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Tiffin: GM in China, land in Colombia, soya republic, the dodgiest food prize

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1) China is the world’s biggest grain producer and maintains a standing policy that forbids growing GM grain. But China does allow imports of certain GM products. In 2012, China imported over 58 million tons of soybeans – mostly genetically modified. Public opinions on GM crops in China are polarised, with a great number of people holding suspicions toward GM products.
Rao Yi, a professor and dean of Peking University’s School of Life Sciences, said that while some GM-related concerns still need to be discussed, there are also rumors that need to be dispelled. Domestically-grown soybean is scarce in China, as China’s imports of GM soybeans rocketed to 58 million tons from less than 3 million tons in 1997. Many farmers have abandoned soybeans for other crops, as imported soybeans are cheaper. GM technology is the future of agriculture, said Fang Zhouzi, a biochemist and vocal supporter of GM technology, adding that it will be harder for China “to catch up with the USA” if China does not recognize this fact.

2) Cargill, the world’s largest food company, has been secretly amassing land from small farmers in eastern Colombia, despite a law prohibiting the practice. When the two countries signed a free trade agreement last year, Cargill emerged as the owner of 52,574 hectares where it grows corn and soybeans. The small farms in the isolated high plains of Vichada department in eastern Colombia were given to poor peasants in the 1990s under a scheme to convert ‘wasteland’ in an area that had become a stronghold for the lucrative cocaine trade. Colombian law prohibits any one person or entity from owning more than one “agricultural family unit” of this land in an effort to diversify land ownership in a country where most land is owned by a small wealthy minority.

3) The profound impacts of the agribusiness model know no borders between rural and urban. In rural areas and outer suburbs they are measured in terms of agrotoxin poisoning, displaced farmers (who swell the ranks of the urban poor), ruined regional economies, correspondingly high urban food prices, and contamination of the food supply. Ultimately, what we are looking at is a social and environmental catastrophe settling like a plague over the entire region. Wherever you live, you cannot ignore it.
The handful of people and companies responsible for this chain of destruction have names: Monsanto and a few other biotech corporations (Syngenta, Bayer) leading the pack; large landowners and planting pools that control millions of hectares (Los Grobo, CRESUD, El Tejar, Maggi, and others); and the cartels that move grain around the world (Cargill, ADM, and Bunge). Not to mention the governments of each of these countries and their enthusiastic support for this model. To these should be added the many auxiliary businesses providing services, machinery, spraying, and inputs that have enriched themselves as a result of the model.
To put some numbers on the phenomenon, there are currently over 46 million ha of GE soy monoculture in the region. These are sprayed with over 600 million litres of glyphosate and are causing deforestation at a rate of at least 500,000 ha per year.

4) The 2013 World Food Prize has gone to three chemical company executives, including Monsanto executive vice president and chief technology officer, Robert Fraley, responsible for development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Yet, GMO seeds have not been designed to meet the Prize’s mandate and function in ways that actually impede progress toward the stated goals of the World Food Prize.
Almost twenty years after commercialisation of the first GMO seeds, by far the most widely used are not engineered to enhance nutrient content, but to produce a specific pesticide or to resist a proprietary herbicide, or a combination of these traits. Even in reducing weeds, the technology is failing, for it has led to herbicide-resistant “super weeds” now appearing on nearly half of American farms.
This award not only communicates a false connection between GMOs and solutions to hunger and agricultural degradation, but it also diverts attention from truly “nutritious and sustainable” agroecological approaches already proving effective, especially in the face of extreme weather. Developed and controlled by a handful of companies, genetically engineered seeds further the concentration of power and the extreme inequality at the root of this crisis of food inaccessibility.

For all the pork in China

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"China’s strategic pork reserve is the direct consequence of an emerging, meat-eating middle class and a government determined to feed them," is how the journal Fast Coexist called it (link below). Photo: Courtesy Fast Coexist

“China’s strategic pork reserve is the direct consequence of an emerging, meat-eating middle class and a government determined to feed them,” is how the journal Fast Coexist called it (link below). Photo: Courtesy Fast Coexist

The Earth Policy Institute has a startling data highlight about the consumption of pork in China. Half the world’s pigs, more than 470 million of them, live in China. While meat consumption in the United States has fallen more than 5% since peaking in 2007, says the institute, Chinese meat consumption has jumped 18%, from 64 million to 78 million tons — twice as much as in the USA (see the charts below). China already buys more than 60% of the world’s soybean exports to feed to its own livestock and has been a net importer of pork for the last five years.

In late May 2013 the American company Smithfield Foods Inc, which is reported to be the world’s leading pork producer, was bought by the Chinese company Shuanghui International, which is the owner of China’s largest meat processor. The acquisition has been reported by China Daily; USA Today seemed cautiously happy about China’s buying of American hogs; Forbes hastily attempted an analysis of what it all means; Fast Coexist provided that analysis with knobs on.

People in China ate 53 million tons of pork in 2012, which is six times as much as in the USA. On a per person basis, consumption in China first eclipsed that in the USA in 1997. Now the average Chinese eats 39 kg of pig meat each year, compared with 27 kg in the USA. Charts: Earth Policy Institute

People in China ate 53 million tons of pork in 2012, which is six times as much as in the USA. On a per person basis, consumption in China first eclipsed that in the USA in 1997. Now the average Chinese eats 39 kg of pig meat each year, compared with 27 kg in the USA. Charts: Earth Policy Institute

The year the GM machine can be derailed

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In the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka state in India, farmers heap harvest residue, accompanied by a cow, a cattle egret and a dog (yes he's there, behind the stack!).

In the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka state in India, farmers heap harvest residue, accompanied by a cow, a cattle egret and a dog (yes he’s there, behind the stack!).

It is looking like a good start to a year in which GM foods and GM crops can be further purged from our fields, shops and pantries. Through 2012 November and December, there were reports from the continents of Africa and South America that such crops and seeds were either being banned or that decisions concerning their use were being discussed, and pending those decisions the use of these crops and seeds would not be permitted.

Writing in The Guardian, John Vidal has barracked the UK government’s enthusiasm for GM and has said this enthusiasm (in Britain’s official, corporatised, retailed decision-making circles) is not matched in developing nations. Vidal has written: “Across the world, countries are turning their backs on GM crops; perhaps the coalition in the UK could learn something from them”.

Early morning in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka state in India, and a farmer leads his cattle to fields.

Early morning in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka state in India, and a farmer leads his cattle to fields.

What is remarkable, Vidal’s article has said, “is not that GM crops have, after 20 years and so much money spent, now reached 19 out of more than 150 developing countries, but that most nations have managed to keep out a rapacious industry, and that only a handful of GM food commodity crops like oilseed rape, soya and maize are still grown, mainly for animals and biofuels”. Well, yes and sadly a bit of ‘no’ too.

Although Vidal is right about the more rapacious elements of the GM/GE/DNA-manipulation industry (aren’t they all that way though?) may have been kept out of direct markets, the arguments about labelling and about monitoring (independently, which needs civic capacity, which is hardly there in the South, for instance in India) are taking place while food with GM material can be found on shop shelves. Cottonseed oil for example, which is pressed out of GM cotton, is said to be used as an alternative to other edible oils for cooking.

There’s no doubt left whatsoever that the role of genetically modified food in our food chain is a highly contested political issues. In a long, carefully argued and copiously referenced article, the Soil Association’s Peter Melchett dismantles the pro-GM lobby’s staking of the ‘scientific high-ground’. In the essay, intriguingly titled ‘The pro-GM lobby’s seven sins against science’, Melchett has said this lobby has been good at “simultaneously positioning itself as the voice of reason and progress, while painting its opponents as unsophisticated ‘anti-science’ luddites, whose arguments are full of dogma and emotion, but lack scientific rigour”.

Powerful forces in Western society have been promoting genetic engineering (now usually genetic modification – GM) in agricultural crops since the mid-1990s, Melchett has written. I would have added that these “powerful forces” are in no small measure aided and abetted by potentially more powerful forces in the countries of the South (like India) that are interested in the same – vast and detailed control over the cultivation of primary crop and the consumption of industrially processed and retailed food.

Spanking new agricultural machinery on the highway, southern India. A government-industry answer to the loss of cultivation labour that is chivvied into the cities by adverse economics.

Spanking new agricultural machinery on the highway, southern India. A government-industry answer to the loss of cultivation labour that is chivvied into the cities by adverse economics.

These forces, Melchett has written, “have included many governments, in particular those of the USA and UK, powerful individual politicians like George Bush and Tony Blair, scientific bodies like the UK’s Royal Society, research councils, successive UK Government chief scientists, many individual scientists, and companies selling GM products”. They have ignored the views of citizens, he has added, and most sales of GM food have relied on secrecy – denying consumers information on what they are buying. Very true. If there is ignorance to be found in the ‘western’ consumer (let us say the consumer in the western European OECD countries) concerning GM foods and GM crops, then the ignorance quotient is far higher in the consumers of let’s say the BRICS and ASEAN countries – which of course works to the advantage of the alliance of powerful forces.

Despite the efforts of the ag-biotech, industrial agriculture and processed and retailed food sector worldwide (with its dense financial and political inter-linkages), there are 20 states in the USA which are currently embroiled in fierce battles over GM labelling, strenuously opposed by the GM combine. GM cotton is widely grown in India and China, but GM foods are largely limited to the USA and South America. Brazil grows 29 million hectares of GM soy and maize, and Argentina slightly less, but Mexico has delayed the introduction of GM maize until this year, Peru has approved a 10-year moratorium on the import and cultivation of GM seeds, and Bolivia has committed to giving up growing all GM crops by 2015. In Central America Costa Rica is expected to reject an application from a Monsanto subsidiary to grow GM corn.

Written by makanaka

January 5, 2013 at 12:41

Charting food price shock, and the World Bank’s economy with truth

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Chart source: World Bank (2011), ‘Responding to Higher and More Volatile World Food Prices’ Development Committee Paper prepared by the Agriculture and Rural Development Department using data from FAOSTAT for net cereal imports as a share of consumption and the USDA for food share in household expenditures.

The World Bank’s Food Price Watch for 2012 August has been released (it is a part of the Poverty Reduction and Equity Group’s Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Network). The Watch has in its overview mentioned prices of internationally traded maize and soybeans reaching all-time peaks in July. The rise in prices of wheat – comparable to the 2011 peaks – and the relative stability of the prices of rice have also been mentioned.

The Watch has said: “World Bank experts do not currently foresee a repeat of 2008; however negative factors — such as exporters pursuing panic policies, a severe el Niño, disappointing southern hemisphere crops, or strong increases in energy prices — could cause significant further grain price hikes such as those experienced four years ago.” This idea – of no repeat of 2008 – is plain wrong. The food price spike crisis of 2007-08 did in fact never go away, it subsided for some months, and has this year entered a new phase of pain for consumers particularly those in rural districts and the urban poor, wherever they may be.

As the chart (whose implications ought to be more seriously considered by the Watch, especially since the chart is a World Bank device itself) shows, countries in the Middle East and North and Sub-Saharan Africa are most vulnerable to this global shock. “They have large food import bills, their food consumption is a large share of average household spending, and they have limited fiscal space and comparatively weaker protective mechanisms,” the Watch has said.

Ideas such as ‘fiscal space’ and ‘protective mechanisms’ are not automatically translatable into household terms, and thus have no meaning for those who bear the food inflation burden first and the most. The Watch indeed has said that “domestic food prices in these regions have also experienced sharp increases even before the global shock due to seasonal trends, poor past harvests, and conflict”. Naturally, local circumstances determine how high domestic prices will be pushed from much higher international prices.

In addition to their effects on prices, previous droughts in developing countries have had severe economic, poverty and nutritional impacts, turning transitory shocks into lifetime and inter-generational perils, the 2012 August Food Price Watch has said, and this is certainly painfully true. The problem with the World Bank view (and practice) is when it becomes visible in the Watch with a statement like: “In such contexts, investments in drought-resistant crop varieties have provided large yield and production gains.” No, we do not want to see “investments in drought-resistant crop varieties” which only means thrusting GM seed into the fields of bullied smallholder farmers and GM food into the shops from which low-income households must buy their daily food basket.

Food reserves, strategic foodgrain stocks and port protests

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Sujit Kumar Mondal sailing to his floating garden - one of the initiatives cited for Bangladesh's success in fighting under-nutrition. Photo: IRIN/Peter Murimi

Sujit Kumar Mondal sailing to his floating garden - one of the initiatives cited for Bangladesh's success in fighting under-nutrition. Photo: IRIN/Peter Murimi

Food inflation and industrial action have come together in a new signal about the unsustainability of consumption. Port workers in Argentina had stopped, for three days, the loading of vessels with soya, of which Argentina is a major producer. Their reason is the continuing high cost of food in their country, which in this Reuters report on the matter is recorded as having been 25%. They struck work and blocked loading to demand higher wages so they could afford to buy their household food needs. They’re also directly responsible for loading an East Asian food staple. Block food to buy food.

The blockade by members of Juarez’s cooperative targeted a terminal north of the city of Rosario shared by Bunge and Argentina’s AGD, and at another nearby facility operated by Cargill. Argentina is the world’s No. 3 soybean exporter and a major supplier of corn and wheat. About 80 percent of its soyoil and meal is produced around Rosario, located 180 miles (300 km) north of the capital Buenos Aires.

The two terminals account for about 16 percent of the South American country’s soyoil-processing capacity. Argentina is the world’s biggest supplier of soyoil and soymeal. Earlier on Friday, port workers suspended a brief protest that halted shipping activity in the southern grains ports of Quequen and Bahia Blanca, SOMU shipping workers’ union Omar Suarez told Reuters. He said the union wanted exporters to use a logistics company that hires its members, but had called off the protest following a request from the government.

Major grain importing countries are set to build more storage silos and expand strategic stocks after seeing the role played by record food prices in political upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa, Reuters has reported. Egypt, South Korea and Saudi Arabia are among nations which have already unveiled strategic plans as grain markets adjust to the prospect of further supply crunches over the next few years.

Global demand for grain has risen steadily as consumers in emerging economies grow richer and suppliers have struggled to overcome erratic climatic conditions, which last year included Russia’s worst drought in decades and heavy rains in Australia. The upshot has been a near-60 percent surge in key US wheat prices in the year to March, while global food prices as measured by the United Nations hit their second straight record high in February.

Importers also no longer have the safety net of large stocks held by exporters such as the European Union, which has sold off the grain mountains it first accumulated in the 1980s and moved to more market-oriented policies. Nomani Nomani, vice chairman of the General Authority for Supply Commodities (GASC) in top wheat exporter Egypt, said in February it was looking to improve and boost storage capacities.

“We have a long-term plan to improve storage capacity in Egypt and to build a network of silos that would allow GASC to purchase at the suitable time. We are also seeking improving performance of storage,” he said. South Korea, the world’s fourth-largest grain importer, is also among those building a strategic grain reserve, while another major importer Saudi Arabia hopes to double wheat reserves within three years. International Grains Council figures issued last week show a major shift in stocks from exporting to importing countries, said the Reuters report.

China is expected to hold 114.6 million tons of grain by the end of 2010-11, more than the combined total of 104.5 million tons held by all the major exporters, according to IGC estimates. Nie Zhenbang, state administration of grain head, said in an interview with the official Ziguangge magazine that China would continue to build up local government reserves of grains and edible oils and expand stockpiling capacities.

Mexico, the world’s second-largest maize importer, has not yet expanded its stocks but has plenty of space if necessary. Maize stocks currently total around 2 million tons, little changed from previous years, but the national association of warehouses (AAGEDE) estimates there is storage space for about 11 million tons. AAGEDE director Raul Millan said there is no deficit in storage space but that infrastructure is lacking in the southern part of the country where warehouses are not as well equipped. Mexico has no strategic reserves of grain, although there are some stocks held by the government to hand out to the poor.

In India, the government maintains a ‘Food Security Reserve’ of 3 million tons of wheat and 2 million tons of rice. This reserve – maintained from 2008 – is part of what the Indian government calls ‘buffer’ norms’. The buffer stock norms are recalibrated four times a year and as on 2010 October, the ‘buffer stock norms’ stood at 14 million tons for wheat and 7.2 million tons for rice. Against these norms, the government’s actual stocks were 27.7 million tons of wheat and 18.4 million tons of rice. From 2009 July, the actual stocks of total foodgrains in India has been held at around 50 million tons, much above what the government calculates it needs for the Public Distribution System and other welfare programmes.

Economic, environmental and social impacts of the global soya trade

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The pork chops and chickens on European tables begin their lives far away on soybean plantations in Latin America, where the feed for European livestock is harvested. In every link of the new global food chain, agriculture has become more intensive, larger in scale, and more environmentally and socially unsustainable. Good Food World has discussed the soya trade using the findings of a new report.

The international tentacles of the food chain tie deforestation in Brazil and Argentina to factory-farmed livestock in Europe. International trade agreements like the World Trade Organization facilitated the global corporate agri-business network that delivers soybeans and maize from Latin America to giant pig and chicken holdings in Europe and finally to a handful of supermarket chains.The beneficiaries of deregulated trade in agricultural goods have been the international grain traders, the investors in Latin American plantations, and the largest meatpacking and supermarket chains.

Some of the highlights:

(1) Soy exports from Latin America fueled deforestation. Four-fifths of EU soymeal imports came from Brazil and Argentina. The demand for more soybeans has been a key catalyst for clearing 44.5 million acres of forests in these two countries.

(2) Powerful soy interests drive small farmers off the land. Soybean plantations in Argentina and Brazil average about 1,000 hectares, but can be between 10,000 and 50,000 hectares. These large farms concentrate the land in the hands of a cadre of powerful investors and landowners, hurting indigenous farmers. There have even been reported cases of exploitation and enslavement of soy workers in Brazil.

(3) Industrial soy plantations feed European livestock genetically modified (GM) feed. In 2009, Brazil and Argentina were the second- and third-largest cultivators of GM crops (herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant engineered seeds), growing 42.7 million hectares of GM soybeans, maize and cotton combined.

Written by makanaka

February 17, 2011 at 15:05

Asia’s food-oil-inflation roller-coaster

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These people are already hit by the food price rise

In South-East Asia the price of Thai fragrant rice has surged by 26 per cent since 01 Nov 2009, thanks to storms in the Philippines and drought in southern China. At these levels, physical hoarding is seen taking place among Thai rice exporters, which means they probably have expectations that rice prices will go up even higher. And it is not just rice. Soya beans and edible oils like palm oil are also seeing a rise in prices, which in turn may make livestock more expensive since these crops go into animal feed.

Food prices are also rising in China – prices of vegetables shot up by as much as 10 per cent since 01 January 2010 as extreme cold weather damaged crops and transportation problems hampered delivery. Oil prices have been rallying in line with the global recovery, hitting levels above US$83 a barrel earlier this week, near a 15-month high. Food prices are also rebounding from their 2009 lows, potentially increasing price pressures in Asian countries that are already seeing asset bubbles build up.

Vegetable vendor

There’s already evidence from Kerala that the combination of food price rise specifically and inflation generally is hurting:

“The National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation (Nafed) will join hands with the State government to implement an ‘Easy Market’ scheme to provide solace to consumers in the event of spiralling prices of essential commodities. The Union government has approved a subsidy of around Rs.600 crore [Rs 6 billion = US$ 133.34 million, Jan 2010] to provide ‘Easy Market’ kits containing 20 items of daily use to consumers at a discount ranging between 30 and 40 per cent. In Kerala, Nafed will use the Triveni and Neethi chain of stores to implement the scheme.
The scheme had been approved by a Cabinet sub-committee and 60 million kits would be distributed in the first phase. These kits contain rice, wheat, whole wheat flour, pulses, sugar, edible oil, etc, he said. Nafed would procure wheat and rice from the Food Corporation of India and distribute them at reasonable rates. Wheat flour would also be distributed similarly.”
Read more here.

Vegetable vendor

But elsewhere in India’s government mindspace, the ‘spend more’ school of thought is dreaming up still more schemes that have to do with food:

“Speaking at the National Retail Summit 2010 “Modern Retail: Towards Sustainable Growth and Profitability” Subodh Kant Sahai, Minister for Food Processing Industry, said that the Union Government is coming out with a series of initiatives to “increase the share of modern retail”. Sahai stated that the centre has planned to upgrade 70 cities in India by 2012 having all the modern facilities that of metros like Mumbai and Delhi. “With the amendment of the Agriculture Produce Market Act or the APMC act, farmers would become the largest beneficiaries. With 70 percent of our population also dependent on agriculture this would also get in 3rd party investors interested in Retail to patronize the farmers,” he said. According to Mr Sahai growth of the food processing industry is directly linked to the growth in retail industry.” Read more here.

Vegetable vendor

It’s typical that India’s administrators, planners, policymakers and legislators don’t bother to look around at the conditions of our fellow Southasians:

“Burma had been the world’s largest exporter of rice as recently as the 1930s, but rice exports fell by two thirds in the 1940s, with the country never again reclaiming its dominant status in the internatinal rice trade. Thailand and Vietnam now lead the world in rice exports. For fiscal year 1938/39, rice accounted for nearly 47 percent of Burma’s export receipts. However, by 2007/08 the corresponding figure had sunk to less than two percent. Dr. U Myint [an economist] said the reintegration of the rice industry into the world market would provide incentives to increase both the quantity and quality of rice and thereby lead to higher incomes and employment opportunities for the rural population, who constitute 65 percent of the population of 58 million. An estimated 31 million acres of land is cultivated in Burma, of which more than 16 million acres are devoted to rice.” Read more here.

Commodity chains took powerful shape in the steam age to give a large number of local products geographically expansive identities. Opium, jute, and indigo are prime examples of nineteenth century Bengal farm products generated by world markets where the ups and downs of prices impinged sharply on local experience in some locales but not others.

Tippoo's Dominions, 1794

“By 1900, commodity production defined South Asia as a region of the world economy, defined regions in South Asia, and defined localities in regions. Ceylon, Malaysia, Assam, Fiji and Mauritius were for plantations. Ceylon first produced coffee; then tea, rubber, cocoanut, and cinchona. Assam was tea country. Ceylon and Assam replaced China as top suppliers of English tea. Fiji and Mauritius meant sugar plantations. Labour supplies posed the major constraint for plantation capitalists who found the solution in eventually permanent indentured labour migration from labour export specialty areas in Bihar, Bengal, and southern Tamil districts.”

“Sites of commodity production demanded more commodities. Circuits of moving commodities linked commodity producers and consumers to one another in spaces that surpass the spatial imagination of national history. Modern Indian history has circulated in the space/time of capitalism, in the manner of globalization today, for over a century. Far-flung plantations in Malaysia, Fiji, Mauritius and the West Indies, as well as cities and farms in Burma and Africa developed circuits of commodity production and capital accumulation anchored in India. Tamil Chettiyars became local financiers on the rice frontier in Burma’s Irrawaddy River delta, which generated huge exports of rice for world consumers, including Indian cities that needed Burma rice so much that when Japan’s conquest of Burma cut rice exports, it precipitated the 1943-4 Bengal famine. In 1930, Indians composed almost half Rangoon’s population. In East and South Africa, Gujarati merchants and workers arriving from Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras provided labour and capital for railways and import-export dependent urbanism. The Indian diaspora was well underway a century ago: between 1896 and 1928, seventy-five percent of emigrants from Indian ports went to Ceylon and Malaya; ten percent, to Africa; nine percent, to the Caribbean; and the remaining six percent, to Fiji and Mauritius.”

From ‘Agricultural Production, South Asian History, and Development Studies’, edited by David Ludden, Oxford University Press, September 2004