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Spinach, Feedlots and Knowing the Backstory

Alex Steffen, World Changing
The media is buzzing over the spinach crisis, caused by an outbreak of the potentially lethal bacterium E. coli O157:H7. A curious yet widespread claim is that, because some of the spinach so far identified as contaminated came from organic farms, organic farming is unsafe. It’s a curious claim, because scientists understand pretty well where the O157:H7 is coming from: the bellies of factory-farmed cows. Their manure, as it turns out, is now crawling with the critters.

[For more on this story, see the NY Times op-ed: “Leafy Green Sewage” … also onlline at on the author’s website.]

…The factory farming system is generally hidden from our eyes. We do not see the realities of the modern feedlot…The same is true of throughout the factory farming system.

…But I think there’s something bigger coming, which is a move towards not just buying local food, but knowing the backstory of the food we buy.

What’s the backstory? Well, in literature, the backstory is everything that happened leading up to the situation in which the characters find themselves at the beginning of the narrative. In Hamlet, for instance, the backstory is that Hamlet’s beloved father, the King, has been secretly murdered by his mother and uncle while Hamlet was away at university. All of the action in the play unfolds from those essential events, which we never actually see.

Here, the backstory is what happened to our food before we bought it. Who raised it? Where was it grown, and on what kind of land? Did the farmer use fertilizers and pesticides, or integrated pest management? Antibiotics or free-range grazing? Was the soil conserved, or is it eroding? How did it reach us, and how was the money we spent on it split up?
(23 Sep 2006)

Don’t Cry to Them, Argentina

Kelly Hearn, Grist
Crying not for Argentina but for lost patent fees, Monsanto’s legal hacks are in European courts suing to block millions of tons of Argentine soybean meal from docking on the continent.

Meanwhile, the tricky lawyering is shedding light on what critics say is a dubious corporate strategy to make Argentina a mega-lab for GM soybeans, one that’s already spawned deep environmental and economic problems far off the radar screen of the international media. ..
(22 Sept 2006)

Gateses’ approach to African hunger is bound to fail

Peter Rosset, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
The teaming up of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with the Rockefeller Foundation to bring a “new” Green Revolution to Africa sadly ignores the lessons of the failures of the first Green Revolution (“Gates and Rockefeller attack hunger in Africa,” Sept. 13).

In the first Green Revolution, the Rockefeller and Ford foundations exported industrial-style agriculture — based on chemicals and “high-response” seeds — to the Third World, with the paradoxical outcome of greater production of a few food crops, accompanied by even worse hunger, and by environmental degradation. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers eventually degraded the soil, leading to declining productivity, and the high cost of those inputs deepened the divide between rich and poor farmers, swelling the ranks of the hungry.

The Gateses’ apparent naivetĂ© about the causes of hunger have led them to make private investments in genetically engineered seeds and to launch this $150 million altruistic offensive to promote technology packages that use irrigation, fertilizer and, not surprising, new seeds. Unfortunately, the likely results are higher profits for the seed and fertilizer industries, negligible impacts on total food production and worsening exclusion and marginalization in the countryside.

Today’s rural Africa has been devastated by 25 years of free trade and anti-peasant policies imposed on the continent’s governments by the World Bank, the Intertional Monetary Foundation, the WTO, the United States and the European Union. The forced privatization of food crop marketing boards — which, though flawed, once guaranteed African farmers minimum prices and held food reserves for emergencies — and rural development banks, which gave farmers credit to produce food, have left farmers without either financing to grow food or buyers for their produce.

Peter Rosset is the author of “World Hunger: Twelve Myths” (Grove Press, 1998), “Food is Different” (Zed Books, 2006) and “A New Green Revolution for Africa?” (Food First Books, forthcoming). He is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley.
(22 Sep 2006)
Also posted at Common Dreams.