Saturday, October 2, 2010


Why is the Gates foundation investing in GM giant Monsanto? 26 September, 2010

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's investments in Monsanto and Cargill have come under heavy criticism. Is it time for the foundation to come clean on its visions for agriculture in developing countries?

A Romanian farmer shows genetically modified soybeans in the village of Varasti. Photograph: Reuters

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is sponsoring the Guardian's Global development site is being heavily criticised in Africa and the US for getting into bed not just with notorious GM company Monsanto, but also with agribusiness commodity giant Cargill.

Trouble began when a US financial website published the foundation's annual investment portfolio, which showed it had bought 500,000 Monsanto shares worth around $23m. This was a substantial increase in the last six months and while it is just small change for Bill and Melinda, it has been enough to let loose their fiercest critics.

Seattle-based Agra Watch - a project of the Community Alliance for Global Justice - was outraged. "Monsanto has a history of blatant disregard for the interests and well being of small farmers around the world… [This] casts serious doubt on the foundation's heavy funding of agricultural development in Africa," it thundered.

But it got worse. South Africa-based watchdog the African Centre for Biosafety then found that the foundation was teaming up with Cargill in a $10m project to "develop the soya value chain" in Mozambique and elsewhere. Who knows what this corporate-speak really means, but in all probability it heralds the big time introduction of GM soya in southern Africa.

The two incidents raise a host of questions for the foundation. Few people doubt that GM has a place in Africa, but is Gates being hopelessly naïve by backing two of the world's most aggressive agri-giants? There is, after all, genuine concern at governmental and community level that the United State's model of extensive hi-tech farming is inappropriate for most of Africa and should not be foist on the poorest farmers in the name of "feeding the world".

The fact is that Cargill is a faceless agri-giant that controls most of the world's food commodities and Monsanto has been blundering around poor Asian countries for a decade giving itself and the US a lousy name for corporate bullying. Does Gates know it is in danger of being caught up in their reputations, or does the foundation actually share their corporate vision of farming and intend to work with them more in future?

The foundation has never been upfront about its vision for agriculture in the world's poorest countries, nor the role of controversial technologies like GM. But perhaps it could start the debate here?

In the meantime, it could tell us how many of its senior agricultural staff used to work for Monsanto or Cargill?


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Dear Ms. Earth Woman:

Thank you for expressing your concerns about genetic engineering and the safety of the food we consume. I agree with the majority of Americans who insist that they have the right to know which foods are genetically engineered.

On January 15, 2009, the Food and Drug Administration issued its final guidance for regulating food and products from genetically engineered animals. Unfortunately, the rules do not require genetically engineered food to be labeled as such unless it is deemed "materially different" from unmodified food.

I strongly support requiring that genetically engineered food bear a neutral label indicating that fact. Transparency is necessary to give consumers the tools they need to make wise, informed decisions. In addition, I believe we must increase our efforts to study the health and environmental risks that genetically engineered foods may present.

Please be assured that I will continue to fight for the safest and most environmentally responsible food supply possible.

Thank you again for taking the time to write to me. Please feel free to contact me again regarding this or any other issue of concern to you.

Barbara Boxer
United States Senator

Please do not respond to this message. If you would like to comment on legislation, please visit my website and use the correspondence form at

Monday, September 27, 2010


Will the meeting in Rome result in action against food speculation? by Madeleine Bunting Friday 24 September 2010 18.21 BST

The idea that speculating on food prices has become a way for western financial institutions to make money at the cost of lives is abhorrent

Food crisis: wheat grain at a wholesale grain market A prospective Indian buyer checks the quality of wheat grain at a wholesale grain market, in New Delhi.
Photograph: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

Momentum is building to get some really tough action on the speculation pushing up food prices. At a conference today in London organised by the UK Food Group, Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, warned that a food crisis is inevitable unless we tighten up regulations on markets.

"The problem with the current system is when there is one [bit of] bad news, such as wildfires in Russia... speculators bet on higher prices, which leads those holding the food stocks not to sell in the hope of prices going up. This leads states to impose export bans, this leads buyers of commodities to buy as soon as possible in the fear of prices climbing and this leads to a chain reaction on the markets, which is dictated by panic rather than by the fundamentals and by the realities of stocks. That will continue happening until we better regulate the activity of financial investors on those markets for derivatives and agricultural commodities," he told the Guardian this afternoon.

There was already enough suspicion about risky financial products given how they brought the global economy to the brink of meltdown two years ago. But the idea that speculating on food prices has become a way for western financial institutions to make money at the cost of lives is really abhorrent. We've heard a lot recently about famine in west Africa and hunger in many other parts of the world; this is not about the availability of food, it's about the cost.

Look at the clip of Michel Barnier, the single market commissioner for the EU.

I don't think I have ever seen such passionate abhorrence and acknowledgement of responsibility from a politician. At least this is a political figure who still seems human – but can he live up to his rhetoric?

De Schutter warned today that the proposals being considered by the EU are not tough enough. It will be interesting to see if the UK is prepared to take on this issue; regulation is not something this coalition government has been too keen on, let alone regulation coming from Europe, but this issue could really fuel public anger with the banks.

My colleague Simon Rogers sketches out how food prices are rising. And John Vidal is reporting on the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) summit in Rome, but the World Development Movement is arguing that the FAO must come out more strongly against speculation. The NGO has been pushing for action for months.


School Food Wars by Ruth Conniff
Published on Friday, September 24, 2010 by The Progressive
My kids' school is awash in fresh fruits and vegetables this year.

As one of a handful of schools in our community that received the federal Fresh Fruits and Vegetables grant--available through the USDA for largely low-income schools--we are spending Sunday mornings buying produce at the local farmers' market, a few blocks from our school. Monday nights a group of parents gets together at a church across the street from the school building and washes and chops the produce, then loads it in the school fridge so the fourth and fifth graders can pass it out three mornings a week.

As labor-intensive as this whole process is, it is intensely rewarding. Watching the kids gobble up watermelon on the playground, or try cherry tomatoes for the first time in class, and hearing the comments about snack: "Cool! Green beans!" is a big lift.

It is especially gratifying since so many of the kids who are getting this snack are not familiar with fruits and vegetables. Many have never seen a fresh tomato before, let alone some of the more exotic veggies we are trying this year, like jicama and kohlrabi.

Certainly they are not getting that sort of thing at lunch in school.

For years, parents in our school district have been complaining about the deep fried French toast sticks and cocoa puffs in the breakfast program and the hot dogs and fries and cheese sauce at lunch.

Across the country, school lunch programs are under tight budgetary pressures. “The big issue is money,” Frank Kelly, the director of the Madison Metropolitan School District's food services department told the Wisconsin State Journal recently. “You can’t serve gourmet food for $3 a lunch. We’re squabbling over pennies for meals.”

But there is another issue, too, and that is a cultural and ideological one.

For Kelly and other people who serve food to kids in the public schools, there is a real sense of antagonism toward what they perceive as a bunch of high-income, helicopter moms with too much time on their hands--that is, the folks who want the lunches to be healthier. As Kelly sees it, these people just don't understand kids.

“We have two customers — parents and kids — and they want totally different things,” Kelly told the Wisconsin State Journal. “Parents want us to serve big chunks of vegetables, but kids won’t eat that."

For kids who rely on free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs, the thinking goes, just getting something to eat is so important, we can't afford to be fussy about nutrition. People who think you can make kids eat vegetables, in this view, are kidding themselves.

In fact, Kelly went so far as to suggest that these health-conscious parents don't even know what their own kids eat.

“I see so many kids walk into cafeterias and throw their sack lunches in the trash can. Who knows what they’re actually eating," Kelly says. "We have to offer things kids will actually eat.”

In a nation that is experiencing an unprecedented childhood obesity epidemic, that is a sobering thought.

I actually have some sympathy for Kelly's point of view. Like Michael Moore, he sees himself as a champion of regular folks with a lot of suspicion for elite liberal ideas about making poor people better themselves.

And as a parent, I am familiar with the idea that the "eat your vegetables!" approach to trying to make kids healthy can backfire.

But I also know that not ALL kids eat only junk food, and that what we put in front of them makes a difference.

I sat with my daughter at lunchtime once, and watched a classmate of hers eat the bag of peanut M&Ms and drink the soda she'd brought to school. That was her lunch.

Fast-food and convenience-store eating have taken deep root in our culture, especially for kids of busy, stressed parents who don't have the time or inclination to cook.

But it doesn't seem to me that this is driven by kids' refusal to eat differently. It is simply what they are used to, what they are surrounded by, and what even school officials seem convinced they want.

I sat in a second-grade classroom yesterday, and watched a kid demolish a pile of cherry tomatoes as big as his head. He liked them. His teacher also happened to think they were awesome, and spent the class period talking about how great our fruit and veggie snack is, as she served it up, with a quiet, non-pushy expectation that the kids would enjoy it.

We know kids need healthy food. We know the way we are feeding them is leading to a rate of type-2 diabetes previously found only in extremely overweight adults.

What IS the right response?

There are some small changes in the school district's hot lunch program this year. They have added a pasta salad with some veggies. I recently heard a food services employee and a farm-to-school advocate disagreeing about whether the kids are eating it or throwing it in the trash. It sometimes seems as though people see what they expect to see.

What we expect kids to do is often self-fulfilling.

At our school, there is a large population of Hmong immigrants. Many of the Hmong families have garden plots and farms. Many of them are on the free and reduced breakfast and lunch program. I've noticed that my daughters' Hmong classmates bring containers of vegetables and rice to lunch.

Why do you suppose children raised in a different food culture are eating those
vegetables? Are they somehow different? Are non-immigrant children somehow hard-wired to eat only mac and cheese?

Some of our Hmong families have relatives who are selling us the cucumbers and jicama we are serving in our snack program.

We have only been doing this for a couple of weeks so far, but I am really interested to see what we learn as a community, sharing food together.

As a school, a district, and a nation, we have so much to learn about nourishing
ourselves and our children.

One thing is clear from all the evidence about our children's health: we need to make a change.
© 2010 The Progressive

Ruth Conniff covers national politics for The Progressive and is a voice of The Progressive on many TV and radio programs. Conniff was a regular on CNN’s Sunday Capital Gang and is now a regular on PBS’s To the Contrary. She also has appeared frequently on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal and on NPR and Pacifica.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Published on Saturday, September 25, 2010 by the Boston Globe
Keep Frankenfish Fiction

by Derrick Z. Jackson

I'M NOT getting anywhere near Frankenfish. I mean, do I really want to eat an aquatic Roger Clemens?

The Food and Drug Administration is close to approving a farm-raised salmon jacked up with enough growth hormone to come to market in 18 months instead of three years. In a publicity photo, the genetically-modified salmon is a battleship to the dinghy of a normal one. I do not care that the FDA says it is safe. We seethe at athletes on steroids and growth hormones, yet we're about to digest a food that is the equivalent of Shaquille O'Neal growing to seven feet by fourth grade? I don't think so.

But there is a far more important reason to shun Frankenfish. We need to rethink farmed fish, period. Aquaculture messes with Mother Nature far too much for the convenience of having fish available 24/7.

Farmed salmon are a classic case. For each pound it weighs, the fish consumed up to five pounds of smaller "forage fish'' caught around the world such as anchovies, sardines and herring, according to Stanford University researcher Rosamond Naylor, lead author of a 2009 aquaculture report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The reports says those forage fisheries "are either fully exploited or are in the process of recovering from overexploitation.''

That amplifies a 2008 report by Canadian and German scientists in Annual Reviews in Environment and Resources that said forage fish "play a crucial role in marine ecosystems,'' transferring energy from plankton to larger fish and marine mammals. The recent International Penguin Conference in Boston reported that 10 of 18 species of penguins were in decline, with the African penguin on an extinction track. A key reason is the commercial fishing of anchovies and sardines, which are penguin food.

Nothing about Frankenfish changes that. The Massachusetts inventors of the tinkered salmon, AquAdvantage, told the Globe editorial board recently that while its fish will come to market fast it will eat just 10 percent less fishmeal than a conventional salmon. That is virtually nothing when aquaculture's share of the world's fish meal and fish oil consumption has more than doubled in the past decade, causing the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to warn last year that "the amount of fish that can be produced annually from the world is finite.''

Besides salmon, another huge reason to rethink fish is the level to which aquaculture destroys mangroves and fouls coastal waters. In July, the United Nations Environment Program said the planet has lost nearly 20 percent of mangrove forests since 1980, equal to the size of Illinois, with aquaculture being one of the three big drivers for loss.

This is ironic, as mangroves are protective nurseries for wild fish. Studies say mangrove forests offer far more value for wild fisheries, hurricane protection, erosion control, and tourism than fish farms or development. The July UN report said, "Where vast tracts of mangroves have been cleared for shrimp aquaculture, fast profits often left a legacy of long-term debts and poverty, which are hard to reverse.''

If that is not enough, another 2009 Stanford study said the rapid expansion of marine aquaculture is a "major threat to ocean ecosystems'' because it is "expanding rapidly without reliable quantification'' of its waste. The study press release said, "All those fish penned up together consume massive amounts of commercial feed, some of which drifts off uneaten in the currents. And the crowded fish, naturally, defecate and urinate by the tens of thousands, creating another unpleasant waste stream.''

AquAdvantage grows its salmon inland, which could be an advance, but you still have to do something with all that poop. Those unpleasant facts had me avoiding farmed salmon long before Frankenfish. Aquaculture represents the illusion of an infinite bounty, our denial that our resources are finite. I love wild salmon in its summer season. Sustainability means accepting that there is a season and nothing more. Even if Frankenfish does not harm our bodies, it will continue the silent horror in our seas.
© 2010 Boston Globe