon market established in the climate change bill passed by the House of Representatives on June 26.

Taibbi writes, "The new carbon-credit market is a virtual repeat of the commodities-market casino that's been kind to Goldman, except it has one delicious new wrinkle: If the plan goes forward as expected, the rise in prices will be government-mandated. Goldman won't even have to rig the game. It will be rigged in advance."

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Dimensions of the Global Food Crisis

Posted July 8, 2009

I am recently back from an incredibly rich two days in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Take a look—it must be among the Southern-most settlements on the globe, and is home to the yellow-banded penguin, an albatross colony, an imposing statue of Queen Victoria and much else besides.) The conference was the 44th Foreign Policy School of Otago University and focused on the global food crisis. The audience was a mix of academics and students, a big crowd of newly joined employees of New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (dubbed the "baby dips"), with a few journalists, industry representatives, and NGOs alongside.

The list of speakers was extraordinary—grouping some of the most exceptional thinkers in the rich and complex world of food policy. A webcast of the event will be available soon at the Foreign Policy School Web site. Meanwhile, some highlights. 
First, for a country that is unusually dependent on agriculture and trade, there was hardly a murmur from the audience as speaker after speaker challenged the neoliberal assumptions that have driven New Zealand trade policy, in agriculture as in most else, during the last twenty years. Speaking from a number of perspectives, the speakers reinforced one another in asserting that trade liberalization was not just relatively powerless in the face of the food crisis, but also part of the problem—part of the long-standing and deep crisis that besets global food systems: worldwide, we produce more than enough food, yet hundreds of millions (and, today, an estimated 1.2 billion people) live in chronic hunger.
Second, the solutions are complex and specific, not general. There is no blueprint that can sort us out. We know that the food systems we have are not sufficiently inclusive (too many cannot access the bounty). We know the systems are not accountable (too many policies are derived without consultation, derived from global negotiations where too few national governments are adequately represented, or are dictated by the interests of private firms with little consideration of the public interest). We know our food systems are environmentally destructive, using our water and soil at wholly unsustainable rates and creating an estimated 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, once the energy used for storage, processing, and distribution is counted. We know the systems deliver an unhealthy diet, with obesity rates that have exploded in just one short generation, not just in rich countries but in many poorer countries as well.
Third, there are solutions. The scale of the problem and the lack of a blueprint may be disheartening, but there are solutions. All over the globe, countless experiments and projects testify to the productivity of alternative agriculture, to its ecological healthiness, to its richness in social capital. Comparative advantage seems to have died a death as a compelling narrative (thank the gods). It will take a historian to date the moment, but the tide has turned and the Dunedin conference confirmed it for me. Everyone is asking what next, and some of those with answers are emerging to take a more central role in the debates.
A few highlights: hearing a New Zealander make a plea for agriculture's "special" nature. It was said in the context of climate change, not trade, needless to say, but it was still a bit of a shock. As someone who has argued that agriculture faces special constraints and demands to an audience of deeply skeptical trade and industry officials for 12 long years, to hear the same point from the private sector based in a country that is relentless in its quest to deny the distinct qualities of agriculture in trade circles was precious. Vive la différence!
Another highlight was provided by Alistair Mowat, speaking for Zespri, the farmer-owned co-operative that has a monopoly on NZ's kiwi fruit exports. In a conversation as we headed to our flight out of Dunedin, Alistair pointed out that while supply chains are generally depicted as linear, with producers as far from the consumers as it is possible to be, he saw the chain more like a horseshoe, with intermediaries at the center that were not really bothered about what it was they were buying and selling, but the two ends actually close in both their private (buyer/seller) and public (citizen) concerns (e.g., managing the natural resource base for the long-term, keeping prices from being too volatile, ensuring a safe product, etc.). 
Finally, long-time Green Party activist and food and garden writer, Christine Dann, in a closing comment to the conference from the floor, reminded everyone that food security starts at home: one central way to respond and deal with the food crisis is to plant a garden. And there it is, encapsulated so neatly: we have a crisis created by a focus on just growing more food. We need instead to also look at who grows the food, where they grow it and who eats it. The garden is the first place that counts—for the poor, because it provides an alternative to a market economy they are priced out of; for the rich, because by buying all our food from supermarkets, we generate demand that creates incredible waste for our already over-stretched planet. A few homegrown veggies from the garden, cultivated with the help of our children, can go a long way to the re-education we need to demand the space for another, better food system for the future. 
I had a great couple of days. And I can't wait to get back for another look at the penguins.

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Land Grabbing

Posted July 8, 2009

When the sharp rise in food prices hit in 2007, countries and corporations began looking for land around the world that could produce both food and biofuels. The focus of so-called "land-grabs" has been on countries in Africa, South America and Asia. But, different from past forms of colonialism, much of the land investment is being led by southern countries or companies based in the southern hemisphere. In a new article in Foreign Policy in Focus, IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch reports on the extent of global land grabs and analyzes their potential effects on food production and hunger around the world.

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When the Fly in Your Soup May Carry Superbugs

Posted July 6, 2009

The rise in illnesses due to antibiotic resistant bacteria has always been both easier and harder to understand than scientists have led us to believe.

Easier because on the one hand, the problem all boils down to one maxim: "The more we use them, the faster we lose them (antibiotics, that is)." In articulating his theory of natural selection, Charles Darwin fleshed out the concept. We live within a huge ecosystem of bacteria in which we humans are just one small cog. When we introduce a stressor into that system—antibiotics—we create the conditions where the bugs that most naturally resistant those antibiotics will be the ones that thrive and come to dominate our mutual environments.

Harder to understand, perhaps, because this bacterial ecosystem is a much more complex, nuanced world than most of us ever think about. It turns out that bacteria can swap their genes with ease with even unrelated families of bacteria. This includes the genes that render them resistant to antibiotics. Moreover, because these drug resistant genes are often physically connected to one another, bacteria that before was killable with several antibiotics, could, in one fell swoop, become much less killable. 

What prompted this blog is the latest study (Graham J et al. Sci Total Environ. April 2009) showing that these bugs and the genes that make them resistant could be carried by flies—yes, flies—from farms to elsewhere. Now foolishly, about 70 percent of all antibiotic supplies in the U.S. are used as additives to animal feed for chickens, pigs and beef cattle to make them grow faster under more stressful, confined conditions prevalent in factory farms. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University looked at poultry manure from these factory farms and compared the drug resistance of the bacteria in the litter with the bacteria on the flies collected nearby. And guess what, the drug resistance was pretty much the same.

We don't know where else those flies were headed to, but wherever it is, the implications aren't good.

So, next time you do find a fly in your soup, just say, "Waiter, no superbugs, please."

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Food Independence Day

Posted July 2, 2009

FoodIndependenceDay_statueofliberty Americans are certainly good at one thing during national holidays: consumption —of all kinds—but particularly of food. This year, let's make it local.

This July 4, Kitchen Gardeners International, with support from IATP's Food and Society Fellows Program and other individuals passionate about about local food, are calling for a Food Independence Day. To date, more than 5,000 people have pledged to eat a meal made with local food. On the campaign's Web site, people can share details, photos and locations of their locally sourced meals.

Let's all fly our Food Independence Day flag high this Fourth of July.

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The Middle of the Local Food Chain

Posted June 30, 2009

One of the challenges of transitioning toward a more locally based food system in the United States is that our current infrastructure disagrees with the idea. During the last 50 years, U.S. farm policy has told farmers to "get big or get out." We've encouraged farmers to grow single crops for export, animal feed or as ingredients in processed foods. Now, even though we're witnessing the problems with this industrial system in the form of food contamination outbreaks, the loss of family farmers, and damage to the environment and public health, it's hard to quickly change course.

We know change is happening on the supply side of the food system. Consumers are demanding more locally grown foods. Farmers markets are continuing to grow in popularity. But the local food market is still a small percentage of the larger food marketplace. Currently, it's difficult for mid-sized farmers to find buyers large enough to guarantee a local food market. And many larger food purchasers are having trouble finding the supply of locally produced food that they need. How do we scale up?

Compass Group is one of the largest food service companies in the U.S. They supply food to universities, restaurants, hospitals and companies around the country. Last week, Compass announced a new effort called "Ag in the Middle." The idea is to expand the company's local food purchasing with a goal to develop partnerships with 2,013 farmers by 2013. IATP is partnering with Compass on the project.

It's time to start smoothing out those bumps in the middle of the local food chain.

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The Labors of Chickens

Posted June 29, 2009

Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.

June 12, 2009

72 Labors

First, seventy-two labors brought us this food, we should know how it
comes to us.
Second, as we receive this offering, we should consider whether our virtue      
and practice deserve it.
Third, as we desire the natural order of mind to be free from clinging, we
must be free from greed.
Fourth, to support our life we take this food.
Fifth, to attain our way we take this food.
First, this food is for the three treasures.
Second, it is for our teachers, parents, nation, and all sentient beings.
Third, it is for all beings in the six worlds.
Thus we eat this food with everyone
We eat to stop all evil
To practice good
To save all sentient beings
And to accomplish our Buddha Way

- Meal Gatha, sacred chant performed before meals at a local Buddhist Monestary

The above words were uttered by our apprentice Heidi Kunz prior to our meal this evening. Forty minutes prior she had been pacing through the woods of a forested backyard, questioning her own choices about why she decided to become a vegetarian 17 years ago – “I feel like I have to decide right now if I want to keep eating meat,” she murmured in agonized mental confusion, tears streaming down her cheek.

Moments later she placed a sharpened knife at the jugular of a chicken.

We all know too well the modern minds’ seductive use of disassociation – not only have food companies and televised commercials aided in such separatist thought – but particularly pertaining to meat. Many attest – just give me the store-bought Cornish Cross, boneless chicken breast. We may think otherwise, but recent CDC studies show chicken to be the number one source of food borne illness outbreaks. So those eight-week old, four to five pound Cornish Crosses that topple over because they've been bred to grow so rapidly don't necessarily make the most appetizing (or humane) source of food.

The Cornish Cross, or Rock Cornish, is a hybrid variety of chicken, produced from a cross between the Cornish and Plymouth Rock strains. It has become a favorite because it lacks the typical "hair" seen in other breeds which often need singeing post plucking. It is a poor forager and would therefore be at a loss in knowing how to navigate our clover patches. 

Chicken coop So, in opposition to the antibiotic-injected, high protein diet, crammed indoor space of factory farms; our birds - a diverse group of eight different varieties - have been hanging out in their homemade mobile chicken coop. In the quiet months of March, we retrofitted the 1950s manure spreader that a local had been rotting in his backyard. We frequented the local lumberyard and piece-by-piece put together a homemade chicken tractor (see right).

About once every three days, the chickens get rotated through a section of fallowed clover cover crop. We supplement their local, organic feed from Lightning Tree Farm ($22/bag). With a rich supply of kitchen scraps and the clover abounding from our soil, our birds have been eating well since their arrival in February. After a few run-ins with mother nature's other species, we have 18 laying hens - all of which will begin laying in the coming weeks. As a side business we sell fresh eggs to those who ask - $5/dozen.

More than anything, these birds exist on our farm as a source of education. The mobile coop is part of the knowledge our apprentices gain from learning about about holistic farm management. And although we may be young at this, we aspire to provide a sound example of closed-loop farming systems, minimizing outside inputs of fertilizer.

Just like the disassociation from what appears on our plates at supper - we have become removed from understanding how humans can manage other animals in a humane and honorable way. Killing a chicken humanely and in the presence of others, for some, is a step in the direction towards honoring ones food supply. After participating in the process and asking, "why did you do it?" Heidi answered, "to justify my eating of meat - I can now understand why some don't do it."     

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The consequences of business as usual

Posted June 26, 2009

IATP's Steve Suppan is blogging from the U.N. Conference on the World Financial and Economic Crisis in New York.

At a certain point, the big numbers numb you. And at the U.N. summit on the financial crisis and development, the numbers are all big. The estimated total net capital loss from developing countries in the past year ($1 trillion according to the World Bank or $2 trillion according to the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development); the job loss projected by the International Labor organization (40-50 million this year; perhaps 100 million by 2010); the amount of money pledged by the G-20 countries to the International Monetary Fund ($750 billion) for loans to stabilize government finances. And this is to say nothing of the huge numbers that register social devastation to education, health, social welfare and environmental programs, particularly those in developing countries.
But what focuses the mind despite the blizzard of numbers are the consequences of business as usual. In the Civil Society Forum Statement to the conference, there is a firm commitment not to allow intergovernmental institutions and governments to return to business as usual. Rather than allow all global economic planning and governance to be handed down by a few governments, the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO Financial Services Agreement, the civil society organizations at the U.N. summit have proposed a governance role for the United Nations. The Commission of Experts advising the President of the General Assembly have likewise proposed ways to prevent a repeat of the financial deregulation that has triggered the economic crisis and humanitarian crisis we will live in globally for the next few years. In the brutal U.N. negotiating process, in which the G-20 opposed any substantive U.N. economic governance role, little has survived from these proposals except the possibility of discussing them further in a U.N. General Assembly Working Group. According to the Outcome Document to be presented today for formal approval by government delegates, a panel of experts is to advise the General Assembly on next steps. 
Between now and mid-September when the General Assembly meets again, there will be hard negotiating about the mandate of the Working Group and whether civil society organizations may advise the panel of experts. This outcome is, of course, a very small victory, but not an insignificant one. Furthermore, IATP believes that within the terms of the outcome document there lies the possibility for the General Assembly to authorize the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development to take a much more active role in proposing ways to prevent the excessive speculation in commodity markets that have devastated trade revenues in commodity export-dependent developing countries. Today, IATP will discuss proposals to reform commodity futures markets with government delegates in a side event organized by the government of Tanzania.

When the General Assembly meets in September, the G-20 will also be meeting in Pittsburgh, Pa.,, to plan a different economic future than what we hope will be discussed in the Working Group. There will likely be more civil society organizations in Pittsburgh protesting the Wall Street bailouts than there will be in the fight for a U.N. Working Group on global economic governance. But that fight could well be more important than naming and shaming the beneficiaries of financial deregulation and their government allies.

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A Glimmer at UN on Global Financial Crisis

Posted June 25, 2009

IATP's Steve Suppan is blogging from the U.N. Conference on the World Financial and Economic Crisis in New York.

Yesterday, at the opening plenary, government delegates agreed to adopt an outcome document that is the result of more than four months of intense and sometime bitter negotiations. According to the United Nations, another 100 million persons could lose their jobs by 2010, as a result of an economic crisis triggered by the deregulation of the U.S. financial services industry. Most of these jobs will be lost in countries without unemployment insurance, creating conditions for political instability in dozens of developing countries. This situation led the U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair to tell the U.S. Senate committee on intelligence in February that the economic crisis had replaced terrorism as the number one U.S. national security threat.

IATP's President Jim Harkness participated in the initial meeting in October 2008 that launched the preparation of the negotiations process. IATP provided input on regulating commodity price volatility to the Commission of Experts advising the President of the General Assembly on issues to be addressed in the outcome document. IATP also contributed to a U.N. Conference on Trade and Development symposium that was part of the high-level conference (HLC) preparations.

Most of the ideas of the Commission of Experts to provide short-term economic stimulus to developing countries and to enhance the U.N.'s role in global economic governance were cut in the long and sometimes brutal negotiations. The United States and the European Union wish to keep economic governance in the hands of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, where they have effective veto power over all decisions. The U.S. and EU proposed that the outcome document should only register the impact of the financial crisis on developing countries and welcome the work of the G-20 in proposing policies and promising financial resources for the IMF. The U.S.and EU wanted no commitments to consider the creation of new governance instruments and funding to complement the IMF and World Bank, both of which failed to warn member countries of the dangers of financial industry deregulation and liberalization through the World Trade Organization and free trade agreements.

However, the outcome document provides for the creation of a working group of the General Assembly, advised by a panel of experts "to follow up on issues contained in this outcome document." This diplomatic achievement may seem like a weak solution to the economic crisis that has spread from Wall Street around the world. But many, including the mainstream media, dismissed even the possibility that the United Nations could agree on any terms of a document to establish a new framework for economic governance and to gather resources that would not be provided as loans by the IMF or the World Bank. The outcome document establishes that possibility.

At the first HLC multi-stakeholder dialogue today, IATP was among five non-governmental organizations selected to comment on the HLC outcome document and the opportunities it presented to involve U.N. agencies and civil society organizations in longer term financial institution reform and to implement short-term stimulus packages to prevent an economic breakdown in developing countries. So many government delegates wished to speak that IATP did not have a chance to do so. But Roberto Bissio of Social Watch, a long-time IATP ally, welcomed the outcome document and pointed to opportunities it presented for investing to protect the world's most vulnerable populations. Beverly Kneen of Jubilee South emphasized the need to direct non-debt generating money to developing countries by closing tax evasion loopholes, illegal capital flight, and repudiating illegally contracted debt, rather than allowing an IMF and World Bank-controlled debtors' crisis.

There is much to  be done at the conference before the General Assembly formally adopts the outcome document on June 26. IATP will continue to work with groups from around the world to ensure that the challenge of the financial crisis to development, including rural development and food security undermined by deregulated commodity markets speculation, will be met.

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