Sunday, 31 October 2010

Happy Halloween 2!



Chant for Samhain
A year of beauty. A year of plenty. A year of planting. A year of harvest.
A year of forests. A year of healing. A year of vision. A year of passion.
A year of rebirth. A year of rebirth. This year may we renew the earth.
Let it begin with each step we take. Let it begin with each change we make.
Let it begin with each chain we break. And let it begin every time we awake.

I found this chant on the All Saints Parish website.  They are an Episcopal Church in the Anglican tradition that embraces Catholic and Protestant elements in Brookline, Massachusetts.  But the church also has a Celtic flavour to it.  I think the chant is quite fitting not only for the Celtic New Year, but for the age we live in.  Although most of the things I write about on this blog are quite negative, I do believe that it is very important to keep an overriding postive attitude.  Photo credit

Another interesting website I came across today is a series of pages presented by Paul Trafford on Buddhism.  All in all, there are plenty of ways to resist being assimilated by the Borg!  Photo credit and link to pages.


Happy Halloween!


Full Circle with the FSA on Nutritional Viability of Organic Food



Updated on 8 December 2010
The answers to the questions I submitted to the General Advisory Committee on Science (GACS) at the Food Standards Agency (FSA) on 19 October 2010 are now available on the FSA website (click here to access), but I have reproduced them at the end of this article as well.  Considering that the FSA has been attacking organic food since its inception in 2000 (see my book report on Food Wars) and the unsatisfactory response to my questions, I think it is obvious that the FSA has an agenda which has nothing to do with consumer interests.

No full moon this Halloween (2010), but a full circle is almost as good. 

Below is a copy of an email I received from the General Advisory Committee on Science about the 19 October 2010 open meeting at the FSA in London which sets out some questions I raised beforehand. The GACS advises the FSA on scientific matters.

After sitting through the whole meeting, I picked up on some facts that related to my questions which were on two issues: genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and Organic Food. So the meeting was worthwhile.

The GMO discussion was based on a report as published on the FSA website about the proposed public dialogue referred to as the GM dialogue project. With two members of the committee having had resigned and the project having been discontinued, the GACS was discussing lessons to be learned from the aborted project. The only part of this report I could think to raise questions on was an article about GM by Professor Colin Blakemore (the chair of the GACS meeting) in the Observer in June 2010. I have not reproduced these questions here because I decided to drop them at the suggestion of Mr Blakemore since the important point was for Mr Blakemore to answer them for himself.

I got some satisfaction with my second set of questions though which were based on what I experienced this summer with research carried out by the FSA on a nutritional comparison between organic food and non-organic food (FSA Report). This is how I came to start writing this blog. Now at the end of the Celtic year, I have come full circle by having had this issue addressed in person.

Briefly what happened is that when I started a subscription with the Financial Times and started following news tweets and other news on the Internet in July, I learned about the GM potato trials in Norfolk and the FSA Report. Because the FSA Report is extremely limited but was used and advertised by the FSA and frequently put in the news to claim that organic food is definitively not more nutritious than non-organic food, even by the Chief Executive in an open letter on the FSA website, I got the distinct impression that this was part of a campaign to denigrate organic food in order to promote GM food. I wrote a letter to the Chief Executive, Tim Smith, and set out my concerns therein, but did not receive any reply.

From what I gathered at the meeting, especially from the FSA Chief Scientist Andrew Wadge, the FSA commissioned this report in order to fulfil its duty to advise consumers and give them the needed information to make informed choices. I said that the Report was limited and the exercise was narrow, and in essence, it was generally unhelpful. Now that I know it cost £120,000.00, I would repeat that the money would have been better spent elsewhere, such as reviewing evidence that regular consumption of sugary drinks increases the likelihood of becoming obese, rots teeth and has little to no nutrition.  That would have been welcome news to my ears and many others concerned about the obesity epidemic.

In my last question below, I asked about a European study  on nutritional content of organic food compared to non-organic food, and it seems that this has not been published yet. However, when it is, it will most likely make the FSA Report obsolete.

GACS open meeting 19 October - recorded wording of questions for the Committee [response requested by Thursday 4 November]
Thursday, 28 October, 2010 15:42
From: "Aherne, Gwen"


Dear Ms Wilson

Thank you for attending the GACS open meeting on 19 October and for your questions to the Committee. I would like to check with you that you are content with how I have recorded your questions (see below), as they will be included in the note of the Q&A session which will be published on the GACS website.

...

With regards to your question on the cost of the Agency’s systematic review of the nutrient content of organic and non-organic foods, I can confirm that the total cost of this research was £120K.

With kind regards

Gwen Aherne
Secretariat to the General Advisory Committee on Science (GACS)
Chief Scientist Team
Food Standards Agency
Aviation House, 125 Kingsway,
London WC2B 6NH

www.food.gov.uk
www.eatwell.gov.uk
____________________________________________________


GACS open meeting 19 October – Q&A session

Ms Jennie Wilson had submitted several questions in advance and was invited to present her questions to GACS. Seven of Ms Wilson’s questions related to an article about GM by Professor Colin Blakemore in the Observer in June 2010. Once the Chair clarified that he had written the article in a personal capacity and that his views did not represent those of the Committee, Ms Wilson was content to withdraw these questions. The remaining seven questions from Ms Wilson related to the report from the GACS Sub-group on the review of nutrient content of organic and non-organic foods (meeting paper GACS 6-5). These are reproduced below. In addition to these, Ms Wilson asked at the meeting how much the research had cost.

Questions:

1. Considering the GACS’s role of providing independent advice on the FSA’s governance and use of science, why has the GACS not advised the FSA that denigrating organic food is not only non-beneficial to health and consumer welfare but smacks of propaganda?

2. And indeed, why is the GACS considering a report on the nutrient content of organic foods at this meeting when nutrition has been passed from the FSA to the Department of Health?

3. Given the scale of the nation’s obesity problem and the economic climate, would it not be more effective to focus on warning consumers about sugary drinks, snacks and boxed breakfast cereals rather than organic whole foods?

4. Why does the FSA have a need to prove that organic food is not more nutritious than non-organic food when not one label or organic product advertisement that I am aware of makes this claim? If there is such a label or product advertisement, would the GACS please advise me of same? And if there is such a label, why does not the GACS recommend that the FSA prove that the label is deceptive, and therefore illegal, rather than making a broad statement that may or may not be true?

5. Why can’t the GACS advise the FSA to take into consideration ancillary matters that are relevant to organic food such as stricter controls over animal husbandry and soil management which are important to many consumers?

6. Why can’t the GACS advise the FSA to take a neutral stance in relation to organic food unless and until some substantiated evidence is produced to prove one way or the other about the nutritional content of organic food in comparison to non-organic food? I would point out that the Report commissioned by and submitted to the FSA in July 2009 concluded that the research was done with an extremely limited evidence base, and further research, especially with more inter-disciplinary approaches, was recommended.

7. Has the GACS become aware of the recent 12 million pound, 4-year EU study on the benefits of organic food being published yet? If so, would the GACS kindly let me know where I can access it?


Response
8. In response to Question 1 Members commented that the Agency was obliged to publish results of research it commissions in light of its policy of transparency and in the interests of consumers. They added that if Ms Wilson felt the research findings had been misinterpreted by the media, the FSA was not the right channel through which to challenge this.

9. In response to Questions 2, 3 & 4, Dr Miller, as Secretariat to the Sub-group, explained why the Agency had undertaken a review of the nutrient content of organic and non-organic foods. He explained that the Agency had been asked by interested stakeholders to revise its advice to consumers on organic food in light of new evidence which they reported as suggesting health benefits of organic food. As a result the Agency decided to commission a systematic review to identify whether overall there was evidence of a difference in nutrient content of organic and non-organic foods.

10. With regard to Question 5 it was noted that animal husbandry and soil management are not within the Agency’s remit.
11. In response to Questions 6 & 7, the Committee’s discussion at Agenda item 7 on the protocol for the systematic review was relevant. Sub-group Members considered that the review had followed good practice. The Sub-Group were satisfied with how the exclusion criteria were applied to the 52,000 papers considered for inclusion in the systematic review. Members noted that having completed a systematic review it is good practice to consider whether the results of new research would significantly alter the balance of evidence.

Photo credit

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Happy Halloween!


I took this photograph on 30 November 2010 at Tesco Serpentine Green. It is truly scary when I think of what will happen to all the products in the photo. The junk food and sweets will contribute to ill health and the mostly manmade fibre costume products will be worn once and then end up in a land fill site. And what happens to all the stuff that isn’t sold? -- more for the bin I think. Multiply this by all the Tesco stores in the UK, x 2,482, or even better world wide, x 4,811, and its one scary Halloween indeed!  Never mind Walmart, Carrefour and all the other supermarkets which no doubt have more of the same.


And in case you and your children have managed to get through grocery shopping without succumbing to the temptations of the cheap offers of sweet things all over the store, the Candy King waits by the checkout. No artificial colours or flavours – it must be good! I took this photo at Tesco Serpentine Green as well.

I realise that candy and sweets have been around a long time, but the scale of having this much on the market has never been so massive and so CHEAP!

Happy Halloween! Hope you’re having a safe and hopefully less sugary one despite the market pressures!

And good timing this year with the clocks going back here in the UK on Halloween!

Monday, 25 October 2010

Debate in the House of Lords on Obesity Comes to Fat End


Yes, I too would like thank Lord Whitty (Labour) for introducing the nutritional crisis, or more specifically, the obesity crisis in the UK for debate in the House of Lords recently. And also, thanks to all the Lords, Ladies and Earls who made the much appreciated contributions to the debate.

Lord Giddens (Labour), in particular, set out the scale of the crisis by mentioning the World Health Organisation claim in 1997 that obesity was a global epidemic running out of control. Despite some assurances that matters have improved slightly in recent years, the fact that virtually one out of every four people in Britain is obese, not just overweight, is certainly a crisis. Add to this, the fact supplied by Earl Howe (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Quality), Health; Conservative) that “nearly three-quarters of a million people in the UK are classified as morbidly obese-overweight” and the size of the problem starts to become quite clear.

How is the Government to tackle this problem? One suggestion is to start young.  Baroness Finlay of Llandaff (Crossbench) focused on the importance of intrauterine nutrition or, in other words, nutrition before birth.

Baroness Thornton (Labour) mentioned that every child should have an entitlement to learn to cook. But one may ask, why not make it mandatory that every child must learn to cook along with read and write?

Unfortunately, as Lord Whitty pointed out, the incoming government has abolished the School Food Trust, a body designed to improve the quality of school meals. He also points out that 716,000 children are clinically obese.

Another suggestion is to ban advertising, at least to the young. Lord Whitty said that advertising is a problem, although progress has been made with television advertising banned during children-specific programmes.

Lord Giddens (Labour) would also support an advertising ban to children under 12 as well as a ban on trans-fats. In addition, he claims that there should be a tax on fast food and extra taxes should be added to food and drink which are high in fat, sugar and salt.

Lord Whitty, along with others, spoke of better labelling as another means to tackle this problem, but New labelling requirements for US chain restaurants and vending machines shows that labels are unlikely to make much difference.

A third suggestion was discussed by Lord Rea (Labour) who took a realistic view of the situation and said that “more use must be made of statutory regulation of food manufacturing, advertising and marketing.” He used the phrase ‘obesogenic-food’ to describe the energy-dense, less nutritious products that are cheaper and increasing the health divide in obesity, heart disease and cancer. Because we live in a capitalist world dependent on profit, he suggested that we may need to restrict the freedom of individuals and commercial enterprises to improve public health. The government in New York State and New York City are attempting to do this, but Will NYC Sugary Drinks Restriction Succeed?

By citing particular public health problems, Lord Rea said that the Government could explore ways around EU regulations.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Labour) would support better regulation to protect the consumer as well.

And then some more general comments were made.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff (Crossbench) made a comment about the overwhelming choice of food and drinks now available in our supermarkets. Indeed, in EU policy for agriculture, food and rural areas, mention is made that “[t]he number of foodstuffs for sale in a typical retail store increased from 550 in 1954 to more than 10,000 in 1995 (European Commission, 2007).”

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer (Liberal Democrat) raised the issue of the million people in the world suffering from chronic hunger with a comment that it is all part of the same problem as people suffering from malnutrition in the UK. Although my New Analysis of the Undernourished does not cover this point specifically, both the malnourished and the undernourished are suffering because of the global food industry.

She also made the interesting observation that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) lacks the necessary teeth to take on the food industry’s lobbying. As she mentions, part of this has to do with the fast-paced developing technologies, such as nanotechnologies. But also, cloning and genetically modified organisms are relevant to this issue.

As vice-chairman of the board of the Institute for Food, Brain and Behaviour which was called Natural Justice,  Lord Ramsbotham (Crossbench) was able to give input on the research being carried out that shows that poor nutrition can lead to violence and anti-social behaviour.

And the Earl of Erroll (Crossbench) mentioned that he had a Kit Kat, but did not have the time or powerful enough glasses to read the label (as is the case for many people). I provide a list of ingredients as obtained from a wiki answer to show that they are controversial.

MILK CHOCOLATE (SUGAR, MODIFIED MILK INGREDIENTS, COCOA BUTTER, UNSWEETENED CHOCOLATE, LACTOSE, SOYA LECITHIN, POLYGLYCEROL POLYRICINOLEATE, ARTIFICIAL FLAVOUR), WHEAT FLOUR, SUGAR, HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN OIL OR MODIFIED PALM OIL, UNSWEETENED CHOCOLATE, SODIUM BICARBONATE, SOYA LECITHIN, YEAST, ARTIFICIAL FLAVOUR.

A primary ingredient is sugar and artificial flavour gives it the unique taste. If it has hydrogenated soybeen oil, it has trans-fat, the negative health effects of which were discussed in detail by Lord Patel and Lord Giddens. But if it has palm oil instead, this is controversial because of wanton global deforestation in this industry. My view is that Using Palm Oil is a Slippery Slope Approach to Sustainability and Health.

Furthermore, Nestlé, the maker of Kit Kat, is purported to be the biggest food company in the world.  When one considers Nestlé’s products, this is cause for concern.  Every single purchase of one of Nestlé’s products reinforces this situation.

Rather than reaching for a chocolate bar or packet of crisps, I would recommend that Crazy Jack Organic isn't so crazy! when we need a lift. Dried fruit and nuts (with sea salt for those who need it) are the better option. Roasted nuts are quick and easy to make at home and savoury roasted almonds are a favourite.


And then we come to the fat end ...

Earl Howe (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Quality), Health; Conservative), Minister at the Department of Health, which as of October 1st took on the remit of nutrition from the Food Standards Agency assures us that “[t]he Government are committed to improving the health of the nation.”

But this commitment is going to be dependent on whether or not transcorporations live up to their side of the Responsibility Deal. “The Responsibility Deal is a partnership between government and business that balances proportionate regulation with corporate responsibility to tackle the health problems associated with poor diet, alcohol abuse and a lack of exercise.”

And emphasis will remain on the Exchequer. The fact that food is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector must be maintained to keep the money coming in and people in employment. The noble Earl states that “[we] must be careful not to strangle this particular golden goose with excessive regulation.”

He also said that “[w]here we can achieve our objectives through voluntary agreements, we should do so.” But if this means more solutions such as Nestlé Proposes Band-Aid, it will undoubtedly have little positive impact on the obesity epidemic.

Further, “[p]ublic health must not be about nannying consumers or demonising particular foods. We need to find new approaches, founded in behavioural science, which nudge people in the right direction.”

And to put it another way, “[l]egislation would undoubtedly produce an additional burden, which could stifle industry innovation.” If he is referring to the sort of innovation carried out by Nestlé, it may be that a little stifling would be a good move. The Government’s strategy to “make industry joint owners of the long-term public health” will not promote health because it is at the opposite polar end to profit.


Finally, Earl Howe stated that “[c]onsumers also need to take responsibility.” With wrapping so pretty, addictive products, 3 for £1.19 and a sign telling us to Treat Yourself! - that is a tall order.

In conclusion, if the Government is to place primary importance on money, then why does it not expect consumers to do the same? Why is it that consumers are not taking responsibility when buying the cheapest products that are mostly bad for health, but the Government are taking responsibility when facilitating the sale of such products?
________________________________

A link to this article has been sent to each Lord, Lady and Earl mentioned above as well as Simon Burns MP - Minister of State for Health who is responsible for legislation in this area.
________________________________

Photo 1, I took this photo in Tesco Serpentine Green, Peterborough, UK (10/10/10)

Photo 2 credit (packaged food aisles at Fred Meyer, an American grocery store).

Photo 3, I took this photo in a newsagent shop in Peterborough City Centre, UK (2/6/10).

Friday, 22 October 2010

The Costly Affair of US Agricultural Research


I came across the news today that Dr Milo Shult has been appointed to the US National Agricultural Advisory Board, otherwise known as the National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education and Economics (NAREEE) Advisory Board. He is Vice President for Agriculture at the University of Arkansas's Division of Agriculture (the University). The University’s goal is to develop, study, evaluate and extend current and emerging technologies including biological and agricultural engineering. Given the cost of technological research in agriculture, I was wondering if there was a connection between American transnational corporations in the agri-food business and the University. It is not immediately apparent, but nonetheless it is there.

The first information on funding I found was that the Division funding sources for 2007 included • State Appropriations 56.3% • Federal Appropriations 14.1% • County Appropriations 2.4% • Federal Grants and Contracts 10.1% • State Grants and Contracts 1.9% • Private Grants and Contracts 7.5% • Sales 5.5% • Other 2.2%. This would give the reader the idea that the agricultural research at the Lafayette campus is primarily funded by government which the taxpayer would be paying for. However, when I dug further, I came up with the somewhat contradictory information that this campus has an endowment of $939,800,000.

One million dollars or $1,000,000, is a lot of money and the endowment at Lafayette is nearly one billion ($1,000,000,000). If a person worked for 50 years and had an average wage of $20,000 it would amount to $1,000,000. Although the US government's first quarter figures show the average wage in 2010 to be around $46,000 per annum, this figure includes those who make millions a year (e.g., “In 2005, the typical CEO received $11.6 million in total direct compensation-salaries...”). Also, a lifetime of work has to incorporate inflation and unemployment periods. Considering that the Federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour which amounts to about $15,000 per annum full-time and that many people work part-time (9.5 million involuntarily part-time), are unemployed (14.8 million in 2010, incapacitated due to health problems (2.9 million veterans in 2009 unable to work due to disabilities), in prison or jail (2.2 million in 2006), or housewives (5.3 million ‘stay at home mothers’), a $1,000,000 income in a lifetime is still a fair bit of money for most of us.  At any rate, the University is spending millions every year on research that many believe is detrimental to our future as a living species on earth.

As I was unable to readily find any information about the endowment, I took a stab at connections with Monsanto. Although I did not find anything specifically related to donations of cash, I did find some interesting connections. For instance in April this year, Bumpers College and the Division of Agriculture at the University hosted a Monsanto exhibit with information on careers for graduates.  And in the Fall, Monsanto was on campus for students who are interested in internships and co-ops in Engineering, Finance, Information Technology, Research, Sales, Seed Production and Supply Chain, and entry-level positions in Information Technology, Research, Sales and Seed Production.  In addition, Monsanto sponsors a scholarship program for 10 African-American juniors or seniors majoring in targeted agriculture related science, engineering and technology majors. It is called the Monsanto Fund/UNCF 1890’s Program and is provided to the nineteen 1890 Historically Black Land-Grant Institutions with the University being one of them.

In 2006, Monsanto donated a soybean seed collection to the University. “The breeding lines were developed using conventional crossbreeding methods used by plant breeders ... to supply the Japanese fermented soybean food market....” According to Floyd Hancock, Monsanto soybean breeding manager, Monsanto has invested heavily in research and development over the past decade to bring new technologies to Arkansas' soybean farmers. He further states that this donation will allow this research to continue. Since 93% of soybean production in the US this year is genetically modified and because of the Monsanto representative’s statements, it would appear that these seeds will be used to produce new forms of genetically modified seed, and I’m sure Monsanto has some way of protecting its interests.

Even without getting specific details of donations from biotech corporations to the University, by the very nature of the research work undertaken there, it is reasonable to conclude that there is a viable working relationship. Given the nature of the research conducted at the University and the facts cited above, it is questionable just how independent Dr Shult’s advice will be to the US Department of Agriculture.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

My Reply Email Letter of 20/10/2010 to Robert Sturdy MEP regarding GMOs

Dear Mr Sturdy

Thank you very much for your email letter dated 11 October 2010 regarding GMOs in the food chain.

From what you say about GM feed, the proposition that we should avoid global trade in food as much as possible and at all costs in certain circumstances, is reinforced. To my frame of mind, it would be beneficial for all nations to adopt such policies. Only transnational corporations would be adversely affected. If we are really clever, we will think of ways around the WTO and the Bretton Woods institutions as explained by David Korten in When Corporations Rule the World.

You mention scientific evidence and to this I say that science is an artificial exercise, and as such, will always be flawed. This was highlighted at the open meeting of the General Advisory Committee on Science at the Food Standards Agency yesterday in a discussion about a scientific study on the nutritional viability of organic food. In addition, gathering scientific evidence is very expensive as can readily be seen by the scientific research carried out by Defra. Interestingly enough, Mark Boyle in The Moneyless Man made a pertinent point about intellectualising knowledge, such as in science, juxtaposed to feeling knowledge (otherwise known as a gut feeling). He suggested visiting an organic farm and a conventional farm and letting your heart decide which one makes more sense. I’ll conclude these remarks with a quote by Masanobu Fukuoka in The One-Straw Revolution:
Trying to capture the unknowable in theories and formalized doctrines is like trying to catch the wind in a butterfly net.
In EU policy for agriculture, food and rural areas, it becomes clear that agriculture has been and continues to be fashioned to fit into the European Union economic and trade framework which in turn fits into the global trade context with efficiency and profits taking priority over everything else. The chapter on agricultural multifunctionality, trade liberalisation and Europe’s new land debate explains that although efforts are being made, the current European Union policies are not working effectively in favour of the environment or biodiversity. This shortfall is caused by the over-reliance on scientific evidence and trade liberalisation to shape policies.

I very much appreciate your confirmation that you and the other Conservative Members are keeping open minds about these issues given the pressures to move in one direction. I appreciate your efforts to change the prevailing focus from the pursuit of profit to that of natural sustainability solutions.

Thank you once again for taking the time to write to me on this second occasion. And thank you for passing along the links to reading materials.

Yours sincerely

J Wilson

P.S. I recently changed the name of my blog to B’org Food Chain where I have taken the liberty of posting your letter and my reply.

Further Letter from Robert Sturdy MEP regarding GM Feed & GMOs

Re: Letter from your constituent Jennie Wilson

Monday, 11 October, 2010 16:32

Dear Ms. Wilson,

Conservative MEPs support providing the consumers with as much choice as is possible within the confines of the food supply chain, but felt the text as it was, under the current situation would not be effective.

It was felt by our ENVI colleagues that the proposal would be impractical and would place a huge burden on the livestock and meat industry. It is important to remember that at this time, there exists no specific mechanism within a global industry to monitor exactly what type of feed animals have been fed on, especially with regards to imports.

GM feed and non GM feed are used simultaneously in many parts of the word (including in Europe) and it would place an impossible burden on both farmers and retailers to even attempt to effectively implement these measures.

In addition, as there is no definitive scientific evidence that eating GM feed has any effect on the meat of the animal, and as all GM feed variants which are used within the EU have been certified as safe by the European Food Safety Authority, the burden imposed on the industry by introducing such a labelling scheme would currently be disproportionate and not provide sufficient benefits to consumers with regards to consumer choice.

I fully agree with your comments regarding the vital role that biodiversity plays in our communities. It order to protect our unique status and adapt to climatic changes, we must have a more sophisticated, science-based understanding of the effects that GMOs have on our land and our health. I have called on the Commission on many occasions to provide more comprehensive studies and assessments in this regard, and will continue to do so during my tenure as a representative for the Eastern region.

Please be assured that Conservative Members take full account of all sides in a debate prior to making any voting recommendation.

Finally, I would like to thank you for passing on the links to reading materials on this subject. I will be sure to pass them on to my colleagues in the parliament's Agriculture and Environment & Public Health Committees.

Yours sincerely

Robert Sturdy MEP

Monday, 18 October 2010

Book Review - When Corporations Rule the World

The intended audience for When Corporations Rule the World would appear to be Americans, but much of it applies to the global situation and so anyone could benefit from reading it.  Although I would recommend this book, I have quite a few reservations. For instance, Korten believes in restoring power to the small and local, while historically, the small and local never had much power.   He also insists that business and the market per se are not the problem, but rather it's the corruption of the system that is the problem. Yet even without corruption, business and the market invariably lead to unfair practices. In addition, Korten believes that our era with its technological accomplishments is the most remarkable for mankind to date which thoroughly contradicts his acknowledgement that we have done the most destruction to nature.

David Korten refers to an old Star Trek episode with Captain Kirk called The Cloud Minders from which he uses an analogy to the Stratos dwellers in a fair part of the book. He focuses on the wealth of the few and describes how the superrich are living an illusionary life above everyone else, like the Stratos dwellers. This is a point well taken. However, some of his ideological suggestions seem to come from the clouds above as well.

Korten occasionally gets on a soapbox and waves the American flag a few times, especially in the first and last few chapters, which coincidentally were newly added for this second edition. Also, some of his statements are not in keeping with the general flow of the book, probably remnants from his sheltered, privileged upbringing and background. In addition, even though he emphasises the importance of small and local, he promotes big organisational movements that entail standardisation similar to the corporate movement.  But for the most part, he has a direct writing style and covers some very interesting facts in a straightforward manner, albeit, with a bit of witticism thrown in.

While reading When Corporations Rule the World  it occurred to me that we are actually in the midst of World War III. As Korten explains, in essence, declaration of the new war was made soon after World War II and has raged ever since as a covert operation under the guise of economic pursuits.  But also, it became clear to me that on the one side we have people who love nature and all things natural, and on the other, we have people who love all things plastic and manmade.  The plastic people are winning the battle through corporate exercises, but losing the war against nature (since we are all part of nature and so killing ourselves in destroying it). Korten gives some shocking examples of how the pursuit of corporate interests has wreaked devastating results on nature around the world.

Korten discusses the ideology of the correlation of rights with property ownership - a popular corporate strategy.  Then, he personifies corporations to the point that corporations are responsible for the colonization of our planet and running amuck to everyone's dismay.  I think a little more accountability on behalf of the people who work in corporations, invest in them and buy their products is called for.  However, his statement that "[t]he Western scientific vision of a mechanical universe has created a philosophical or conceptual alienation from our own inherent spiritual nature" may begin to explain how this lack of owning up has come about.

From the Roundtable to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderberg and the Trilateral Commission to the Bretton Woods institutions (including the World Trade Organisation), Korten sets out the politics behind the development of the transnational corporations.  He then embarks on an analysis of the global financial system which he says "has become a parasitic predator that lives off the flesh of its host - the productive economy."  The recent Panorama investigation into Lord Ashcroft's Millions reminded me of Korten's "extractive investors who do not create wealth but simply extract and concentrate existing wealth." The chapters on these topics show that history is repeating itself ... again.

Another interesting point made by Korten is that "[t]he world's corporate giants are creating a system of managed competition by which they actively limit competition among themselves while encouraging intensive competition among the smaller firms and localities that constitute their periphery."  This is an extension of the practice of passing externality costs onto others, and in particular, passing on risks.  He uses the agriculture sector as one of the most vivid examples of this two-tiered structure.

This book was prepared as a project for the People-Centered Development Forum (PCDForum).  He co-founded the Positive Futures Network with Sarah van Gelder, and his partner, Dr Frances F Korten is the executive director while he chairs the board.  The group publishes the magazine, Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures.  He has written two other books which can be found on the PCDForum website. 

Photo credit from the PCDForum.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Product Liability Covers Fuzzy Logic in Food too!



Updated on 10 December 2010
Just to say that my new washer dryer that does not operate with fuzzy logic is still working!

Fuzzy logic was how my other washer dryer operated. That’s what the engineer told me on 12 October 2010 while he was installing a new loop and probe into my barely just one year old machine (it broke down on the last day of the guarantee period!). I was amused, not only because it sounded dubious, but especially because it was the fourth time an engineer was paying me a visit to install a new part to this particular machine. And unfortunately, after three washes and four drying cycles (which either left the clothes damp or nearly burnt), on the fourth wash cycle, the machine broke down again with the same error code. A code that was previously explained to me to mean that the washer was having trouble talking to the dryer!

So the fifth visit resulted in a wire being re-secured.  The machine worked again... for one week.  Then I got the error code when I tried to turn the machine on!!  Sixth visit came and a new machine was authorised. I went for a simpler one and it works!

Fuzzy logic is derived from a fuzzy theory and fuzzy reasoning that technology works better when it’s not exact. It’s claimed that fuzzy logic is more akin to how humans think, but I wish they’d speak for themselves. In other words, I don’t like to be accused of fuzzy thinking!

I’m not going to name the maker or outlet where I purchased my washer dryer because this is not about them. It’s also not about the seven out of eleven mechanical/computerised products I’ve bought over the past two years that have broken down (luckily for me, mostly within the warranty period). The reason I am writing about this on my blog, which is about food, is because of some people’s insistence that technology in the food industry is absolutely a good thing (not fuzzy about it at all) that ought to be pursued further regardless of indications to the contrary. If food reacts to technology the way my washer dryer has been reacting over the past year, I would predict that we are all in for a lot more visits to the doctor in the future.

But yes, fuzzy logic appears to be the going trend these days.  Computers, kitchen appliances, gadgets, cars, food, either with computerised parts or made using computers, are more and more being operated and manufactured with fuzzy logic. And more and more, new products are breaking down – good for insurers, but hardly good for the rest of us (or the environment).

And fuzzy logic is being used in the food industry. Not only because of the extent that machines and computers are relied upon, but to extend the meaning just a little ... anything that is solely justified by using scientific research is based on a type of fuzzy logic. For an example, I’ll use the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). As mentioned in a previous article on GMO terminology, GMOs are a technological product. Scientists cannot tell for sure where genes that are forced into cells are going to go, but they use fuzzy reasoning to determine that the genes will go approximately where they are intended to go and thereby produce the intended result (more or less).  This is based on the fuzzy theory that this is how nature works.  In this respect, many humans do seem to use fuzzy thinking.

But rest assured, in the UK, Defra advised that "existing product liability laws will apply to GM products as they do now to non-GM products."  Go to Defra's website to find answers to many other questions about GMOs, but for the most part I found them to be at best shortsighted.  If you are in the US, not to worry, it appears from a Lexology article that "[a] looseleaf reference book titled Products Liability: Design and Manufacturing Defects, 2d has been updated with sections considering legal issues relating to genetically modified (GM) foods."  So the English and Americans at least will have legal recourse if GM products start acting like my washer dryer.

Referring back to my washer dryer that didn't seem to have a clue on how to work, I know I want to avoid fuzzy logical manipulations to my food. How about you? If you agree with me and haven’t already done so, why not sign a ‘No to GMOs’ petition, just for the fuzzy logic of it!

Saturday, 9 October 2010

New Analysis of the Undernourished

The news on food and agriculture from the International Business Times on 7 October 2010 was that an extreme food crisis exists in 22 countries because of protracted crises. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Program (WFP.org, part of the B’org?) hunger report called State of Food Insecurity in the World 2010 was just published on 6 October 2010, and members of the newly reformed Committee on World Food Security (CFS) will be discussing the hunger report from 11-16 October 2010 in Rome.

The new way of reasoning the fact that millions of people are still undernourished (or starving as it used to be called?) in certain countries, despite numerous efforts by all the well fed countries since 1996 and before, is called ‘protracted crises’, which stem from natural disasters, conflict, and weak institutions. The FAO list the 22 countries in protracted crisis, which are mostly in Africa. Interestingly, the undernourished people in these 22 countries represent only 20% of the total number of undernourished people in the world.

Emergency humanitarian food assistance flows into these 22 countries. Food assistance includes tied, in-kind food aid and also cash or vouchers and support for local purchase of agricultural produce. In Chapter 5, “Corporate Interests in US food Aid Policy” in Corporate Power in global Agrifood Governance, Jennifer Clapp discusses tied in-kind food aid.  She tells us that it is the type of food aid preferred by the US and that it has been historically used by them to dispose of surplus food. She continues by saying that besides being highly inefficient, the US in-kind food aid programs are distorting trade, especially in the countries where the food is delivered. In addition, she says there are environmental concerns of the recipients, especially with GM food aid. Clapp also mentions that there are general environmental issues involved because the US uses industrial farming to produce the food and insists on using its own ships to transport it half way around the world in the form of mostly grains. In addition, by the time the food aid arrives, the crisis may already have passed.

Besides being ineffective, in-kind food aid does not blend together and enhance the other forms of assistance mentioned above. And although sustainable agriculture and natural resource management are mentioned in the hunger report as longer term considerations to promote livelihoods, little to no information is given about their development - because eco-farming is not market based.  Eco-farming has little or nothing to do with economics.

In addition, although the number of undernourished is presumably down 98 million this year primarily because of improved food prices, according to the hunger report, “hunger remains higher than before the crises, making it ever more difficult to achieve the hunger-reduction targets of the World Food Summit and Millennium Development Goal 1.” With less than 5 years left, it seems very unlikely that the target will be met unless some radical changes are put in place. Unfortunately, I have not seen signs of the needed changes in the news recently.

Last October, it was reported that Bill Gates shifted focus to fighting hunger and as I discussed in my letter to him, I don’t think his focus is in the right direction. Although, he claims to support an environmental approach to agriculture, which I gather means a more natural approach , he clearly favours a technological approach. This is evidenced from the recent investment of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Monsanto (see the video here on my blog for more information about the B’org Monsanto). In May of this year, Haitian Farmers were reported to Burn Donated Monsanto Seeds on the basis that they are “a very strong attack on small agriculture, on farmers, on biodiversity, on Creole seeds…” Haiti is one of the 22 countries in protracted crises.

When I think of Africa, for one thing, I think of all the natural resources that come from that continent such as oil, diamonds, gold, iron, cobalt, uranium, copper, bauxite, silver, petroleum, and also woods and tropical fruits. So I will conclude this article with a quote with food for thought from Satish Kumar in Spiritual Compass (pp 83-84):
The net flow of wealth is constantly flowing from the poor to the rich countries.  So the urgent challenge facing the world is not to give more to the poor, but to take less from the poor; to get off their backs and get out of their way so that they can look after themselves.

Photo credit

Friday, 8 October 2010

Will NYC Sugary Drinks Restriction Succeed?

I came across this interesting article today: New York will ask Obama to bar food stamps in purchase of sugary drinks.

 See also, New York asks to bar use of Food Stamps to buy sodas.

The bar of restricting the purchase of sugary drinks with food stamps is to apply to those receiving this type of social security benefit/welfare assistance in New York City, around 1.7 million recipients.  It would be an experiment, as such, in that it would last for two years only.

The justification for this move is twofold. Firstly, the obesity rate among the lower earnings group is higher than that of the more affluent. Secondly, there are correlations between the increase in sales of sugary drinks and the increase of obesity.

The United States Department of Agricultural already restricts the use of food stamps for the purchase of alcohol, cigarettes, and prepared foods. It is easy to argue that the first two categories are unrelated to food really, but the limit on the category of prepared foods seems similar to sugary drinks. It’s hard to tell what is considered food nowadays. For instance, is bottled water food? And is a drink that contains little to no nutritional value except sugar food? It seems logical that food stamps should be used solely for the purchase of food, and I would argue, food from a limited list excluding highly refined and sugary products across the board.  After all, the purpose of food stamps is to enable people to sustain themselves, not assist them in becoming obese at the taxpayers' expense.

Statistics and facts show that obesity is an expensive and prevalent problem in New York State. One flaw I see in this move is not only that it may stigmatise people on food stamps, but it will not make that much of a dent in the problem. With a population in New York City as of 2009 of up to 8.4 billion, there are a lot of people who are not included in this action. Add to that the fact that food stamp recipients will still be able to buy sugary drinks with cash and it seems like little, if anything, will be accomplished by this move.  But, a small dent is better than none.

The American Beverage Association claims that this “will only have an unfair impact on those who can least afford it,” and “[it] is just another attempt by government to tell New Yorkers what they should eat and drink.” Of course, the government is not telling New Yorkers what to eat and drink, but what not to eat and drink. But, I agree, it is a restrictive measure nonetheless and being taken against people with the least buying power and no say in the matter.  However, I would again say that we have to revert to the purpose of the program, against which these arguments are weak.

Is this the first step towards a more robust restriction? Will it follow the example of the restrictions that have been placed on cigarettes? The figures add up (and not just the figures of those buying sugary drinks with food stamps!) to support such a move. How bad does the obesity problem need to get before our governments are entitled to take such measures?  And how is it that the people with the least amount of money to buy food in America are the most likely to be obese?  I, for one, hope this effort is successful.

Photo 1 credit
Photo 2 credit

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

New Title for My Blog


I changed the title of my blog from When Corporations Rule the Food Chain: Agri-food business, law and policy: health and environment issues to B’org Food Chain: Big organisation of Food and the Chain of iniquities. For one thing, it’s a bit of a shorter and snappier title and there doesn’t seem to be another blog or book called anything similar. The old title was too long and a little too close to When Corporations Rule the World which I didn’t know when I originally thought of my title.

The main reason I have chosen this new title is because although the theme of my blog is still about corporations ruling the food chain and the implications of that, I’ve been thinking lately that corporations are becoming more and more like the Borg from Star Trek (the Borg - see video clip here). Then it occurred to me that ‘B’org’ could be an abbreviation of Big organisation(s), which is what corporations are, and what the Borg is too. And corporations are assimilating the small farmers, store owners and others in food production and distribution all over the world, just like the Borg assimilated other cultures.

Next I was thinking of the UK Conservative Party’s Big Society in their 2010 Manifesto and that Big Organisations fit right in with this since corporations are like citizens too. In fact, not only are corporations treated much the same as you or me, they have more power and more rights because they are made up of a lot of drones, I mean people. The main legal things corporations can’t do that we can is vote, be incarcerated or die. As for the voting issue, besides the fact that many people either don’t vote or don’t know what or who they are voting for when they do vote, corporations more than make up for this with lobbying and putting one of their own in strategic positions such as the US Supreme Court or other government posts.

Another reason I like the title B’org Food Chain is that our food is becoming more and more mechanical and artificial, just like the Borg. And in a way, many people are eating less and less real food. If the trend continues, we will all join the B’org (as corporations don't eat!) and be like the Borg not needing food at all! And all the other creatures and many plants will just become extinct. If this seems a bit outlandish, think about what’s in our food now: non-food additives, highly processed ingredients, artificial flavourings, genetically modified organisms, drugs (OK, medicinal products), chemicals and nanotechnology. Yes, nano food is in the works as stated in this interesting video called Borg Food Coming to a Store Near You with link to nanowerk.  See also, petition to ban nanotechnology in organics in the US. 

So I suppose that if we do get to the point of not needing to actually eat food to sustain ourselves, it will be a lot simpler! But what a shame that so many people are already missing the joy of tasty wholesome home cooked meals. We are being assimilated into the B’org that requires no sustenance.

That brings me to the last part of my new title, ‘Chain’. When I first included this in my title, I was solely thinking of the link between all the living organisms on planet earth and how they eat to survive. But the word also means something that can be used to bind or tie-down as in a chain made of metal links. I add this meaning of chain to my new title because we are being enslaved by the food that is on offer by the B’org. Much of it is addictive, cheap, tempting, and deceptive. And it is used to keep us in a consumerist mode, i.e., buying products that we don't really need and which are often not in our best interest.  It is also enslaving us in Borg-like employment, starting with the farmers' reliance on the B'org for seeds and inputs.

I realise that a lot of my articles, news and letters on this blog are a bit hard on the B’org, but it is only because of what I see happening. I have witnessed with my own eyes the modernisation of the food business over my lifetime and the story continues. The size of today’s supermarkets is impressive. But the reason they are so big is not because they sell more of the food that before was sold in smaller stores and shops, but because of the massive amount of novelty foods that have bombarded the market. The big isle after isle of boxed cereals, sweets/candy, bottled water and soft drinks, cakes and biscuits, buns and white bread, bargain offers, tinned/canned foods, ready meals, seasonal stuff, and novel products derived partly from milk never cease to amaze me (along with all the very overweight people shopping and working there).

I hope you will join me from time to time for some more riveting galactic adventures in the world of the modern food industry. For now though, do try to avoid assimilation!! If you’ve already been assimilated, there is hope as Captain Janeway has proven.

And, if you find this all a bit depressing despite Janeway's optimism, here’s a little light entertainment, the Simpsons of Borg, to help cheer you up.

Photo credit

Monday, 4 October 2010

FT Reports Telling Signs in US

Updated 22/11/2010

Slightly slow update on the marihuana issue in this article, but I’m sure all those interested have already seen the news. For the rest and for the record, here are links to read about the failed attempt to legalise marihuana in California for recreational use.  It was close though!!

For an in depth analysis, including expanation of the map, click here.

For general news, see the Dallas News and the Examiner.


Updated on 28/10/2010

Photo credit and article - In Humboldt County, deputies' jobs can get hazy (Los Angeles Times)

Headband, Mr. Nice, L.A. Confidential, Blue Dream, Amnesia, Purple Diesel, Ice Queen, Grapefruit, Blueberry and Sour Diesel – these are some of the names given to different varieties of marihuana being grown in Humboldt County, California.  Marihuana has gone from possession leading to a felony to growing it under the nose of the Deputy Sherriff without any action being taken at all.  Californian’s will vote on whether to legalise this drug on November 2 as explained below.

US drug policy
The need for cash is prodding public policy towards legalising and taxing drugs.

This Financial Times (FT) story is about Proposition 19 which will be on the ballot in California in November to legalise marihuana because 700,000 people signed a petition for it. Marihuana is reported to be their largest cash crop! I found it hard to believe that California with its huge agricultural economy including wineries, fruit and vegetables claims that an illegal substance is its top crop! So, I looked into this on the Internet and found a 2006 report by Drug Science.org that claims “marijuana is the largest cash crop in Alaska, Alabama, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia.” In addition, Drug Science gives statistics that marihuana was one of the top three cash crops in 30 states in 2003-2005, although California was in the lead by a long shot with an estimated marihuana crop value of $13,848,267. The next largest marihuana crop was in Tennessee amounting to $4, 787,250. It would appear that if this proposition passes, it may take like wild fire and spread right across the country.

I found this photo under images for marihuana on the Internet (photo credit). I hadn’t thought of it beforehand, but once you read about the next two FT articles, you will see that three problems could be solved in one go. Why not legalise marihuana, sell it in fast food restaurants and grow it on industrial farms?! Oh, I feel guilty about even saying this because I think it is so preposterous. But the logic is not far from what is already happening.

The big pharmaceutical companies probably backed this proposition.  They’ve likely already set up a supply chain and marketing strategy, possibly like this one.

US ensures funds for fast food operators
A new law, which raises to $5m the limit on small business loans guaranteed by the government, aims to make financing available to franchisees in an effort to spur growth and job creation.

This new law was probably backed by the big fast food chains such as McDonalds although the article only mentions Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits (when I was young, he liked spinach!!), Papa John’s Pizza and Denny’s family restaurants.

Despite the umpteen books, articles, and videos produced lately that tell of the problems with fast food diets, the US is promoting more of it.

TIAA-CREF raises farming exposure
The US asset manager is ramping up its exposure to agriculture by buying a specialist investment firm, in an effort to double its activities in the emerging area of ‘real asset’ investing.

This type of investment would be backed by a lot of multi-national players in the agri-food business, not least of all, Monsanto because it basically involves industrial farming. The issues with industrial farming are manifold, but make for entertaining DVDs such as Food, Inc.  And as Masanobu Fukuoka said in The One-Straw Revolution, [i]n general, commercial agriculture is an unstable proposition.

Conclusion
All three of these stories are based on the pursuit of economic growth. Promoting drugs, the proliferation of fast food restaurants and investing in industrial farming are clear signs that economic growth in the US is more important than wholesome food and good health.

Another conclusion that can be deduced from these premises is that if more people smoke marihuana, more people won't mind eating in fast food restaurants and pensions collapsing due to unstable investments won't be a problem, because more people will probably succumb to some illness due to poor diet and die before they retire.  But meanwhile, the economy will pick up for awhile and a small elite will be better off financially.  It's a good thing life doesn't always follow logic, but it makes me wonder...