Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Agricultural Hegemony and Farm Workers

          Patrick O'Donnell's recent posting of Marion Nestle's interview with a Western grower CEO and  attendant commentary, contributes greatly to understanding the irreconcilable differences between farm labor skills with the risk of agricultural enterprises facing decreasing labor shortages.  At this juncture, a brief reminder is further required and the goal of this post.

One avenue suggested is to increase immigration entry to meet growers' labor needs.  This trajectory however will not satisfy the laborers needed to cultivate and harvest the crops worth billions across the nation.  This results because federal law, agricultural policies and the agricultural hegemony that purports to seek protecting small owner operations are skewed to facilitate large scale agricultural industries.

In contrast, attempts to amend or revise federal law to protect workers are met with the unmitigated force of agricultural lobbyists, political representatives of agriculture dominated states, and a host of other political actors surging against the proposed legislation.

For example, the Department of Labor (DOL) ignited a firestorm when it sought changing the Fair Labor Standards Act to protect children employed in agriculture.  The inherent systemic danger of farm employment necessitated the proposed changes.   With the full force of Hurricane Katrina, the  agricultural industry without haste rejected the proposed "Child Labor Regulations" (CLR).  The CLR would have obligated imposed standards and would have shifted the agricultural norms of employing youth in agriculture without regard to the dangers they confront.  In contrast, an ocean of lobbying, political jockeying during a presidential race, opposition from governors of agricultural states and a host of others, shifted the intent and purpose of the CLR with misrepresentations.  This oppositional army campaigned the media to skew the CLR as intruding on "family relationships" and "small family farm" operations.  One principal argument against the CLR further encompassed the notion that farm work grants children necessary discipline and beneficial working benefits.

It is not difficult to wonder how the opposing forces could reconcile their assertions with the families of Jade Garza and Hannah Kendall.  Both fourteen-year-olds, Jade and Hannah, joined an army of youth to detassel corn.  Their goal was to save money for school supplies and clothing.  Instead Jade and Hannah identified as the best of friends met their untimely deaths.  During this regional "summer rite of passage" the two girls were killed "after they came in contact with irrigation equipment or a nearby puddle conducting high voltage."  The girls worked for Monsanto Corp., through a labor contractor.

Area teachers and others recruit youth to satisfy the need for cheap labor contingent on parents giving their permission. Nothing however is provided on the forms as to the inherent dangers employment in agriculture entails.  The legal relationship moreover between labor contractors and employees remains murky with case law exemptions that distance the employer of the contractor from workers in the event of accidents or deaths.

The CLR provides but one example seeking to change agricultural norms against the dire working conditions and plight of youth and children in the fields.  Yet not unlike other protective legislative attempts, an unrelenting backlash further resulted in political representatives introducing their own version of protecting small farmers.  Reinforcing their version also included a clause that disallowed DOL Secretary Hilda Solis from re-introducing further youth related measures.  In its totality, this war against protecting children caused the DOL to retreat from its first attempt to substantively change the FLSA since the 1970s.

Outside of deaths and injuries, the environment also imposes its own type of hardship from illnesses specific to the crops harvested, intense heat, and distance from water, rest breaks or other forms of relief.  Pesticides and herbicides and other dangers also instigate their own brand of toxicity and illnesses in the workplace. The grueling nature of cultivating and harvesting crops thereby exacts a tremendous realm of body injuries and at times deaths of workers in the fields.  Yet repeatedly decade after decade federal law and agricultural policies fail them.

Neither increased mechanization nor the reliance on economies of scale or even enlarged immigration entries of farm laborers will protect farmers. In exchange, placing state and federal agricultural economies at risk.  New trajectories and legal compromises that escape the hegemony of agricultural employment are thereby obligated.

If and whenever new protective legislation is introduced to protect workers and youth a new trajectory is required to counter the lies, deceit and false constructs so adhered to within the agricultural sector.  Specifically the regulatory agency should require objective and empirical primary evidence to test the generalized misrepresentations that perpetuate agricultural false norms.

Notwithstanding the false norms that dominant federal law, agricultural operations need farmworkers or risk economic ruin.  Farmworkers require improved terms and conditions of employment even against the false norms that dominate federal law agricultural operations and the political zeitgeist of the times. This template accordingly signals it is beyond time to change federal law to not only protect workers from unsavory working conditions but to prevent crops from rotting in the fields.

1.  Child Labor Regulations, Orders and Statements of Interpretations, 76 Fed. Reg. 54386 (proposed Sept. 2, 2011).
2.  Preserving America's Family Farms Act, H.R. 4157, 112th Cong. (2012).
3.  For further resources see Guadalupe T. Luna, Unsavory Associations--Placing Migrant Children in Harm's Way: The Withdrawal of Child Labor Rules from the Fair Labor Standards Act, 16 St. Mary's Law Review on Race and Social Justice, (2014).

Thursday, May 18, 2017

An Agribusiness Perspective on Farm Labor & Immigration

Migrant workers harvest corn on Uesugi Farms in Gilroy, California (2013). U.S. Department of Agriculture 

At Food Politics, Marion Nestle shares an interview with Tom Nassif, the CEO of the Western Growers. “Nassif represents this trade association for industrial agricultural producers in the West and Southwest. He discusses how immigration issues affect farm labor from the perspective of producers.”

The entire interview is worth reading, but I want to highlight the following two questions and answers, commenting—by way of the work of Frank Bardacke—on the second one below: 

1. Some people say farmers just have to pay more for their labor.
“Anyone who is an enlightened observer of immigration reform and agriculture knows that’s not true. Wages have continually gone up. And the supply of labor keeps diminishing. … It’s not the wages, it’s the work. This is a difficult job. This is seasonal. This is migratory. This is not full time. This requires people to be away from their families. So that’s not very attractive work. And money alone isn’t going to do it, because farm workers aren’t raising their kids to be farm workers and certainly people here lawfully in the United States are not willing to do that kind of work when they have so many economic opportunities. As you know, Mexico is now importing farm workers [from other countries], because even in Mexico they are seeing better economic opportunities than being a farm worker.”

2. How in danger are produce growers of being put out of business by the current labor situation?
“I think several of the smaller to midsize operators are in danger of either having to cease farming or sell their operations to larger producers who have the wherewithal to withstand some of the things that are happening because they are able to invest in and develop more mechanical harvesting and other robotic operations. In many cases it will take the farmer a million dollars or more just to develop a harvesting machine for a particular commodity.”
*           *           *
As a prelude to the topic of increased mechanization of harvesting processes (and consequent devaluation of manual labor or Marx’s ‘cunning of the hand’), permit me to quote from Frank Bardacke’s “masterpiece,” Trampling Out the Vintage: César Chávez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers (Verso, 2011):

“Not all farm jobs require equal skill. Different techniques are required for thinning, weeding, or harvesting, for working on the ground or climbing on ladders, for working by the hour or doing piece work, and each crop has its craft secrets and know-how. It is one thing to pick lettuce, another to girdle table grapes, another yet to pick lemons. Not all the physical skill of farmwork depends on the coordination of accomplished hands and sharp, experienced eyes. The work also requires physical endurance. Farm work is hard not only in the sense of being skilled but also in the sense of requiring toil, exertion, and extended physical effort. When arriving in the early morning to begin work, Pablo Camacho would often say, ‘Ya llegamos al campo de la batalla’ – ‘Now we arrive at the field of battle.’ Although intending to provoke a smile, Camacho was not being ironic. Most people who have worked in the fields say that it is the hardest work they have ever done. It is hard to put up with the inevitable pain and physical exhaustion, to last until the end of the row, the end of the day, the week, the season. ‘To last’ is not quite the right word. The right word is a Spanish one, aguantar: to endure, to bear, to put up with.

Pablo Camacho was proud of his ability to aguantar, even arrogant about it, often claiming that he never felt pain while he was working. That is a pose that a lot of farmworkers assume, even among themselves. At work, no one complains about pain. Camacho believed that the ability to put up with pain was part of the Mexican national character, especially evident in sports. Like many farmworkers, he was an avid boxing fan. He could name all the boxing champions in the lighter divisions from the 1930s to the 1970s, as well as recount the ways Mexican fighters had been denied championship opportunities. Mexicans were the best boxers in the world, he argued, especially in their ability to withstand punishment. They were also good marathon runners and long-distance bicycle racers, he said, sports in which endurance and patience are the essential virtues.

But Mexicans do not have an exclusive franchise on the ability to tolerate hard work. Endurance is a trait of slaves and the oppressed in general, and also characteristic of peasants and other agricultural people – whether free or unfree. Agriculture by its very nature requires patience. Farmworkers have to wait for nature to do her work. They must plant, water, and wait. Weed and wait. And, finally, after enduring the wait, they may harvest.

[….] Aristotle contended that ‘occupations are … the most servile in which there is greatest use of the body.’ The dynamic relationship between the brain and the hand was ripped asunder by early philosophers, leaving two separate activities: valued intellectual labor (suitable for free men) and devalued manual labor (suitable for women and slaves). This philosophical predisposition against the work of the body had its greatest worldly triumph in the development of capitalism and the factory system. As Marx so passionately chronicled, English factories destroyed English handicrafts. What he called ‘modern industry’ – machines built by other machines strung together in a continuous process of production, where laborers are ‘mere appendages’ to the machinery – replaced the earlier system of production that ‘owed its existence to personal strength and personal skill, and depended on the muscular development, the keenness of sight, and the cunning of the hand.’

The cunning of the hand, what farmworkers call maña, remains the basis of California farm work as surely as it is the basis of a major league pitcher’s job, or a skilled craftsman’s. Many farmworker jobs are not only hard to do but hard to learn, often requiring years to master, and skills typically are passed from one generation to the next. Farmworkers use hand tools: knives, hoes, clippers, pruners. They do not tend machines or have to keep up with an assembly line.”

In brief, “Behind every fruit and vegetable for sale in the supermarket lies an unknown world of toil and skill.” The rhetoric of “factory farming” and “industrial agriculture” is thus misleading to the extent that contemporary agriculture remains highly dependent on manual labor, although it is true that “planting and harvesting of so-called field crops—grains, sugar beets, and dry beans—have been successfully mechanized and deskilled. But field crops take up a rapidly diminishing percentage of California farm acreage….” Nassif appears to suggest (or his answer may be taken to at least imply) that the only obstacle to increased “mechanical harvesting and other robotic operations” is its comparatively high capital cost to all but the largest agricultural producers, but it remains the case that not all planting and harvesting is amenable to mechanization. Again, Bardacke:

“In the early sixties, when growers realized that the bracero program, thus their cheap labor supply, was coming to an end, they and their collaborators at the University of California began to build machines and remake seeds that they predicted would mechanize farmworkers out of existence. The project has been a colossal failure. Eighteen years of research and millions of dollars were thrown away on the lettuce machine alone. [….]

Each failed attempt has its own story. The strawberry machine bruised the berries. The asparagus machine couldn’t cut the shoots without destroying the ability of the bulb to generate more shoots for a later harvest. The celery machine couldn’t cut the stalks cleanly enough to be suitable for the fresh market. The lemon tree shaker produced three to seven times as much unmarketable fruit as did hand picking. Most other tree shakers do too much damage to the tree roots, although many nut trees can withstand the shaking. The one great mechanical success is the contraption that picks canning tomatoes, which, combined with a reengineered tomato, did replace thousands of workers. Otherwise, fresh tomatoes, like most other fruits and vegetables, are harvested by proficient workers making judgments and wielding tools. As the anthropologist Juan Vincent Palerm quipped about the growers’ dream of mechanization, ‘What we have witnessed over the past years is not the mechanization, but rather the ‘Mexicanization’ of California agriculture.” 

Further reading and research: 

Friday, April 21, 2017

     Several recent posts have focused on agriculture in Africa.  I applaud those posts.

     Today, I received an e-mail from the African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development (AJFAND) that publicized its newest issue -- a special issue on biofortification of staple crops for Africa.  I have done some legal work on the issue of biofortification of crops for developing nations.  Hence, this issue caught my attention.  I provide the AJFAND information for your information and use.

Drew Kershen

From: Hon. Prof. Ruth Oniang'o []

Sent: 20 April 2017 09:07

Subject: Announcing AJFAND Volume 17 No. 2 (2017) - Special Issue on Biofortification


Special Issue devoted to Biofortification

Finally we are here. Let me right upfront express profound appreciation to Amy Saltzman, a researcher at HarvestPlus, who has worked tirelessly with the AJFAND team to ensure a smooth running of what turned out to be a fairly long process to the realization of this Special Issue on Biofortification. Dr Howarth Bouis (revered and popularly referred to as "Howdy") starting about 5 years ago was very keen to have AJFAND publish a Special Issue on Biofortification. Whenever we met, he or someone else on his Program Advisory Committee (PAC) would bring it up and my response would be "sure, just let me know when you are ready". Well, then exactly 2 years ago after we met at a conference in Switzerland, Dr Bouis forwarded the first set of manuscripts and we agreed that they go through internal review first before submitting to AJFAND. After all, the number of authors involved was large, and the group fairly diverse. I recall when I joined the very first PAC, of HarvestPlus, the first product we addressed was the orange fleshed sweet potato. That was years ago, in the early 1990’s. From 1993, Howdy was determined in his belief that biofortification could be a huge answer to world hunger and micronutrient deficiency problems; we watched him grey and I recall several times telling him: "One of these days, you will receive an award for this work you are doing". He would just smile. I am happy that it has finally come to pass. I remember when Dr Per Pinstrup Anderson called me to ask whether I could join the HarvestPlus PAC. He said: "Ruth, I am calling you from Washington DC. And you have to say YES, otherwise I will not get off the phone". Well, I had to agree. Dr Anderson was then the well- respected Director General of IFPRI and a good friend, and both his height and voice are always very convincing. That is one scientist I truly respect. This PAC, chaired by Dr Peter MacPherson, former USAID Administrator and past President of Michigan State University was an ambitious one but also extremely supportive of Howdy’s work. IFPRI too, the home of HarvestPlus demonstrated unwavering support and especially at times when no funding appeared to be forthcoming. Somehow all these people and many more believed in what Howdy was spearheading. Research takes time, but convincing many people to come along with you on something that is not yet tangible takes some skill and a lot of good luck. When you look at Howdy and listen to his story, it is difficult not to believe him. His determination and devotion to this cause has yielded fruits, real results. Yes, there is still a lot to do, but at least the foundation has been laid, and the proof of concept achieved. From 1993, to the present time, nearly 25 years, Africa has gone through many cycles of drought and hunger. As I write this, 17 million people are afflicted by famine in the Horn of Africa. The good thing about the orange fleshed sweet potato is its judicious use of water. So, it does better than many tubers in limited rainfall. This point was seriously emphasized at a recent CIP (International Potato Centre) meeting I attended in Kisumu.

It was amazing at the same meeting to learn of the multitude of products and especially snacks for both adults and children that can be made from orange and purple sweet potatoes.

This special issue of AJFAND has a lot to teach all of us: policy makers, researchers/scientists, farmers, donors, practitioners, consumers, private sector and job seekers. Patience pays, and together we can solve some of the world’s problems when we put our minds to it. I wish to congratulate all who have put effort for us to realize this issue, which can now be shared with interested parties across the world, and also to those who have devoted years of their professional careers to biofortification. Because of their unwavering resolve, billions of the world’s hungriest can access affordable food-based micronutrients.

Congratulations go to Dr Howarth Bouis and his team for receiving the 2016 World Food Prize, and we at AJFAND thank you so much for affording us the opportunity to publish this work. SCIENCE matters, and research is the mother of innovation, and all these efforts need to be supported, as it is the only way to address the ever increasing world problems. Hunger and malnutrition should be problems of the past in this 21st century.

I thank all AJFAND staff and reviewers for the mazing contributions they have made towards the finalization of this issue on BIOFORTIFICATION.

Enjoy this issue and forward all comments to:

Dr Amy Saltzman [ ] and Editor-in-Chief [ ] for action.

Ruth Oniang’o
Editor-in-Chief, AJFAND
Foreword: Ruth Oniang'o
Profile: Howarth Bouis

Preface: Tumusiime Rhoda Peace

•Chapter 1:
An Overview of the landscape and approach for Biofortification in Africa
Howarth Bouis et al. DOI: 10.18697/ajfand.HarvestPlus01

Nutrition and Food Science

•Chapter 2:
Effect of regular consumption of provitamin A biofortified staple crops on Vitamin A status in populations in low-income countries.
Marjorie Haskell et al. DOI: 10.18697/ajfand.HarvestPlus02

•Chapter 3:
Efficacy of iron-biofortified crops.
Erick Boy et al. DOI: 10.18697/ajfand.HarvestPlus03

•Chapter 4:
Micronutrient (provitamin A and iron/zinc) retention in biofortified crops.
Aurelie Bechoff et al. DOI: 10.18697/ajfand.HarvestPlus04

Plant Breeding and Instrumentation

•Chapter 5:
Progress update: Crop development of biofortified staple food crops under HarvestPlus.
Meike Andersson et al. DOI: 10.18697/ajfand.HarvestPlus05

•Chapter 5: ANNEX 1
Biofortified varieties released under HarvestPlus (as of December 2016).
Chapter 5: Annex 1 DOI: 10.18697/ajfand.HarvestPlus05.annex1

•Chapter 6:
High-throughput measurement methodologies for developing nutrient-dense crops.
Georgia Guild et al. DOI: 10.18697/ajfand.HarvestPlus06

Crop Development and Delivery Experience

•Chapter 7:
Sweet potato development and delivery in sub-Saharan Africa.
Jan Low et al. DOI: 10.18697/ajfand.HarvestPlus07

•Chapter 8:
Orange maize in Zambia: Crop development and delivery experience.
Eliab Simpungwe et al. DOI: 10.18697/ajfand.HarvestPlus08

•Chapter 9:
Vitamin A cassava in Nigeria: Crop development and delivery.
Paul Ilona et al. DOI: 10.18697/ajfand.HarvestPlus09

•Chapter 10:
Iron beans in Rwanda: Crop development and delivery experience.
Joseph Mulambu et al. DOI: 10.18697/ajfand.HarvestPlus10

•Chapter 11:
Marketing biofortified crops: insights from consumer research.
Benjamin Uchitelle-Pierce and Patience Ubomba-Jaswa DOI: 10.18697/ajfand.HarvestPlus11

•Chapter 12:
Integrating biofortified crops into community development programs.
Carolyn MacDonald et al. DOI: 10.18697/ajfand.HarvestPlus12

Meauring Impact; Economic Methodologies

•Chapter 13:
Building the case for biofortification: Measuring and maximizing impact in the HarvestPlus program.
Nancy Johnson et al. DOI: 10.18697/ajfand.HarvestPlus13

•Chapter 14
Identification of optimal investments.
Keith Lividini et al. DOI: 10.18697/ajfand.HarvestPlus14

•Chapter 15:
Introducing orange sweet potato: Tracing the evolution of evidence on its effectiveness.
Alan de Brauw et al. DOI: 10.18697/ajfand.HarvestPlus15

Policy/Stakeholder Engagement

•Chapter 16:
Advocacy for biofortification: Building stakeholder support, integration into regional and national policies, and sustaining momentum.
Namukolo Covic et al. DOI: 10.18697/ajfand.HarvestPlus16

•Chapter 17:
The way forward.
Howarth Bouis et al. DOI: 10.18697/ajfand.HarvestPlus17


Hon. Prof. Ruth K. Oniang'o, PhD
Editor-in-Chief, African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development (AJFAND)
Founder, Rural Outreach Program (ROP) Africa
Chair of Boards, SAA/SAFE
President, International Academy of Food Science and Technology (IAFoST) 2016-2018
2014 IFAMA Distinguished Service Award Recipient
2014 FORTUNE Magazine one of 30 Most Innovative Women in Food and Drink
Adjunct Professor of Nutrition, TUFTS University, USA

9 Planets Apartments, Block S6
Kabarnet Gardens, Off Kabarnet Road [Off Ngong Road]
P.O. Box 29086-00625 Nairobi, KENYA Cellphone: +254-703 113995

Alternative Contacts:
+254 722 406955 +254 722 809074
Website: AND

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Ruling finds California’s largest fruit grower collectively bargained in bad faith with the UFW

[Apologia: I realize all agriculture-newsworthy items don’t originate from California, but as I live in the state and our other bloggers are quiescent at the moment, I trust you can forgive me. And yet we might recall that California is ‘positioned as the agricultural powerhouse of the United States,’ as it ‘leads all of the other states in farm income!’]
By Geoffrey Mohan for the Los Angeles Times, April 17, 2017
The state’s largest grower of peaches and other fruit bargained in bad faith with the United Farm Workers of America and wrongly tried to exclude as many as 1,500 employees from a collective bargaining agreement, a judge has ruled. The decision gives a strong boost to the UFW’s claim to represent as many as 6,500 workers at Gerawan Farming Inc., a 12,000-acre farm and packing operation in the San Joaquin Valley that has been the focal point of one of the longest-running and most acrimonious labor dispute in decades. The decision also reaffirms that employees of labor contractors, who now provide about half the workers who pick the state’s crops, are covered by union contracts signed with the grower.
The Gerawan-UFW fight, which began in the early 1990s, has sparked the single largest effort to decertify a union, along with a flurry of labor board and court decisions, including one that has stalled the state’s ability to impose a contract on warring parties. And these parties have been at war, Administrative Law Judge William L. Schmidt acknowledged in a decision issued Friday.
Co-owner Dan Gerawan’s undisguised anger with the union, Schmidt wrote, ‘appears deep and unusually long-lasting,’ and ‘perhaps explains the motive underlying the current expenditure of what must have been enormous sums by the Gerawan enterprises opposing the UFW and seeking to rid itself of any legal obligation to deal with that organization.’  Gerawan showed ‘at most, a lackadaisical attitude … and at worst, complete hostility’ and ‘almost certainly guaranteed’ a mediator would have to step in and impose a contract in 2013, Schmidt wrote.
Armando Elenes, a spokesman for the UFW, said the decision ‘confirms what we’ve been saying all along — Gerawan has been undermining the law. They’re trying to undermine the state of California.’
Gerawan’s lead attorney, David Schwarz, blasted the decision and promised an appeal — none of the previous decisions in the case has gone without appeals from the growers and the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. ‘Gerawan is confident that these undemocratic decisions will not stand, and will challenge this latest erroneous ruling,’ Schwarz said Monday. He accused the judge of blaming the grower for the union’s ‘unexplained, 17-year absence’ from Gerawan’s fields.
Schmidt’s ruling appears to undermine Gerawan’s assertion that the union abandoned his workers in the mid-1990s before returning in 2012 to demand the right to negotiate a new contract. Gerawan has argued that UFW was solely looking to pad its membership and coffers — it collects dues of 3% of each member’s gross pay — by deliberately running out the clock on negotiations so it could obtain a contract imposed by a mediator. [….]
The rest of the article is here.

Monday, April 17, 2017

“African Arguments” series from Zed Books

This series of titles from Zed Books has several volumes directly and indirectly relevant to questions in international political economy and agriculture, should anyone be interested. I have a post with a bit more information over at Ratio Juris. [Please note: I am not being paid by Zed Books, I did not receive a (or any) free book(s) from the publisher, and I was not asked to promote the series.]

Friday, April 14, 2017

Agricultural Labor & Affluent Consumers: Cacao Farming, Commodities, and Consumption

Drying cocoa beans in rural Ghana (Photo: Elke de Buh)

By Simran Sethi for the Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2017 

Just after Valentine’s Day, prices for cocoa plummeted. Days later, media outlets erupted in a collective hurrah. ‘Your chocolate is getting cheaper,’ headlines proclaimed. ‘Easter will be sweet.’ What wasn’t factored into the celebration is the deep suffering of the subsistence farmers who grow cacao, the seeds of a pod-shaped fruit that, once harvested, become the cocoa traded on the commodities market and destined for the chocolate eggs and bunnies that fill most Easter baskets.

Cacao’s origins trace to the rainforests of the upper Amazon, and the seeds are believed to have been transformed into a drink in Mesoamerica at least as early as 400 BC. Once used as medicine, currency and a stand-in for human blood during rituals, today cacao — cocoa — is dried, fermented and roasted to become the foundation of the $100-billion chocolate industry. The trees grow in a tropical band 20 degrees north and south of the equator, with 70% of production based in West Africa and centered in Ivory Coast.

Despite the success of the chocolate (and confection) industries, 90% of cocoa farmers operate at the margins. A recent study by the French Development Agency and Barry Callebaut (the world’s largest cocoa manufacturer) determined farmers in Ivory Coast earn roughly 91 cents a day. Imagine what it means for those farmers when the price they receive for the fruits of their labor drops — as it has recently — by 33%.

This decline in commodity cocoa prices over the past year is the result of several factors, including predictions that consumers in China and India would develop an insatiable appetite for chocolate. Consumption has increased in these countries but not at forecasted levels. And globally, demand has remained largely unchanged. But farmers haven’t been able to slow production: They had already planted more trees in anticipation of increased demand and that, coupled with good weather in most of Ivory Coast’s cocoa-growing regions, bolstered the harvest and has resulted in a bumper crop and oversupply.

Because there is no global agreement ensuring farmers a base price for cocoa, the farmers are vulnerable to every market shift. However, local governments can and do set parameters for the crop. In 2016, the Ivorian regulator Conseil du Cafe-Cacao set a minimum price of 1,100 Central African francs per kilogram, roughly 81 cents per pound, and also helped farmers contract with exporters to buy the early 2017 crop. But that was last July, when ​the market price of cocoa was significantly higher; many exporters have since defaulted on their commitments. Although officials say they’ve resold the defaulted contracts, last week Ivory Coast’s minimum price guaranteed to farmers was cut by almost 40%.

Adding to this challenge are reports that the new crop will be abundant. (It is a perverse fact of economics that high yields contribute to an increased supply that results in lower prices for farmers.) And with new plantings continuing to mature (it takes three to five years for a new tree to produce cocoa), the glut is expected to grow larger in years to come.

If farmers can’t earn a living from cocoa, they will grow other crops or seek out different employment. If the shift is widespread, it may decrease the diversity of cocoa, affect the development of the crop and ultimately make cocoa harder to get and more expensive for chocolate lovers and chocolate makers.

For consumers, the solution is a tasty one: Eat more chocolate. But not just any chocolate. At no other moment in history has information on farmers, cocoa prices and the chocolate industry been so readily available — investigate and choose wisely.

To support cocoa farmers, look for chocolate that contains more cocoa. (In the United States, a candy bar has to contain only 10% cocoa to be legally identified as chocolate.) Pay attention to the story on the label. Certifications indicate a range of social, economic and environmental initiatives to sustain cocoa production. Origin designations seek to highlight different flavors found in the regions where cocoa is grown.

If you put your money where your mouth is and buy craft, or specialty, chocolate, you’re underwriting makers who may be trading directly with farmers. Craft chocolate costs more than what’s mass-produced because its makers are committed to raising the profile of quality cocoa, and they pay a premium for the crop.

Go ahead, bite into that chocolate Easter bunny. But consider the people whose labor supplied the raw material that makes it taste so good.” The entire article is here.

(Simran Sethi is the author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love and the creator of the chocolate podcast ‘The Slow Melt.’)

Further Reading:

  • Barclay, Eliza. “Why The World Might Be Running Out Of Cocoa Farmers,” NPR, July 3, 2015. 
  • Clarence-Smith, William Gervase. Cocoa and Chocolate, 1765-1914. New York: Routledge, 2000. 
  • Cocoa bean,” Wikipedia entry. 
  • Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1986 (1985). 
  • Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: Anatomy of an Industry. New York: The New Press, 2006. 
  • Ryan, Órla. Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. London: Zed Books, 2011. 
  • Wessel, Marius and P.M. Foluke Quist-Wessel. “Cocoa production in West Africa, a review and analysis of recent developments,” NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, Vols. 74–75, December 2015: 1–7.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Toward Agroecology & Food Justice

I’ve made a fair amount of additions to this bibliography: The Sullied Science & Political Economy of Hyper-Industrial Agriculture (Or: ‘Toward Agroecology & Food Justice’). In a future post at the Agricultural Law blog I aim to provide an introduction to agroecology, providing several definitions as well as references (online and otherwise) to some of the best (assessed by my lights) literature on the subject. At its best, agroecology is in part utopian (in a non-pejorative sense) insofar as it embraces concerns with “food sovereignty” and “food justice” (and social justice generally) while attempting to transform—or at least enlist—contemporary science and technology into—or on behalf of—emancipatory tools for “the people,” that is, something intrinsically tied to (participatory and representative) democratic principles, values, and practices no longer deformed, distorted, or trumped by capitalist imperatives. (If one cannot imagine agriculture ‘beyond capitalism’ agroecology will be dismissed as merely ideological or even nonsensical). It is also “utopian” in the sense that it aims to be interdisciplinary with respect to both the natural and social sciences. More on this anon. 

Thursday, April 06, 2017

U.S. Agricultural Policy in the World Economy

In the hope of arousing abiding interest among those who’ve yet to read this work, what follows is from the informative if not provocative Foreword by James C. Scott to Bill WindersThe Politics of Food Supply: U.S. Agricultural Policy in the World Economy (Yale University Press, 2009):

“The task Bill Winders sets himself is sharply etched but, at the same time, dauntingly ambitious. How can one account for the demise of the trinity of production controls, price supports, and export subsidies that guided agricultural policy in the United States for more than a half century from the New Deal to the mid-1990s? The bookends of this enterprise are Franklin Roosevelt’s Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA, 1933), which instituted supply management, and the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act (FAIR Act, 1996), which abandoned it. Explaining this convincingly, as Winder does, requires a high order of interdisciplinary skills, including a firm grasp of partisan congressional politics, of agrarian movements throughout the country, of international trade, and of economic history. [….]

In place of explanations that have relied largely upon the vagaries of partisan politics and commodity prices to explain major policy shifts, Winders substitutes a particularly sophisticated version of class and sectoral politics. The three crops—corn, cotton, and wheat; those who grow them, market them, and buy them; and above all, those whose political futures depend upon keeping each crop’s constituents content, are the key actors in Winders’s drama. Each crop is distinctive in its geographical location, its class and ownership structure, its markets, and its political clout. The constituents each have different political interests, which, furthermore, shift over time. The coalitions they forge and dissolve, Winders argues, form the most reliable weather vane indicating the probable direction of agricultural policy.

The historical dialectic that Winder traces among the constituents for the various crops, the policy outcomes, and the resulting shifts in the structure and interests of the growers and sellers of each crop is what gives his analysis its dynamic quality. In a discerning version of the adage ‘be careful what you wish for,’ Winders shows how a policy ‘victory’ by, say, the growers of cotton or corn serves, in unanticipated ways, to transform their very structures, interests, and sway. The logic is worked out to great effect in the southern cotton sector. There, in a setting where serfdom, in the form of share-tenancy, had replaced slavery, landlords seized for themselves alone the crop payments mandated by the AAA. When they were required by law to share these payments with tenants, landlords responded by dismissing the tenants, moving to more capital-intensive production, and diversifying into growing soybeans and feed grains and raising livestock. This, in turn, helped touch off the great migration north by poor rural blacks and whites, setting the stage for the cotton lobby’s decline and facilitating the civil rights movement. Eventually, the demise of the one-party South broke the seniority-based death grip southerners had exercised on congressional democrats since the Civil War. Recursive, dialectical analysis of this kind seems, in my view, to offer the most promising way forward for otherwise wooden and static class analysis. It also helps explain why the one genuine attempt at land reform to break the back of (largely) racialized peonage in the cotton South failed. FDR’s agrarian reformers—Rexford Tugwell, Jerome Frank, and ‘Pat’ Jackson—were, to use a contemporary expression, ‘thrown under the bus’ when the full congressional power of the southern planters was brought to bear on the New Deal. Just as post-Civil War Republican Reconstruction was undone by white planters, so was DFR’s post-Depression plan for a reconstructed and more equitable agrarian South undone by much the same forces. [….]

Winders understands, as did Polanyi, than no one, save a handful of theorists, loves perfect competition. The ultimate goal of all producers and wholesalers is some form of oligopoly or monopoly that allows price fixing. Producers understand that the more ‘perfect’ the competition becomes, the closer the rate of profit approaches to zero. The coveted shelter from ‘cut-throat’ competition is, short of natural monopolies, available to small-scale producers only through political influence. North American cotton and wheat growers have for some time, in international markets, been price-takers rather than price-givers and hence have sought protection. Corn, on the other hand, because the United States is the dominant world exporter and because core is an ‘input’ feed grain for foreign and domestic livestock rearing, has generated a far more complex set of interests. At any event, the representatives of agrarian producers have generally sough precisely what Boeing, Chrysler, Harley-Davidson, and Bear Stearns have sought: to privatize profits and socialize losses. When prices were buoyant, the pressure for price and export subsidies diminished, and when prices plummeted, the political clamor for subsidies grew. Whether the producers had the political clout to legislate their profit insurance is a large part of Winders’s story, but what has never been in doubt, following Polanyi, is their desire to be politically sheltered from a tumultuous market.

[….] Surely, it is curious that, from at least the New Deal forward, U.S. agricultural policy has primarily centered on price supports for the major commodities: corn, cotton, wheat, tobacco, soybeans, milk, etc. That is, the place occupied in other countries by a rural policy has been usurped in the United States by commodity policy. Why this should be so is both intriguing and complex. One might argue that the early ambitions of the Tennessee Valley Authority were the embryonic beginnings—alas stillborn—of a genuine rural policy. After this failure, the issue of price supports dominated agrarian politics in Washington. Where the French, the Danes, the Germans, and the Norwegians have asked themselves what kinds of rural communities they wish to promote, what the rural landscape should look like, what land uses should be encouraged, and what rural services should be publicly provided, Americans have seldom posed such questions, let alone addressed them until very recently. Until they are addressed, we may have a wheat or corn policy but nothing that remotely resembles an agricultural, let alone a rural, policy.”

Professor Winders’ latest book is Grains (Polity Press, 2017).

Monday, April 03, 2017

The Moral & Political Economy of Poverty, Hunger, and Famine

Perhaps some readers of this blog may be interested in a “suggested reading” list on the moral and political economy of poverty, hunger, and famine, cross-posted at Ratio Juris & Religious Left Law.

Friday, March 31, 2017

César E. Chávez: March 31, 1927 – April 23, 1993

My bibliography for César Chávez & the United Farm Workers … and the Struggle of Farm Workers in the U.S. is here.

NAFTA & Agriculture: Rhetoric, Posturing, Reality

Protesters in Mexico City hand out corn to workers and farmers in a march against spiraling food prices in 2007. Luis Acosta/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Mexico’s bargaining chips with Trump: how about a corn boycott?” 

By Kate Linthicum for the Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2017

“First domesticated here 10,000 years ago, corn is not only a staple of the Mexican diet, but also a symbol of Mexico itself. Since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, it has also become a symbol of Mexico’s growing economic dependence on the United States. Now, as President Trump threatens Mexico with drastic changes on trade, its leaders are wielding corn as a weapon. Mexico’s Senate is considering legislation calling for a boycott of U.S. corn, and the government has begun negotiating with Argentina and Brazil to import corn from those nations tax-free.

The threat of a boycott is Mexico’s latest and perhaps cleverest attempt to fight back against Trump, whose threats to pull out of free trade agreements and slap a 20% import tax on Mexican products have shaken confidence in Mexico’s economy.

Mexico, which exported surplus corn as recently as the early 1980s, now buys a third of the corn it consumes from the United States. Last year, it purchased $2.5 billion worth of corn from Iowa, Nebraska and other states, making Mexico the largest corn export market for U.S. farmers. Trump points to a roughly $60-billion trade deficit in Mexico’s favor as justification for a major overhaul of one of the United States’ most important and historically stable trading partnerships.

Organizers of the boycott say their goal is to highlight how much certain U.S. sectors depend on that relationship. ‘Trump says Mexico takes advantage of the U.S.,’ said Mexican Sen. Armando Rios Piter, who introduced the legislation last month after being inspired by a group of Mexican American immigrant rights activists calling for a boycott. ‘We need to make it clear how much many states win from trade with Mexico,’ said Rios, a member of the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party. ‘It’s important that people in the Midwest know what Mexico means to them.’

Analysts say that although the proposed boycott is unlikely to pass, it is a deft political move because its biggest effects would be felt in Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin and other states that voted for Trump in last year’s presidential election.

For now, U.S. farmers have a clear advantage over South American sellers, thanks to proximity and a logistics system built up over decades, plus duty-free access that gives the U.S. an additional edge on prices. But elected leaders and agriculture advocacy groups in those states are now on high alert. Tom Sleight, chief executive of the U.S. Grains Council, said he was worried about a shift in Mexican corn purchases, noting that Mexican customers who met with him this month were upset with the tone of NAFTA renegotiations. ‘They want to keep it business as usual, but there’s consistent talk about a Plan B,’ he said.

In private meetings with Trump’s trade officials and in public settings, lawmakers have repeatedly warned about the potential harm to U.S. farmers should Mexico move to diversify grain imports by buying from suppliers in South America or other markets. ‘I can’t stress enough that there will be real and immediate economic consequences for farmers if we lose exports,’ Charles E. Grassley, the Republican senator from Iowa, said at a confirmation hearing this month on Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s nominee for the U.S. trade representative.” [….]

The rest of this article in the Los Angeles Times is here. 

Update: Two days later, the Times is reporting that there is presumptive evidence for the belief that the Trump administration is backing away from its earlier positions about trade with Mexico:

“Far from the sweeping trade overhaul that Donald Trump promised on the campaign trail, his administration is considering a surprisingly modest revamp of the North American Free Trade Agreement, according to a draft letter provided to Congress. The objectives outlined would bolster Trump’s emphasis on ‘Buy American,’ including giving greater preferences for U.S. companies in government procurement.

But the draft includes none of the harsh, punitive measures or steep tariffs he once threatened against Mexico. Neither does it crack down on currency manipulation or weak labor regulations, things critics of free trade in particular have long sought. The relatively minor changes to NAFTA would be a far cry from Trump’s campaign promise to dramatically reshape or withdraw from what he repeatedly called one of the worst deals ever negotiated by the U.S.

Ironically, the draft also incorporates many of the elements in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation trade deal negotiated by President Obama that Trump also trashed and formally withdrew from shortly after he took office. John Veroneau, a trade lawyer in Washington and former deputy U.S. trade representative in the George W. Bush administration, said the draft hardly qualifies as ‘protectionist and the first shots of a trade war. People may take issue with different items in the letter, but there’s nothing alarmist or unconventional about it.’

If the draft is adopted, its approach toward NAFTA would mark a political victory for a pro-free-trade faction that has been rising inside the Trump administration, led by former Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn, now Trump’s top economic advisor. He and others have been seeking to temper the more protectionist policies articulated during the campaign.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer downplayed the significance of the draft, saying it was ‘not a statement of administration policy. That is not an accurate assessment of where we are at this time.’ Spicer suggested that there would be substantial changes in the letter after Trump’s nominee for U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, is confirmed by the Senate.” [….]

The rest of this article is here.