The NGO Food and Water Watch yesterday released a report entitled “Biotech Ambassadors: How the U.S. State Department Promotes the Seed Industry’s Global Agenda.” Based on a review of nearly 1,000 diplomatic cables dated between 2005 and 2009 leaked by WikiLeaks, Food and Water Watch concludes that, “in the past decade, the United States has aggressively pursued foreign policies in food and agriculture that benefit the largest seed companies. The U.S. State Department has launched a concerted strategy to promote agricultural biotechnology, often over the opposition of the public and governments, to the near exclusion of other more sustainable, more appropriate agricultural policy alternatives.”
Interestingly, the State Department’s initiative went beyond the usual “charm offensive” to promote agricultural biotechnology in general. It also included specific efforts to promote commercial interests. As the report notes,
The seed companies, including Monsanto, DuPont, Pioneer, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience and Dow Agrochemical, are more commonly mentioned in the biotech cables than food aid (6.9 percent of the cables and 4.4 percent, respectively)… The State Department worked especially hard to promote the interests of Monsanto… The State Department exercised its diplomatic persuasion to bolster Monsanto’s image in host countries, facilitate field-testing or approval of Monsanto crops and intervene with governments to negotiate seed royalty settlements.
The report raises some real concerns about the intersection of U.S. foreign policy and U.S. commercial interests. While the two have always been closely related, there seems to be an increasing amount of overlap. One wonders how far removed we are now from the good old days of the Dutch East Indies and British South Africa Companies.
A new app has been released that lets consumers know the companies behind their supermarket choices. As reported in Forbes, the free app, called Buycott, lets consumers scan the bar code on an item to find out about the brand and its position in the corporate family tree. The app also includes the ability to create user-generated campaigns to boycott or support particular business practices, such as companies donating money to oppose labeling of GMO foods or companies that support marriage equality.
The app was the brainchild of Ivan Pardo, a freelance programmer from Los Angeles. Pardo was inspired by a speech given by Darcy Burner, a Democrat who lost the 2012 election for Washington State’s first congressional district. In a speech to Democratic activists at Netroots Nation, Burner described the problems associated with secret donations to conservative causes by powerful corporate actors. As Burner described it at the time, “Our democracy has been bought and sold by people like the Kochs. When I’m out talking to voters, they say they want a way to take action.” But as Burner noted, complex corporate hierarchies can make taking action difficult.
Now, consumers can scan the barcode of a product and find out, for example, that purchasing Brawny paper towels, Angel Soft toilet paper or Dixie cups, supports Georgia-Pacific, a subsidiary of Koch Industries.
It’s an interesting development in the arena of consumer activism, around which I’ve previously expressed a degree of skepticism. However, I think this is a positive development. More information will certainly help on the margins, and some people will certainly rethink their shopping habits based on this. But I still maintain that consumer activism (or more broadly, consumer citizenship) represents a very hollow understanding of both activism and citizenship in the modern world.
I blogged a few months ago about the Bowman v. Monsanto case heard by the Supreme Court this session. The case pit a Kentucky farmer, Vernon Hugh Bowman, against biotech giant Monsanto. At issue was the scope of Monsanto’s patent rights covering its Roundup Ready (glyphosate resistant) crops.
The Supreme Court this morning issued its decision in the case. In a rare unanimous decision, the Court upheld the decision of the lower court, holding that Bowman had violated Monsanto’s intellectual property rights by regrowing second-generation seed. The court rejected Bowman’s claim that Monsanto’s patent had been exhausted through the original sale. The patent exhaustion doctrine would normally permit the purchaser—or any subsequent owner—the right to use or resell a patented article. However, the Court ruled that Bowman’s actions fell outside the doctrine because he was not using or reselling but was instead copying the patented invention—Monsanto’s seed.
Delivering the unanimous opinion, Justice Kagan wrote,
[Bowman] is asking for an unprecedented exception—to what he concedes is the “well settled” rule that “the exhaustion doctrine does not extend to the right to ‘make’ a new product.”… But as already explained, we have always drawn the boundaries of the exhaustion doctrine to exclude that activity, so that the patentee retains an undiminished right to prohibit others from making the thing his patent protects…That is because, once again, if simple copying were a protected use, a patent would plummet in value after the first sale of the first item containing the invention. The undiluted patent monopoly, it might be said, would extend not for 20 years (as the Patent Act promises), but for only one transaction.
The Court ordered Bowman to pay Monsanto $84,000 in damages and court costs.
Climate scientists observed last week that the world crossed an important milestone. For the first time in 3 million years, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million. The last time we were at this point, the world looked very different. It was the Pliocene Epoch, and global temperatures were 2 to 3 degrees Celsius warmer. Alligators and tapirs lived on islands off the coast of Greenland, and much of the world was covered by grasslands that looked a lot like the modern African savanna.
I’ve previously discussed the impact that climate change will likely have on the world’s agriculture in general and on California’s wine industry in particular.
But, as Laura Reynolds notes at Nourishing the Planet, agriculture will not just be affected by climate change; it is also an important contributor. Reynolds observes that,
In 2010, global greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector totaled 4.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO₂) equivalent, up 13 percent over 1990. Agriculture is the third largest contributor to global emissions by sector, following the burning of fossil fuels for power and heat, and transportation. In 2010, emissions from electricity and heat production reached 12.5 billion tons, and emissions from transport totaled 6.7 billion tons… According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, methane accounts for just under half of total agricultural emissions, nitrous oxide for 36 percent, and carbon dioxide for some 14 percent. The largest source of methane emissions is enteric fermentation, or the digestion of organic materials by livestock, predominantly beef cattle. This is also the largest source of agricultural emissions overall, contributing 37 percent of the total.
Livestock thus accounts for a large portion of global greenhouse gas emissions, and cattle are a particularly large contributor. India, home to an estimated 485 million head of cattle, goat, buffalo, and sheep, is the world’s second largest contributor of methane gas—behind only China.
But reducing greenhouse gas emissions from livestock has been a challenge. The Indian government (in a move widely supported by a diverse array of developing countries) called for a differentiation between “survival” and “lifestyle” emissions in climate change negotiations, concluding that there should be a difference between the treatment of an Indian family with a single cow and the millions of cows in massive, industrial slaughterhouses, even if they emit the same amount of methane in total.
It’s certainly a complicated picture. Both are emitting methane and contributing to climate change, but on a per capita basis,
India’s emissions fall well behind those of the United States and other developed countries. But collectively, all contribute to climate change. Efforts to address agricultural-related greenhouse gas emissions have been stalled for more than a year. And while Reynolds and the staff at the Worldwatch Institute have developed an interesting plan to promote climate-friendly food production, broader structural changes appear to be further off.
Deena Shanker’s “Beyond the Pale Ale: A Guide to Sustainable Beer” on Gist is a fantastic read that made me want to start a whole new line of research. Shanker traces the debates over sustainability in the context of brewing: craft beer vs. industrial beer, ingredient sourcing, organic vs. traditional, and clean energy in production. There are 2,100 craft brewers in the United States today, leading Shanker to conclude, “Drink responsibly: Go local.” Sounds like good advice…and a good line for future research!
Blogging at Foreign Policy and prompted by the death toll in the collapse of the Rana Plaza textile factory in Bangladesh, Marya Hannun yesterday asked, “When it comes to ethics, why do consumers care more about coffee than clothes?” While careful to note the limits of consumer choice (in particular, that consumers generally prefer fair trade only when price differences are marginal), Hannun observes that consumer preference is leading to change in coffee markets without a parallel movement in clothing. She notes that while Starbucks has committed to sourcing all of its coffee from fair trade sources by 2015, it’s almost impossible to imagine Wal-Mart making a similar commitment with respect to its clothing.
It’s an interesting paradox, but not one without precedent. With respect to biotechnology, consumers have generally embraced medical applications while frequently rejecting food and agricultural applications. But there’s a slightly different dynamic playing out here. Blogging at Organizations and Social Change, Stephan Manning offers a possible explanation. According to Manning,
One key to understand this challenge is what I call the fashion trap. Despite the enduring effort of large NGOs and certification bodies, one major driving force of improved labor and environmental conditions – based on private certification – remains the awareness and behavior of consumers. It takes lead consumers who are not only aware of the social impact of their purchasing decisions but who actually buy products regularly that are sourced from certified production facilities.
But here comes the problem: for certified products to succeed, their social, aesthetic and market value need to be in tune. By social value I mean the level at which labor, social and environmental standards are met in the production process; aesthetic value is the degree to which a product matches the taste of (socially conscious) lead consumers; market value is the price those consumers are willing to pay.
In other words, consumers don’t think about the conditions of production for their clothing in the same way they do about their coffee. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for fair trade coffee, according to Manning, because consumption of coffee incorporates a social and aesthetic value that makes them willing to pay a higher price. “In other words,” Manning concludes, “it’s trendy to drink coffee responsibly.”
Historically markets have tended to abstract production from consumption. Commodities consumed on a global scale certainly facilitate this process. Geographic distance can serve to hide the conditions of production from the final consumer. It’s only through sustained attention that the two are brought back into contact. The tragedy in Bangladesh connected some consumers to the (mostly) young girls who produced their clothes. But most consumers probably never even checked their labels. Until they do, little is likely to change.
In 2005, economist Pietra Rivoli published The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy. The book, which quickly became a classic, traces process of globalization by following a single t-shirt, from the cotton fields of Texas, to the Chinese factory where the raw cotton was turned into a t-shirt, to the retailer in the United States, and finally to a used clothing market in Africa. Along the way, readers are exposed to a wide variety of topics, including international trade rules and the politics of subsidies and protectionism. It’s an engaging read and a powerful way to get students to reflect on the ways in which they participate in the global economy through their daily activities.
After using Riovoli’s book in my class, I developed an assignment to encourage students to think more deeply about that connection. I ask them to identify the clothing they wear for a week, looking at the labels to identify the country of production. Then they complete a table that includes gross domestic product per capita, Human Development Index rating, child mortality rate, female literacy rate, and other basic information about the countries of production. I ask them to compare these data to the United States.
I also have them trace the global commodity chain on a blank world map.
Finally, I ask them to reflect on how these links connect them to the global economy.
It’s a powerful exercise and a good way to get students thinking about globalization. And by integrating some discussion of global cotton production (as well as agricultural subsidies, which are a major focus of Rivioli’s book), it’s also deeply relevant for a course in food (or more broadly, agricultural) politics.