Greece is, economically, a mess. With a youth unemployment rate exceeding 65 percent, leaving two-thirds of the nation’s young people unable to find a job, there is not much to celebrate in a country where family life – like many cultures – revolves around meals. Greece is also facing a sharp decline in population. Here is a story of what happens when people who love to cook, but have no one to cook for, meet people who love to eat, but have little money for food. (more…)
Popular Mexican food chain Chipotle has made waves with its new animated short, in which a modest scarecrow flees the hustle and bustle of an over-industrialized dystopia in search of a slower, greener, earthier existence.
“Dreaming of something better,” Chipotle explains, “a lone scarecrow sets out to provide an alternative to the unsustainable processed food from the factory.”
The whole thing is quite well done, with stunning visuals and effective storyboarding, all propelled by a soundtrack of Fiona Apple, meandering about at her spooky-crooning best. Check, check, check.
Unfortunately, the caricatured villain is most typically a caricature, and just so happens to be feeding hungry mouths across the globe, not to mention employing swaths of scarecrows in the process. One man’s dystopia is another man’s employer, who’s yet another man’s cheap-yet-juicy cheeseburger supplier (that’d be me). (more…)
A piece of news analysis over the weekend by Amy Harmon, a national correspondent for the New York Times, captures well the dynamics of the current debates about the merits of genetically-modified organisms (GMO’s).
Harmon writes specifically about the case of Golden Rice, which has some attributes that should inoculate it against common concerns about GMO’s. Golden Rice is not monopolized by a corporate entity, and has been developed specifically to address urgent health concerns in the developing world:
Not owned by any company, Golden Rice is being developed by a nonprofit group called the International Rice Research Institute with the aim of providing a new source of vitamin A to people both in the Philippines, where most households get most of their calories from rice, and eventually in many other places in a world where rice is eaten every day by half the population. Lack of the vital nutrient causes blindness in a quarter-million to a half-million children each year. It affects millions of people in Asia and Africa and so weakens the immune system that some two million die each year of diseases they would otherwise survive.
Harmon also observes that “beyond the fear of corporate control of agriculture, perhaps the most cited objection to G.M.O.’s is that they may hold risks that may not be understood. The decision to grow or eat them relies, like many other decisions, on a cost-benefit analysis.”
As I argue in my latest book, Get Your Hands Dirty, there is a theological basis for the development of genetically-modified foods. The cost-benefit sorts of reasoning has its place, but as I argue, “The limits of all these arguments about GM food are essentially the same: they argue primarily, if not solely on the basis of pragmatic concerns. While these arguments are attractive, especially to American common sense, they are neither comprehensive nor adequate in and of themselves.”
A Christian examination of GMO’s cannot be limited simply to arguments about expediency. It is necessary to first establish that a moral basis exists for this type of human activity. As I examine the case of GM foods through the lens of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, I conclude that such a “biblical-theological framework provides some important general affirmations of the genetic engineering movement with regard to food. This reality is in some respect directly related to the truth of human exceptionalism, the priority of human life over and against that of animals and particularly plants.”
So while expediency cannot be the sole arbiter validating GMO’s, the human cost associated with either acceptance or rejection of such foods are relevant. There are some legitimate concerns about GM foods, at both the level of principle and practice. There are no perfect solutions. But even so, as I put it, our “default position should be in favor of innovations which have a realistic possibility of substantively increasing the fruitfulness of the earth.”
Darryl Hart has a bit of a go at “the hyperventilation that goes on in some neo-Calvinist circles when folks talk about the power of the gospel to redeem all of life,” using the woes of the city of Detroit as a trump card.
Hart wonders why he hasn’t “seen too many posts from the transformers about Detroit’s decline and bankruptcy.” I don’t know if The Gospel Coalition is going to have anything say about Detroit’s bankruptcy, but Tim Keller does reflect more generally on the future of cities in America:
Some of the most troubled, such as Detroit, are going to have to make drastic changes, essentially shrinking their urban footprint deliberately and redesigning themselves as a smaller municipality. But that will not be the norm in the U.S. I believe that immigration and broader cultural factors still make cities highly desirable destinations for the most ambitious and innovative people, and that will be crucial in continuing the rise of cities.
Our planet contains about forty tons of bugs for every human, says Helena Goodrich, offering and “ongoing ‘all you can eat” insect buffet.” While snacking on cicadas probably won’t catch on in the U.S. anytime soon, could eating more bugs help solve world hunger?
According to a recent U.N. report, insects could indeed be part of the solution to some of the world’s food security and health problems. More than 1,900 species have reportedly been used as food and insects form part of the traditional diets of at least 2 billion people. So why isn’t entomophagy (consumption of insects as food) more popular among Westerners?
Every year Black Friday marks the official beginning of two modern American traditions: Christmas shopping and criticizing Walmart.
Critics on both the left and the right have found a common enemy in Walmart. Those on the left hate the company because it isn’t unionized while conservatives complain because it undercuts mom-and-pop retailers. Some researchers even claim that people are prone to gain weight after a Walmart Supercenter opens nearby.
I suspect if the researchers were to conduct a follow-up study they’d also find that there is about a 99 percent chance you will not be starving to death if you live near a Walmart store. But we live in a strange period in history when the idea of affordable food is considered a lamentable condition.
Walmart’s very business model—maintain a large and innovative supply chain that keeps prices low—offends the sensibility of those who think that prices should be raised in order to pay employees a higher wage. The idea that the higher cost should be passed on to consumers is typically made by those who would never actually shop at Walmart. A prime example is The American Prospect‘s Harold Meyerson:
Walmart replaced General Motors as America’s largest private-sector employer. Instead of paying its workers enough to buy new cars, Walmart paid its workers so little they had to shop at discount stores like Walmart.
The reason why Walmart employees—and others on the lower end of the income scale—shop at the stores is because they are, by necessity, price conscience shopper. Meyerson and other elites that spend only about 3.5 percent of their income on food at home can afford to shop at Whole Foods. But households in the bottom quintile, which spend 26 percent of their income on food, are eager to keep food prices as low as possible. (During this holiday season Walmart employees receive an additional 10 percent off most food items.) If Walmart didn’t exist they the company’s employees wouldn’t have higher paying jobs; they’d just be paying more for food and consumer goods.
Growing up in a family that lived below the poverty line, I can appreciate the value of inexpensive food. That is one of the primary reasons I appreciate the company—and the reason I think other conservatives should appreciate it too. There is admittedly a lot to dislike about the company, but as former low-income rural resident I think there are a number of reasons why conservatives should be more supportive of Walmart (and similar poverty-alleviating corporations).
As you might imagine, the food truck phenomenon has found opposition from brick and mortar eateries that fear competition from the mobile units. In this they are merely acting from self-interest, trying to influence the local laws and ordinances to favor them. As Friedman says, “It will be in the self-interest of individual businesses to promote a tariff here and a tariff there,” or a specially-designed zoning ordinance here, a tailored regulation there.
Various Christian traditions have recognized the right to food as basic, and there is thus a corresponding right for those who would provide food for others. We therefore ought to respect those who provide us with “our daily bread,” whether it be in the form of traditional restaurants, grocery stores, or food trucks. This means that the prejudice should be in favor of freedom for food trucks to operate and bring daily sustenance to many, or as Lester DeKoster writes, bring food to “God himself, hungering in the hungry.”
One response from brick and mortar restaurants could be to start up their own mobile operations. This would be far more helpful and healthy than trying to get city commissions to disallow them. The relatively lower barriers to entry (e.g. lower capital costs) can make food trucks an ideal start-up enterprise for a culinary entrepreneur. But the mobility and versatility of the food trucks can be a great complement to the stability of a traditional restaurant as well, as many establishments are already finding.
And the complementary relationship between food trucks and sit-down restaurants can work both ways. The food trucks can be a good “first step” into the food service business, and down the line the food truck brands can be well-served by setting up a base of operations with a brick-and-mortar establishment, too.
Here’s the piece I contributed to today’s Acton News & Commentary:
Fertile Ground for Farm Subsidy Cuts
By Elise Amyx
With debt and budget negotiations in gridlock, and a growing consensus that federal spending at current levels is unsustainable, political support for farm subsidies is waning fast. What’s more, high crop prices and clear injustices are building bipartisan support for significantly cutting agricultural subsidies in the 2012 Farm Bill.
The New Deal introduced an enormous number of agriculture subsidy programs paved with good intentions to help struggling farmers, create a stable food market and alleviate poverty. While many other industries have been deregulated since the Depression-era reforms, agricultural subsidies have grown. Now considered by some to be America’s largest corporate welfare program, it is obvious that the government has failed to meet its original goals.
The glaring injustices built into farm subsidy policies explain why so many on both the political right and left routinely describe them as immoral. Subsidies reward large commercial enterprises — in good times and bad — and shut out small farmers. Developing countries that desperately need to boost agricultural exports cannot compete with subsidized, over-produced crops from wealthy nations. Subsidies also drive up the cost of food for the poor and working families.
Iowa farmer Mark W. Leonard, in a 2006 Wall Street Journal interview, described how he brought a farmer from Mali to talk to local church gatherings about the adverse effects of subsidies. “From a Christian standpoint, what it is doing to Africa tugs at your heartstrings,” he said. The bottom line is that the large, commercial farmers win and everyone else loses.
Rural communities dependent on farming seem to have the long end of the stick, but this isn’t true. According to an Iowa State University study, the most highly subsidized areas in the United States are seeing little to no economic growth. In counties where farm payments are the biggest share of income, job creation is very weak. This can possibly be attributed to highly subsidized agribusiness buy outs of family farms. It is ironic that farm payments are intended to foster growth but instead they appear to be linked with subpar economic performance.
Though meant to support the incomes of farmers and promote rural economic growth, subsidies are making rich farmers richer. Subsidies don’t usually end up where they are most needed because the top 10 percent of recipients receives 74 percent of the payments. Instead of helping those most in need, farm payments are just another failed government welfare program.
Agricultural subsidy programs are funded by taxpayers’ dollars and end up raising the cost of food for the domestic consumer. In other words, we are paying for subsidies twice over. Even though price supports are intended to stabilize food production and thus prevent wild price swings, a Heritage Foundation research report found that consumers actually end up spending more on food in the long run when all price distorting effects are considered. Commodity subsidies encourage overproduction and lower prices, but the Conservation Reserve Program encourages underproduction and raises prices. Tariffs raise the price of imported food. For example, the sugar program operates as a cartel by controlling prices and limiting imports, which significantly raises the cost of sugar.
It is poor budgetary stewardship on the government’s behalf to fund a program with taxpayer dollars that makes food more expensive for consumers. According to the Heritage Foundation, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates the average household spent “$216 in annual taxes in addition to $104 in higher food prices.”
Subsidy payments are commodity specific, so unless you’re growing corn, wheat, soybeans, or another subsidized crop, you’re on your own. Jack Thurston, co-founder of FarmSubsidy.org told Time Business, “The bigger you are, the more subsidies you get. It is the reverse of what you think a subsidy is.”
Because farm payments often encourage overproduction and consolidation of agribusinesses, the price of land is inflated, which makes it very difficult for would-be farmers to enter the market. Rather than giving them a fair opportunity, subsidies undermine the entrepreneurial spirit of young domestic farmers.
Commodity price supports, export subsidies and tariffs drive commodity prices below the world price, which makes it difficult for foreign countries to compete. Surpluses of overproduced U.S. crops are dumped on the international market at prices well below the cost of production, creating even more price volatility. Many poor nations have few other options outside of subsistence farming. Subsidies keep poor nations poor and dependent on developed countries.
There is no doubt that farming is a difficult, volatile business filled with risk and uncertainty — and so are many other successful industries that do not receive any government hand outs. Farmers receiving payments should be careful not to view the government as a savior, who will reduce risk, create certainty and save the day if something bad happens. This is a dangerously dependent position to be in, and it is morally problematic when it comes at the expense of everyone else.
A farmer from Mississippi by the name of Lanier, in a recent call in to NPR, said he doesn’t need the government to help him run his business: “I’m not going to be very popular with this comment, but my family has farmed [6,000] to 8,000 acres every year. We own about five of that and lease the rest depending on what we think the market conditions will be. But, quite frankly, we don’t need these subsidies … we being the larger farmers; we’re getting paid seven digits to not farm areas of our farm. That’s ludicrous. […] We cry, hey, it’s a risk. But tell me what business there is out there that doesn’t have a risk.”
Agricultural subsidies make little economic sense and they display many of the problems that characterize other large welfare programs: injustice, dependency and a slew of unintended consequences.
But, good news might be just around the corner. Recent reports suggest agricultural subsidies will see drastic cuts in the upcoming farm bill due to high commodity prices and the budget crisis. Americans should be cautiously optimistic that America’s largest corporate welfare program will take a big hit in 2012.
The future of corn ethanol is up in the air, and while the Senate gave signs of repealing both the subsidy and the tariff on imported ethanol, the bill the repeal was attached to failed and Congress is back to square one in the ethanol debate. The uncertain future of corn ethanol has brought forth discussion on the possibility of importing sugar cane based ethanol from Brazil.
Before the U.S. begins importing ethanol from Brazil, a broad cost benefit analysis needs to be taken by the government to decide if it is actually a smart decision to begin importing and using sugar cane based ethanol from Brazil.
A concern of many critics of alternative fuels is whether or not alternative fuels can meet demand. According to the Energy Tribune, corn ethanol cannot meet U.S. demand whereas even the country turned all of its corn into ethanol only 6 percent of its total annual oil needs would be met.
This leaves ethanol supporters looking for another energy source to help close the gap. They may be looking no further than the sugar cane based ethanol produced in Brazil. However, even importing Brazilian ethanol will leave the U.S. looking for another energy resource.
In 2010 the U.S. consumed 138.6 billion gallons of gasoline and Brazil currently produces about 7.4 billion gallons of sugar cane based biofuels. Importing sugar cane based ethanol from Brazil while still consuming corn ethanol does not even get the U.S. close to meeting its energy demands especially when 75 percent of Brazil’s ethanol output is sold within its borders, and it experienced a shortage earlier this year.
And the simplistic answer to this problem, planting more sugar cane, may not be the best solution. The Brazilian government has been surprised by the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. According to Brazil’s space research institute, deforestation of the Amazon rainforest increased from 103 sq km in March and April 2010 to 593 sq km during the same period this year. This surprised the Brazilian government which reported that deforestation had fallen to its lowest rate in 22 years when actually there was a 27 percent jump in deforestation from August 2010 to April 2011. The biggest rise in deforestation was in Mato Grosso, a state in Brazil, which produces more than a quarter of Brazil’s soybean harvest. However, what does that have to do with sugar cane causing deforestation?
A 2010 article by Foreign Policy explains how sugar cane based ethanol fosters “agricultural displacement” resulting in the deforestation of the rainforest:
Public officials declare that ethanol will not lead to deforestation in the Amazon or exacerbate climate change. They say that the particular soils and rainy weather characteristic of the rainforest are not suitable for the growth of sugar cane. Agriculture minister Reinhold Stephanes has been quoted as saying that “Cane does not exist in Amazonia.” In a withering blow to Stephanes’s credibility, however, authorities recently raided a sugar cane plantation in the state of Pará where 1,000 workers were laboring under appalling debt slavery conditions. In all, environmentalists claim, hundreds of thousands of acres of sugar cane have been planted in the Amazon.
Even if there are only a few cane plantations operating in the Amazon, ethanol may exert an indirect impact on the rainforest through a phenomenon known as “agricultural displacement.” Though the state of São Paulo is located far from the Amazon rainforest, the sugar cane there can drive other crops toward the agricultural frontier. In the state of São Paulo, sugar cane has been planted on former pastureland and this has pushed cattle into Mato Grosso. Hundreds of thousands of cattle are moving into the Amazon every year as a result of displacement by ethanol in the state of São Paulo alone, say environmentalists. This migration is becoming all the more likely since one can purchase 800 hectares of land in the Amazon for the price of just one hectare in São Paulo. Additionally, some soy plantations in the center of the country have been turned over to ethanol production, prompting concern among environmentalists that this will lead soy producers to move into the Amazon. And local observers say that sugar cane plantations are already pushing soy farmers and ranchers into the rainforest.
The same article by Foreign Policy states that sugar cane crops have also led to the deforestation in the Atlantic rainforest.
There are still many unintended consequences and factors the United States needs to take into account before importing sugar cane based ethanol. CNNMoney published an article stating that, “Some experts say the Brazilian formula gets even less gas mileage than its corn ethanol counterpart, which itself gets lower mileage generally than gasoline.” Furthermore, biofuels will have an adverse effect on food prices. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, biofuels will absorb 13 percent of global coarse grain production, 15 percent of vegetable oil, and some 30 percent of sugar by 2020. Again, what is more important, food or fuel? How are the poor and vulnerable expected to purchase food when it is being shipped to prosperous countries for fuel?
Just like corn based ethanol, sugar cane based ethanol also has its consequences. Experts continue to debate whether sugar cane based ethanol is a viable option. However, before jumping on the bandwagon, policy makers need to take a pragmatic approach when discussing the energy future of the U.S.
Last week, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the annual conference of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and expressed particular concern over rising food prices and the instability of the global food market. In his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, the pope issued this challenge: “The problem of food insecurity needs to be addressed within a long-term perspective, eliminating the structural causes that give rise to it and promoting the agricultural development of poorer countries.”
Acton’s Director of Research Samuel Gregg has done much to illuminate those structural causes and their effects on the agricultural capacity of developing countries. In an interview with EWTN two months ago, he talked about two of the most important drivers of high food prices: farm subsidies and energy costs.
“All the subsidies that go into agriculture—through things like import taxes and tariffs, as well as direct subsidies—have the paradoxical effect of reducing the incentive for investment in agriculture in developing countries,” said Dr. Gregg. African farmers cannot compete with their counterparts in the first world who are able to sell their produce at artificially low prices, and so developing countries end up turning away from food production. In the long run, this decrease in supply causes prices to rise.
Energy prices also affect the cost of food: the more a farmer pays for gasoline, the more he has to recoup from the sale of his crops. Again, market imbalances are causing prices to rise—OPEC, the cartel that controls a substantial amount of the world’s crude oil, determines its supply, and so “there’s a disparity between supply and demand,” Dr. Gregg explained. “OPEC and other oil-producing countries introduce a whole range of price distortions into the energy sector, resulting in higher prices”
U.S. energy policy is also to blame: from drilling moratoriums to ethanol subsidies, the federal government has effectively introduced inefficiency to energy markets.
Developing countries must be allowed to produce food without being undercut by Western protectionism and too-costly energy. When free markets are hindered, the poor suffer most.