Political MoJo

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Globe? Organic Food and the Global Economy

| Thu Jul. 6, 2006 6:27 PM PDT

"Organic" ain't what it used to be. As Michael Pollan notes in his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma (excerpted in the last issue of Mother Jones), what started out a quarter century ago as a reform movement is now well on its way to becoming a full-on industry, worth $14 billion at the last tally. People will disagree, of course, about whether this is a good thing. Some, like Joel Salafin, a local-food evangelist profiled by Pollan, sees the big organic companies like Whole Foods as, in Pollan's words, "part of an increasingly globalized economy that turns any food it touches into a commodity, reaching its tentacles wherever in the world a food can be produced most cheaply and then transporting it wherever it can be sold most dearly."

Well, good or bad, it's happening. For evidence, see this piece out today from AP. After noting that demand for organic food is outstripping supply (sales have grown 15-21 percent a year), that mainstream supermarkets are getting in on the act, and that the number of organic farms (10,000) is on the rise, though not fast enough to meet supply, the piece touches on the increasing globalization of Organic Inc.

As a result [of the lagging growth in the number of organic farms] organic manufacturers are looking for ingredients outside the United States in places like Europe, Bolivia, Venezuela and South Africa. ...

The makers of the high-energy, eat-and-run Clif Bar needed 85,000 pounds of almonds, and they had to be organic. But the nation's organic almond crop was spoken for. Eventually, Clif Bar found the almonds — in Spain. But more shortages have popped up: apricots and blueberries, cashews and hazelnuts, brown rice syrup and oats.

Even Stonyfield Farm, an organic pioneer in the United States, is pursuing a foreign supplier; Stonyfield is working on a deal to import milk powder from New Zealand.

"I'm not suggesting we would be importing from all these places," said Gary Hirshberg, president and CEO of Stonyfield Farm Inc. "But for transition purposes, to help organic supply to keep up with the nation's growing hunger, these countries have to be considered.

I leave to more sensitive souls the question of whether this development destroys the mystical communion folks have with their chicken dinners. I will say, though, that while there's obviously no inherent reason why the organic food "industry" should be immune from the dynamics of the global economy, the organic "movement," premised as it is on concern for the natural environment, runs into the problem that transporting food--even within the United States--burns up a whole lot of fuel. When a renegade movement is tamed, ironies abound...

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Blogosphere--the wild blue yonder

| Thu Jul. 6, 2006 5:42 PM PDT

"Automated Ontologically-Based Link Analysis of International Web Logs for the Timely Discovery of Relevant and Credible Information."

Like the name? "How About Those Blogs?!" would flow better from the tongue, but for $450,000, you have to have a killer name for your study. "Automated Ontologically-Based Link Analysis of International Web Logs for the Timely Discovery of Relevant and Credible Information" (hereafter to be referred to as AOBLAIWLTDRCI) is a three-year project of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Dr. Brian E. Ulicny says "It can be challenging for information analysts to tell what's important in blogs unless you analyze patterns."

The researchers plan to develop an automated tool that tells analysts what topics bloggers are interestd in at any given time. If this sounds something like a search engine, the scientists agree, but say it is more focused. Says Ulicny:

Blog entries have a different structure. They are typically short and are about something external to the blog posting itself, such as a news event. It's not uncommon for a blogger to simply state, 'I can't believe this happened,' and then link to a news story.


What does the Air force hope to do with the results of AOBLAIWLTDRCI?

The fact that the web is a vast source of information is sometimes overlooked by military analyst. Our research goal is to provide the warfighter with a kind of information radar to better understand the information battlespace.

The United States of Incarceration

| Thu Jul. 6, 2006 4:40 PM PDT

Why go all the way to Guantanamo to find an unjust, broken prison system when we have one right here in the USA? That's the question cartoonist Mark Fiore takes up this week. (Click on the image to view. You need Flash.)

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Collective Punishment in Gaza

| Thu Jul. 6, 2006 4:20 PM PDT

Over at the Progressive, editor Matthew Rothschild denounces Israel's decision to collectively punish the Palestinians in Gaza--Israeli forces have targeted bridges and the area's sole power plant--in retaliation for the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, and he criticizes the Bush administration for averting its gaze. Predictably, the piece has elicited some strongly worded reader feedback. Agree or disagree with his analysis--though at a minimum it's hard to see how the Israeli response is remotely "proportionate"—but do take a look.

Iraq Will Cost $1.27 Trillion and the Army Can't Afford to Pay Its Electric Bills

| Thu Jul. 6, 2006 3:02 PM PDT

Here's one to file under "If we're the most powerful nation in the history of the world, then how come...?" AP reports that "a diversion of dollars to help fight the war in Iraq has helped create a $530 million shortfall for Army posts at home and abroad, leaving some unable to pay utility bills or even cut the grass."

From which follows a sorry litany of deprivations, including these:

  • In San Antonio, Fort Sam Houston hasn't been able to pay its $1.4 million monthly utility bill since March, prompting workers in many of the post's administrative buildings to get automated disconnection notices.
  • Fort Bragg in North Carolina can't afford to buy pens, paper or other office supplies until the new fiscal year starts in October.
  • And in Kentucky, Fort Knox had to close one of its eight dining halls for a month and lay off 133 contract workers.
  • Iraq sucking up disproportionate funds is not the whole problem, though. Also at work is good old-fashioned incompetence. "It makes me worry if the Pentagon can't do its accounting well enough to find money for its electric bills," [Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution] said. "It just boggles my mind a little bit."

    (Oh, and per this piece in the The American Prospect, the Iraq war looks like it'll end up costing $1.27 trillion.)

    Is Congress Doing Enough to Clean Itself Up? Can You Guess?

    | Thu Jul. 6, 2006 2:29 PM PDT

    Six months ago, Jack Abramoff pled guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion, upon which members of Congress, evincing much faux outrage, lamented the corrupting influence of lobbyist-paid travel, meals, and gifts, and the immorality of earmarking, and issued loud calls for wholesale ethics reform.

    It's now July, and, as the Washington Post recently reported, the "call for lobbying changes is a fading cry." (Which is another way of saying lawmakers were never interested in reform and have all along assumed the public would lose interest in the subject, allowing them to resume business as usual.)

    [Lobbying reform] legislation has slowed to a crawl. Along the way, proposals such as [Speaker Dennis] Hastert's that would sharply limit commonplace behavior on Capitol Hill have been cast aside. Committee chairmen once predicted the bill would be finished in March, but the Senate did not pass its ethics bill until March 29 and the House passed its version May 3. The House has yet to name negotiators to draft the final package.

    Legislators and public-interest group advocates say the most likely result this year is a minimalist package that would allow members to say they have responded to the Abramoff situation and other scandals but would do little to crimp their ability to accept lobbyist favors.

    The change, these people say, reflects a calculation that the political storm has mostly passed and that the need for more intrusive efforts to alter the congressional culture and the lobbyist-lawmaker relationship is less urgent.

    Of course, how urgent the efforts are is a direct function of how much heat representatives get from the folks back home. In an admirable attempt to gauge the public mood and send a message to Capitol Hill, the Sunlight Foundation has just posted an online poll asking Americans if they think Congress is doing enough to address ethics and lobbying reform. You can do your bit by taking the poll here.

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    Cheney Profiting Off Bad News?

    | Thu Jul. 6, 2006 1:20 PM PDT

    Where's Dick Cheney investing his money these days? See here. Apparently he's betting that the Bush administration's large deficits will drive down the dollar, drive up interest rates, and cause inflation. Who knew?

    Censoring the Military Embeds

    | Thu Jul. 6, 2006 12:40 PM PDT

    One could devote a lifetime—or at least the better part of a year—to chronicling all the propaganda-like tricks the Bush administration and the military have pursued over the past few years. Here's a new one, courtesy of Rod Norland, Newsweek's former bureau chief:

    The military has started censoring many [embedded reporting] arrangements. Before a journalist is allowed to go on an embed now, [the military] check[s] the work you have done previously. They want to know your slant on a story — they use the word slant — what you intend to write, and what you have written from embed trips before. If they don't like what you have done before, they refuse to take you. There are cases where individual reporters have been blacklisted because the military wasn't happy with the work they had done on embed.
    What's fun here is that the two sides in the ongoing debate over the Iraq war can see this development with radically different eyes. The pro-war camp—that is, the camp that believes that the war's basically going well despite some setbacks, and that we can pacify Iraq and "win" if only the American public would just backbone up for the long haul, and that only the media can "lose" this war by reporting too much bad news and causing people to doubt the wisdom of the occupation—well, they'll likely applaud this decision and say that the military has no obligation to take on reporters working at cross-purposes with the war effort.

    The anti-war camp, of course, will say that accurate reporting is necessary so that the public can see that this war is an utter failure and our continuing presence only making things worse and getting people killed, and that having the military censor the media will only obfuscate that reality and prolong our futile presence in Iraq. I'm certainly of that camp, and think the accuracy of those "cheerleading" journalists who would no doubt be approved by military censors tends to leave much to be desired… Needless to say, this isn't a good development at all.

    A Picture of Iraqi School Life

    Thu Jul. 6, 2006 11:59 AM PDT

    Today's Washington Post features a riveting article on a subject little-broached in the American media—namely, the everyday lives of Iraqis, in this case Iraqi university students. The picture is not a pretty one:

    The letter was slipped under the dean's office door, in an envelope slightly bulging from the AK-47 bullet tucked inside.

    "You have to understand our circumstances. We cannot perform well on the exam because of the problems in Baghdad. And you have to help," the letter began, said its recipient, A.M. Taleb, dean of the College of Sciences at Baghdad University. "If you do not, you and your family will be killed."

    It's finals time in Iraq. Black-clad gunmen have stormed a dormitory to snatch students from their rooms. Professors fear failing and angering their pupils. Administrators curtailed graduation ceremonies to avoid convening large groups of people into an obvious bombing target. Perhaps nowhere else does the prospect of two months' summer vacation -- for those who can afford it, a chance to flee the country -- bring such unbridled relief.

    The article reports that female students at the university have been targets of intimidation, forced to dress and act more conservatively lest they come under attack by the religious extremists increasingly prevalent on the campus. It's not news that Iraqi women have suffered disproportionately from the violence engulfing their country. A report published by Human Rights Watch last October declared, "The violence and lack of security has had a major impact on Iraqi women, who once enjoyed a public role in the country's social and political life." Meanwhile, allegations of the abuse of Iraqi women by American soldiers had surfaced long before the recent investigation into an alleged rape and murder in Mahmudiya.

    Global warming tied to forest fires

    | Thu Jul. 6, 2006 11:56 AM PDT

    A government-supported study hits the internets today connecting global warming to the increase, in recent years, in the number of large western wildfires.

    AP reports:

    Beginning about 1987, there was a change from infrequent fires averaging about one week in duration to more frequent ones that often burned five weeks or more, [researchers] reported. The length of the wildfire season was extended by 78 days.

    The researchers said the changes appear to be linked to annual spring and summer temperatures, with many more wildfires burning in hotter years than in cooler years.

    They also found a connection between early arrivals of the spring snowmelt in the mountainous regions and the incidence of large forest fires. An earlier snowmelt, they said, can lead to an earlier and longer dry season, which provides greater opportunities for large fires.

    Says one researcher, "The increase in large wildfires appears to be another part of a chain of reactions to climate warming," while another calls the findings "one of the first big indicators of climate change impacts in the continental United States."

    As the AP story notes, researchers say part of the increase is likely a function of natural fluctuations, but evidence also links it to the effects of human-induced climate warming. The report appears today in the journal Science.

    While we're on the subject, check out Mother Jones' recent special issue on global warming.