Consumers vs. the Consumed: The Grocery Store

'If you want produce grown on the farm down the road you'll have to go to Kuala Lumpur.'

In my past few blogs I have discussed different environmental based development practices, which negatively impact small farmers and local peoples across the globe.  While I have touched upon the role consumers play in the exploitative agricultural system, I have avoided diving more deeply into the matter.

The politics of blame vs. responsibility is crucial to understanding the role consumers play.  It is easy for consumers to shift the blame to larger and more powerful actors.  I mean it appears as if consumers have relatively little sway over the system, but in reality consumers are fueling the system.  Even though big agribusinesses, multinational corporations, and state governments are making most of the development decisions consumers still walk into the grocery store every day and buy into the system.  In order to break down the exploitative system consumers need to take responsibility for their actions, step up, and speak out.

When consumers walk into the grocery store they are presented with thousands of different options.  I live in Massachusetts, yet when I walk into the grocery store I can buy pineapples, mangos, and bananas year round.  I’m no botanist, but I am pretty sure pineapples don’t fare well in the snow.  As consumers we demand this variety in our diet, but we often disregard where this food comes from.

The rise of grocery stores in the United States and other developed countries encouraged the demand for foreign foods.  To meet the demand for foreign foods development practices have shifted to favor produce desired by consumers.  It is no coincidence that I discussed monoculture, GMO seeds, and land grabs in my past blogs; they all tie directly into the food system driven by consumers.

Each of the practices mentioned above promoted an easier way to streamline foreign produce to consumers in different regions of the globe.  In India traditional farming is no longer economically viable and farmers would profit more by transitioning to high-value crops; however, for many farmers the transition is hindered by high initial investment costs and environmental degradation (Gandhi 1).

On top of that, even if small farmers are making more money growing high-value crops the transition still predisposes them to food insecurity.  A Kiel Institute policy report found that in Ghana the standard pineapple market is dominated by multinational corporations; however, small farmers can enter the market by growing organic pineapples (Kleeman 6).  So small famers have a chance to become profitable, that’s good news right?

Yes and No

  • Organic agriculture looks like a path to success for small farmers, but in the long run small farmers will be unable to compete in the competitive global organic produce market (Raynolds 181). Jumping to conclusions and avoiding future predictions are dangerous in the development world, historically causing avoidable problems.
  • When looking at this situation it is important to understand that small famers in Ghana only have to change their agricultural practices because of the system forced upon them in the first place. Large corporations and state governments created situations in which small farmers were marginalized and then left to find their own way back to success.  These corporations are essentially sponsored by consumers demanding foreign produce.

Grocery stores are stocking their shelves with high-value crops because that is what consumers are asking for.

If consumers ask, grocery stores will give.

If grocery stores give, small farmers are consumed.

The global food system is an incredibly complicated, but the base structure of the system is crystal clear.  So this presents the question as to why consumers are not concerned with the current system?  I mean organic is the new fad right?

The answer to this question may lie in what parts of the food system are particularly concerning to consumers.  While climate concerns, environmental degradation, animal treatment, and farmer rights are important in the minds of many, health concerns usually hold more sway in the minds of consumers (Haspel 1).  This highlights the nature of privileged consumers to think only of themselves.

Is there a way to change the mindset of Americans and other prominent consumers?  If there is one, I don’t know it.  The most I can do is educate those who are willing to listen and participate in movements working to combat the corrupt food system.

Citations

Gandhi, Varun. “The Real Shoots of Economic Revival Lie in Agriculture.” Hindustantimes. Hindustan Times, 10 Aug. 2014. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

Haspel, Tamar. “The Surprising Truth about the ‘food Movement’.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post Food, 26 Jan. 2016. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

Kleemann, Linda. Organic pineapple farming in Ghana: A good choice for smallholders?. No. 1671. Kiel Working Papers, 2011.

Raynolds, Laura T. “The Organic Agro-Export Boom in the Dominican Republic: Maintaining Tradition or Fostering Transformation?.” Latin American research review 43.1 (2008): 161-184.

Consumers vs. the Consumed: Seeds of Life

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Genetically Modified Organism or GMO for short, the new concept that strikes panic in the minds of shoppers at the grocery store.  I mean we don’t even know what is in the bananas we eat!  The bananas could be contaminated with all sorts of contaminants. WRONG

While not much is known about the science behind GMOs or the possible long term effects they could have, this is not where major concerns should lie.  Yes, continuing to study the science behind GMOs is important, but there is relatively little evidence to support the belief that GMOs are scientifically harmful.  On the other hand, there is significant evidence to support the beliefs that GMOs often negatively effect small farmers around the globe.

The creation and implementation of GMOs has brought about a new system of agriculture.  Corporations can now produce GMO seeds and claim intellectual property rights over these seeds.  This new concept of biological ownership has led to numerous cases of biopiracy; the stealing of biological knowledge.  In 2001, PureWorld Botanicals “received a U.S. patent for exclusive commercial distribution of an extract of maca’s active libido-enhancing compounds that it branded as MacaPure” (Vecchio 1).  Even though the Quecha Indians have grown the maca root in Peru for hundreds of years, their intelligence and contribution hold no significance in the new agricultural legal system.  In addition to biopiracy, the new paten system takes advantage of scientific and technological advancements to manipulate GMO seeds, in order to meet the wants of the corporation.  Essentially, in an effort to make a larger profit many GMO seeds are made to be…

  • Single generation (meaning farmers cannot use prior years crops to produce new seeds)
  • Reliant on certain pesticides, and
  • Reliant on certain fertilizers

These seed manipulations combined with the corporate ownership of the seeds impoverishes farmers around the world.  Small farmers have to repeatedly purchase seeds and the fertilizers and pesticides that go along with them.  In India, the current administration is working to promote greater self reliance and has made claims stating that Monsanto has “misused its near-monopoly to to jack up rates” (Reuters 1).  Even though farmers are spending more money on cultivating their crops, they are not receiving returns on their investments.

The simple out would be not purchasing GMO seeds in the first place; however, this is much easier aid than done.  Small farmers have a much harder time competing in the market without them.

On top of that, even if farmers choose the non GMO route, there are many situations in which they have been sued for the use of GMO seeds that have been found in their fields, simply by natural processes.  Corporations such as Monsanto don’t like to play nice and have no problem violating peoples’ human rights in order to make a profit.  In the Untied States, even though politicians preach concern for small farmers, they owe their political careers to corporations that harm small famers, damage the environment, and disregard the natural biosphere (Wolf 44).  If politicians in the United States are unwilling to protect their own constituents, then they are certainly do not care about small farmers outside of the United States.

There are current arguments surrounding the labeling of products containing GMOs, both in the Untied States and elsewhere.  An Information Technology and Innovation Foundation report states that most of the GMO labeling battles have been unsuccessful, as anti GMO advocates lose ground and support; however most of the battles being waged focus on the scientific harm GMOs bring, rather than the social harm (Giddings 11-12).  It is easy to ignore the entire debate out of disinterest and place the blame elsewhere.  However, this mindset only furthers the exploitation and suffering of small farmers around the globe.  Protecting small farmers and preventing the violation of their human rights is only possible if the current focus of the debate changes.

Consumers need to be held accountable for their actions, my self included.  The next time you go to the grocery store to buy food, I challenge you to think critically about the food you are purchasing and the role you play in the global agricultural system that harms local peoples and farmers around the globe.  Even if you are not actively involved in the debate you need to be actively involved in the purchasing decisions you make.

 

Citations

Giddings, Val. “A Policymaker’s Guide to the GMO Controversie.” PolicyFile. Information and Technology and Innovation Foundation, 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 1     Apr. 2016.

Jain, Rupam, and Mayank Bhardwaj. “India ‘not Scared’ If Monsanto Leaves, as GM Cotton Row Escalates.” Hindustan Times. Reuter, New Delhi, 16 Mar. 2016. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

Vecchio, Rick. “Peruvian Root in Bioprospecting Dispute.” The Washington Post Business. The Washington Post, 5 Jan. 2007. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

Wolf, Robert. “Industrializing Agriculture”. The North American Review 285.1 (2000): 43–48.

The Tainos

The year 1492 A.D. did not really mean much to me. With no impactful event to make me remember it, it was a bygone year floating in the history of time like so many other years. However, 1492 A.D. was the year that Christopher Columbus set sail in search of the New World and the first land his ship touched, was inhabited by the Tainos. The year that would change the fabric of the world we inhabit socially, environmentally, racially, economically.

The Tainos were a subgroup of the Arawak people, indigenous inhabitants of some areas of South America and the Caribbean, known for their amiable, gentle and peaceful nature. Little did they know that their population was to be drastically decimated, almost to the verge of extinction, when they greeted Columbus and his entourage.

The Tainos were the principal inhabitants of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (present day Dominican Republic and Haiti) and Puerto Rico. In pre-Columbian times, their daily rituals consisted of farming, fishing, canoeing and sleeping in hammocks at the end of the day.

As peaceful as they were within the society, they were also very attuned to the environment surrounding them. Historians and archeologists call their agricultural practices to be very “environmentally friendly” and “maintenance free”. While the men cleaned the fields and fished, the women took care of crops for cultivation and managed household chores. The primary crops that the Tainos cultivated were cassava, corn, beans, peppers, and peanuts among others.

taino-plants

Cassava, better known as yam, was the major staple followed by sweet potato. The bitter variety of cassava, manioc, although containing toxic levels of cyanide and so used by the Tainos to commit suicide, was grown extensively because when processed not only was it edible, but also highly drought resistant, had high caloric content and did not perish (its flour could be stored for many months) as easily as the sweet variety.

The Tainos’s reliance on root crops, therefore, gave rise to a farming technique called conucos. Conucos were heaped up mounds of soil, often three feet high and nine feet in circumference and arranged in rows, tailored for efficient cultivation of root crops. The conucos were packed with leaves thus improving drainage, increasing fertility, aerating the soil, delaying soil erosion, and allowing for longer storage of crops in the ground.

The Tainos were also heedful of the paradoxical nature of the tropical forests they inhabited. Although the forests seemed nutrient rich with lush vegetation, the often impoverished and shallow soil was susceptible to erosion during heavy rains and to scorching during by the tropical sun. The heedful Tainos accordingly adopted the “slash and burn” horticulture technique- plots of land were cleared of trees and bushes which was burned releasing nutrients to the soil. The Tainos were also among the first to use aquaponics. Not having refrigeration they created ponds fed by fresh water and stocked them with fish so as to have easy access to them.

But with the arrival of Columbus and his entourage, the Tainos population gradually shrunk. What was initially a three million or three hundred thousand population (very contentious speculations) dwindled down to sixty thousand in 1507 A.D. and to a mere six hundred in 1531 A.D. The Tainos perished to European diseases to which they had no resistance, extreme working conditions in mines and farms to which they had no self-governance, and attacks by the invading Europeans to which they had no comprehension. Sadly their farming techniques also perished to Spanish methods and it is almost impossible to trace a human with full Taino lineage today.

To my dismay, there hasn’t been any governmental initiative to re-adopt the admirable farming techniques of the Tainos. Independent organizations in Dominican Republic like the Taino Farm and Schools for Sustainability, however, have realized the importance of the ecologically sound Taino methods and thus work to preserve them in this modern context. Schools for Sustainability strives to “honor and follow the example of the peaceful and innovative Taino, who were driven into extinction on Hispaniola by Columbus within 50 years of the Spanish having arrived on the island” by integrating water remediation, farming organic food, and relying on renewable energy for greater sustainability. Similarly Taino Farm relies on aquaponics, vermiculture and permaculture to “foster growth in community,  environment, and society with sustainable farming” clearly reflecting the Tainos’s influence.

Taino methods may not seem very viable in the present day scenario but its history definitely stresses on respecting one’s environment and greeting people with cordiality.

Citation:

Keegan, Bill. “Talking Taino: Eat Roots and Leaves”. Times of the Islands Magazine: Winter 2004/2005. http://www.timespub.tc/2005/01/talking-taino-eat-roots-and-leave/

“Taino Lifestyle”. Taino Gallery. http://tainogallery.com/history/lifestyle/

Figueroa, Ivonne. “Tainos”. El Boricua Magazine: July, 1996. http://www.elboricua.com/history.html

Consumers vs. the Consumed: The Gift of Monoculture

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In my last blog post I noted that the consumed are in shackles, but I failed to explain who was responsible for their shackling.  Looking into the past provides a clear image of those responsible for shackling the consumed people of the Global South, white imperialists.  With the perceived idea that those living in the Global South were uncivilized, Westerners swarmed into areas of the Global South to bring order to uncivilized societies.  With this oh so gracious goal in mind imperialists bestowed uncivilized people with the glorious gift of monoculture.  Obviously the fad of sustenance farming was out; food insecurity and poverty were the new cool.

Imperialists did not just colonize new lands for the purpose of bringing about change, they colonized new lands for the purpose of making money.  This hunger for profit was largely achieved through changing agricultural practices.  As Westerners gained control of land in the Global South monoculture slowly replaced small sustenance farming.  Unlike sustenance farming, which is the cultivation of a variety of different crops, monoculture is the cultivation of a single crop in a single area.  As more of the land in the Global South was consumed by imperialists and monoculture local peoples faced two problems.

Problem 1: As monoculture became more prevalent in the Global South small farmers could no longer make enough money off of their produce in order to survive.  A Human Development Report found that, “the risks and benefits of agro-exporting are far from evenly shared out, while the state does nothing to try to give the small farmers more bargaining muscle (Marañón 4).  Essentially, the people of the Global South were being pushed into a state of impoverishment and there was nothing they could do about it.

Problem 2: As farmers in the Global South slipped into poverty they turned towards monoculture as a solution.  In order to make money they had to rely on the cultivation of a single cash crop.  Reliance on single cash crops created food insecurity across the Global South.  Rather than growing food that supported a sustainable diet farmers were growing crops that did not support a sustainable diet.  In 2008 alone, “FAO reports indicated that another 40 million people were pushed into hunger, primarily due to higher food prices” (Shepard 30).  It is hard not to correlate this disturbing statistic with the rise in monoculture based agriculture and impoverished farmers.

While the past few paragraphs are written in the past tense by no means has the exploitation of local peoples ended.  If anything, since the dawn of imperialism and monoculture in the Global South agribusiness has caused a spike in exploitation.

Agribusinesses are large commercial farming corporations that utilize monoculture, advanced technology, and other harmful farming techniques to make a large profit.  As Huffington Post journalist Evaggelos Vallianatos noted, “Brazilian agribusiness is financially healthy, but its footprint has been very unhealthy on Brazil and the world.”  In this statement he is referring to the mass destruction of the natural environment in the pursuit of profit.  And which demographic of people does the destruction adversely effect?  Local peoples and farmers in the Global South. These large businesses are not just forcing small local farmers off their land and into poverty, they are harming marginalized peoples across the globe.

Now many of you may be asking what you can do about these large corporations harming local farmers if you live so far away.  The better question you should be asking is what you are already doing.

If I walk into any given grocery store in the Untied States available to me is produce and food from around the globe.  A majority of the produce I can buy isn’t produced by small farmers in the Global South, if that was the case prices would soar through the roof.  In order to meet the needs of mass consumers in the Global North agribusiness in the Global South becomes more and more prevalent.  A branch of Walmart based out of India sells baby corn for 200Rs/kg, but the farmers who grow the corn only get 4% of the high price that consumers pay (Sharma 1).  Clearly the farmer is not the actor benefiting from this consumer driven supply chain.  While the creation of agribusiness created a new market for foreign goods in the Untied states consumers are responsible for fueling the demand for foreign food and the continued development of agribusinesses.

Consumers are driving the need for monoculture, which fosters the growth of agribusinesses.  We, as consumers may not have placed the shackles on the consumed peoples of the Global South, but we certainly have contributed to making those shackles tighter and heavier.

 

Citations

Marañón, Boris. Tension Between Agricultural Growth and Sustainability: The El Bajio Case, Mexico. No. HDOCPA-2006-40. Human Development Report Office (HDRO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 2006.

Sharma, Divider. “Leaving Farmers to Reap the Bitter Harvest.” Hindustantimes. HT Delhi, 20 Jan. 2014. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.

Shepard, Daniel. “Land grabbing and potential implications for world food security.” Sustainable Agricultural Development. Springer Netherlands, 2011. 25-42.

Vallianatos, Evaggelos. “Food Power in the Unpromised Land of Brazil.” Huffington Post. HuffPost Green, 9 May 2015. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.

 

What do you know about the Incans?

I had always associated the Incans, and also the Mayans and the Aztecs, with violence and South America. Upon arriving in college, my limited knowledge of those civilizations were added to with insights from friends from Peru and Chile who told me that they were not just violent, but barbarous and cruel. And it’s a shame to have been oblivious to their terrific farming techniques and intuitions that, people now speculate, could be the alternatives to face the inevitable climate change and food insecurity for people of the Andes today.

The Andean platform is in itself an obstacle for farming with its mountains and intermittent waterways. But the way that the Incans maneuvered yields from this terrain is fascinating. From creating Andenes, terraces dug in mountains for agriculture, to engineering irrigation systems that retained water efficiently, the Incans coaxed crops such as quinoa, potatoes and maize from the unlikely terrains of the Andes. They used stones of various dimensions along with dirt, gravel and sand to create excellent drainage systems in terraces, which were equally efficient in retaining water. The stones used in terraces were more advantageous as they not only made terrace farming plausible, but they also retained heat that was beneficial to plants with sensitive roots when the temperature plunged.

The Incan knowledge was not just bound to infrastructural techniques. They were also well acquainted of the fact that different crops like corn, quinoa and squash, when planted together as opposed to individual plots, yielded better results because they symbiotically protected and nourished each other. They were also well equipped with crops such as , a bitter potato variety that resists hail, frost, droughts and excess rain that can be dried and stored for years, to avoid famine.

Quinoa harvest in Peru

But with the onset of the sixteenth century, when the Spanish invaders colonized the areas of Incan civilization, Incan lives perished and with them their inspiring agricultural methods. It is estimated that more than half of the Incan population was wiped off and those who survived were forced to assimilate their traditional farming knowledge to Spanish choices of crops and methods. And what remained was the residue of the achievements of the past: remnants of ancient terraces and hollows of dried up canals.

Luckily, the Cusihaca Trust has taken the initiative to prevent the Incan ways from just being penned in history books by reviving those ancient ways in present day Peru. The Trust that initially started as archaeological investigation in 1977 at sites in the Cusichaca Valley close to the famous Inca ruins of Machu Picchu now pioneers in the restoration of traditional Andean agricultural terraces and irrigation canals to reduce poverty and increase self-sufficiency amongst isolated rural communities in Peru. The trust has rehabilitated ancient terraces and canals, encompassing 160 hectares of the Patacancha Valley near Cuzco, thus uplifting the most vulnerable people in these regions by flourishing the possibilities of agriculture. Farmers are also readopting the tradition of multiple crops together and the results are valuably both economically and environmentally.

Not only trusts like the Cusihaca Trust, but even the Peruvian Ministry of the Environment have stressed the importance of practices such as reclaiming diverse native Andean crops and rebuilding the infrastructure of pre-Hispanic irrigation to counteract the grievous impacts of droughts, shrinking glaciers, unpredictable climate changes, and food insecurities.

The Cusihaca Trust has been fruitful in its endeavors and is steadily expanding its practice and visions to more areas. With support from the government itself, it is evident that reinvigorating ancient and wise techniques are far better than forsaking them.

Citations:

Graber, Cynthia. “Framing Like the Incas”. Smithsonian. 6 Sept. 2011. Web. 18 Mar. 2016

Krajick, Kevin. “Ancestors of Science: Green Farming by the Incas?”. Science AAAS. 4 Nov. 2005. Web. 24 Mar. 2016

Blog Post 1: The Transition to Organic Farming In Cuba

In this blog post, I will discuss the transition to Organic farming Cuba had to make in order to save their economy and livelihood.

In the early 1900s, Cuba had a promising and destructive food crisis. Mamonal, a village located in the once very so fertile land of Cuba was once the king of tomatoes and sugar. Reynoldo Garcia even said one the crisis hit there was no point of even trying to cultivate. There was no fertilizer, no tractors, no seeds, and no energy for irrigation. In 1994, the tomato yield, as well many other crops were negligible. Without tomatoes, thousands of seasonal workers lost their employment. Cuba lost 80 percent of their import and export markets. From 8 billion dollar to practically 1.7 billion in a spam of basically overnight. Within the crisis food was affected as well as the well being of Cuba in general. Buses stopped running, generators stopped producing energy, and factories became as quiet as graveyards. Some how getting food was the main priority of many, if not all Cubans on a day to day basis.  Cubas transition to organic farming was a necessary response to the food crisis. The Cuban government resounded to the crisis by closing the majority of state farms. 80 percent of farms in Cuba prior to the food crisis were owned by the state and were then re established to worker-owned enterprises.

In order for the organic farming to popularize, the government put incentives to organic farming. Any food produced in surplus would be sold for free at markets. This created n incentive for farmers to switch to the organic technologies, such as, earthworms, biofertilizers, composting and integration of grazing animals. Public policies also encouraged the transformation to organic farming. National Programme of Urban Agriculture encourages farmers to produce diverse, healthy and fresh products. Many vacant lots were turned into small farms and grazing areas for animals. In this transition, the new organic farming system created 350,000 new well-paying jobs, 4 millions tons of fruits and vegetables, and a city with 2.2 million suitability and self sufficient livelihood.

In a video “Voices of Transition” the professor speaking mentions how the West can learn a lot from the organic farming transition. He mentioned how the community became more involved, decreasing hostility and increasing cooperation. Even if there is extra products by the end of the day by the people who sell it, none of it goes to waste. They give the extra products to nurseries, schools, or hospitals.

Cuban farmer-entreupernour was quoted in “Cuba Journal” article Cuba’s Organic Farmers Aim for Rich Soil  says organic farming is having an impact and creating opportunity in Cuba. According to a report in Granma, a garbage dump located on the shore of a section of Cuba was actually turned into a viable farming project, which now provides at least 120 different seedlings.

Not only did the transition create jobs and fix a crisis in a short term, the lack of pesticides for agricultural production is likely to have positive long term impact on Cuba’s well being, as pesticides and other artificial farming techniques can have negative effects on health. It’s not only a question of food, but to have healthier food as well.

Works Cited

Cuba;s Organic Farmers Aim for Rich Soil. Cuba Journal: December 2015. http://cubajournal.co/cubas-organic-farmers-aim-for-rich-soil/. Print.

The Food Crisis in Cuba. Oxfarmamerica. http://www.oxfamamerica.org/static/oa4/OA-CubaGoingAgainstGrain_FoodCrisis.pdf

Organic Agriculture In Cuba. United Nations Environment Programme – Environment for Development. http://www.unep.org/greeneconomy/SuccessStories/OrganicAgricultureinCuba/tabid/29890/Default.aspx

“Voice of Transition – Clip – Urban Agriculture in Cuba.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BE-wPh5Q0iY. Film.