Friday, January 17, 2014

Works in Progress: Exporting Food Amidst Hunger at Home

I have started working on a couple of new projects.  Most immediately, I'm working on a book about the geopolitics of grains. As I'm writing and doing research for this manuscript, I will periodically post some tidbits about some of the ideas and arguments in the book, and especially some of the interesting things that I find along the way.

For example, when I wrote the proposal for this book on grains, I emphasized how the geopolitics of grains is linked, in a variety of ways, to issues such as world hunger and food insecurity.

I gave a few examples of the connection between the political economy (i.e., the market dynamics and national policies) of grains and food insecurity. One example was about how the market economy directs grains toward profitable destinations. This is something of an obvious point because grains are commodities -- just as all foods are commodities.  But, the point here is that this can lead to countries exporting grains even while a significant portion of their population suffers from hunger and malnutrition.

One observer commented that this was a ridiculous argument.  Countries don't export grains when a portion of their population is starving. In fact, this person observed, during the global food crisis of 2008, rice-exporting countries imposed restrictions on exports.

Well, that's true. In 2008, countries did impose export restrictions. Nonetheless, there are many examples -- in history and today -- of countries exporting significant amounts of grains despite high levels of hunger.

So, here's what I found as I looked at trends in world exports of maize, rice, and wheat. The world's number one exporter of rice from 2011 to 2013 was India. I found this to be very interesting, given malnutrition is a significant problem in India.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) studies global hunger and food insecurity, and it created the Global Hunger Index (GHI) to measure various aspects of hunger. The IFPRI categorizes India's food security status in 2011 to be "alarming."

The United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimated there to be 217 million people in India suffering from hunger in 2010-2012, which is about 17.5% of the countries population.

In other words, at the same time that hundreds of millions of people in India suffer from hunger, that country is the world's leading exporter of rice. As it turns out, then, sometimes countries do export significant amounts of grains even while hunger is a significant problem.

The reasons for such exports are complex, and I'll save that for another time. For now, I just wanted to offer this clear illustration of this point.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

US House Passes Farm Bill

The Republicans in the House of Representatives made two curious decisions in passing a farm bill this past week.

First, they split food stamps (SNAP - Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and the commodity programs (crop insurance, subsidies, etc.).  Food stamps and commodity programs have been rolled together since the 1960s in part as a way to gain wide support for passage of farm legislation, as the combination brought together urban and rural supporters.  (Although, rural and farm state votes have always been the key to passing farm legislation.)

Second, the House bill removes the permanent legislation from 1949.  In past farm bills, the 1949 remained the permanent legislation and would kick in if the more current legislation expired.  This was the situation at the beginning of this year, when an amendment was put in the budget bill to avoid milk policy from reverting back to 1949.

These are each significant changes in agricultural policy and the politics of farm bills.  So, they're something to keep an eye on.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Changes Coming in US Food Aid?

According to this New York Times article from April 4, the Obama Administration is considering changes to the system of US food aid.

Since its creation in 1954, US food aid has worked basically like this:  the federal government buys grains or other food stuffs from US farmers, then ships it abroad to help feed poor people in other countries.

This system of food aid was created at a time when there was a large surplus of wheat in the US.  Food aid (also known as Public Law 480, or PL 480) was designed to draw down government-owned stocks of grain.

At its best, PL 480 represented an attempt to help those in need.  At its worst, food aid "dumped" cheap food on foreign markets with numerous deleterious effects.

Critics of the program have long argued that it undermines agriculture in recipient nations.  Grain farmers in recipient nations find it difficult to compete with subsidized grain from the US.  The result is often a shift in diets, especially in urban areas, as wheat replaces such as corn or maize, rice, or other domestic/traditional grains.

As with any change in agricultural policy, we will see if the opposing coalition is strong enough to prevent the change.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Global Outlook Symposium in Sweden

I just returned from Stockholm, Sweden, where I participated in the Global Outlook Symposium that was part of the celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry.

I was part of the opening panel, which explored agricultural policies in the EU, the US, and New Zealand.  I talked about the US, Alan Swinbank discussed the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU, and Philipp Aerni talked about New Zealand.

You can see the program and information for the symposium, as well the slides from each presentation, and a video of the symposium.  Just go here.

King Carl of Sweden was in attendance for our panel's presentations, and he even spoke with us briefly before the symposium began.  You can see a video of that here.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Labor Day 'Shout Out' to Food Workers

Since today is Labor Day and this is a blog about the politics of food, I feel that I should say a little bit about the workers who help to make our food.  It's worth taking a moment to reflect on how these workers fit into the labor movement and labor history.

First, there are farmworkers.  While the United Farm Workers (UFW) union sometimes rises up and wins benefits for farmworkers, these workers are generally quite vulnerable.  Not only are farmworkers frequently immigrant labor, but the federal government does not acknowledge or protect the right of farmworkers to organize.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 acknowledged and gave the the government the responsibility to protect workers' right to organize, but it explicitly excludes workers in agriculture.  This was, in part, because of the influence of southern Democrats -- and the southern planters, who were among there most influential constituents.  Southern Democrats, planters, and others did not want tenant farmers and sharecroppers organizing.  The Southern Farmers Tenant Union (STFU) faced violence and repression in the 1930s -- and the federal government, for the most part, looked the other way.

Still today, farmworkers do not have federal protection for organizing.  Some states, like California, have recognized the right of farmworkers to form unions and bargain collectively with employers.  In 1975, California passed the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (CALRA).  This law grants the same rights to farmworkers as the NLRA grants to most other workers.  In other states, such as Florida and Georgia, farmworkers lack such protections.

Second, I want to mention meatpacking workers.  Unlike farmworkers, meatpacking workers are not excluded from the NLRA.  In fact, in the middle of the 1900s, meatpacking workers had quite formidable unions in Illinois, Iowa, and elsewhere.  During the 1950s and 1960s, unions helped to gain increased pay, health benefits, better working conditions, workplace representation, and other benefits for workers in the meatpacking industry.

Iowa Beef Processing (IBP) helped to pioneer methods and strategies to cuts costs, especially labor costs.  As they did, unions were weakened and the number of immigrants in the meatpacking industry increased.  Today, the meatpacking industry has high turnover and high rates of accidents.  And, of course, union representation has decreased significantly in the industry since the 1970s.

So, as we celebrate Labor Day with a variety of foods, we should consider for a moment the ongoing struggles and inequities faced by these workers, in particular.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Agricultural Commodities, Regionalism, and National Policy

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently reported on discussions and debates around the new farm bill.  The article could be directly out of my book.

The article outlines how cotton and peanut growers in the South have policy preferences that differ from farmers in the Corn and Wheat Belts.

Since the article is in a Georgia newspaper, the primary focus is on Georgia politicians, such as Saxby Chambliss (US senator) and Gary Black (state ag commissioner).  Notably, the southern Republican politicians are fighting to retain government protections from market instability for southern farmers.

Of course, it's also interesting that some of the same politicians are fighting to eliminate or reduce protections from market instability for the poor in the form of food stamps.  (Note that the cost of food stamps has risen in recent years as more and more families had to rely on such government support as the economy collapsed and unemployment increased 4 years ago.)

Anyway, the point is that this process -- divisions and shifting coalitions in agriculture leading to changes in agricultural policy -- has been going on for almost 100 years (if not longer).

Read all about it in my book!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Appearing on Wisconsin Public Radio

On Monday, April 30, at 11am EST, I will be a guest on the KATHLEEN DUNN SHOW with John Munson guest-hosting.  This is on Wisconsin Public Radio.

I'll be on with Elizabeth Ransom, who is an associate professor of sociology at University Richmond.  Elizabeth is a friend of mine who studies the global red meat trade, especially in Africa.  (Check out her research if you have the chance!)

John Munson, Elizabeth, and I will discuss the current food system.  It should be interesting, so listen in if you have the chance.