Alex Park

Alex Park

Editorial Fellow

Alex Park is a recent graduate of the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. His work has been published in PBS/MediaShift, New America Media, allAfrica.com, Time.com, and the Believer.

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A recent graduate of the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Alex Park is an investigative journalist with an interest in global agriculture. He has blogged in South Africa and reported on Cyprus, and in college he published an award-winning paper on a 2008 period of anti-immigrant violence in South Africa, since cited in academic works. Currently, his interests lie explaining complex social systems—be they governments, conflicts, trade patterns, or waves of immigration—for a general audience. His work has been published on PBS/MediaShift, New America Media, allAfrica.com, the Believer, and Time.com

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How Keeping Abortions Underground Makes Health Care Worse for Everyone

| Sat Aug. 24, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

Like many African nations, Kenya's health care system faces many challenges, including severe rates of malaria and HIV/AIDS. But according to a new report published by the Kenyan Ministry of Health, one change could go a long way toward reducing stress on a hugely overburdened system: allowing more women to have an abortion. 

Though Kenyans reconsidered an existing abortion ban when writing their 2010 constitution, the nation's top legal document still virtually forbids the procedure. Exceptions are only allowed during health emergencies, as determined by a trained health professional (although at least one US congressman was outraged that even these exceptions made it into the final constitution). Yet outlawing abortion has done little, if anything, to reduce the number of procedures. In 2012, the period of the study's analysis, researchers estimated that Kenyan women underwent nearly 465,000 induced abortionsabout 48 for every 1,000 women of reproductive age, well above the estimated rates for both Africa (29 per 1,000) and the world (28 per 1,000).

But keeping abortions underground has led to an incredible rate of complications, putting a strain on an already overburdened health care system. In 2012, almost 120,000 Kenyan women, or more than a third of all women who underwent the procedure, experienced complications. The vast majority of these complications, the researchers found, followed "unsafe abortions" carried out by untrained people or "in an environment that does not conform to minimal medical standards."

Most of these unintended side effects were quite serious: 77 percent of these 120,000 women suffered complications that were "moderately severe" or "severe," according to the study. Out of 100,000 unsafe abortions in Kenya today, the researchers estimated, 266 women die. That rate is lower than the World Health Organization's estimate for all of sub-Saharan Africa (520 deaths per 100,000 unsafe abortions), but far higher than in developed regions, where the rate is estimated to be 30 per 100,000.

Loosening the virtual abortion ban may not end Kenya's flood of post-abortion complications overnight, but it could save innumerable lives. Kenya's northern neighbor shows why: In 2004, following an outcry over abortion-related deaths, the Ethiopian legislature decriminalized abortion under certain conditions, such as rape, incest, or when the mother is a minor or has a physical or mental disability. About 27 percent of abortions in Ethiopia are now performed in clinical conditions, and despite lower life expectancy and a lower doctor-patient ratio than Kenya (both measures of overall health care quality), as of 2008, the rate of abortion-related complications in Ethiopia was only 20 percentstill high, but far lower than in Kenya. 

But the real takeaway from this study, and why US states pondering their own supercharged abortion restrictions should pay attention, is how unsafe abortions harm more than just the women on whom they are performed. The researchers estimated that in 2012, more than 119,000 women in Kenya were treated for abortion-related complications. "The treatment of abortion complications uses a large amount of scarce health systems resources," they write. In other words, unsafe abortions reduce everyone's access to health care. 

"Improved access to high-quality comprehensive abortion care," the researchers state, "will not only save lives, but also reduce costs to the health system."

How Agribusiness Keeps Us "Betting on Famine"

| Wed Aug. 14, 2013 1:58 PM PDT
Courtesy of The New Press

By Jean Ziegler, translated from the French by Christopher Caines

THE NEW PRESS

Jean Ziegler, the former Special Rapporteur for Food for the United Nations, begins his new book with two disturbing statistics. "In its current state, the global agricultural system would in fact, without any difficulty, be capable of feeding 12 billion people, or twice the world's current population," he writes. And yet, "every five seconds, a child under the age of ten dies of hunger."

In Betting on Famine: Why the World Still Goes Hungry, out on August 6, Ziegler explores the disconnect between resources and the people in need of them. He tours readers around indebted countries that have transformed their agricultural base into export industries, forfeiting the ability to feed themselves. Haiti, for instance, could thirty years ago grow enough rice to feed its people, but after lowering barriers to imported rice at the behest of the International Monetary Fund, it wrecked local rice production to the point that now it must spend 80 percent of its revenue on imported food.

Ziegler shows us how starvation in places like Haiti, Ethiopia, and India can be traced back in no small part to those titans of global commerce who insist that freedom of trade is essential, but freedom from hunger is not. As market solutions have been pushed as the cure-all for poverty and hunger, the world's poor now swim in the same tank as predatory sharks: financial speculators who deliberately drive up the price of food to make exponential profits.

And high prices have created perverse markets. Colombia, for example, is a major producer of palm oil, and exports a lot of it to Europe for use in biodiesel. In recent years, the country has stepped up production to feed the world market, but back home, the palm-oil industry has brought about illegal land seizures, displacement, and violence by paramilitary groups in support of agribusiness.

Elsewhere in the world, agribusiness companies like South Korea's Daewoo Logistics and the French conglomerate Vilgrain, sometimes backed by private equity and sovereign wealth funds, have started to acquire their own land in poor countries to grow food and biofuels, often for export. Sometimes these companies simply hold onto the land until they can resell it for a higher price—which can further diminish a country's ability to feed itself.

At the front gate of one massive farm in West Africa, Ziegler describes his encounter with an employee of the foreign company that owns it. As Ziegler recounts, the company's lease was tax-exempt for 99 years. When asked about this arrangement, the young technician became defensive:

"We don't pay taxes? That's not true! We employ young people from the villages. The Senegalese government collects taxes on their incomes."

Ziegler's outrage is hardly reserved for the mid-level employees of agribusiness, however. Throughout the book, he puts his disgust for the leaders of global commerce on full display for the world. Hunger, he says, is "in no way inevitable. Every child who starves to death is murdered."

Still, there are two sides to Ziegler's story, and the disdain he expresses for the World Trade Organization, the US government, and its two "hired guns"the IMF and the World Bankappears to be mutual. Having taken a prominent stand against genetically modified crops in food aid in 2002, he ran afoul not just of the US government but the usually benevolent World Food Program. A letter to Kofi Annan, which found its way to the public by way of the 2010-11 WikiLeaks dump, accused Ziegler of undermining efforts to deliver food to the very people he wished to support by stirring fears around GMO's "without citing any scientific authorities, studies or reports." The World Food Program demanded the Swiss Rapporteur be removed from his position. (With Annan's backing, Ziegler stayed on another six years.)

Betting on Famine offers a series of poignant, if unnerving, vignettes about global agriculture collected from Ziegler's years with the UN. The message is not always cohesive, yet one truth shines through: The biggest problem today is not a dearth of technology, but an overflow greed. 

What's Behind the BART Strike?

| Mon Jul. 1, 2013 6:17 PM PDT

BART employees protesting in downtown Oakland during negotiations last week.

UPDATE 1, 10/18/13: After marathon negotiations following a sixty-day break, the two unions representing BART employees announced they would strike again at midnight Thursday night. Leading up to the strike, union negotiators and federal mediators had told reporters they were inching closer to an agreement on the major issues of pensions and health care costs, but couldn't reach an accord. The unions suggested letting a neutral arbitrator have the final say on the remaining issue—rules determining when employees could collect overtime pay—but BART management refused, prompting a federal mediator to announce the end of negotiations. No word yet as to how long the trains will be out of service.


Here's a closer look at what unionized workers from the nation's fifth largest rail transit system are demanding and why you should care:

Who's on strike?

Workers for Bay Area Rapid Transit, more commonly known by its acronym BART. After contracts with the agency's two largest unions, Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, expired and renewal talks broke down, the unions announced they would strike. This morning, instead of reporting for work, BART employees picketed the rail system's stations. It's BART's first strike since a six-day protest in 1997.

Why Is the Obama Administration Suddenly So Interested in African Farms?

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

A Peace Corps volunteer talks about soy with farmers in Malawi.

This week, President Obama is making his first major visit to Africa since taking office. One topic that's likely high on his agenda: US investment in African agriculture.

With the global population expected to top 9 billion by 2050, the Obama administration is pushing hard to use foreign development funds to expand farming in the developing world, and especially in Africa. Since 2009, when Obama made a pledge at the G8 Summit in L'Aquila, Italy, to devote massive resources to global "food security," Congress has committed more than $3.5 billion to an agricultural development program called "Feed the Future." Congress has since renewed the initiative's funding.

"After decades in which agriculture and nutrition didn't always get the attention they deserved," Obama said in an address last year, "we put the fight against global hunger where it should be, which is at the forefront of global development."

But the US government's motivation for investing such a large sum in Feed the Future isn't entirely altruistic. Here's a look at some of the other reasons behind the sudden enthusiasm for agriculture in the developing world.

I've heard that hunger had something to do with the Arab Spring. Is that true?
Possibly. The impetus for Feed the Future goes back to the food price crisis of 2007-08, when prices for basic commodities like corn rose dramatically all over the world. Among middle-class consumers in the United States and Europe, the spike in prices went largely unnoticed. But in developing nations such as Côte d'Ivoire and Haiti, where families typically spend a large portion of their incomes on food, it led to riots. Some observers theorized that the price spike hastened the start of the Arab Spring

At a May 2008 hearing on the food price crisis, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) predicted that shortages of food "are likely to recur frequently if the United States and the global community fail to open up agricultural trade and invest in agricultural productivity in the developing world." The damage of the food crisis, he added, "likely would have been ameliorated if more of the world's poor farmers had access to better technology, titled land, small loans, extension support, and accessible markets." 

Do US businesses stand to profit from all this new farming development in Africa?
Absolutely. Broadly speaking, the idea behind Feed the Future is to grow more food than ever before by making it easier for global agribusiness companies to invest in poor countries. As USAID head Rajiv Shah indicated at the official unveiling of Feed the Future in 2010, the agency could advocate on companies' behalf to make investment easier in partner countries. 

"If you're from the private sector, tell us what countries and donors can do to reduce constraints on business operations," he said.

The US government appears to already be doing this, as a recent analysis of dumped embassy cables found that the State Department had lobbied governments around the world to adopt policies allowing for the cultivation of genetically modified crops.

"[S]ome may see our work in Africa as philanthropy, but it's much more than that," said General Mills CEO Ken Powell at an event hosted by the World Food Prize Foundation. "It's about creating shared value, and for our African partners, it is about unlocking opportunity—business opportunity—through knowledge-sharing."

What's Feed the Future done so far?
At the end of of 2012, USAID had disbursed slightly more than $1 billion of the $3.7 billion obligated by Congress for Feed the Future. The initiative has supported a wide variety of programs: In 2011, for example, PepsiCo partnered with USAID under the Feed the Future rubric to employ farmers in Ethiopia to grow chickpeas for domestic consumption, as well as for export for use in Sabra hummus. (PepsiCo co-owns the Sabra brand with the Israeli company Strauss Group Ltd.) Similarly, Walmart received USAID funding to train farmers in Guatemala to grow tomatoes for stores in Latin America. In the words of USAID's brochure, USAID and Walmart would steer small farmers to "to more market-oriented production, based on expected consumer demand." In 2012, Powell announced that an organization co-founded by General Mills, Partners in Food Solutions, would join with USAID to make a combined $15 million investment in training for food processors in Southern and Eastern Africa.

What's so bad about that?
In theory, nothing. But similar efforts in the past haven't always turned out as well as hoped. Devlin Kuyek, a researcher for the Barcelona-based nonprofit GRAIN, pointed to one relevant example: In 2007, Swiss agribusiness giant Nestlé joined with the Gates Foundation to make a major investment in the Kenyan dairy industry. According to a statement from Nestlé, the company chose the project's Rift Valley site because of its potential for production growth. They weren't the only ones to see an opportunity: The following year, Land O'Lakes followed Nestlé to Kenya and introduced a USAID-backed program to modernize the country's dairy industry. In the words of Michael Yost, a manager for USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service, the project was part of an effort to help poor countries "participate in world trade" and "bring their agricultural economies into the 21st century."

But Kenya was self-sufficient in milk well before agribusiness came onto the scene, according to a 2003 report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. Moreover, the low-tech dairy industry provided income for an estimated 625,000 people. But by 2010, as production soared on the heels of new large-scale production, Kenya was overloaded with dairy. The price of milk dropped, and rather than sell their product at a loss, farmers began dumping it.

But a glut in production was not the only problem for Kenya's small milk producers. In January 2013, Kenya banned the sale of raw milk, citing both safety concerns, and the need to protect the investments of large milk processors, according to media accounts. Far from supporting an existing (and functional) dairy industry, foreign agribusiness had only helped to undermine it.

But if people are hungry, what's wrong with growing more food?
Though it may seem counterintuitive, some agricultural economists argue that you can't fix a food price spike by growing more food. During the 2007-08 crisis, many attributed the spike to changes in the weather and a slump in global production, but global food supply fell only slightly during that time. In fact, researchers for both Congress and the United Nations have attributed the problem more to a speculative bubble, with hedge funds and investment banks driving up prices by betting on basic commodities.

So is there a better way?
Wouldn't it be nice if we knew? Hans Herren, president of the Millennium Institute, argues that the world's farmers should focus less on growing more food, and more on growing higher quality food with fewer inputs, thereby enriching the soil instead of depleting it with chemicals. As Herren told my colleague Tom Philpott recently, in gross terms, the world already grows enough food today to feed the world two times over.

This article has been revised.