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Wednesday: April 2, 2014 

When Will Chile's Post Office's Re-open? 

(PHOTO: Workers set up camp at Santiago's Rio Mapocho/Mason Bryan, The Santiago Times)Chile nears 1 month without mail service as postal worker protests continue. This week local branches of the 5 unions representing Correos de Chile voted on whether to continue their strike into a 2nd month, rejecting the union's offer. For a week the workers have set up camp on the banks of Santiago's Río Mapocho displaying banners outlining their demands; framing the issue as a division of the rich & the poor. The strike’s main slogan? “Si tocan a uno, nos tocan a todos,” it reads - if it affects 1 of us, it affects all of us. (Read more at The Santiago Times)

WHO convenes emergency talks on MERS virus

 

(PHOTO: Saudi men walk to the King Fahad hospital in the city of Hofuf, east of the capital Riyadh on June 16, 2013/Fayez Nureldine)The World Health Organization announced Friday it had convened emergency talks on the enigmatic, deadly MERS virus, which is striking hardest in Saudi Arabia. The move comes amid concern about the potential impact of October's Islamic hajj pilgrimage, when millions of people from around the globe will head to & from Saudi Arabia.  WHO health security chief Keiji Fukuda said the MERS meeting would take place Tuesday as a telephone conference & he  told reporters it was a "proactive move".  The meeting could decide whether to label MERS an international health emergency, he added.  The first recorded MERS death was in June 2012 in Saudi Arabia & the number of infections has ticked up, with almost 20 per month in April, May & June taking it to 79.  (Read more at Xinhua)

LINKS TO OTHER STORIES

                                

Dreams and nightmares - Chinese leaders have come to realize the country should become a great paladin of the free market & democracy & embrace them strongly, just as the West is rejecting them because it's realizing they're backfiring. This is the "Chinese Dream" - working better than the American dream.  Or is it just too fanciful?  By Francesco Sisci

Baby step towards democracy in Myanmar  - While the sweeping wins Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has projected in Sunday's by-elections haven't been confirmed, it is certain that the surging grassroots support on display has put Myanmar's military-backed ruling party on notice. By Brian McCartan

The South: Busy at the polls - South Korea's parliamentary polls will indicate how potent a national backlash is against President Lee Myung-bak's conservatism, perceived cronyism & pro-conglomerate policies, while offering insight into December's presidential vote. Desire for change in the macho milieu of politics in Seoul can be seen in a proliferation of female candidates.  By Aidan Foster-Carter  

Pakistan climbs 'wind' league - Pakistan is turning to wind power to help ease its desperate shortage of energy,& the country could soon be among the world's top 20 producers. Workers & farmers, their land taken for the turbine towers, may be the last to benefit.  By Zofeen Ebrahim

Turkey cuts Iran oil imports - Turkey is to slash its Iranian oil imports as it seeks exemptions from United States penalties linked to sanctions against Tehran. Less noticed, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the Iranian capital last week, signed deals aimed at doubling trade between the two countries.  By Robert M. Cutler

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Monday
Mar052012

Conflict Quinoa


(PHOTO: Quinoa salad/KalynsKitchen)Bolivian authorities say at least 30 people have been injured in a fight between 2 communities over land for growing quinoa, the Andean"supergrain" whose popularity with worldwide foodies has caused its price to soar. Oruro statepolice chief Ramon Sepulveda says combatants used rocks & dynamite against each other last week. A government commission was dispatched to the 2 high plains communities south of La Paz.  Farmland in the region is owned not by individuals but communities. Authorities say the dispute is related to climate change because quinoa can now be cultivated in areas previously subject to frequents frosts. Bolivia produces 46% of the world's quinoa, which has nearly tripled in price in the past 5 years & has effected eating habits in Bolivia as domestic consumption of the nutritious grain has fallen by more than a 3rd, prompting fears of an obesity epidemic as Bolivians switch to rice & white bread.  (Read More at Foreign Policy)

Wednesday
Aug242011

PEACEMEAL - Feeding the World (Commentary) 

By John Feffer

Come October, Atlas won't be shrugging, he'll be groaning as global population passes the 7 billion mark. Until very recently, demographers predicted that these numbers would peak in 2050 at just over 9 billion and then start to decline. The latest research, however, suggests that despite declining fertility across much of the world, population will continue to rise through this century to over 10 billionpeople.

With famine spreading in Somalia, another food crisis gripping North Korea,global food prices near a record high, and climate change threatening to reduce future harvests, the question continues to nag: are we outstripping our capacity to feed ourselves?

The good news is that the harvests this year promise to be bountiful. The bad news is that this increased grain production may still not be enough. The worse news is that millions more mouths to feed, over the long term, will increase pressure on the world's farmers to squeeze more and more food from less and less arable land.

In 2010, the world dipped into food reserves to make up for a 60-million-ton shortfall in grain production. This year, predicts the Earth Policy Institute's Lester Brown, farmers will have to produce 100 million additional tons to meet last year's needs plus the increased demand. Based on a number of factors – better harvests in Russia versus droughts in China and the U.S. Midwest – Brown expects only an increase of about 80 million tons for 2011. The bottom line: food prices will continue to rise.

But that's just the short term. Most estimates of grain needs in 2050 suggest that production will have to increase by 70 percent. That means somehow conjuring a billion-plus tons of grain from the already strained resource base of Mother Earth.

There are basically four schools of thought on how to feed the world. The biotech crowd believes that genetic modification will eventually spur another Green Revolution that will dramatically boost yield per acre. The organics faction believes that industrial farming techniques have drained the aquifers and robbed the topsoil of nutrients, among other ecological ills, and only natural farming techniques can restore soil fertility and produce sustainable yields. Somewhere in the middle is the status-quo-plus gang, which believes that improvement of current practices can meet the needs of a growing world. And the fourth school is…well, I'll get to that in a moment.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which now make up the vast majority of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States, have not lived up to the claimsof their most fervent cheerleaders. The main problem with GMOs, as far as I'm concerned, is their tendency to intensify industrial agriculture, which relies on heavy inputs of energy, fertilizer, pesticides, and water. I would not rule out the possibility of a next-generation GMO someday proving useful in a sustainable way, for instance in conjunction with no-till agriculture. But this particular brand of biotech is certainly no magic bullet.

The argument that organic farming can feed the world has gotten a boost from several recent studies, including one at the University of Michigan that showed that organic yields can be three times that of conventional yields in developing countries, and research at Cornell on how organic and local farming can cut energy inputs into agriculture by 50 percent. But organic farming is not a magic bullet either. As the sector gets larger, particularly here in the United States, it has come to resemble its hated industrial rival by adopting pesticides and monocropping and all the other trappings of Farming, Inc.  Yes, small-scale organic farming has garnered considerable success in the developing world, for instance in the Philippines. But traditional, less intensive farming has also failed us in the past. As Jason Clay writes in his magisterial World Agriculture and the Environment, "Some of these less intensive farming systems have failed, and often population densities have pushed cultivation levels beyond what is sustainable. There is ample evidence that parts of the Andes, Mesoamerica, North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, South and Southeast Asia, New England and even the Great Plains (to name but a few) were overfarmed to the point of degradation or collapse using 'traditional' forms of agricultural production."

The third path, status-quo plus, basically tweaks the existing approach to farming in the developing world and makes it a good deal more productive. One increasingly famous example comes from Malawi, the small African country of 15 million people that juts into Mozambique. About five years ago, President Bingu wa Mutharika began a subsidy program so that farmers could buy seeds and fertilizer at below-market rates. "Despite concerns from the World Bank and the UN, President Mutharika promoted Malawi’s agriculture sector and decreased poverty from 52 percent to 40 percent while turning Malawi into a food basket not only for its people but also for export," writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Simone D'Abreu in Malawi Makes, Africa Takes. This "Malawi model" also relies on improving infrastructure, providing training for farmers, bringing more arable land under cultivation, and building up soil health through agro-forestry. The Malawi model challenges the conventional wisdom of the World Bank on the need for privatization, not state agricultural subsidies, but its approach to farming is relatively conventional. Using more fertilizer, after all, was a Green Revolution innovation more than 40 years ago.

Mutharika, who has been in the news recently for violently suppressing his political opposition, wants to apply the Malawi Model to the continent as a whole. This African Food Basket initiative aims to make Africa food-secure within five years. That’s unrealistic, perhaps, but there's no denying the urgency. Malawi's population, for instance, is expected to increase more than eight-fold by the end of the century, with the population of Africa as a whole likely to triple from 1 billion to 3.6 billion.

For the most part, these three approaches of biotech, organic, and status-quo plus focus on boosting production. But there's a fourth way to address the upcoming supply-demand crunch. Let's call it the Waste Not, Want Not approach.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization, we waste or lose about one-third of all food produced for human consumption. That's about 1.3 billion tons of food.  Everyone is implicated in this tragedy: consumers who throw out food, institutions that let food spoil, processors that "sort out" huge amounts of produce deemed unsatisfactory, facilities that expose their stocks to rodents through improper storage, transporters who lose food along the way, and growers who leave food behind in the field.

Remember your mother shaming you into eating all the food on your plate because of all the starving people in the world? Now multiply those uneaten Brussels sprouts more than a trillion times.

On the topic of eating all the food on your plate, well, that's a problem, too. Obesity has assumed near-epidemic proportions. In the United States, less than 10 percent of the population was obese in 1985, but that figure has now risen to nearly one-third. It's not just the global north. In the developing world, you can find obesity rates nearing 40 percent in countries like Brazil and Colombia.

A related issue is meat consumption. Imagine eating 16 pounds of grain in one sitting. That's what you do, essentially, when you consume a 16-ounce steak, since it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef (as well as 2,500 gallons of water). Eating meat, in other words, is a fancy way of over-consuming resources. And this over-consumption is just getting more over the top. Global production of meat is expected to double by 2050 to meet the growing demand, particularly in the developing world.

Perhaps the ultimate in "waste not" would be to shift over to eating insects and turn our exterminators into hunter-gatherers. Fried grasshoppers, according to a fascinating article by Dana Goodyear in The New Yorker, have three times as much protein as their equivalent weight in beef. Insects already provide an important source of food for many people. Indeed, in certain parts of the world, increased pesticide use as part of industrial agriculture has killed off or poisoned the grasshoppers that provided essential protein, especially for children. Talk about monocropping destroying diverse local eating habits.

For now, at least, insects are definitely a "want not" rather than a "waste not" for most Americans. Still, even if we don't embrace bedbug burgers any time soon, we have to take the lead in transforming our appetites. According to World Watch, if you divide the population of the earth by the amount of biologically productive land, every human today gets about 1.9 hectares to supply their resource needs. The average American, however, lays claim to 9.7 hectares. Boosting food production won't mean anything if the lion's share continues to go to the gluttonous. If we're going to feed the world, we're going to have to feed ourselves a lot less extravagantly.

This article was originally published by Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

Tuesday
Mar222011

PEACEMEAL - The Sweet and Not-So-Sweet Smell of Sugar Cane Production (Commentary)

The author and cane fields shown in the car window reflection in Hawaiiby Cynthia Thomet for HUMNews

As I was sipping my morning coffee today, I was nudged by a small epiphany that everything we do has the ripple effect that can touch the lives of people halfway around the world. The thought was spawned by the sugar that I stirred into my cup, and it took me through a whirlwind thought of supply-and-demand, island living, field workers in developing countries, dictatorships and revolutions, capitalist greed and living on the earth in a cyclically sustainable manner.

Maybe I was thinking about all these things because I recently finished reading a great book by an amazing Dominican-American author, Junot Diaz called, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." The novel provides a fascinating look into the Dominican Republic under the Trujillo dictatorship (the era ended with Rafael Trujillo’s assassination in 1961) and describes some intense sugar cane scenes where you can practically hear the reeds clacking against each other.

My native island of Trinidad produces (but stopped exporting about two years ago) the white, refined sugar we dissolve into our morning coffee or tea. Sugar’s by-product, molasses, is often used in the fermentation of distilled liquors, such as rum (producing that gold or dark color). Molasses is also sometimes added to pipe tobacco and shishah in the Middle East as a flavoring agent, and it is even used as a nutritional additive. (Believe it or not, molasses is a source of calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron, which is why it is not only used as a source of minerals is human foods, but also for livestock feed.)

The production of sugar is not just an island phenomenon, it is a major money-maker for some of the world’s largest and most-heavily populated countries. In 2008, Brazil, India and China were the top three producers of sugar cane, producing more than a billion metric tons of sugar valued at more than $22 billion. (see chart)

The smell of refining sugar cane is unique and shared by developing countries around the world. Floating over the warm salty breeze from the day, you can detect the smoke. It is a sweet, light smoke that meanders and sticks in your nostrils. Flowing beneath the island breezes are the dark undercurrents of molasses and burnt caramel.

Sugar Fuels Machines and Big Business
Born on a small Caribbean island and having lived on the small Pacific island of Maui (see my commentary on the taro root), where I speak a little of what I learned during my time there, I have come to associate that smell with island life and island living. While the smell of sugar cane production brings sweet memories to me, it probably floats black snow on the backs of those who toil behind the scenes—those who were imported as debt-slaves to work the land.Lahaina Drive is a dirt road through sugar cane fields pointing to the summit of Haleakala. The island of Maui's main volcano.

That island burning smell? The billows of smoke along the horizon? That’s the smell of big money—much bigger than the cash made on the world food market. The non-culinary potential of sugar cane is almost more fascinating. Because molasses can be fermented to produce ethanol, which can power motor vehicles, the business potential for growing sugar cane just got sweeter. (Imagine no more deep drilling to get to crude oil.)

Unfortunately, with heightened capital opportunity comes increased opportunism, accompanied by human rights abuses. Many of these countries continue to struggle with human rights issues, including debt-slavery among agrarian workers, child labor, and even the eviction of Cambodian landowners to make way for foreign-owned sugar plantations seeing big money in biofuels.

My thoughts drifted this morning to the field hands who would work alongside Maui’s Pu`unene highway. I don’t know if they were subject to human rights abuses, but I do hope that their hand in helping produce biofuels translated to lower energy costs in their homes—or some other direct benefit to them and their families.

Next time you sprinkle granulated sugar on your funnel cake, just think that there’s more than sweetness in that carnival bite, there’s history, national identity, whole industries and nations fueled by the humble stalks that clack-clack in the island breezes.

 
--- The author is Cynthia Thomet, a humanitarian, and co owner and doyenne of the award winning downtown Atlanta, Georgia; US restaurant, Lunacy Black Market. You can find Cynthia's own blog here:http://thoughtfulcyn.wordpress.com/.   Her columns for HUMNEWS search for the intersection between food and humanity, and how meals unite us. 

Friday
Feb112011

PEACEMEAL - Modest Tuber Enjoys Legendary Status, Worldwide Recognition (Commentary) 

(Taro, or `Dasheen'. CREDIT: Wikipedia) This heart-shaped plant offers a lens to Hawaii, one of America’s ethnic cultures

-- by Cynthia Thomet                                  

There was no specific name for the dish I selected at a dim sum lunch this weekend. The server told me it was taro with pork and I was sold. (The best way to get me to buy anything is by saying it has pork. In a future PeaceMeal column, I may end up writing about pork, a food I absolutely adore, but today I thought I would write a little bit about the taro root, which grows in some of the worlds most exotic, beautiful and tropical climates.)

For those of you not familiar with taro, you might have passed by the modest root in your local health food store. It looks like a cross between a yam for its size and a beet for its purple-brown and textured exterior. Maybe you have seen taro wrapped in a shiny potato chip bag, posing as a dark-hued, veiney crisp, seducing your inner health nut with the tried-and-true treatment of dropping thin slivers of the root in hot oil

I first learned about “Taro” in the United States’ 50th state, Hawaii. Taro, also known as kalo in Hawaiian, is much starchier than a potato. Its leaves are large, green, flat and heart-shaped.

My taro dish was combined with bits of pork and deep-fried into a type of fritter—almost like an Indian pakora. When I bit into its crispy bird’s nest exterior and melted into its soft interior, memories of my days on Maui sprang to mind.

What’s fascinating about this produce is that it has varieties that can grow as abundantly in dry terraces in the hills as in muddy plains at sea level. Or they can also be cultivated in watery ponds that the Hawaiians called lo`i.

(Girls pounding Poi in Hawaii. CREDIT: C. Thomet) In Hawaii, the legend has it that Kane (Sky Father) and Papa (Earth Mother) had a stillborn son named Haloa, whom they buried. The taro leaf sprang from Haloa’s grave and became the physical embodiment of the divine son of Kane and Papa. Future children borne by the Sky Father and Earth Mother sustained themselves with the food provided by their older brother, Haloa, whose name means “everlasting breath”. As such, the ingestion of taro was not simply a physical act, but a spiritual act that connected the Hawaiian people with their godly ancestors.

Whether or not you believe in the legend, it is undeniable that taro is almost like a supernatural food that could unite the peoples of Nigeria, Ghana, China, Egypt and Nepal if only because the taro is common to all of them. Just pick your favorite from the host of names out there for it—dasheen, inhame, pindaloo, for example—and you might find you have already tried this robust tuber under a different identity.

In researching this story, I discovered that as a child, I really used to enjoy a soupy dish made with taro leaves called callaloo from my native Trinidad (here’s a recipe for it). I never knew it was made with taro, because it was called dasheen.  

(Taro Root)I don’t know if there are other cultures that celebrate this root with festivities, but Hawaiians are already gearing up for their annual East Maui Taro Festival, which is scheduled for the end of April. Every year the event draws hundreds of residents from all around Maui, the Hawaiian Islands and even from around the world to participate in activities and remind residents and visitors of the reproductive nature of this important produce. As in years past, participants will enjoy live music and entertainment, participate in pounding poi (a soft, almost gummy food pounded with a traditional Hawaiian pestle, called a pohaku, made of stone) and also enjoy variations on taro, like poi ice cream!

Besides the potentially meditative element of pounding poi, the events surrounding this annual festival in general send an important message about sustainable agriculture, food production basic home-cooking, and our place—as humans—in our environments.

(A bowl of Poi. CREDIT Wikipedia)

If you take the opportunity to take the ever-winding road to the secluded town of Hana in East Maui, you might see protests from locals calling to end the diversion of stream waters by large agricultural companies who have access to source waters. But you can also take the trip from your computer by visiting the Kapahu Farms online and taking a panoramic tour.

If a gastronomical tour more suits your tastes, visit an ethnic eatery (a Chinese or a Caribbean restaurant will probably do the trick just fine) and ask what they have on the menu that includes taro. I think you will be pleasantly surprised. Who knows? You may be priming yourself for your next trip to an exotic culture!

--- The author is Cynthia Thomet, a humanitarian, and co owner and doyenne of the award winning downtown Atlanta, Georgia; US restaurant, Lunacy Black Market. You can find Cynthia's own blog here: http://thoughtfulcyn.wordpress.com/.   Her columns for HUMNEWS search for the intersection between food and humanity, and how meals unite us.   

Monday
Jan242011

PEACEMEAL - With Food Prices Rising, People Revolting, Is Wal-mart Really the Answer to America's Unhealthy Food Crisis? (Commentary) 

- by Cynthia Thomet

A recent Bloomberg report entitled, “Mexico prices rose more than expected last month [December 2010],” confirms a feeling that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until I read this piece—an increasing and incremental sour pinch on my pocketbook every time I go to the grocery store.

My HUMNews editor suggested I write about lemons for this PeaceMeal story. It is a food that is enjoyed by numerous cultures all around the world, she said. I started to dream about it as the ingredient that could unite us as a people. That is, if we could all afford it this year!

Yes, my friends, food prices are on the rise. So, it seemed only appropriate to write about this other food-related issue that we all share in common: inflation.

Back when I wrote my last PeaceMeal column, there were rumblings about this becoming a serious issue in 2011. Like clockwork, the Guardian  reported in our first week of 2011 that “soaring prices of sugar, grain and oilseed drove world food prices to a record in December, surpassing the levels of 2008 when the cost of food sparked riots around the world, and prompting warnings of prices being in ‘danger territory’.”

January 2011 has not even ended, and we are witnessing protests and riots in Algeria , Tunisia, and Jordan  In northern Nigeria, the prices of onions have more than doubled – ditto for India! And UNICEF reports that the number of mothers bringing their severely malnourished kids to feeding centers in Niger has spiked in recent weeks – due, in part, to higher food prices.

Back here in Atlanta, where I live, I have begun to see prices rising significantly at the local restaurant supplier that sells bulk produce, grains, packaged foods and beverages to area restaurants, bodegas and local merchants. And it’s been making me feel particularly vulnerable to all the forces that are out there: mother earth and weather, political forces here and abroad, economies local and distant.

Rising food prices is what political revolutions are made of. The French revolution was catalyzed by famine and hunger, and now we’re seeing some of the same scathing language from Jordanian protesters: “Unify yourselves because the government wants to eat your flesh.” (It’s enough to make you skip the meat aisle.)

At the same time, I couldn’t help being caught up (and even a little distracted) by the public relations partnership between Wal-mart and Michelle Obama for their healthy foods initiative  Yes, obesity and unhealthful eating are major problems in the United States. Yes, there are many “food deserts” around the country where low income peoples have little access to unprocessed foods. And, yes, Wal-mart is promising to change the quality of processed foods so they are healthier. But it ignores the fact that Wal-mart still wants consumers to purchase processed foods, because, frankly, that’s where the money is made.

My opinion: it’s just a PR initiative designed to secure a consumer body for a billion-dollar big box business that needs tax breaks and a seat at the government dinner table. I have always had the hunch that the very processing of foods is what diminishes the value inherent in any food, and I have recently found that there are scientists who have been researching this phenomenon. (Visit this article  to kick-start any research in the issue. It’s fascinating!)

But in the greater scheme of things, I think the Wal-mart initiative is really missing the mark, as far as true change is concerned. The PR rhetoric sounds almost like, “Why don’t they eat healthier cake?” when some of the major food issues facing the regular American public include:

  • How global food production is run, managed, controlled and directed by a small number of major international food corporations.
  • How food distribution and pricing is controlled by a small number of major international food corporations.
  • How the major food corporations want to create a deeper dependency on processed foods, because of their greater profit margin returns.

It just seems that simplifying and downscaling the food production process could be the better way to go.

So, while President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia freaks out from the cresting wave of protests and flees Tunis (and packs up his gold bars and family , I’m turning a lemon around in my hand wondering whether the First Lady is conscious that even a fresh lemon as a garnish in water is a luxury many Americans could never afford—even if purchased from Wal-mart.

Seriously though, it is hard for me to listen to Wal-mart’s commitment to pass on its best prices to the consumer without thinking that their negotiation strategy doesn’t involve bullying local farmers into bending to the big box’s exclusivity will.

Cynthia Thomet is a humanitarian, a food lover and co owner and doyenne of the award winning downtown Atlanta, Georgia; US restaurant, Lunacy Black Market. http://www.lunacyblackmarket.com/.  You can find Cynthia's own blog here: http://thoughtfulcyn.wordpress.com/.   Her pieces for HUMNEWS search for the intersection between food and humanity, and how meals unite us.