January, Mr. Obama signed a food safety law that provides broad new authority to
the Food and Drug Administration,” wrote Robert Pear in Friday’s Times, in an
article about the Congressional appropriations mess. But House Republicans, he
added, had voted “to cut the agency’s budget.”
Well, yes, in a nutshell, that is the sad story of the food safety law — the
first major change in how the government regulates food safety in over 70 years.
But the way the Republicans have dealt with its funding represents more than
appropriations problems. It also represents the way they’ve allowed their
unyielding antitax, antispend ideology to get in the way of common sense — and
the common good.
A few weeks ago, in describing the absurd lawsuit the National Labor Relations
Board brought against Boeing — for the crime of opening a plant in nonunion
South Carolina — I characterized the N.L.R.B.’s effort as a case study in how
Democrats hurt job creation. In that column I promised to return with an equally
absurd Republican example. The refusal to properly fund the new food safety law
is exactly that.
For years, the food industry and consumer groups have been aligned on the need
to modernize the nation’s food safety inspection system. “Food-borne illnesses”
— an outbreak of salmonella or E. coli, for instance — are a problem not just
for consumers but for industry as well. Recalls are expensive. Sales shrink,
even for companies not involved in the recall. Lawsuits ensue. Employees lose
their jobs. It can take years to recover from a food scare.
F.D.A. inspections have always been geared toward domestic foodstuffs. But food
is now a global industry. “Today,” said Scott Faber, a vice president of the
Grocery Manufacturers Association, “we combine ingredients from hundreds of
thousands of suppliers in over 200 countries.” Government’s food inspection has
not kept pace.
The result was a bill, the Food Safety Modernization Act, whose contours had the
approval of both industry and groups like the Center for Science in the Public
Interest. It called for an overhaul of the inspection process, and applied tough
new standards on food processors, food importers and foreign suppliers. The
agency was required to do more foreign inspections, and use approved foreign
governments or third-party auditors for importers. It had other important
provisions to help prevent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses — and to track them
down more quickly when they did occur.
As for paying for this overhaul, the bill included an eminently sensible
mechanism: a fee on the industry. Originally set at $2,000 per food facility, it
was whittled down to $500, which still would have raised an impressive $300
million. In 2009, when the bill came to a House vote, it passed with bipartisan
support; even Michele Bachmann voted for it.
In the Senate, however, with its ever-present threat of Republican filibuster,
the fee never had a chance. Never mind that many of the biggest industry players
supported the fee. Indeed, many in industry wanted the fee. To the Republicans,
“fee” was code for “tax.” When the Senate finally passed the bill in late 2010,
the fee was gone.
There’s more. When President Obama submitted his 2012 budget to Congress, he
asked for $955 million for food safety, a $120 million increase. The increase
was necessary, of course, because without the fee, the F.D.A. was going to be
hard-pressed as it began the expensive process of changing how it inspected
Needless to say, that increase never had a chance either. With the House firmly
in Republican hands, it slashed the agency’s food budget by $87 million, to $750
million. That was a staggering $200 million less than the White House had
requested, an amount so low that it will make the F.D.A.’s already difficult
task nearly impossible.
Then again, the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, Jack
Kingston of Georgia, doesn’t really seem to think food safety is worth worrying
about; he’s on record saying that the nation’s food supply is “99.99 percent
safe.” He told The Washington Post last year that the amount of money the agency
wanted to fund the new law would be scaled back if it was “significant
overreach.” Apparently he thought it was significant overreach.
A few weeks ago, the Senate voted to increase funding just $40 million, which
still leaves the F.D.A. short. With so much chaos surrounding the appropriations
process, it is impossible to know how this will play out. To put it another way,
as the F.D.A. starts to carry out the new law, and industry prepares for it,
there is no certainty. This, of course, is exactly what Republicans complain
about when they say the Obama administration is hurting job creation.
There is certainty about one thing, though. The next time there is an E. coli
outbreak, we’ll know who to blame.
will appear in tomorrow’s Sunday Review.
FOOD prices are at record highs and the ranks of the hungry are swelling once
again. A warming climate is beginning to nibble at crop yields worldwide. The
United Nations predicts that there will be one to three billion more people to
feed by midcentury.
Yet even as the Obama administration says it wants to stimulate innovation by
eliminating unnecessary regulations, the Environmental Protection Agency wants
to require even more data on genetically modified crops, which have been
improved using technology with great promise and a track record of safety. The
process for approving these crops has become so costly and burdensome that it is
choking off innovation.
Civilization depends on our expanding ability to produce food efficiently, which
has markedly accelerated thanks to science and technology. The use of chemicals
for fertilization and for pest and disease control, the induction of beneficial
mutations in plants with chemicals or radiation to improve yields, and the
mechanization of agriculture have all increased the amount of food that can be
grown on each acre of land by as much as 10 times in the last 100 years.
These extraordinary increases must be doubled by 2050 if we are to continue to
feed an expanding population. As people around the world become more affluent,
they are demanding diets richer in animal protein, which will require ever more
robust feed crop yields to sustain.
New molecular methods that add or modify genes can protect plants from diseases
and pests and improve crops in ways that are both more environmentally benign
and beyond the capability of older methods. This is because the gene
modifications are crafted based on knowledge of what genes do, in contrast to
the shotgun approach of traditional breeding or using chemicals or radiation to
induce mutations. The results have been spectacular.
For example, genetically modified crops containing an extra gene that confers
resistance to certain insects require much less pesticide. This is good for the
environment because toxic pesticides decrease the supply of food for birds and
run off the land to poison rivers, lakes and oceans.
The rapid adoption of genetically modified herbicide-tolerant soybeans has made
it easier for farmers to park their plows and forgo tilling for weed control.
No-till farming is more sustainable and environmentally benign because it
decreases soil erosion and shrinks agriculture’s carbon footprint.
In 2010, crops modified by molecular methods were grown in 29 countries on more
than 360 million acres. Of the 15.4 million farmers growing these crops, 90
percent are poor, with small operations. The reason farmers turn to genetically
modified crops is simple: yields increase and costs decrease.
Myths about the dire effects of genetically modified foods on health and the
environment abound, but they have not held up to scientific scrutiny. And,
although many concerns have been expressed about the potential for unexpected
consequences, the unexpected effects that have been observed so far have been
benign. Contamination by carcinogenic fungal toxins, for example, is as much as
90 percent lower in insect-resistant genetically modified corn than in
nonmodified corn. This is because the fungi that make the toxins follow insects
boring into the plants. No insect holes, no fungi, no toxins.
Yet today we have only a handful of genetically modified crops, primarily
soybeans, corn, canola and cotton. All are commodity crops mainly used for feed
or fiber and all were developed by big biotech companies. Only big companies can
muster the money necessary to navigate the regulatory thicket woven by the
government’s three oversight agencies: the E.P.A., the Department of Agriculture
and the Food and Drug Administration.
Decades ago, when molecular approaches to plant improvement were relatively new,
there was some rationale for a cautious approach.
But now the evidence is in. These crop modification methods are not dangerous.
The European Union has spent more than $425 million studying the safety of
genetically modified crops over the past 25 years. Its recent, lengthy report on
the matter can be summarized in one sentence: Crop modification by molecular
methods is no more dangerous than crop modification by other methods. Serious
scientific bodies that have analyzed the issue, including the National Academy
of Sciences and the British Royal Society, have come to the same conclusion.
It is time to relieve the regulatory burden slowing down the development of
genetically modified crops. The three United States regulatory agencies need to
develop a single set of requirements and focus solely on the hazards — if any —
posed by new traits.
And above all, the government needs to stop regulating genetic modifications for
which there is no scientifically credible evidence of harm.
Fedoroff, who was the science
and technology adviser to the secretary of state
from 2007 to 2010,
is a professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University.
March 28, 2011
The New York Times
By STEPHANIE CLIFFORD
and CATHERINE RAMPELL
Chips are disappearing from bags, candy from boxes and vegetables from cans.
As an expected increase in the cost of raw materials looms for late summer,
consumers are beginning to encounter shrinking food packages.
With unemployment still high, companies in recent months have tried to
camouflage price increases by selling their products in tiny and tinier
packages. So far, the changes are most visible at the grocery store, where
shoppers are paying the same amount, but getting less.
For Lisa Stauber, stretching her budget to feed her nine children in Houston
often requires careful monitoring at the store. Recently, when she cooked her
usual three boxes of pasta for a big family dinner, she was surprised by a
smaller yield, and she began to suspect something was up.
“Whole wheat pasta had gone from 16 ounces to 13.25 ounces,” she said. “I bought
three boxes and it wasn’t enough — that was a little embarrassing. I bought the
same amount I always buy, I just didn’t realize it, because who reads the sizes
all the time?”
Ms. Stauber, 33, said she began inspecting her other purchases, aisle by aisle.
Many canned vegetables dropped to 13 or 14 ounces from 16; boxes of baby wipes
went to 72 from 80; and sugar was stacked in 4-pound, not 5-pound, bags, she
Five or so years ago, Ms. Stauber bought 16-ounce cans of corn. Then they were
15.5 ounces, then 14.5 ounces, and the size is still dropping. “The first time
I’ve ever seen an 11-ounce can of corn at the store was about three weeks ago,
and I was just floored,” she said. “It’s sneaky, because they figure people
In every economic downturn in the last few decades, companies have reduced the
size of some products, disguising price increases and avoiding comparisons on
same-size packages, before and after an increase. Each time, the marketing
campaigns are coy; this time, the smaller versions are “greener” (packages good
for the environment) or more “portable” (little carry bags for the takeout
lifestyle) or “healthier” (fewer calories).
Where companies cannot change sizes — as in clothing or appliances — they have
warned that prices will be going up, as the costs of cotton, energy, grain and
other raw materials are rising.
“Consumers are generally more sensitive to changes in prices than to changes in
quantity,” John T. Gourville, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School,
said. “And companies try to do it in such a way that you don’t notice, maybe
keeping the height and width the same, but changing the depth so the silhouette
of the package on the shelf looks the same. Or sometimes they add more air to
the chips bag or a scoop in the bottom of the peanut butter jar so it looks the
Thomas J. Alexander, a finance professor at Northwood University, said that
businesses had little choice these days when faced with increases in the costs
of their raw goods. “Companies only have pricing power when wages are also
increasing, and we’re not seeing that right now because of the high
unemployment,” he said.
Most companies reduce products quietly, hoping consumers are not reading labels
But the downsizing keeps occurring. A can of Chicken of the Sea albacore tuna is
now packed at 5 ounces, instead of the 6-ounce version still on some shelves,
and in some cases, the 5-ounce can costs more than the larger one. Bags of
Doritos, Tostitos and Fritos now hold 20 percent fewer chips than in 2009,
though a spokesman said those extra chips were just a “limited time” offer.
Trying to keep customers from feeling cheated, some companies are introducing
new containers that, they say, have terrific advantages — and just happen to
contain less product.
Kraft is introducing “Fresh Stacks” packages for its Nabisco Premium saltines
and Honey Maid graham crackers. Each has about 15 percent fewer crackers than
the standard boxes, but the price has not changed. Kraft says that because the
Fresh Stacks include more sleeves of crackers, they are more portable and “the
packaging format offers the benefit of added freshness,” said Basil T. Maglaris,
a Kraft spokesman, in an e-mail.
And Procter & Gamble is expanding its “Future Friendly” products, which it
promotes as using at least 15 percent less energy, water or packaging than the
“They are more environmentally friendly, that’s true — but they’re also
smaller,” said Paula Rosenblum, managing partner for retail systems research at
Focus.com, an online specialist network. “They announce it as great new
packaging, and in fact what it is is smaller packaging, smaller amounts of the
product,” she said.
Or marketers design a new shape and size altogether, complicating any effort to
comparison shop. The unwrapped Reese’s Minis, which were introduced in February,
are smaller than the foil-wrapped Miniatures. They are also more expensive —
$0.57 an ounce at FreshDirect, versus $0.37 an ounce for the individually
At H. J. Heinz, prices on ketchup, condiments, sauces and Ore-Ida products have
already gone up, and the company is selling smaller-than-usual versions of
condiments, like 5-ounce bottles of items like Heinz 57 Sauce sold at places
like Dollar General.
“I have never regretted raising prices in the face of significant cost
pressures, since we can always course-correct if the outcome is not as we
expected,” Heinz’s chairman and chief executive, William R. Johnson, said last
While companies have long adjusted package sizes to appeal to changing tastes,
from supersizes to 100-calorie packs, the recession drove a lot of corporations
to think small. The standard size for Edy’s ice cream went from 2 liters to 1.5
in 2008. And Tropicana shifted to a 59-ounce carton rather than a 64-ounce one
last year, after the cost of oranges rose.
With prices for energy and for raw materials like corn, cotton and sugar
creeping up and expected to surge later this year, companies are barely
bothering to cover up the shrinking packs.
“Typically, the product manufacturers are doing this slightly ahead of the
perceived inflationary issues,” Ms. Rosenblum said. “Lately, it hasn’t been
subtle — I mean, they’ve been shrinking by noticeable amounts.”
That can work to a company’s benefit. In the culture of thinness, smaller may be
a selling point. It lets retailers honestly claim, for example, that a snack
package contains fewer calories — without having to change the ingredients a
“For indulgences like ice cream, chocolate and potato chips, consumers may say
‘I don’t mind getting a little bit less because I shouldn’t be consuming so much
anyway,’ ” said Professor Gourville. “That’s a harder argument to make with
something like diapers or orange juice.”
But even while companies blame the recession for smaller packages, they rarely
increase sizes in good times, he said.
He traced the shrinking package trends to the late 1980s, when companies like
Chock full o’ Nuts downsized the one-pound tin of ground coffee to 13 ounces.
That shocked consumers, for whom a pound of coffee had been as standard a
purchase unit as a dozen eggs or a six-pack of beer, he said.
Once the economy rebounds, he said, a new “jumbo” size product typically
emerges, at an even higher cost per ounce. Then the gradual shrinking process of
all package sizes begins anew, he said.
“It’s a continuous cycle, where at some point the smallest package offered
becomes so small that perhaps they’re phased out and replaced by the medium-size
package, which has been shrunk down,” he said.
countries have already seen food riots this year. The ever higher cost of food
could push tens of millions of people into abject poverty and starvation.
To a large degree, this crisis is man-made — the result of misguided energy and
farm policies. When President Bush and other heads of state of the Group of 8
leading industrial nations meet in Japan this week, they must accept their full
share of responsibility and lay out clearly what they will do to address this
To start, they must live up to their 2005 commitment to vastly increase aid to
the poorest countries. And they must push other wealthy countries, like those in
the Middle East, to help too. That will not be enough. They must also commit to
reduce, or even better, do away with their most egregious agricultural and
energy subsidies, which contribute to the spread of hunger throughout the world.
In the last year, the price of corn has risen 70 percent; wheat 55 percent; rice
160 percent. The World Bank estimates that for a group of 41 poor countries the
combined shock of rising prices of food, oil and other raw materials over the
past 18 months will cost them between 3 and 10 percent of their annual economic
Some of the causes are out of governments’ control, including the rising cost of
energy and fertilizer, and drought in food exporters like Australia. Higher
consumption of animal protein in China and India has also driven demand for feed
grains. Wrongheaded policies among rich and poor nations are also playing a big
Of those, perhaps the most wrongheaded are the tangle of subsidies, mandates and
tariffs to encourage the production of biofuels from crops in the United States
and the European Union. According to the World Bank, almost all of the growth in
global corn production from 2004 to 2007 was devoted to American ethanol
production — pushing up corn and animal feed prices and prompting farmers to
switch from other crops to corn.
Long-standing farm subsidies in the rich world have also contributed to the
crisis, ruining farmers in poor countries and depressing agricultural
Rich countries are not the only culprits. At least 30 developing countries have
imposed restrictions or bans on the export of foodstuffs. Importing countries
are now stockpiling supplies, which takes more food from global markets. Export
barriers also reduce farmers’ profits and discourage them from investing in more
So far there is no sign that the leaders of the developed countries are ready to
do what is needed. The United States and Europe have refused to curtail their
bio-fuel subsidies or their lavish farm subsidies. They are also falling far
short of their aid commitments.
At the 2005 G8 summit meeting, leaders said that by 2010 wealthier nations would
increase annual development aid to poor countries by $50 billion. Yet aid has
increased by only $11 billion. And there is suspicion that the G8 nations, who
were to provide the lion’s share of the increase, want to wiggle out of their
We welcome President Bush’s pledge to provide $5 billion this year and next to
“fight global hunger,” but much more must be done. The United States remains the
stingiest of rich nations when it come to foreign aid.
In a letter to heads of state of the G8, Robert Zoellick, the World Bank
president, estimated that the bank needs $3.5 billion to provide immediate food
aid and seed and fertilizer in poor countries. The International Monetary Fund
and the World Food Program estimate they need $6.5 billion more in the short
term to help feed vulnerable populations. This does not even count the need for
essential longer-term investments to increase farm productivity in poor nations
in Africa and elsewhere.
As Mr. Zoellick wrote, the food crisis is a test of the world’s willingness to
help the most vulnerable. The leaders gathered in Japan must rise to the
The New York Times
By LESLIE KAUFMAN
meet on food stamps has never been easy for Cassandra Johnson, but since food
prices began their steep climb earlier this year, she has had to develop new
She hunts for items that are on the shelf beyond their expiration dates because
their prices are often reduced, a practice she once avoided.
Ms. Johnson, 44, who works in customer service for a medical firm, knows that
buying food this way is not healthy, but she sees no other choice if she wants
to feed herself and her 1-year-old niece Ammni Harris and 2-year-old nephew
Tramier Harris, who live with her.
“I live paycheck to paycheck,” said Ms. Johnson, as she walked out of a market
near her home in Hackensack, N.J., pushing both Ammni and the week’s groceries
in a shopping cart. “And we’re not coping.”
The sharp rise in food prices is being felt acutely by poor families on food
stamps, the federal food assistance program.
In the past year, the cost of food for what the government considers a minimum
nutritional diet has risen 7.2 percent nationwide. It is on track to become the
largest increase since 1989, according to April data, the most recent numbers,
from the United States Department of Agriculture. The prices of certain staples
have risen even more. The cost of eggs, for example, has increased nearly 20
percent, and the price of milk and other dairy products has risen 10 percent.
But food stamp allocations, intended to cover only minimum needs, have not
changed since last fall and will not rise again until October, when an increase
linked to inflation will take effect. The percentage, equal to the annual rise
in prices for the minimum nutritional food basket as measured each June, is
usually announced by early August.
Some advocates and politicians say that this relief will not come soon enough
and will probably not be adequate to keep pace with inflation.
Stacy Dean, the director of food assistance for the Center on Budget and Policy
Priorities, a Washington social issues research and advocacy organization,
estimates that the rising food prices have resulted in two fewer bags of
groceries a month for the families most reliant on the program.
“We know food stamps are falling short $34 a month” of the monthly $576 that the
government says it costs a family of four to eat nutritional meals, she said.
“The sudden price increases on top of everything else like soaring fuel and
health care have meant squeeze and strain that is unprecedented since the late
The declining buying power of food stamps has not gone unrecognized in
Washington. In May, Congress passed a farm bill that would raise the minimum
amount of food stamps that families receive, starting in October. The bill,
which was passed over President Bush’s veto, will also raise for the first time
since 1996 the amount of income that families of fewer than four can keep for
costs like housing or fuel without having their benefits reduced.
This month, a coalition led by Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. called on
Congress to immediately enact a temporary 20 percent increase in food stamps.
Officials at the Agriculture Department, which administers the program, say
there is no precedent for such an action. Families on food stamps have been hit
hard across the nation, but perhaps not as hard as families in New York, where
food costs are substantially higher than prices almost everywhere else,
including other urban areas, according to the Food Research and Action Center, a
research and advocacy group in Washington.
The more than one million New Yorkers on food stamps receive on average $107 a
month in assistance, which is slightly higher than the average for the rest of
the country. But it is not enough to close the gap in food costs, experts say.
Poor families interviewed in the New York area say that they are not going
hungry — thanks in large part to the city’s strong network of 1,200 soup
kitchens and food pantries — but that they have really felt the pinch. To cope,
many say, they are doing without the basics.
June Jacobs-Cuffee of Brooklyn shares $120 a month in food stamps with her
19-year-old epileptic son. She says that even after her once-a-month trip to the
food pantry at St. John’s Bread & Life in Brooklyn, she has had to give up red
meat and is also cutting back on buying fresh fruits and sticking instead with
canned goods and fruit cocktail.
“It is not a question of running out, yet,” she said. “But it does require very
The most recent census data showed that from 2003 to 2006 an average of 1.3
million New Yorkers identified themselves as “food insecure,” meaning that they
were worried about being able to buy enough food to keep their families
adequately fed. City officials are concerned that the food price increase has
caused that number to increase significantly.
“I am much more worried about the state of hunger in New York City than I was 6
or 12 months ago,” said Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker. Ms. Quinn
said that food pantries were increasingly complaining about being tapped out.
She added, “What we are hearing from constituents is that they are having to
make tougher and tougher decisions like to water down milk for kids or not
purchase medication to keep money for food.”
Yessenia Villar, who lives in Washington Heights and works tutoring children in
Spanish and English, knows about tough choices. She says it is getting harder to
stretch her monthly $190 in food stamps to cover food for herself, her mother
and her 5-year-old daughter. At the end of the month, she runs out of oil, rice
and, most painful of all, plantains, which have gone from five for $1 to two for
$1, she says.
She says she has stopped buying extras like summer sandals for herself, and has
also given up treats like cookies and ice cream for her daughter. “I used to
make all my groceries for $150 a month and then have a little extra,” she said.
“Now it is, like, crazy.”
May 7, 2008
Filed at 7:26 a.m. ET
The New York Times
(Reuters) - Carolyn Stanley, a single mother with five children, receives $327
in food stamps each month to feed her family. With prices for staples like bread
and cheese going ever higher, each month is harder than the last.
She buys hot dogs over higher-quality meat and feeds her kids cereal, but even
with other government support she often has to seek help from local churches and
"The food runs out somewhere within the middle of the month, or getting close to
the end," said Stanley, 49. "It is not easy. I pray."
While food inflation is causing tensions and riots around the world, even the
affluent United States is being touched. Stories such as Stanley's are becoming
more common as Americans increasingly turn to food stamps and other programs to
make ends meet.
At a cost of about $39 billion to the U.S. Treasury, nearly one in 10 Americans
-- 28 million people -- are expected next year to use food stamps, which would
be the highest enrolment in the program apart from a spike after the Gulf Coast
hurricanes of 2005.
U.S. food prices are expected to rise by up to 5 percent this year, part of a
global trend driven fueled by consumption in rapidly developing countries such
as China, adverse weather, and the funneling of food crops to make biofuels.
"People don't want to talk about hunger in America because that's not supposed
to have happened. Didn't we take care of that a generation or two ago?" said
Kevin McGuire, Food Stamp director for Maryland. "Well, not really." The number
of beneficiaries jumped 12 percent in Maryland from a year ago.
The crunch comes as the economy takes a sharp turn for the worse and many see
the number of people receiving food stamps as advance indicator of an economic
Today, food stamp officials are not only watching more people apply for the
benefits, they're seeing more of them come from the working poor, people whose
low-wage jobs still leave them eligible under the program's strict income caps.
"Having a job isn't enough anymore. Having two or three jobs isn't enough
anymore," said Marcia Paulson, spokeswoman for Great Plains Food Bank in North
Dakota, where nearly half the households on food stamps have at least one adult
with a job.
"Our pantries are overwhelmed," said Diane Doherty, director of the Illinois
Hunger Coalition, which helps the needy find food assistance and sign up for
Doherty said people's food stamps are running out more quickly due to higher
prices -- often within two weeks. More than ever are receiving stamps for the
first time, she said.
"They're just not able to make ends meet when they're trying to raise a family
on these meager salaries, with the cost of housing and now with the cost of
gas," she said.
Maryland's McGuire is one official who believes that the annual adjustments in
food stamp dollars have been inadequate.
Nationally, the average benefit per person early this year was about $100 per
month -- around $1 a meal.
The government will adjust that payout in June, but people won't see their
benefits change until October.
Stanley, who receives no child support for her daughters, the youngest of whom
is in the first grade, hopes that federal officials will act more quickly.
"If you've ever lived the crunch of that poverty level, you would understand
that people need more," Stanley said.
PARTLY BEHIND GROWING ROLLS
Program officials are quick to stress that food stamps were never intended to
make up a family's entire food budget, and point to other programs that can help
needy families -- school lunches, after-school programs, and food banks.
"We firmly believe that no American should go hungry," said Kate Houston, a
deputy undersecretary at USDA.
The growing rolls of food stamp beneficiaries is a mixed picture, Houston said,
reflecting in part a success in reaching out to eligible people who hadn't
received help in the past.
"The program is designed to expand and contract based on economic conditions,"
House and Senate lawmakers, forging a final compromise on a giant agriculture
law, now plan to add over $10 billion to the food stamp program over the next
decade, raising the standard income deduction, boosting the minimum benefit to
$14 a month, an increase of $4, and giving more to food pantry donations.
Food stamp officials are counseling people on how to make their stamps last as
long as possible -- buying ground beef or other meat when it's on sale and
freezing it, for example.
That may be cold comfort for people like Sandra Fowler, 42, a mother in suburban
Chicago who recently applied for food stamps, and describes her situation as
Fowler is months behind on mortgage payments on her house and is going through a
"It will feed my children, at least. I've been going to a food pantry, waiting
in line. The choices are really limited -- there might be some eggs, canned
goods," she said.
Most experts predict that high crop and fuel prices will linger for at least two
to three years, and sky-high oil and gasoline prices are unlikely to abate any
Even in the country known as the 'land of plenty,' McGuire said, the cost crunch
"affects literally at a gut level what's going on" for the less fortunate.
"We're going to need to start stitching the safety net a little bit bigger."
The Wall Street Journal
By ANNE MARIE CHAKER
families are looking right under their feet to ease the problem of high food
As consumers balk at the rising cost of groceries, homeowners increasingly are
cutting out sections of lawn and retiring flower beds to grow their own food.
They're building raised vegetable beds, turning their spare time over to
gardening, and doing battle with insect pests.
At Al's Garden Center in Portland, Ore., sales of vegetable plants this season
have jumped an unprecedented 43% from a year earlier, and sales of
fruit-producing trees and shrubs are up 17%. Sales of flower perennials, on the
other hand, are down 16%. It's much the same story at Williams Nursery,
Westfield, N.J., where total sales are down 4.6% even as herb and
vegetable-plant sales have risen 16%. And in Austin, Texas, Great Outdoors
reports sales of flowers slightly down, while sales of vegetables have risen 20%
over last year.
grow-your-own trend comes as the price of food has skyrocketed. The government
recently reported that April's 0.9% increase in food prices from the previous
month was the fastest pace in 18 years -- a reflection of global pressures, from
drought in Australia to increased demand in India and China.
For Michele von Turkovich in South Burlington, Vt., those pressures hit home
when she noticed her average grocery bill hit $800 a month. "I reached for the
organic strawberries the other day and realized, 'I can't buy organic,' " says
the research-lab technician and mother of three teenage daughters.
After chatting with a neighbor who has a large garden, Ms. von Turkovich in
April decided to dig up a 10-by-12-foot patch of lawn struggling on the side of
her house to plant vegetables. Her neighbor helped her to think about making the
best use of the space so that there would always be something in the garden to
So far, the lettuce is an inch high, and she's looking forward to radishes in
about a week. Also sprouting are about a dozen varieties of greens, including
Swiss chard, kale, scallions and endive. A used soccer net serves as a makeshift
trellis for the peas she is expecting. It's a lot of toil, though. Ms. von
Turkovich says she typically spends at least an hour after work each day on her
garden and about half the weekend. "It takes a significant amount of my spare
Even before this year's food-price crunch, the vigor for veggies was already
gaining momentum. An annual survey of more than 2,000 households by the National
Gardening Association shows the average amount spent per household on flowers
was flat in 2007 compared with a year earlier. But spending on vegetable plants
rose 21% to $58 per household last year, and spending on herbs gained 45% to
Bruce Butterfield, the association's research director, expects 2008 will be
another strong year for vegetable gardening thanks to "the combination of gas
prices, food prices, and people staying at home because the world's gone crazy,"
he says. "At least they can have some control over their backyard."
George Ball, chief executive of seed giant W. Atlee Burpee & Co. in Warminster,
Pa., says he thinks the veggie-gardening rage is prompted by more than just food
costs. His business has seen more baby boomers "entering their prime gardening
years," he says. Now, this generation has "a lot of time, the rat race is over,
a home that is likely to be their last, and kids past puberty," he says.
Burpee's sales of vegetables and herbs are up about 40% this year, twice last
year's growth rate. Tomatoes, summer squash, onions, cucumbers, peas and beans
continue to be top sellers. "We're running out of things like onions, that you
think would never be that hot and raging," he says.
In West Columbia, S.C., Sarah Rosenbaum ripped up about a quarter of her
family's landscaped yard to install six raised vegetable beds. "You get a pack
of seeds for a dollar or two, and you have got a whole bed of organic vegetables
for a fraction of what you'd pay at the store. And they taste better."
The project got under way in early March when Ms. Rosenbaum, her partner and his
12-year-old twins started seeds indoors for all their vegetables -- from bok
choy to zucchini. "We're out in the garden after work every day, pretty much"
she says. "We love doing the work, so it doesn't really feel like work." She
hopes the experience will also inspire the twins to eat more vegetables.
To be sure, a new gardener can find himself plunking down a significant amount
of money to get started. Ms. Rosenbaum says that the initial investment in her
vegetable garden was around $500 for everything from lumber to wire cages. While
that may seem high for someone trying to save on food costs, she plans on
reusing the materials year after year. "We're even planning to save seeds for
next year," she says.
In the Garden Grove neighborhood of Portland, Ore., a community garden got a big
makeover. Not only did the 15 participating households decide to double the
garden's size and install a rain-sensitive sprinkler system; they also set aside
a section so that each family gets its own subplot. "I'm in no way a tie-dye
wearing granola hippie," says Garden Grove resident Dylan T. Boyd, a vice
president at an email marketing company and father to two small boys. "But I was
looking at the price of blueberries the other day -- $5 for a fistful. I
thought, 'Are you kidding me?' "
While it's a time commitment, he says, the payback is far greater. "It's so much
easier to walk to the top of the street and grab your lettuce and tomatoes for
dinner, fresh every day."
Talk to your local nursery or check the seed packet for instructions on ideal
planting times, which vary depending on what part of the country you live in.
Here are some other things to consider:
If you live near an industrial plant or even in an old house where lead-based
paint may have seeped into the soil, you should consider getting the soil
checked for contaminants. A cooperative extension affiliated with a state
university can usually do this. For the office near you go to
If you build a separate or raised bed filled with compost and topsoil, you can
forgo testing the soil you're worried about.
You can also buy a soil-testing kit at a garden center which will tell you the
pH and key nutrient levels. Optimum pH for growing vegetables is generally
slightly acidic (between 6.5 and 7). If you don't have enough nitrogen,
phosphorous or potassium you should add organic matter, such as good compost
mixed in with your existing soil. Also consider organic fertilizers to boost
those nutrients, such as blood meal, alfalfa meal, sea kelp or fish emulsion.
Most vegetables do best when they get plenty of sun, so pick a spot that gets
optimum sunlight, at least six to eight hours of direct sun daily. Leafy greens
such as lettuce and spinach can tolerate shadier conditions. Also, those leafy
vegetables typically want to be planted in the cooler part of the season, before
average temperatures go much past 70 degrees. Vegetables that do best in the
hotter months include tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash. To conserve
space, consider planting lettuce underneath tomato vines or even mixing them in
other parts of the garden, where the foliage, vines and flowers can be
captivating in their own right.
"Sometimes people think they have to be in perfect rows, but there's no reason
you can't put them in a little closer and mix them in with flower gardens," says
Lori Bushway, a gardening outreach specialist at Cornell University. She adds
that doing so is also a good foil for pests that tend to zero in more rapidly on
plants that are massed together. When distributed around the landscape, "they're
harder to find," she says.
Before You Spray
If you see a pest, find out what it is before reaching for that scary-sounding
spray can. "People are buying sprays without even knowing what the problem is in
the first place," says John Traunfeld, director of the home and garden
information center at the University of Maryland's College of Agriculture and
Natural Resources. The local cooperative extension can help identify the problem
and suggest the best remedy. "A lot can be taken care of by just hand picking,"
The New York Times
By DIANA B. HENRIQUES
investment funds have already poured hundreds of billions of dollars into
booming financial markets for commodities like wheat, corn and soybeans.
But a few big private investors are starting to make bolder and longer-term bets
that the world’s need for food will greatly increase — by buying farmland,
fertilizer, grain elevators and shipping equipment.
One has bought several ethanol plants, Canadian farmland and enough storage
space in the Midwest to hold millions of bushels of grain.
Another is buying more than five dozen grain elevators, nearly that many
fertilizer distribution outlets and a fleet of barges and ships.
And three institutional investors, including the giant BlackRock fund group in
New York, are separately planning to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in
agriculture, chiefly farmland, from sub-Saharan Africa to the English
“It’s going on big time,” said Brad Cole, president of Cole Partners Asset
Management in Chicago, which runs a fund of hedge funds focused on natural
resources. “There is considerable interest in what we call ‘owning structure’ —
like United States farmland, Argentine farmland, English farmland — wherever the
profit picture is improving.”
These new bets by big investors could bolster food production at a time when the
world needs more of it.
The investors plan to consolidate small plots of land into more productive large
ones, to introduce new technology and to provide capital to modernize and
maintain grain elevators and fertilizer supply depots.
But the long-term implications are less clear. Some traditional players in the
farm economy, and others who study and shape agriculture policy, say they are
concerned these newcomers will focus on profits above all else, and not share
the industry’s commitment to farming through good times and bad.
“Farmland can be a bubble just like Florida real estate,” said Jeffrey Hainline,
president of Advance Trading, a 28-year-old commodity brokerage firm and
consulting service in Bloomington, Ill. “The cycle of getting in and out would
be very volatile and disruptive.”
By owning land and other parts of the agricultural business, these new investors
are freed from rules aimed at curbing the number of speculative bets that they
and other financial investors can make in commodity markets. “I just wonder if
they need some sheep’s clothing to put on,” Mr. Hainline said.
Mark Lapolla, an adviser to institutional investors, is also a bit wary of the
potential disruption this new money could cause. “It is important to ask whether
these financial investors want to actually operate the means of production — or
simply want to have a direct link into the physical supply of commodities and
thereby reduce the risk of their speculation,” he said.
Grain elevators, especially, could give these investors new ways to make money,
because they can buy or sell the actual bushels of corn or soybeans, rather than
buying and selling financial derivatives that are linked to those commodities.
When crop prices are climbing, holding inventory for future sale can yield
higher profits than selling to meet current demand, for example. Or if prices
diverge in different parts of the world, inventory can be shipped to the more
“It’s a huge disadvantage to not be able to trade the physical commodity,” said
Andrew J. Redleaf, founder of Whitebox Advisors, a hedge fund management firm in
Mr. Redleaf bought several large grain elevator complexes from ConAgra and
Cargill last year for a long-term stake in what he sees as a high-growth
business. The elevators can store 36 million bushels of grain.
“We discovered that our lease customers, major food company types, are really
happy to see us, because they are apt to see Cargill and ConAgra as
competitors,” he said.
The executives making such bets say that fears about their new role are
unfounded, and that their investments will be a plus for farming and,
ultimately, for consumers.
“The world is asking for more food, more energy. You see a huge demand,” said
Axel Hinsch, chief executive of Calyx Agro, a division of the giant Louis
Dreyfus Commodities, which is buying tens of thousands of acres of cropland in
Brazil with the backing of big institutional investors, including AIG
“What this new investment will buy is more technology,” Mr. Hinsch said. “We
will be helping to accelerate the development of infrastructure, and the
consumer will benefit because there will be more supply.”
Financial investors also can provide grain elevator operators the money they
need to weather today’s more volatile commodity markets. When wild swings in
prices become common, as they are now, elevator operators have to put up more
cash to lock in future prices. John Duryea, co-portfolio manager of the Ospraie
Special Opportunity Fund, is buying 66 grain elevators with a total capacity of
110 million bushels from ConAgra for $2.1 billion. The deal, expected to close
by the end of June, also will give Ospraie a stake in 57 fertilizer distribution
centers and the barges and ships necessary to keep them supplied with low-cost
Maintaining these essential services “helps bring costs down to the farmers,”
Mr. Duryea said. “That has to help mitigate the price increases for crops.”
Mr. Duryea of the Ospraie fund dismissed the idea that financial investors, with
obligations to suppliers and customers of their elevators and fertilizer
services, would put their thumb on the supply-demand scale by holding back
inventory to move prices artificially.
“It is not in our best interests for anyone to be negatively affected by what we
do,” he said.
Perhaps the most ambitious plans are those of Susan Payne, founder and chief
executive of Emergent Asset Management, based near London.
Emergent is raising $450 million to $750 million to invest in farmland in
sub-Saharan Africa, where it plans to consolidate small plots into more
productive holdings and introduce better equipment. Emergent also plans to
provide clinics and schools for local labor.
One crop and a source of fuel for farming operations will be jatropha, an
oil-seed plant useful for biofuels that is grown in sandy soil unsuitable for
food production, Ms. Payne said.
“We are getting strong response from institutional investors — pensions,
insurance companies, endowments, some sovereign wealth funds,” she said.
The fund chose Africa because “land values are very, very inexpensive, compared
to other agriculture-based economies,” she said. “Its microclimates are
enticing, allowing a range of different crops. There’s accessible labor. And
there’s good logistics — wide open roads, good truck transport, sea transport.”
The Emergent fund is one of a growing roster of farmland investment funds based
Last October, the London branch of BlackRock introduced the BlackRock
Agriculture Fund, aiming to raise $200 million to invest in fertilizer
production, timberland and biofuels. The fund currently stands at more than $450
Braemar Group, near Manchester, is investing exclusively in Britain. “Britain is
a nice, stable northwestern European economy with the same climate and quality
of soil as northwestern Europe,” said Marc Duschenes, Braemar’s chief executive.
“But our land is at a 50 percent discount to Ireland and Denmark. We just
haven’t caught up yet.“
Europe, like the United States, is facing mandated increases in biofuel
production, he said, and cropland near new ethanol facilities in the northeast
of England will be the first source of supply. “No one is going to put a ton of
grain on a boat in Latin America and ship it to the northeast of England to turn
it into bioethanol,” he said.
For Gary R. Blumenthal, chief executive of World Perspectives, an agriculture
consulting firm in Washington, the new investments by big financial players, if
sustained, could be just what global agriculture needs — “where you can bring
small, fragmented pieces together to boost the production side of agriculture.”
He added: “Investment funds are seeing that this consolidation brings value to
them. But I’m saying this brings value to everyone.”
May 29 2008
This article appeared in the Guardian on Thursday May 29 2008 on p12 of the UK
It was last updated at 00:15 on May 29 2008.
For the two
weeks in every month that her husband Jim is working offshore, abseiling off the
side of oil rigs to check and replace gas detector units, Sharon Wall is at home
with their four young children. As Wall does not drive, and their home town of
Peterhead, near Aberdeen, is not well stocked with affordable, good quality food
shops within walking distance, feeding the junior Walls is a little more
complicated than for most families.
The first thing that Jim Wall does on his way home is call in at a large Tesco
on the outskirts of Aberdeen, to buy "a bit of everything". Though the family
has a weekly box of vegetables delivered from a local farmers' market, and
toiletry essentials are mailed from Avon, his return is eagerly expected.
"I always fill the fridge and freezers up before I go, and then when I come back
I have to do it all over again," he says. "I know the cupboards will be pretty
bare by that stage." The couple say their weekly food bill is usually around
£150, though in the last four days they've spent £220. A few years ago, they
reckon, they spent about £100 a week, though they acknowledge feeding the family
was a bit more straightforward before the arrival of three-year-old Jessica and
one-year-old Sophie. All four children, Sharon Wall says, "love to eat".
"Bread and milk are classic examples," says her husband. "I think it was about
75p for a loaf of Asda bread just a couple of months back, now it's up to just
under the £1 mark."
"I tend to go in and do quite a small shop when he's away, and what used to cost
me £20, £25, now that's up to £35, almost £40, for pretty much the same amount
of stuff," says Sharon Wall. "I was in the other day and I thought, oh, I've got
hardly anything here and it's come to £20 at Asda!"
The numbers and the precise circumstances may vary, but in recent months the
Walls' experience has found echoes in family budgets up and down Britain. The
global commodity price hikes that have led to riots and civil disorder from
Haiti to west Africa to the Philippines may have been greeted, in this country,
with British stoicism, but for many, food price rises - a pound here, £10 there
- are starting to hurt.
Bread costs 20% more than it did a year ago, according to a survey earlier this
month by the price comparison site mysupermarket.com, and rice 60% more. Pasta
has gone up by 81% in some shops, and in Tesco it was found to be 113% more
expensive. Butter costs 60% more than it did, meat prices too are up. The site
puts the annual rise at 19.1%. Though industry observers point out that this
figure includes prices from the more expensive Waitrose but not the
promotion-focused Morrisons or any budget supermarket chains such as Lidl, it
represents the sharpest rise in food prices since records began.
"The odd thing is that a lot of people seem to have only just noticed," says
Alex Beckett, a food specialist at the industry magazine The Grocer. "In fact,
food prices have been going up for quite some time, but they have dramatically
soared in the last 18 months."
In his small local Asda on a Peterhead housing estate, Jim Wall pauses in front
of a rack of loaves, running through his head the small, familiar calculations -
5p, 12p, 24p - that can make the difference between ending the month overdrawn,
and not. Warburtons farmhouse loaves, the family favourite, are £1.12 each. Asda
does a simple sliced white loaf for 65p. He puts two loaves of Asda Baker's
Gold, 95p each, in his trolley.
"I suppose this is a bit nicer than the plain Asda loaf, but cheaper than your
Warburtons and your Kingsmill. For years we bought Warburtons, but when you're
going through almost a loaf of bread a day that 17p does make a difference." He
thinks the pricier loaf cost 74p six months ago. They'd like to feed the
children "seedy bread", as they call it, every day, but that's at least £1.40 a
Eggs, too, involve a compromise: "I really don't like the way battery chickens
are kept, but six plain eggs are just 88p, and here you have 12 free range for
£2.92." In the end he compromises with a dozen "barn eggs" for £2.52. On
cereals, juice, dishwasher rinse aid, washing up liquid, the Asda own brand is
But it is not just branded items that are proving too costly. Sharon Wall
researches food extensively; their second son Stuart, eight, is on the autistic
spectrum, and they have learned over the years that different foods can affect
his moods and behaviour.
Food miles, pesticides, and fair trade also concern them, she says, but these
days ethics can feel something of an expensive luxury. "We try to get bits of
organic food, I try to get the fair trade coffee. Price comes into it, though.
Some weeks I try to pick up the fair trade coffee, whereas other weeks I think,
I just can't afford it this week."
If the current climate is squeezing consumers, it is also proving a challenge to
the supermarket chains. Factory gate prices - the amount manufacturers charge
retailers - may have risen sharply but supermarkets insist their prices across
the board are increasing only marginally.
Just days after reporting a 28% increase in annual profits, shares in
Sainsbury's fell earlier this month amid predictions that the market is about to
become "a lot tougher". The signs, even small ones, are everywhere. After seven
years, Waitrose ditched an advertising slogan which made a virtue of its higher
cost - "quality food, honestly priced" - in favour of something more
egalitarian: "Everyone deserves quality food. Everyone deserves Waitrose."
Stores look rather different than they used to: budget and own-brand ranges,
once the faintly embarrassing end of product lines, are now found front and
centre in displays. Tesco says its 9,000 current promotions are the most in its
history, Asda has 5,000. Thirty per cent of Sainsbury's products are promotional
offers, the store says, compared with 20% this time last year.
Meanwhile super-budget chains, imported from Europe, are flourishing. Aldi
reports a 25% increase in customer numbers in the past three months. Lidl,
already with 400 stores, is planning 40 new ones. "We need more sites to
develop," reads the Netto website. "Do you own land or property which may be
suitable for a new Netto store?"
"It is certainly a challenge to get the products which people expect to be on
the shelves at the right price," says Andrew Opie, food policy director at the
British Retail Consortium, which represents leading British supermarket chains.
"Some problems, when it comes to commodity prices, are out of their hands,
though the retailers have tried to prepare by having a flexible food chain,
negotiating with suppliers. They see themselves as trying to absorb costs to
insulate consumers from the worst vagaries of the harvests, while at the same
time taking advantage of products where there is good availability, such as
fruit and vegetables, or sugar, some meat prices, and get those promoted as an
alternative. We are seeing more promotions than ever, and these tend to be
geared towards straightforward reductions in price, rather than bogofs ["buy one
get one free" offers]."
The Wall family welcome offers, of course, but with reservations. Asda may be
wallpapered with promotions but, says Jim Wall, "the things that aren't good for
you, the cookies and the cakes and the crisps, are the things that are on
offer". Although shoppers are greeted by a large display of discounted cheddar,
and an offer on potatoes has proved so popular they have sold out, among the
most prominent promotions today are Cadbury Mini Rolls, Mr Kipling Victoria Mini
Classics, and Asda Jumbo Milk Chocolate Cookies.
As Scots almost at the end of the transport line, the Walls are perhaps more
disadvantaged than most as Scottish food prices, already the highest in Britain,
are rising more rapidly than those south of the border.
But they may also find themselves ahead of the debate. In response to high
prices, faltering production and the country's notoriously poor nutrition, the
Scottish parliament late last year initiated a "national food debate", towards
formulating a comprehensive policy for food provision and access north of the
border. This, argue some, is a conversation that needs to happen more broadly in
the £1-a-loaf climate. For as long as Britain consumes so much more than it
produces - and bins £10bn-worth of food a year, including, every day, 550,000
chickens and 5.1m potatoes - they argue that talk of supermarket prices is
topsy-turvy at best.
"The whole story has been pitched as a global problem, and it is, but this is a
British problem," says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University and
arguably Britain's leading expert on the subject. "We are a flagrantly wasteful,
inappropriate, uneconomic food system and we are pretending that this is China's
or Brazil's problem. People like me have been saying for years that this
situation was coming. I am not being a clever clogs. I'm just not sure the
politicians have caught up with it, frankly."
The "leave it to Tesco et al" approach, he says, demonstrably cannot work in
sorting out the enormous global forces behind the price hikes. "I'm afraid that
not even Tesco or Sainsbury, not even the mighty Wal-Mart, can sort out climate
change, or the impending water crisis in food, the nutrition transition [the
shift in rapidly industrialising countries from simple to highly processed and
often unhealthy diets] and its associated health problems, population growth,
the labour crisis which is creeping upon us. Who are going to be the
agricultural workers? Who are going to pick our strawberries?"
Just as falling house prices are seen by many as a "corrective" to an
unrealistically inflated market, Lang argues that rising food prices may be an
overdue - if painful - reflection of the true cost of our food. Britain may have
to learn to produce more and consume less, and pay more for the privilege.
Back in Peterhead, Jim Wall is preparing the children's tea.
On the menu this evening: grapes, yoghurts, and chicken sandwiches. The boys
have theirs on healthy "seedy bread", but for the two younger girls, tonight,
it's the cheaper, white sliced bread. Tomorrow, it will be their turn.
Most Americans take food for granted. Even the poorest fifth of households in
the United States spend only 16 percent of their budget on food. In many other
countries, it is less of a given. Nigerian families spend 73 percent of their
budgets to eat, Vietnamese 65 percent, Indonesians half. They are in trouble.
Last year, the food import bill of developing countries rose by 25 percent as
food prices rose to levels not seen in a generation. Corn doubled in price over
the last two years. Wheat reached its highest price in 28 years. The increases
are already sparking unrest from Haiti to Egypt. Many countries have imposed
price controls on food or taxes on agricultural exports.
Last week, the president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, warned that 33
nations are at risk of social unrest because of the rising prices of food. “For
countries where food comprises from half to three-quarters of consumption, there
is no margin for survival,” he said.
Prices are unlikely to drop soon. The United Nations Food and Agriculture
Organization says world cereal stocks this year will be the lowest since 1982.
The United States and other developed countries need to step up to the plate.
The rise in food prices is partly because of uncontrollable forces — including
rising energy costs and the growth of the middle class in China and India. This
has increased demand for animal protein, which requires large amounts of grain.
But the rich world is exacerbating these effects by supporting the production of
biofuels. The International Monetary Fund estimates that corn ethanol production
in the United States accounted for at least half the rise in world corn demand
in each of the past three years. This elevated corn prices. Feed prices rose. So
did prices of other crops — mainly soybeans — as farmers switched their fields
to corn, according to the Agriculture Department.
Washington provides a subsidy of 51 cents a gallon to ethanol blenders and slaps
a tariff of 54 cents a gallon on imports. In the European Union, most countries
exempt biofuels from some gas taxes and slap an average tariff equal to more
than 70 cents a gallon of imported ethanol. There are several reasons to put an
end to these interventions. At best, corn ethanol delivers only a small
reduction in greenhouse gases compared with gasoline. And it could make things
far worse if it leads to more farming in forests and grasslands. Rising food
prices provide an urgent argument to nix ethanol’s supports.
Over the long term, agricultural productivity must increase in the developing
world. Mr. Zoellick suggested rich countries could help finance a “green
revolution” to increase farm productivity and raise crop yields in Africa. But
the rise in food prices calls for developed nations to provide more immediate
assistance. Last month, the World Food Program said rising grain costs blew a
hole of more than $500 million in its budget for helping millions of victims of
hunger around the world.
Industrial nations are not generous, unfortunately. Overseas aid by rich
countries fell 8.4 percent last year from 2006. Developed nations would have to
increase their aid budgets by 35 percent over the next three years just to meet
the commitments they made in 2005.
They must not let this target slip. Continued growth of the middle class in
China and India, the push for renewable fuels and anticipated damage to
agricultural production caused by global warming mean that food prices are
likely to stay high. Millions of people, mainly in developing countries, could
need aid to avoid malnutrition. Rich countries’ energy policies helped create
the problem. Now those countries should help solve it.
These days you hear a lot about the world financial crisis. But there’s
another world crisis under way — and it’s hurting a lot more people.
I’m talking about the food crisis. Over the past few years the prices of wheat,
corn, rice and other basic foodstuffs have doubled or tripled, with much of the
increase taking place just in the last few months. High food prices dismay even
relatively well-off Americans — but they’re truly devastating in poor countries,
where food often accounts for more than half a family’s spending.
There have already been food riots around the world. Food-supplying countries,
from Ukraine to Argentina, have been limiting exports in an attempt to protect
domestic consumers, leading to angry protests from farmers — and making things
even worse in countries that need to import food.
How did this happen? The answer is a combination of long-term trends, bad luck —
and bad policy.
Let’s start with the things that aren’t anyone’s fault.
First, there’s the march of the meat-eating Chinese — that is, the growing
number of people in emerging economies who are, for the first time, rich enough
to start eating like Westerners. Since it takes about 700 calories’ worth of
animal feed to produce a 100-calorie piece of beef, this change in diet
increases the overall demand for grains.
Second, there’s the price of oil. Modern farming is highly energy-intensive: a
lot of B.T.U.’s go into producing fertilizer, running tractors and, not least,
transporting farm products to consumers. With oil persistently above $100 per
barrel, energy costs have become a major factor driving up agricultural costs.
High oil prices, by the way, also have a lot to do with the growth of China and
other emerging economies. Directly and indirectly, these rising economic powers
are competing with the rest of us for scarce resources, including oil and
farmland, driving up prices for raw materials of all sorts.
Third, there has been a run of bad weather in key growing areas. In particular,
Australia, normally the world’s second-largest wheat exporter, has been
suffering from an epic drought.
O.K., I said that these factors behind the food crisis aren’t anyone’s fault,
but that’s not quite true. The rise of China and other emerging economies is the
main force driving oil prices, but the invasion of Iraq — which proponents
promised would lead to cheap oil — has also reduced oil supplies below what they
would have been otherwise.
And bad weather, especially the Australian drought, is probably related to
climate change. So politicians and governments that have stood in the way of
action on greenhouse gases bear some responsibility for food shortages.
Where the effects of bad policy are clearest, however, is in the rise of demon
ethanol and other biofuels.
The subsidized conversion of crops into fuel was supposed to promote energy
independence and help limit global warming. But this promise was, as Time
magazine bluntly put it, a “scam.”
This is especially true of corn ethanol: even on optimistic estimates, producing
a gallon of ethanol from corn uses most of the energy the gallon contains. But
it turns out that even seemingly “good” biofuel policies, like Brazil’s use of
ethanol from sugar cane, accelerate the pace of climate change by promoting
And meanwhile, land used to grow biofuel feedstock is land not available to grow
food, so subsidies to biofuels are a major factor in the food crisis. You might
put it this way: people are starving in Africa so that American politicians can
court votes in farm states.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering: all the remaining presidential contenders are
terrible on this issue.
One more thing: one reason the food crisis has gotten so severe, so fast, is
that major players in the grain market grew complacent.
Governments and private grain dealers used to hold large inventories in normal
times, just in case a bad harvest created a sudden shortage. Over the years,
however, these precautionary inventories were allowed to shrink, mainly because
everyone came to believe that countries suffering crop failures could always
import the food they needed.
This left the world food balance highly vulnerable to a crisis affecting many
countries at once — in much the same way that the marketing of complex financial
securities, which was supposed to diversify away risk, left world financial
markets highly vulnerable to a systemwide shock.
What should be done? The most immediate need is more aid to people in distress:
the U.N.’s World Food Program put out a desperate appeal for more funds.
We also need a pushback against biofuels, which turn out to have been a terrible
But it’s not clear how much can be done. Cheap food, like cheap oil, may be a
thing of the past.
A nauseating video of cows stumbling on their way to a California
slaughterhouse has finally prompted action: the largest recall of meat in
American history. Westland/Hallmark Meat Company has issued a full recall of
more than 143 million pounds of beef produced over the last two years, including
37 million pounds that went to school-lunch programs.
A lot of that beef has already been eaten, and so far, thankfully, there have
been no reports of illness. But the question Congress needs to ask is how many
people need to get sick or die before it starts repairing and modernizing the
nation’s food safety system?
Instead of strengthening the government’s regulatory systems, the Bush
administration has spent years cutting budgets and filling top jobs with
industry favorites. The evidence of their failures keep mounting: contaminated
spinach, poisoned pet food, tainted fish.
At Westland/Hallmark, the latest horrors were secretly videotaped by the Humane
Society of the United States, which said it had chosen the plant at random. The
video showed workers kicking and using forklifts to force so-called “downer”
cows to walk. The government has banned the sale of meat from most of these
Officials have been busy assuring consumers that this massive recall is an
“aberration.” “Whistling in the dark” — that is how Caroline Smith DeWaal of the
Center for Science in the Public Interest describes such assurances. “The fact
that they have failed here so miserably makes you start to question what else is
going on that we don’t know about.”
The Westland/Hallmark plant had five federal inspectors on hand, including at
least one veterinarian whose job was to make sure that diseased cows did not
make it into the meat supply. But where were these inspectors when workers were
abusing these poor animals in order to get them to the slaughterhouse?
Investigations have already begun in California and Washington.
Whatever the outcome with this particular plant, the larger point is that
Congress needs to overhaul the entire food inspection program. That includes
giving the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration more
power to demand mandatory recalls. Food producers should be able to track their
supplies in order to more quickly root out problems. And foreign suppliers would
have to create and implement a workable food safety plan that can be monitored
better by federal inspectors.
The present patchwork of modest fines and penalities must also be stiffened.
Senator Richard Durbin and Representative Rosa DeLauro have a more ambitious
idea: creating a single, powerful agency to oversee all food safety, instead of
the current bureaucratic tangle of inspectors, some for vegetables, some for
beef and some for imports. Right now the Agriculture Department oversees the
safety of the home-grown beef supply (while also promoting the cattle industry)
and the Food and Drug Administration monitors the safety of cattle feed. With
Americans increasingly — and legitimately — mistrustful of the food they eat,
their proposal is worth serious consideration.
TV ads to counter
multimillion pound campaign
Thursday December 28, 2006
Consumers are to be presented with two rival
new year advertising campaigns as the Food Standards Agency goes public in its
battle with the industry over the labelling of unhealthy foods.
The Guardian has learned that the FSA will
launch a series of 10-second television adverts in January telling shoppers how
to follow a red, amber and green traffic light labelling system on the front of
food packs, which is designed to tackle Britain's obesity epidemic.
The campaign is a direct response to a concerted attempt by leading food
manufacturers and retailers, including Kellogg's and Tesco, to derail the
system. The industry fears that traffic lights would demonise entire categories
of foods and could seriously damage the market for those that are fatty, salty
or high in sugar.
The UK market for breakfast cereals is worth £1.27bn a year and the
manufacturers fear it will be severely dented if red light labels are put on
packaging drawing attention to the fact that the majority are high in salt
The industry is planning a major marketing campaign for a competing labelling
system which avoids colour-coding in favour of information about the percentage
of "guideline daily amounts" (GDAs) of fat, salt and sugar contained in their
The battle for the nation's diet comes as new rules on television advertising
come into force in January which will bar adverts for unhealthy foods from
commercial breaks during programmes aimed at children. Sources at the TV
regulators are braced for a legal challenge from the industry and have described
the lobbying efforts to block any new ad ban or colour-coded labelling as "the
most ferocious we've ever experienced".
Ofcom's chief executive, Ed Richards, said: "We are prepared to face up to any
legal action from the industry, but we very much hope it will not be necessary."
The FSA said it was expecting an onslaught from the industry in January. Senior
FSA officials said the manufacturers' efforts to undermine its proposals on
labelling could threaten the agency's credibility.
Terrence Collis, FSA director of communications, dismissed claims that the
proposals were not based on science. "We have some of the most respected
scientists in Europe, both within the FSA and in our independent advisory
committees. It is unjustified and nonsensical to attack the FSA's scientific
reputation and to try to undermine its credibility."
The FSA is understood to have briefed its ad agency, United, before Christmas,
and will aim to air ads that are "non-confrontational, humorous and factual" as
a counterweight to industry's efforts about the same time. The agency, however,
will have a tiny fraction of the budget available to the industry.
Gavin Neath, chairman of Unilever UK and president of the Food and Drink
Federation, has said that the industry has made enormous progress but could not
accept red "stop" signs on its food.
Alastair Sykes, chief executive of Nestlé UK, said that under the FSA proposals
all his company's confectionery and most of its cereals would score a red. "Are
we saying people shouldn't eat confectionery? We're driven by consumers and what
they want, and much of what we do has been to make our products healthier," he
Chris Wermann, director of communications at Kellogg's, said: "In principle we
could never accept traffic light labelling."
The rival labelling scheme introduced by Kellogg's, Danone, Unilever, Nestlé,
Kraft and Tesco and now favoured by 21 manufacturers, uses an industry-devised
system based on identifying GDAs of key nutrients. Tesco says it has tested both
traffic lights and GDA labels in its stores and that the latter increased sales
of healthier foods.
But the FSA said it could not live with this GDA system alone because it was
"not scientific" or easy for shoppers to understand at a glance.