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Are food prices approaching a violent tipping point?

Damian Carrington, The Guardian environmental blog
A provocative new study suggests the timing of the Arab uprisings is linked to global food price spikes, and that prices will soon permanently be above the level which sparks conflicts.

Seeking simple explanations for the Arab spring uprisings that have swept through Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya, is clearly foolish amidst entangled issues of social injustice, poverty, unemployment and water stress. But asking “why precisely now?” is less daft, and a provocative new study proposes an answer: soaring food prices.

Furthermore, it suggests there is a specific food price level above which riots and unrest become far more likely. That figure is 210 on the UN FAO’s price index: the index is currently at 234, due to the most recent spike in prices which started in the middle of 2010.

Lastly, the researchers argue that current underlying food price trends – excluding the spikes – mean the index will be permanently over the 210 threshold within a year or two. The paper concludes: “The current [food price] problem transcends the specific national political crises to represent a global concern about vulnerable populations and social order.” Big trouble, in other words.

Now, those are some pretty big statements and I should state right now that this research, by a team at the New England Complex Systems Institute, has not yet been peer reviewed. It has been published because, Yaneer Bar-Yam, NECSI president, told me, the work is relevant now but peer review is slow…
(25 Aug 2011)
You can read the report referred to in the article here.

Tesco and Starbucks feel the heat in battle against ‘clone town Britain’

Eifion Rees, the ecologist
David Cameron’s appointment of a ‘shops tsar’, the controversial Localism Bill, and increasing opposition to supermarkets and other chain stores could mark a turning point in the struggle to save Britain’s high streets

It wasn’t so much Labour’s decision last week to dub Tesco an ‘almighty conglomerate‘ whose powers needed curbing that was the surprise, but that it had taken so long for a political party to do so.

The dominance of supermarkets and chain stores has long been a pernicious feature of UK life: travel writer Bill Bryson rued the loss of Britain’s once-diverse high streets in his Notes from a Small Island almost two decades ago; the New Economics Foundation (NEF) coined the term ‘clone town’ in a 2005 report to describe those overrun by large, generic retailers.

Now concern for the beleaguered local shop has finally reached national government. In May, David Cameron appointed retail expert Mary Portas the government’s ‘shops tsar’ to identify solutions to the clone town conundrum. Could the submission of her report this autumn mark a turning point for independents?

They certainly need all the help they can get. NEF’s 2010 Reimagining the High Street survey found that 41 per cent of towns were already clones (Cambridge the worst of them), 23 per cent were on-the-cusp ‘border towns’ and only 36 per cent were thriving ‘home towns’. Whitstable boasts the UK’s most vibrant, independent high street.

Up until now successive governments have been unwilling or unable to put a stop to the expansion of chain stores and supermarkets. With the time, money and resources to navigate complicated planning procedures and area plans, tenancies have been granted and new buildings greenlighted almost as a matter of course…
(23 Aug 2011)
related from the Ecologist also: How to stop a supermarket opening in your area, and to see what it takes sometimes to get a real local economy to start flourishing outside of the reach of the corporate supermarkets and chains stores, see Detroit, Community Resilience, and the American Dream. -KS

As Farmers’ Markets Go Mainstream, Some Fear a Glut

The New York Times
John Spineti started selling plump tomatoes and shiny squash at farmers’ markets in the early 1970s and saw his profits boom as markets became more popular. But just as farmers’ markets have become mainstream, Mr. Spineti said business has gone bust.

Farmers in pockets of the country say the number of farmers’ markets has outstripped demand, a consequence of a clamor for markets that are closer to customers and communities that want multiple markets.

Some farmers say small new markets have lured away loyal customers and cut into profits. Other farmers say they must add markets to their weekly rotation to earn the same money they did a few years ago, reducing their time in the field and adding employee hours.

“It’s a small pie — it’s too hard to cut it,” said Mr. Spineti, who owns Twin Oak Farms in nearby Agawam. Mr. Spineti, who was selling vegetables and small fig trees, his farm’s specialty, at the Wednesday market here, said his profits were down by a third to a half over the last few years.

Nationwide, the number of farmers’ markets has jumped to 7,175 as of Aug. 5; of those, 1,043 were established this year, according to the federal Agriculture Department. In 2005, there were 4,093 markets across the country.

Here in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, where hand-painted signs for fresh vegetables dot winding roads and eating local has long been a way of life, some farmers and market managers are uttering something once unfathomable: there are too many farmers’ markets…
(10 Aug 2011)