Agribusiness Meets Reality

I [intlink id=”2045″ type=”post”]recently[/intlink] said that the words of those who criticize Laudato Si’ have no substance. Now I’ll try to be more specific.

My concerns about the environment are based on an undeniable fact: Regardless of whether we manage to slow the birthrate, the human population will reach [intlink id=”2009″ type=”post”]9 billion people[/intlink] by 2050. The world has never had this many people before and since we can’t see the future we have to plan according to the facts we do have. If our goal is to support the projected number of people, our first priority should be food and water.

Currently, we don’t have enough farm land to feed 9 billion people. It is estimated that we need to increase agricultural land by 65-85 million hectares over the next decade. This is 160-210 million acres—equivalent to approximately 50% of all U.S. cropland. Compared to the total area currently being farmed globally, (1,410 million hectares) this may not seem like much, but keep in mind that we are losing 10-12 million hectares each year to urbanization and desertification, and that over the last 20 years global acreage has been holding steady. ((Investing in U.S. Cropland, AEW Capital Management, September 2011. Avaliable: http://www.aew.com/pdf/AEWResearchInvestinginU.S.Cropland_000.pdf)) In other words, the land we do have is in danger. Why? Much of it is due to agricultural policies.

We are currently operating on an agribusiness model for agriculture established in the U.S. after World War II. Those who imposed this model on the United States, which include Secretary of Agriculture and Mormon apostle, Ezra Benson, wanted to drive young men off of farms and into low-paying industrial jobs in the North, leaving the business of agriculture to a few big players. To this end, they tore down FDR’s New Deal protections for farmers. One result of their efforts was the disappearance of parity, which assured farmers a living wage. Under the policy of parity, the U.S. government bought excess crops for a fair price and waited for a shortage, or higher prices. Then the government would sell the excess. This provided a living wage to farmers and also resulted in a profit for the taxpayer. Instead of parity, today we have subsidies, courtesy of the taxpayer. We also have shortages. ((Hauter, Wenonah, Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America. The New Press, 2012.)) Could some of the shortages be due to these policies?

According to AEW Capital Management, from 1975 to 2005, major agricultural commodity prices were stable, based on the marginal cost of production. In the event of a poor crop in a particular commodity, buffer inventories could meet demand. In that event a year or two of average crops would replenish inventories. This changed in 2005.

“In the face of rapid demand growth, global stocks of key crops have been depleted to the point where there is no longer any practical buffer. Globally, stocks of coarse grains and oilseeds have been at historically low levels for the past five to six years. After 2005, if there was a poor crop (or even just an average one), someone somewhere in the world simply did not obtain that commodity. In short, in order to balance supply and demand, demand has to be rationed, and the only way this occurs is through pricing.”

The effects of harmful policies on U.S. farmers are now being felt by farmers around the world. This is a problem for many reasons. Small farms improve the land and protect the ecosystem. Agribusiness, on the other hand, depletes the land and by establishing monocultures it invites new types of pests and diseases. It also destroys the jobs associated with small farms. In addition, agribusiness can be a violent business.

The fight over agricultural land is acknowledged as a major motivation for the conflict in Ukraine. Unfortunately for would-be policy makers, the culprits aren’t limited to U.S. companies. Germany is in on it, as is Finland and China, and their questionable activities are promoted by the World Bank and the IMF.

A Reuter’s article implies that military turmoil dictates that governments open farmland to foreign investment:

“Ukraine, known as Europe’s bread basket, has the eighth largest agricultural area in use globally and is the world’s third largest exporter of corn and sixth largest grain grower, potentially making it a prime target for foreign investment.

“But the government has been wary of allowing foreign land sales, fearing rural unrest, and the value of its 32 million hectares (79 million acres) of farmland has been limited by its division into small plots with relatively low productivity.

“However economic turmoil emanating from the conflict between pro-Russia rebels and government forces in the east has intensified the need for change, said Heinz Strubenhoff, agribusiness investment manager for the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation in Ukraine.

“Opening the farm sector, a key driver of the economy, to outside investors has long been backed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), and Strubenhoff believes changes will now happen sooner rather than later.

“’It’s time to think about privatization. They need to prepare everything to allow for farm land sales (to foreign and domestic investors) in three to four years,’ Strubenhoff told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Currently, farm land cannot be bought or sold in Ukraine, but companies can sign onto long-term leases with small holders.” ((Arsenault, Chris, Ukraine Crisis Seen Softening Political Ground for Foreign Farm Sales, Reuters, Feb 27, 1015. Available: http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/02/27/us-food-conflict-development-idUSKBN0LV1PY20150227))

However, others have identified the corporate drive for foreign farmland as a motivation for conflict rather than an outcome of it. The Oakland Institute ((German Lawmakers Claim Ukraine Conflict Covers up Massive Cropland Seizures. Oakland Institute, Feb 16, 2015. Available http://www.oaklandinstitute.org/german-lawmakers-claim-ukraine-conflict-covers-massive-cropland-seizures))recently reported that German lawmakers are calling the conflict in Ukraine a smokescreen for the seizure of high-quality cropland by foreign firms funded by the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Birgit Bock-Luna, who heads the office of Niema Movassat, a deputy for the opposition Left faction in the German parliament, told RIA Novosti (Sputnik News) that “a group of faction representatives had officially inquired with the German government on the actions of the country’s state-run banking group Bankengruppe KfW that they said is behind the seizure of Ukraine’s arable lands, some of the best in Europe.”

Ukraine has a temporary ban prohibiting the sale of farmlands to foreign entities until January 2016. But German agricultural concerns – AGRARIUS AG, germanagrar CEE GmbH, KTG Agrar SE, Agroton and Alfred C. Toepfer International (ADM) – seize land using leasing schemes and generous loans from German and global money lenders.

Bock-Luna said the Ukrainian government that came to power in Kiev after the coup has been actively giving away farmland in return for loans from international creditors.

“The previous Ukrainian administration was opposed to further relaxation of agricultural laws, but this changed after the coup, with the help of the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development,” she added.

There is growing interest in farmland in other parts of the world as well. A 2011 Aljazeera article cites a 2008 report by Grain, an international non-governmental organization working on behalf of small rural food producers that has been warning policymakers about these trends. According to Grain, China, Egypt, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, India, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are all buying or leasing fertile land in other countries where food is not always abundant.

“Cambodia, which receives aid from the World Food Program, has leased rice fields to Qatar and Kuwait, while Uganda has granted concessions on its wheat and maize fields to Egypt, and interested parties from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are making approaches to the Philippines.”

In addition, some land purchases in Ukraine, Senegal, Nigeria, Russia, Brazil and Paraguay, by banks and financial institutions, are of a speculative nature. ((Valente, Marcela, Curbing foreign ownership of farmland. aljazeera.com, May 22, 2011. Available: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/05/2011517133358914599.html))

When you consider all of these things, it is shocking that instead of a discussion about the implications of these practices for the future, the critics of Laudato Si’ give us warmed-over economic theory. They would like us to believe that they merely object to the degree of change that has been suggested, but it’s obvious that their goal is to head off change completely. Unfortunately for the rest of us, this isn’t merely about ideology. This is about 9 billion people by 2050. My fear is that unless we establish policies that are lean and smart, we won’t make it.

I think it’s clear that the corporate model as we know it won’t work—it is inefficient, destructive, overindulged, irresponsible, disorganized and stupid. For example, agribusiness is so focused on profit it has created a self-serving loop of cheap commodities for processed food and animal feed, in which it produces crops overseas for its own use. Agribusiness helps no one but itself.

Agribusiness not only destroys jobs, communities and the land, it pollutes water. If the rivers and oceans are further degraded, we won’t be any better off regardless of the additional crops we are able to grow. Further, putting increased acreage into crops will only increase the possibility of environment degradation.

Finally, if the livelihood of millions of people disappears through agribusiness technology and automation, they will starve regardless of corporate schemes to increase yield. Yet the critics’ endless, monotonous protestations aim to block any change at all. You’d think they would be worried, but they are not.

President Obama recently suggested that Americans should eat less meat. This is the kind of change we need. Livestock competes with humans by consuming a large percentage of the crops they produce. If everyone ate as much meat as Americans, we would need several earths to support everyone. Instead, the global consumption of meat is increasing due to higher standards of living in developing countries. Of course, the Republicans objected to Obama’s suggestion. Unfortunately, the Democrats aren’t doing much better.

Hilary Clinton is considered the frontrunner in the upcoming presidential election, but the Clintons have a poor record in the areas that will be the most sensitive in the future: Bill Clinton signed off on NAFTA and the WTO, and currently the relationship between Hilary Clinton and Monsanto is too close for comfort. Finally, foreign agribusiness concerns that support the Clinton foundation are displacing African farmers.((Pearce, Fred, The Land Grabbers:The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth, Beacon Press, Boston, 2012)) I never planned to use this blog for political strategy, but I have to say we can’t afford eight more years of these policies.

On this issue alone I think Bernie Sanders is our best best. For example, he not only supports family farms, he supports fair wages for American farm workers, (( http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/05/25/this-is-a-massive-effort-to-attract-cheap-labor-why-sen-bernie-sanders-is-skeptical-of-guest-workers/)) he’s defending Vermont’s family farms against agribusiness giants such as Dean foods, ((http://www.themilkweed.com/Feature_09_Aug_01.pdf)) and he opposes free trade agreements.

The next 30 years will demonstrate what the human race is made of. So far the only course of action our business leaders can think of is to take us to war. Apparently their plan is to fight each other to the death for the last scrap of land. We can do better than that. We need planning based on the facts and with the aim of finding a civilized way to cope with a serious problem.

Fossil Fuels to the Rescue

Some time ago it occurred to me that my ernest attempts to correct misogynistic notions are the result of a misunderstanding. When it comes to the battle of the sexes, the facts are not all that important. In fact, the facts are not even the point. However, I will always have sympathy for those who try to correct them. In Rebecca Solnit’s article, Shooting Down Man the Hunter, she says:

“Sooner or later in conversations about who we are, who we have been, and who we can be, someone will tell a story about Man the Hunter. It’s a story not just about Man but about Woman and Child too. There are countless variants, but all of them go something like this: In primordial times men went out and hunted and brought home meat to feed women and children, who sat around being dependent on them. In most versions, the story is set in nuclear units, such that men provide only for their own family, and women have no community to help with the kids. In every version, women are baggage that breeds.

“Though it makes claims about human societies as they existed 200,000 or 5 million years ago, the story itself isn’t so old. Whatever its origins, it seems to have reached a peak of popularity only in the middle of last century…”

Because this version of human history traces the dominant socioeconomic arrangements of the late Fifties and early Sixties back to the origins of our species, Solnit calls it the story of the 5-million-year-old suburb. ((Shooting Down Man the Hunter By Rebecca Solnit. Harpers Magazine, June 2015. Available: http://harpers.org/archive/2015/06/shooting-down-man-the-hunter/))

You may be interested to learn that the story of the 5-million-year-old suburb was also familiar in pre-war France.

“Intersecting with [the] social tensions based on class was another set based on gender. The late nineteenth century had seen some moves towards the social and economic, if not political, emancipation of French women, especially those of the middle class…The response, by men of all classes and political persuasions, was primarily to reiterate not only a family-centered vision of gender relations in which women’s subordinate role was biologically determined, but also an insistence on the domestic character of women’s work for which la femme au foyer became the ubiquitous slogan. In the same period, growing anxieties over the decline of the French birth rate, which was more marked than those of other countries (the population of France rose by 8% in the forty years from 1871, while that of Germany rose by 42% and that of England and Wales by 59%) underpinned this response and led both to proposals for fiscal reform to reward motherhood and sharper condemnation of the femme nouvelle who sought other kinds of fulfillment…”

In the past I would have thought all I had to do was explain that the birthrate was not the cause of France’s poor performance—there was a larger percentage of people on the land in France than Britain, Germany or the U.S. Part of the problem was that France imported up to a third of its coal. The country also lacked other raw materials which caused manufacturing costs to rise. In addition, there was attachment to small businesses as a form of economic individualism. In 1900, ninety percent of French firms employed less than 5 people, and the prevailing liberal focus was on keeping the state out of the affairs of business.

But I know better now. I have learned that while human evolution may not have progressed the way the sociobiologists say it did, everything they say is true. What’s more, it has always been true and it always will be true. Finally, it affects people’s lives just as much as any indisputable event in history.

The Nation Magazine recently published an article about Sonia Terk.((Barry Schwabsky, An Experimental Life. The Nation Magazine, June 2, 2015. Available: http://www.thenation.com/article/208937/experimental-life)) I knew her from Albert Gleizes’s biography as Sonia Delaunay. I hadn’t realized she was Jewish, but according to David Cottington, just being female would have been enough of a handicap among the French avant-garde. One of the changes that took place in the French art business was the appearance in the mid-1890s of sufficient numbers of buyers to make speculation in, and collection of, contemporary art feasible. At first, interest was limited to established artists but the entrance of American collectors like Morgan, Rockefeller and Whitney led to a rise in the cost of impressionist paintings and eventually to increased interest in post-impressionist work. This gave legitimacy to neoimpressionists and nabis. Prices for these works were too high for many collectors, but they encouraged a speculative interest at the lower end of the contemporary market, in the work of young, unorthodox or unknown – but invariably male – artists.

In response to the growing number of women studying and practicing art around 1900, (Terk studied at the Palette) a new critical category was added: femmes peintres. Their work was perceived to carry ‘feminine’ aesthetic sensibilities and interests. As one critic helpfully put into words, the works of females threatened to become a plague, a fearful confusion, and a terrifying stream of mediocrity’. This attitude was a direct result of the construction of artistic identity in terms of masculinity. The idea of individualism, the belief in the autonomy of genius, mastery over the city and its urban spaces, were all seen as male prerogatives. The fantasy was the earthy but poetic male whose life is organized around his instinctual needs. ((Cottingham, David, Cubism in the Shadow of War: The avant-garde and Politics in Paris, 1905-1914. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1998))

On a less depressing note I’d like to share an article by Ian Morris on stratfor.com. I appreciated this article, “The Retreat of Patriarchy”, for its humorous and savvy use of sociobiology in the service of geopolitics.

Morris begins the relevant section literally at the beginning: “Reproduction through the mingling of two organisms’ DNA creates much more genetic variation than does cloning. Thus sexual species adapt and evolve much more quickly than asexual ones, as evidenced by our own evolution from chimpanzee-like ancestors to Stratfor employees and subscribers in a mere 7.5 million years.”

This was obviously intended to be funny, which it is, but it’s also instructive. He goes on to discusses male and female chromosomes and the economies of reproduction, followed by the standard sociobiological explanation for human sexual arrangements. However this version might surprise you. The subjugation of females was not a result of their inferiority; it was a natural result of ‘fundamental economic shifts in history’. We read:

“Patriarchy has been in retreat since A.D. 1800, but not because men have become saints and women have found their voices, but because shallow gender hierarchies work best for industrial societies, and farmers simply cannot compete with fossil fuel users’ populations, wealth and military power.”((Morris, Ian, The Retreat of Patriarchy, Stratfor.com, June 17, 2015.Available: https://www.stratfor.com/weekly/retreat-patriarchy))

Sociobiology in the service of fossil fuels! I rest my case.

Laudato Si’ Doesn’t Say That!

Another article I read today made me realize that I should inform you that the issue of reproductive rights was not part of the encyclical. I neglected to make that clear. Because reproductive rights has been a constant presence in our political rhetoric and in this blog for at least a year, I thought it might seem like a contradiction to my readers that I welcome the Pope’s encyclical and consider it authoritative. That’s why I chose to talk about the place of women in this new world. However, I have to confess that I’ve had a little trouble identifying the relevant factors behind the encyclical’s acceptance by the non-Catholic world, and figuring out the best way to talk about it.

Obviously, concerns about the environment are the glue that ties everyone together, but at the same time you can hardly deny the general importance of faith in the acceptance of such a document. Of course faith isn’t limited to belief in a specific religion. People need faith to move forward politically and economically. They especially need faith today to address the problems of the environment. This is no doubt why a theology of the environment is so welcome.

However, I’m beginning to understand that on an individual level, faith’s requirements can be quite stringent. It’s faith that requires us to try to fit all the parts together and make sense of them. It’s faith that makes us ask ourselves what this means for our own spiritual life. It’s faith that wants to believe.

We can’t forget that while the encyclical is a religious document it has political implications. Its interpretation and implementation will still have to be worked out. So if it was confusing that I inserted the reproductive rights issue in a discussion of Laudato Si’ I apologize for the confusion, but I probably won’t lose any sleep over it.

A Few Thoughts on the Encyclical Laudato Si’

In thinking about how to respond to critics of the encyclical, Laudato Si’, I’ve come to the realization that their words have no substance. These people are beginning to sound like the passing away of an old order. Some of you may doubt this because you know that the financial powers who pay the critics have been successfully fighting sane environmental policies for decades, but I have the feeling their tyranny has run its course. My first piece of evidence would be Pope Francis’s encyclical. With the publication of this document we have a body of relevant and important things to talk about and to compare with the nonsense of the paid shills.

The encyclical covers many areas of concern and each of them should be discussed at length. To this end I think it’s important that we try to clear away any lingering doubt and cynicism. I don’t say this in the spirit of contention. I say it with hope and with the realization, and the conviction, that we have common ground.

I realize that many women still harbor reservations about the Church’s part in the struggle over reproductive rights. At the other extreme, I’m sure that when many of them consider the enormity of the world’s environmental problems, they will decide that the issue of reproductive rights is a small matter by comparison. I know enough about women to know that this is what they do. When things get tough, they put their own needs last. This is obviously a good trait, that is, until they start giving away the farm in order to save it. In my opinion, both extremes—cynicism and capitulation—pose a problem for the conversation.

I think the important thing here is to establish boundaries or minimal expectations in the interests of a genuine sharing of ideas. Pope Francis demonstrated in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium how this might be done when he set boundaries for the Church’s part in the conversation. (In previous posts I mistakenly called Evangelii Gaudium an encyclical. I’m correcting that now.)

I want to be clear that I don’t think capitulation is the Pope’s aim. On the contrary, I think he’s made a great effort to include women. But there will always be pressures on women that threaten to make them less effective than they need to be.

So where am I going with this? First, I would like to ask women to be aware of the difference between defense of life and domination of life. In my opinion, the defense of the unborn must be pursued in a way that is integral to the other issues discussed in the encyclical. The current coercive approach is not acceptable.

So this is one direction for further discussion. If you want me to be more specific it might be interesting to apply the process of setting boundaries to Chapter Five of Laudato Si’. The Pope recommends a ‘system of governance for the whole range of so-called Global Commons’. He points to the weakening power of nation states and the growing power of economic and financial sectors, which have made it increasingly difficult to protect the environment.

I realize the idea of global governance is a red flag for some people, however I’m taking it seriously for reasons that I will explain in future posts. For now I’ll say that what he is suggesting makes sense in view of the abuses that are going on in the world and which are not being adequately covered by the media, not to mention the persistent lack of preparedness for a growing population. But this is not the point I want to make at this time.

We are told that local people should have a voice regarding any new economic projects. This sounds to me like an opportunity for a new kind of representation. One concern however is that those with something to gain will eventually find a way to corrupt the process even if it takes decades. For example, the Mormon Church, a church that currently operates as an agribusiness giant, would love to be in charge of such a government. I know this will annoy them, but suspicion about that Church’s intentions is a natural result of its secrecy regarding its business affairs. It’s in their power to correct that situation. Here are some rules that might guard against corruption in global governance of the global commons. These are rules that I wish we had in our present political system.

1. There should be no opportunities for personal enrichment; Representation should be a
duty and obligation with compensation limited to time and expenses.

2. There should be reasonable term limits

3. Our system of education should have the goal of preparing everyone to fulfill this
obligation if necessary.

4. Eligibility for representation should be limited to the children of native or local
women. This would guard against infiltration by foreign adventurers.
The criteria for being considered ‘local’ would have to be established.

5. The son or daughter of a representative would not be eligible. This
would guard against the formation of dynasties.

6. A representative should have no financial interests that conflict with the
interests of his or her community.

Concerning number 4 above, I think that when a woman’s childbearing role is paired with its logical functions in society, a number of social problems will disappear without coercion. And some form of matrilineal succession is the only method I’m aware of capable of maintaining the integrity of a community. This kind of system could probably operate within the world’s existing hierarchies.