Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Reality Check for the Food Movement?

Mark Bittman says French cuisine has gone to les chiens.  Years ago some French farmer achieved fame by attacking a McDonalds.  And French government policy has been to subsidize the smaller farmer. The fact that these measures don't seem to have worked should tell the food movement something about the difficulty of moving beyond a niche catering to the better off.  Should but won't.

How Soon We Forget, Even Ag Ec Profs

From Farm Policy, discussing the ending of direct payments:
“‘The fundamental political problem that direct payments ran into is a question of fairness,’ said Carl Zulauf, an agricultural economist at Ohio State University. ‘Is it fair farmers were receiving these payments when income was at record or near-record levels? We as a country decided that was not something we felt comfortable with.’”

The article [in the Toledo Blade] stated that, “Direct payments were included in the 1996 Farm Bill as a temporary safeguard against bad years, but eventually became permanent. The subsidies drew heavy fire recently as farm income rose to record levels. Mr. Zulauf said as long as farmers met the basic qualifications, direct payments were made regardless of need. In the new system, payments will only be made when certain market conditions exist — either revenue declines or low market prices for grain and other commodities.
Of course, as everyone knows, at least those of a certain age, direct payments replaced deficiency payments in 1996 as the Republicans' means of phasing out farm programs, except it didn't work.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Our Great Democratic ex-President

Jimmy Carter and his center have, with others, almost eradicated guinea worm.

Note that education and clean water were the keys.

What Is "Genetically Modified"?

The most familiar GMO crops are those which have genes added to provide resistance to a herbicide, or to fight some disease or pest.  The anti-GMO people argue this is messing with mother nature, when you add a gene to corn which comes from some other organism, and that such messing is dangerous.  I don't agree, but I can understand why someone might think that way.

But now comes a report that Chinese scientists have genetically modified wheat to improve its resistance to powdery mildew. What strikes me is the method used: deleting  genes that encode proteins that repress defenses against the mildew.  To me, this undermines the anti-GMO argument--you aren't creating a Frankenstein's monster by combining parts from different organisms, you're simply streamlining an organism.

I suspect few anti-GMO types will agree with me.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Words of Wisdom from Kevin Drum

Towards the end of a rant (Kevin rants? yes) against Thomas Frank's new article on Obama:
"All of us who do what Thomas Frank does—what I do—have failed. Our goal was to persuade the public to move in a liberal direction, and that didn't happen. In the end, we didn't persuade much of anyone. It's natural to want to avoid facing that humiliating truth, and equally natural to look for someone else to blame instead. That's human nature. So fine. Blame Obama if it makes you feel better. That's what we elect presidents for: to take the blame.
But he only deserves his share. The rest of us, who were unable to take advantage of an epic financial collapse to get the public firmly in favor of pitchforks and universal health care, deserve most of it. The mirror doesn't lie."

Handling Emails, Tweets, and Chats

FCW has an article on government failures in handling e-communications of all sorts.  It confirms my previous post about problems in ASCS/FSA.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Bittman and Blah on Cheeseburger Freedom

From a Mark Bittman post at the Times:
If those externalities were borne by their producers rather than by consumers and society at large, the industry would be a highly unprofitable, even silly one. It would either cease to exist or be forced to raise its prices significantly.
In this discussion, the cheeseburger is simply a symbol of a food system gone awry. Industrial food has manipulated cheap prices for excess profit at excess cost to everyone; low prices do not indicate “savings” or true inexpensiveness but deception. And all the products of industrial food consumption have externalities that would be lessened by a system that makes as its primary goal the links among nutrition, fairness and sustainability.
That's the concluding sentences of an argument that industrial ag, as symbolized by the cheeseburger, has very costly externalities: it has a big carbon footprint, it contributes to obesity, obesity contributes to poor health, plus a handful of more minor effects. I've no problem with Bittman's pointing out the negative externalities, but I do have two problems with the piece:

  • First, if you're going to discuss externalities, fairness means you need to talk about positive ones as well.  The cheeseburger is one of the great American contributions to the cause of freedom.  It frees women to do something other than cook 3 meals a day, as my mother did.  Whether it's to pursue a career or just to get a second income for the family, that freedom, that ability to choose is important.  (Obviously men and children also gain more freedom, more choice as well, but women are the greatest gainers.)
  • Second, I find these words simply incoherent: "Industrial food has manipulated cheap prices for excess profit at excess cost to everyone".  I defy anyone to expand the statement in a way which makes sense.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

I'm a Whippersnapper??

Via University Diaries, Pew has a political typology quiz, which says based on my answers:
Generally young, well-educated and financially comfortable, the Next Generation Left have very liberal attitudes on many issues, including homosexuality, abortion, the environment and foreign policy. While overall supportive of an activist government, most are wary of expanding the social safety net. Most also have relatively positive views of Wall Street’s impact on the economy. While most affiliate with the Democratic Party or lean Democratic, few consider themselves strong Democrats. Compare groups on key issues.
 As usual, you're offered two choices on each question and I'd view most of them as a continuum, not binary.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Rules on Nondiscrimination at USDA

Thanks to Farm Policy, here's the final rule on nondiscrimination at USDA--from the preamble:

" Applicants and program participants will provide the race, ethnicity, and gender data on a voluntary basis."

If I read it correctly, it makes the rules currently applicable to the service center agencies (FSA, NRCS, and RD) apply also to other USDA programs which directly serve people.  That's important, because most of USDA's money is indirect--the food stamp, WIC, etc. program administered through state agencies.  It also expands the protected grounds to political beliefs and gender identity.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Power of Organization and Wealth

I draw one moral from two different stories in today's Washington Post. 
  • In one, South Korean men are searching for brides in China and Vietnam.  According to the story the Korean men are too poor to attract a Korean bride, so they exploit the difference in wealth to go to Vietnam for a woman from a poor background who's hoping to jump up in status.
  • In the other, the Kurds in Iraq are expanding the territory they control, and according to the story the people being brought under their control are accepting it.  Order and security are better than a ruling elite of one's own ethno-religious affiliation.
My moral: the old "golden rule"--he who has the gold rules, modified to say, he who has what people want (money, order) rules.  That's cynical, but it's also rewarding those who provide what people want (and only hurting the poor Vietnamese peasant man and the ideologue in Iraq who puts ideas above human welfare).