Life by chocolate

A small upmarket chocolate-maker brings quality labs to cacao bean producers.

From MIT’s magazine Technology Review, a small cockle-warming story by Corby Kummer to curl up with in front of the fire.

A yuppie San Francisco chocolate maker called Tcho has gone beyond selling high-priced speciality chocolate squares.Roasted Cacao Beans

The company does something new: it provides growers with all the tools they need to have chocolate tastings during harvesting and processing, the crucial period that determines the price a cacao farmer’s crop will command. Tcho combines coffee roasters, spice grinders, and modified hair dryers to equip “sample labs” — pilot plants that produce tiny lots of chocolate right where cacao is grown. The company gives cacao farmers customized groupware so that they can share tasting notes and samples with chocolate makers. In this way, the farmers can bring entire harvests up to the standards of Tcho or any other buyer.

This is big news for the cocoa growers in Ghana, Ecuador, and other poor producing countries. Continue reading “Life by chocolate”

Will House Republicans Save Food Aid Reform?

Rep. Ed Royce (R - CA): the potential hero of food aid reform
Rep. Ed Royce (R – CA): the potential hero of food aid reform

These next 48 hours are critical for advancing reform of US international food aid, which I have blogged about previously.  Short version: because current rules essentially demand that we provide aid in food grown in the US via government subsidy, our current aid regime wastes money, delays delivery of aid by weeks, lines the pockets of agribusiness and big shipping, often undermines farmers in the Global South, and leaves 2-4 million people starving who could otherwise be helped.

The basic answer is to allow food to be procured locally; the Obama Administration’s budget proposal did just that, and was given the back of the hand by special interests in the Senate.  The Senate bill, which passed the Upper House, did add some extra money for local procurement, but fell far short of what was really needed.  The pathetic justifications offered by the agribusiness and shipping lobbies show just how weak their policy position is.

And now — maybe the House to the rescue.  The House? The current House?  You gotta be kidding, right?

Wrong.  The hero here is House International Relations Committee chair Ed Royce, a very conservative Republican from Orange County, who studied the way food aid rules work, and got outraged.  That’s hardly odd for a conservative, because farm policy represents about the clearest case of government waste we have.  It didn’t hurt, of course, that allowing for local procurement would also take much food aid from the Agriculture Committee and give it to the IR committee, but that really wasn’t what was happening here: this is an outrage and everyone who looks at it realizes it.

Originally, Royce teamed up with IR Global Affairs Subcommittee ranking member Karen Bass, a liberal African-American Democrat from Los Angeles, to introduce the Food Aid Reform Act, which would allow for local procurement as a general matter.  Before the House can vote on that, however, it needs to consider the Farm Bill, so Royce and IR Committee ranking member Eliot Engel (D – NY) have proposed an amendment to the House bill that essentially replicates the Food Aid Reform Act.  The House will consider that amendment as early as Wednesday.

Think about that for a second: “the House will consider that amendment as early as Wednesday.”  That says a lot.  Amendments don’t get considered on the floor of the House unless the Rules Committee allows them to be considered, and the Rules Committee doesn’t allow them to be considered unless it’s okay with the leadership.  That means that at least, there is substantial support in the Republican Conference for this measure.  GOP to the rescue!

Of course, they should support it.  Reforming food aid to allow for local procurement (as well as other crucial reforms) is such a no-brainer that it is perhaps the last genuinely bipartisan policy initiative out there.  Don’t believe me?  Even the Heritage Foundation favors this.  Does that make you as a liberal Democrat get nauseous?  Well, me too, sort of, but the same reforms are backed by the Center for American Progress.

So now — which is to say, right now, as soon as the business day starts in Washington DC — call your Congresscritter and ask them to support the Royce-Engel Amendment (#55) to the Farm Bill.  After the jump, I’m including the talking points prepared by the American Jewish World Service, which in conjunction with lots of other charities like Bread for the World, Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services, and many others, has spearheaded this campaign.  You should drop a dime for them, too, by the way.

But really: call. write.  E-mail.  This means life or death for people. Do it.

AJWS logo

I’m writing, as a constituent and as a supporter of American Jewish World Service <>, to urge you to vote YES on the Royce-Engel Amendment (#55) when it comes up during the Farm Bill debate this week.

The bi-partisan Royce-Engel Amendment (#55) to the Farm Bill would make significant and urgently needed reforms to our international food aid system by creating more flexibility and ending the practice of monetization, while also saving taxpayer dollars by eliminating wasteful spending.

While U.S. food aid saves millions of lives, we know all too well that the system is flawed. Current law requires that our government ship the majority of our food aid from the U.S., which means that it can take many months to reach people who need it. And since we buy almost none of the food from farmers in the countries we’re helping, our aid often undercuts local prices and even puts local farms out of business.

As you may recall, President Obama made recommendations in his 2014 budget proposal to address some of these challenges. The Royce-Engel Amendment essentially codifies the president’s proposal into law by allowing 45% of U.S. food aid to be in the form of local purchase, cash or vouchers. This flexibility would enable us to reach at least 4 million more people, with the same dollar amount, and would eliminate delivery delays of 3-4 months that are often the difference between life and death.

The amendment also ends the requirement that some portion of food aid be ‘monetized’ – a system through which in-kind food aid is donated to international development organizations, which in turn sell the food in local markets overseas to raise money for their development projects. Ending monetization creates the flexibility to use cash instead of commodities for important development projects financed through the food aid program.

A large coalition of groups support this amendment including AJWS, Oxfam, Bread for the World, Save the Children, CARE, Catholic Relief Services and many others. Think tanks across the ideological spectrum have also endorsed food aid reform, from the Heritage Foundation to the Center for American Progress.

I believe ending global hunger is a moral imperative and a fiscal priority. I urge you to vote YES on this amendment and to help make history on this issue.

Leave Agribusiness Lobbyists ALOOOONE!!!!

Agribusiness is Very Sensitive
Agribusiness is Very Sensitive

A few weeks ago, I posted about the Obama Administration’s effort to change outrageous and wasteful food aid rules that line the pockets of agribusiness and shipping companies.  The more you look at the absurd policy preventing USAID from purchasing food locally for famine relief, the worse it looks: it wastes money, it prevents getting food to people that need it, it undermines local agriculture, and it despoils the environment.

I didn’t think it could get any worse.  But the lobbyists have outdone even themselves this time!  Reuters has the story today:

A White House plan to modernize the major U.S. food aid program, by donating cash rather than American-grown food, is in trouble after fierce lobbying by farm groups, food processors, shippers and others who set out to sink the idea months before it was unveiled in President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget…

In pressing the case to shift more aid to a cash system, the White House and the U.S. Agency for International Development have highlighted the potential ability to feed up to 4 million more needy people each year at a lower cost. Several major aid groups, including Oxfam America and CARE, favor such changes….

Commodities shipped under the Food for Peace program “currently account for less than two tenths of one percent of U.S. agricultural production and about one half of one percent of U.S. agricultural exports,” the White House estimated.

“Exports via food aid are a small drop in the market,” said Veronica Nigh, an economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation. “Our concern is less about decreasing an important revenue stream for U.S. agriculture. It’s more about the loss of a sense of pride.”

Well, how touching.  All these commodity groups, agribusinesses, shippers, and food processors don’t stand to lose much money, and they admit it.  But you see, they will lose their sense of pride.   Obviously, then, 4 million people should go hungry.

What’s more outrageous?  That we have such a policy; that those who support it can so blithely make these kinds of arguments; or that they might still win?  Inquiring minds want to know.  In the meantime, this is a no-brainer: the current system is about the purest form of special interest legislation conceivable.  In Kevin Drum’s words, “Call your congress critter today and tell them, for once in their benighted careers, to just suck it up and do the right thing.”


US Food Aid Rules: If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention

enoughThe Obama Administration announced yesterday that it wants to change US food aid rules to allow for more “local procurement” of food aid in the countries that need it.  Predictably, the special interests are aghast.  But the administration is right: current food aid rules are among the most egregious special interest legislation in the world right now, preventing this country from stopping starvation, often helping it, wasting taxpayer money, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and causing soil degradation in Africa.  I have been working on this issue for the last couple of years with the American Jewish World Service, one of the world’s best charities: ending the current rules is a win-win-win-win all around, which is why it will probably be a fight to accomplish it.  The most important source on this issue is Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman’s outstanding book Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve In An Age of Plenty.  Run, don’t walk, and go and read it.  But in the meantime, here is what you need to know.

In order to see how egregious current rules are, suppose that there is a famine in Ethiopia (I know, hard to do).  the quickest and most effective thing to do would be to find some farmer or group of farmers in other parts of the country, or in neighboring countries, buy their food and get it to the stricken area.  After all, one key cause of famine is the lack of money, not lack of crops.  But under current law, USAID is basically forbidden from doing that.  Instead, it must buy grain in the United States and ship it several thousand miles to the famine area.  You can imagine the amount of time that that takes; sometimes, several weeks.  it’s a logistic nightmare.  In the meantime, thousands die, usually the weakest such as children and the elderly.

But it’s worse than that.

If the food needs to be shipped, then that means that the shipping must be paid for.  And it sure is: according to a study done by AJWS and Oxfam, nearly 55% of the cost of American international food aid goes not to food, but to shipping costs.  That’s what your tax dollars are going to.

But it’s worse than that.

Just because a ship is flagged American, doesn’t mean that the sailors on it are American.  Hundreds of ships have been flagged under Liberian registry for years, and during much of that time, there was no “Liberia” to speak of.  So your tax dollars are not necessarily going to American jobs, and probably are not.

But it’s worse than that.

Recall, of course, that the food that will be shipped to the famine area is subsidized, so in fact, we are spending food aid money not on people who are starving, but on relatively wealthy American farmers.

But it’s worse than that!

Once the food finally makes its way to the country in question, not all of it gets to the famine area.  Free food from the United States is simply too attractive to smugglers, who siphon it off and then sell it in markets.  I personally have several instances of markets selling food in bags stating quite clearly: “GIFT OF THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: NOT FOR RESALE.”  You can it in markets throughout Africa.  And what that does is put local farmers out of business because they cannot compete with this illegally dumped food from the United States.  in other words, by this sort of dumping, in many instances, we are actually making the problem worse over the long term because we are undermining other countries’ ability to feed themselves.  Ikal Angelei, whom I blogged about several months ago, told me that in her village in Kenya, they used to have enough supplies to last for several months in the event of a famine.  Now, in no small part because of the dumping, the village only has a few days’ worth.  This is not-not-not to say that there should not be food aid, but rather that it needs to be done effectively and efficiently.

But it’s even worse than that!

The inability of local farmers to farm the land means that the topsoil begins to erode.  Native farming techniques were hardly environmentally perfect, and caused damage, but the failure to farm at all often mean environmental degradation.  So when we hear that “Africa Is Dying,” as I did back in 2010, we should know that we are part of the problem.

That’s pretty awful isn’t it?  And the really shocking thing is just how little it gets us.  James Caponiti, the executive director/lobbyist of the American Maritime Congress, claimed in the NYT article that moving to local procurement could cost the United States “hundreds of jobs.”  Hundreds?  That’s what he claims?  Hell, we could end the sequester and write a bigger transit bill and multiply that over several times.  And that’s taking his argument at face value.  One remembers Muhammed Ali’s famous taunt to George Foreman in Kinshasa:  “Is that all you got, George?  Is that it?”

My friend Timi Gerson, AJWS’ advocacy director, is quoted at the end of the article: “From a taxpayers’ and policy perspective, the food aid program is clearly in need of reform. The only thing getting in the way is politics and special interest.”  Absolutely, 1 million percent true.  Call your Congressmember and tell them how important it is to support the administration.

It will be very interesting to see what evangelicals and so-called fiscal conservatives do on this issue.  Very interesting indeed.

The “Mormon issue”

Mitt Romney is not responsible for the beliefs of the LDS church, and they are not a legitimate issue in the campaign for the Presidency.

The Washington Post has a long piece by Jason Horowitz about Helen Radkey, an extraordinarily unpleasant woman who, having been excommunicated from Mormonism, spends her life trying to embarrass the LDS church. Her focus is on the practice of posthumous baptism and marriage, especially of Jews.

The story is well-written and compelling: the weirdnesses of unfamiliar religions are always stranger than the weirdnessess of familiar religions.  Mormons believe that they can perform rituals to make dead Jews into Mormons; fundamentalist Protestants and hard-core Catholics believe that a loving God torments dead Jews throughout eternity for not being Christians.  One of those beliefs is strange, and the other is familiar; but it doesn’t seem to me that the strange belief is the more offensive of the two.

But the story’s opening paragraphs are something the reporter should be ashamed of, and the headline is something the editors of the Washington Post should be ashamed of.  The headline reads:

In Mormon Files,  Researcher Helen Radkey
Seeks to Cause a Headache for Romney

That’s consistent with the lede:

Mitt Romney has major headaches named Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. This month, he also had Helen Radkey.

Foul! Unconstitutional roughness, journalist. Fifteen yards. First down. “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

Let’s say this once, so it doesn’t have be said ever again: Mitt Romney is no more accountable for posthumous conversions than Rick Santorum is for clerical child molesting and cover-ups, or Barack Obama for the Rev. Mr. Wright’s Biblical exegeses. “Sunday beliefs” should be presumed irrelevant to the conduct of public office unless and until a candidate chooses to invoke them. There are a dozen good reasons not to want Mitt Romney to be President, but his religion is not one of them.

Footnote Many Jews will be outraged to read that their forebears have been posthumously converted to Mormonism. But I think we should take it in the generous spirit in which it is intended; if the Mormons, unlike orthodox Christians, want to save us rather than having us burn in Hell, we don’t have to believe that they can succeed to be grateful for the kind thought.

Or we could instead accept it in the the spirit reflected in the old story about the elderly, pious Jew who, on his deathbed, tells his eldest son that he needs something. The son approaches the bedside and says,

“Yes, Abba, what do you want?”
“I want a priest.”
“A priest? What do you want a priest for?
“I want to convert.”
Convert? You’ve been an observant Jew your whole life! Why should you want to convert?”
“Better one of them should die!”

Update From our “It’s-always-even-weirder than you thought it was” department:

A commenter on the WaPo website was diligent enough to search the LDS homepage and discover an official Church discussion of the issue. That discussion points to a passage (First Corinthians, 15:25-29) which seems to refer to a similar practice in the early Christian church. Here’s the KJV translation:

For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy [that] shall be destroyed [is] death. For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith all things are put under [him, it is] manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all. Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?

Sure sounds as if some early Christians underwent a second baptism on behalf of the deceased (perhaps relatives or friends?). The floor is open to anyone who knows the orthodox Christian take on this passage. As far as I know, non-Mormons no longer practice such a rite, but it does seem like a reasonable reaction to the otherwise intolerable thought that someone is suffering through eternity.

Just a reminder here: the belief in the eternal damnation of non-Christians, attributed above to “fundamentalist Protestants and hardcore Catholics” is indeed held, today, largely by fringey people, most of them with hard hearts and weak minds. But virtually everyone who called himself a Christian up until the 18th Century would have believed it: and believed, moreover, that adhering to the wrong brand of Christianity also led to Hellfire. Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather wouldn’t have considered that belief remotely controversial, and they would have had St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther and John Calvin on their side.

Progress comes slowly, but it does come: that’s why conservatives need to stand athwart history, yelling “Stop!”

In defense of FrankenFish

FDA is about ready to approve a modified species of Atlantic salmon for land-based fish-farming. Why not?

My mind is alive to the health, safety, and environmental risks of technological innovation, but at heart I’m a propeller-head. So if someone figures out a way to implant some genes from other fish species to make farm-raised (and therefore not interbreeding with wild fish) Atlantic salmon to make them grow bigger and faster, my instinct is to say “Hurrah.”

Yes, it would be better to change the rules about fishing to be able to raise fish efficiently in the ocean, but that ain’t gonna happen. If you’re anti-GMO, consider this an open invitation to invent some scenario in which allowing GMO salmon in closed-pen fish-farming could have a bad result.

Two Intriguing Developments in Marijuana Legalization

Oakland City Council’s decision not to go forward with a plan to let private companies start enormous “medical” pot farms has two intriguing subplots.

First, the Alameda County Attorney advised the members of the council that it was not clear whether they would be immune from federal prosecution if they approved the plan. This issue hasn’t come up yet because Prop 19 lost, but assuming some state goes pro-pot, it’s an inevitability. If a mayor or city council creates a system regulating cannabis production that is legal under state law and tries to tax it, will federal agents arrest them under federal drug trafficking statutes? I don’t think it’s a question of whether this would be legal but whether a federal prosecutor would be willing to take the political heat this would generate.

Second, small pot growers apparently lobbied the council not to pass the plan for mega-farms. Most analyses of the medical marijuana movement assume that the pot growers would become the vanguard for full legalization. But if you are a small grower, a big corporate producer of medical marijuana will easily be able to under-sell you and thereby reduce your profit. And if there is full legalization, small growers will be in the same position as small family farms trying to stay afloat in a market dominated by massive corporate farms. Some people were shocked that a number of small growers (and dispensary operators) opposed Prop 19, but that may become the normative stance over time once the implications of a corporate presence are more widely understood.

National ethanol intoxication stays at DWI levels for another year at least

Bob Dineen, chief flack for the US biofuels industry, is delighted with the extension of the ethanol and biodiesel tax credits that ex-Illinois senator Obama didn’t filter out of the tax compromise.  No, the Brazilians aren’t going to be relieved of the import duty that’s preventing us from using the one biofuel (their sugar cane ethanol) that may be genuinely green.  Dineen’s remarks included the following notable admission about the credit: “It is the foundation upon which this industry was built.”  In other words, after twenty years of trying to make it a business, fuel ethanol from corn is a losing proposition that destroys value rather than creating it, and can only be sustained by reaching into the pockets of taxpayers for $6B a year, or about one in every seven dollars of all corn sales.  On top of the $4B in plain old corn subsidies.  It’s payable to those “family farmers” whose average operation in Illinois (for example) is worth $1.5m just for the land, and the nice folks at Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, and the like. Average farm household income, by the way, is about 15% higher than the US average.

There are losing businesses that should be subsidized with public money, like education, parks, public transit, policing, and the military.  They are called market failures.  But there is no market  failure associated with growing corn and making automotive bourbon out of it, except the negative externalities like the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico created by fertilizer runoff into the Mississippi, which should occasion a tax, not a credit.  The Investor’s Business Daily deplores the credit extension, but you know what kind of  commie lefty rag IBD is.

Antibiotic resistance vs. a nickel a pound

The FDA is about to do the right thing about the routine use of antibiotics in livestock-raising.

For several decades, American agribusiness has been routinely putting antibiotics in animal feed. The result is to breed antibiotic-resistant strains of disease organisms, including the “super-bug MRSA.The spread of multiple antibiotic resistance is perhaps the greatest looming public health crisis, partly because the economics of health care doesn’t create big rewards for inventing new antibiotics.

So why are the animal-growers allowed to put the health of everyone on the planet at utterly unnecessary risk? Because some people think getting rid of the practice might add as much as a nickel a pound to the retail price of pork. (In Europe, the impact wasn’t that big.)

No, this shouldn’t be a hard decision. But somehow the FDA has never gotten around to banning the use of human antibiotics in healthy farm animals. That’s about to change.

I wonder which party controls the White House?

Elections have consequences.