Opinion

Felix Salmon

Wine list of the day, Davos edition

Felix Salmon
Jan 28, 2011 11:04 UTC

The prize for most obnoxious party at Davos was won on the first night, with the Davos Tasting put on by the Wine Forum.

Wine tasting was historically one of the more interesting and enjoyable events that was put on at Davos, but it got nixed in 2009 when conspicuous consumption of first-growth clarets was considered inappropriate in the face of the global financial crisis. The consequence was much the same as attempts to cap CEO salaries: just as the executives end up making much more money through stock options, the wine tasters, freed from whatever decorum was imposed upon them by the official constraints of the World Economic Forum, showed just how out-of-control wine events can really be.

The plutocrats at Davos, of course, both western and eastern, are exactly the kind of people who spend thousands of dollars a bottle on fine wines. But they’re also driven and single-minded executives who naturally gravitate to the obvious and middlebrow in other areas: if they’re buying art, they’ll plump for something shiny by Damien Murakoons (both Hirst and Koons are in Davos this week), while the big-name creative types here are the likes of Jose Carreras, Peter Gabriel, and Paulo Coelho.

Wine here, then, is judged with executives’ eyes rather than their noses. They look at the label first and then at two crucial numbers: the number of points it gets from Robert Parker or Wine Spectator and the cost in dollars. Take that to its logical conclusion and you wind up with exactly what we saw on Wednesday night:

This evening’s wine selection consists of wines that have achieved 100 points or equivalent from one of three well known raters.

The raters, of course, are Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson and the Wine Spectator — the consensus arbiters of mainstream wine taste.

You want the list? OK:

1969 Vega Sicilia, 1980 Vega Sicilia, 1982 Krug, 1982 Pichon Lalande Comptesse du Lalande, 1990 Gaja Barbaresco Sorì Tildìn, 1994 Harlan Estate, 1994 Quinta do Noval Port, 1998 Le Pin, 2000 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Le Rocche del Falletto, 2000 Léoville Las Cases, 2000 Cheval Blanc, 2000 Pavie, 2001 Domaine de la Mordoree Chateauneuf du Pape Cuvee de la Reine des Bois, 2002 Greenock Creek Shiraz Roennfeldt Road, 2004 Le Macchiole Toscana Messorio, 2005 L’Eglise Clinet, 2005 Pavie, 2006 Colgin, 2007 Dana Estate, 2009 Léoville Poyferré.

And that’s not including a few more Champagnes, a 1995 Figeac or the Louis XIII cognac.

The event was held at the semi-legendary Piano Bar of the Hotel Europe, which was fully booked out by the Wine Forum for two and a half extremely expensive hours. The Piano Bar is the late-night haunt of Davos Man and it comes with the permanent tang of stale cigarette smoke and a general culture of heavy drinking.

The result was basically a drunken mess. Revelers would cluster around stations loaded up with fine wine, getting large pours of increasingly-indistinguishable heavy cabernets, competing to find the Cheval Blanc and Le Pin (which were naturally considered the most desirable wines, just because they were the most expensive), all the while fighting off jetlag and concentrating mainly on greeting their old Davos buddies and catching up on gossip. (Update: I forgot to mention that all the wine was served “pop-and-pour” style, where a wine would run out, a waiter would run to get another bottle, would open it, and then immediately start pouring it into various partiers’ glasses. No decanting, no time to breathe, nothing. Maybe the reason I liked the Barolo so much was that it had been sitting open for a while by the time I got to it.)

Most of the wine, including the Cheval Blanc, was far too young to drink — but of course it’s hard to find such names in quantity if you want them older. My favorite, by far, was the Barolo (about $550 a bottle if you want to buy it in Hong Kong), but the event really wasn’t remotely conducive to tasting and appreciating the wines, so much as it was a way of celebrating and appreciating Anthony Scaramucci and Skybridge Capital, who underwrote the event. Scaramucci, a member of the Wine Forum, is the first to admit that he’s not much of a wine connoisseur, but he knew what he wanted: he told me that the bill for the event just kept on rising from its initial stratospheric level, as he insisted that if he was going to throw a party, the wine must never run out and must be available in quantity.

I’m glad that I got the opportunity to taste a bunch of these wines, even though I didn’t really appreciate most of them. Maybe to do that you need to have much more respect for point ratings or dollar prices than I do, or at least believe on a very deep level that they have a strong correlation with quality. I’m pretty certain, at this point, that my taste in wine isn’t Robert Parker’s taste, at least as it is revealed in his ratings. But ultimately events like this aren’t much about taste at all: they’re about putting down markers of various kinds and confirming in the plutocrats’ minds just how exclusive they, and Davos, really are.

Update: Scaramucci calls to say that I’m a “dork” for writing this, says that I’m an embarrassment to my profession, and argues that it was malicious and unfair of me to accept an invitation to his party, only to turn around in public and call it (and, by implication, him) obnoxious. He’s upset, which is understandable, and I very much doubt I’ll be invited to any more of his events. I’ll say here what I told him on the phone, which is that this post was not written maliciously, and that I bear no animus to him personally — I didn’t talk to him for long at the event, but he was very cordial to me and I liked him. I felt his party was so emblematic of Davos in so many ways that I had to blog it. But I’m sorry that he ended up being singled out; my point was very much about the culture of Davos more generally.

Update 2: I watched Wall Street 2 on the flight back to New York (don’t bother, really), and noted a huge Skybridge logo in a charity-ball scene. Oliver Stone has said that the product placement helped him enormously in financing the movie.

COMMENT

Wait until these attendees find out that there is gambling in the back room of Rick’s Cafe Americain — the rush will be on to see and be seen — Nothing new for Davos Man (or Roman Man). Perhaps not so much a “yawn” as an affirmation.

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Nick Clegg’s inaccessible press event

Felix Salmon
Jan 27, 2011 16:53 UTC

One of the big changes to the ecology of the Davos conference center this year, after its $37 million revamp, is that there’s now a whole level at the top which is off-limits to the working press and accessible only to fully-fledged delegates with coveted white cards. There are a couple of conference rooms up there — called Aspen 1 and Aspen 2 — which is normally no big deal, given that the working press isn’t allowed in to conference sessions anyway.

One thing which hasn’t changed, however, is the way in which everybody bumps into everybody else in the conference center. Which is fine, just so long as you’re not deliberately keeping a very low profile and trying to avoid the press. Like Nick Clegg, for instance, with his 7% approval rating.

And so today we have a rather hilarious double oxymoron. Nick Clegg is having a press event, where he’ll be talking to Arthur Sulzberger; the email invite says that “sign-up is required as there are a limited number of seats available.” That makes sense, given how everybody’s wanting to talk to him right now. But then we’re told that “the session is off-the-record,” which is always disappointing, for a press event. And then we learn that it’s in Aspen 1 — it’s been deliberately put in one of the two rooms which the working press can’t get close to.

I won’t be reporting from the off-the-record press event which is closed to the working press, obviously. But it’ll be interesting to see how many people manage to get past the various hurdles to show up at all.

Update: About 36, by my count. And here’s a link to a  more up-to-date Reuters poll.

COMMENT

no inducement is required to get Tom Friedman to not act like a journalist

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The negative-sum new reality

Felix Salmon
Jan 27, 2011 09:45 UTC

Remember those off-the record comments by “top executives from Goldman Sachs and Standard Chartered” which indicated that the era of contrition had come to an end? Well, they’re on the record now, splashed all over the front page of this morning’s FT. Goldman’s Gary Cohn is coming out swinging, saying that the real danger to the global economy is now posed by unregulated non-banks, while Peter Sands of Standard Chartered reckons that most bank regulations will no more prevent another crisis than seatbelts on airplanes will prevent a plane crash.

It’s true that bankers are not contrite these days: Bob Diamond is standing tall in the halls of Davos, seemingly emboldened by his performance in front of the UK parliament, at which he said that “there was a period of remorse and apology for banks and I think that period needs to be over”.

Looking at the bankers as just one of the many species of plutocrats and power brokers in Davos, it seems to me that they’re taking full advantage of their present profitability (thanks, Mr Bernanke) to consolidate their position as much as possible in a world which is evolving in a fast and unpredictable manner.

Nouriel Roubini had a nice little soundbite yesterday, which I think touches on something important:

“There is complete disagreement and disarray. That’s the sense of the G Zero,” Mr Roubini said, explaining the new buzzword at the World Economic Forum’s annual conference in the Swiss resort of Davos.

“There is no agreement on anything. We are in a world where there is no leadership,” he added.

This is bearish, yes, but it’s also descriptive of an every-man-for-himself kind of world. There’s a good number of heads of state floating around, but many of them seem more interested in selling their countries as a great place to do business — just see Dmitry Medvedev’s opening address last night — than in trying to put together any kind of grand international coalition which could bring a measure of predictability or stability to a world filled with massive risks.

In that kind of world, it makes no sense for bankers to stay on the back foot or to try to work constructively on building what the World Economic Forum calls “shared norms for the new reality”. There’s been general puzzlement in Davos as to what that slogan is meant to mean and I was of the opinion, up to yesterday, that it was simply empty pablum. But I’ve changed my mind a bit, now, and I think that the WEF is, in its own weak and powerless way, making a desperate and doomed attempt to recreate the sense of global purpose that reached its high point at the G20 meeting in London in 2009.

The problem is that there’s a huge difference between a real global crisis, on the one hand, and a parade of theoretical risks, on the other. The former can concentrate minds and get people pulling in the same direction; the latter can’t. So instead we’ve got thousands of people, in Davos and around the world, all making tactical maneuvers and trying to position themselves as advantageously as possible in relation to everybody else. It’s a negative-sum game which will all end in tears, but I fear that if there really is a “new reality”,  it will turn out to be one marked by destructive power struggles rather than constructive strategic cooperation.

Update: Ian Bremmer tells me that G-zero is his big idea; I’m perfectly happy to give him the credit for it.

COMMENT

In my opinion, the greatest economic failure of the last few years is the framing of issues as “us vs. them” rather than looking for win-win solutions to problems that affect us all. Too many carrots and sticks, too little bread and butter.

Economics works best when it isn’t coerced.

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Top tips from Davos spouses

Felix Salmon
Jan 19, 2011 21:31 UTC

Just as the most interesting sessions at Davos are the ones you know the least about beforehand, the most interesting people tend to turn out to be the ones you’ve never heard of. If you do happen to find yourself talking to Bill Clinton or Bono or Dmitry Medvedev, you’ll probably be part of a large crowd of people and the conversation is likely to be superficial at best. On the other hand, if you just sit down on a random couch in the Congress Center, there’s a really good chance that sitting next to you will be a fascinating and very useful person to know.

And of all the attendees at Davos, the very best to get to know are often the spouses. There’s a smattering of Davos Deville types, of course, swanning down the Promenade in their fur coats, but many of the spouses are very smart, very engaged, very interesting in their own right — and tend to feel a bit left out, given the rigid Davos class system. Log in to the exclusive in-house social network, for instance, and they don’t even turn up.

Many Davos spouses have been going for years, and know the ways of the town and the conference very well. They also tend to be able to keep things in perspective, and realize when it makes sense to blow off a session on the state of global manufacturing to enjoy the blessedly empty slopes.

So here are some top tips from a couple of Davos spouses who know what they’re talking about. Both are women, as you might expect, so their advice is particularly useful for female attendees. But, especially if you’ve never been to Davos before, they’re likely to come in very handy for everyone.

First, clothes:

  • Wear snow boots that come on and off easily or that are cute and comfy enough that you’ll be okay wearing them to events.
  • Carry a waterproof bag for (a) your other shoes if you want to change into them, plus (b) whatever other schwag you collect during your day (you can check this bag at the Congress Center and at most of the hotels where the events take place).
  • Bring your warmest coat. (It gets really, really cold at night).
  • Layer your outfits: you will freeze outside and then boil indoors.
  • Wear gear that can be easily removed: you will go through airport security checkpoints at most events, meaning that you will unload all your coats, gloves, hats, bags, etc. into the x-ray machines at least 5 times per day, generally more often.
  • Cute tops are more important than cute trousers or shoes. There’s no shoe snobbery in Davos, except for maybe reverse snobbery. You don’t want to end up like Henrique Meirelles, breaking your ankle in three places when you slip on the ice.
  • Plan outfits that will work with a large plastic card hanging right at boob height.
  • Choose your picture on the card with care, because it will flash up each time you have to scan the card, which is a lot.

Second, activities:

  • Be prepared to eat lots of fondant, zweigelt, veal, sausage and spaetzle. Expect to see no vegetables whatsoever.
  • Order the strudel.
  • Make sure to go to the Kirchner Museum.
  • Go ice driving if you can.
  • Take a sleigh ride to fondue at the Alte Post hotel in the mountains.
  • Get a coffee at the Kaffeeklatsch.
  • Book yourself in to a couple of the WEF’s afternoon tea sessions, which are often really lovely discussions.
  • People-watch in the Congress Center, where you can also load up on coffee, soda, water, and snacks. Strike up conversations while you’re at it.
  • Sign up early for any events you really want to go to.
  • Smile at the Swiss military who will be EVERYWHERE. Smiling at them makes them nervous, and that’s kind of funny.
  • Be prepared for people to look right through you as though you are invisible.
  • Eat out of town, if you can, at the Landhaus down the valley or at the gasthof at Frauenkirch.
  • If you’re staying at a reasonably upmarket hotel, the concierge is your friend.
  • Pace yourself on the drinking: the days are long long long.

Finally, inevitably, there’s live karaoke with Barry the piano man at the Piano Bar in the Tonic Hotel on the Promenade. At that point, the badges have disappeared, and everybody’s too drunk to care about status.

COMMENT

Why, by all the gods, would a guy bring his wife to a business conference? What’s she going to do, field his calls? Photocopy his papers? Shine his shoes? What? This is the dumbest, most irrelevant fluff article I’ve read in weeks, and that covers a lot of dumb territory.

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The global risk that is Davos

Felix Salmon
Jan 14, 2011 16:38 UTC

Jim Ledbetter reads the 50-page Davos global risks report so you don’t have to, and comes away with three and a half questions, all of which boil down to more or less the same thing: what if Davos is itself a global risk?

Reading the report, you get the strong sense of a circular argument along these lines: “My tools are broken. How will I fix them? I will use my tools!” About as close as the WEF gets to a solution for broken global governance is “a well-informed and well-mobilized public opinion sharing norms and values of global citizenship.” Yes, well … good luck with that.

The one thing that a Davos risks report can never say is that there’s some non-negligible chance that the World Economic Forum itself will make things worse. Last year, when I went looking for contrition in Davos, I sought but did not find “an indication that much if not all of the crisis was caused by the arrogance of Davos Man and by his unshakeable belief that the combined efforts of the world’s richest and most powerful individuals would surely make the world a better, rather than a worse, place.”

That belief remains intact and inviolate, and it severely constrains the ability of the WEF to change its ways for the better: you can’t learn from your mistakes if you never admit that you ever made a mistake in the first place.

Whether we like it or not, there’s no doubt that the delegates at Davos are important and powerful; what’s more, many if not most of them have genuinely good intentions. They also love to talk about quantifiable deliverables, both in business and in philanthropy, which allow people to measure whether what they’re doing is working. But they never apply that mindset to the WEF itself. Because they know that if they did, they would risk finding out that the value it adds is negative.

COMMENT

I’ll follow your post. Thanks for sharing.
Forex auto trading software

Posted by assyly | Report as abusive

Davos: Where epic shifts are converging

Felix Salmon
Jan 10, 2011 18:21 UTC

Chrystia and I differ on whether Davos is actually important. I say it isn’t, and Exhibit A is this invitation, which I received today. There will be many, many more like it arriving over the next couple of weeks:

davos.jpg

The whole thing, obviously, is [sic]. But Davos does tend to attract the kind of people who can straight-facedly pretend to believe that entering the human age, or the New Reality, or unleash and leverage human potential as the key competitive differentiator to win, or entering a new era, or epic shifts are converging, or talent is the new ‘it’ actually mean something.

The panel that these people have put together is prototypical Davos: dean of this, best-selling author of that, general secretary of the other, plus a CEO and a corporate president. There’s no shared expertise here, and there won’t be any real debate. Instead, they’ll all intone sonorously in an attempt to appear visionary and important, as jet-lagged delegates ask themselves why on earth they dragged themselves out of bed at 7am Swiss time (which is 1am New York time) to listen to such pablum.

The main purpose of these panels is to make their sponsors—in this case, CNBC and Manpower—feel important, as they splash their logos around in front of a select group of the most important people in the world. They either don’t know or, more likely, don’t care that their panel discussions look utterly ridiculous. Just about everything in Davos is ridiculous in its own way. It’s like Disneyland. So long as you suspend your disbelief, you’re fine.

COMMENT

Perhaps the world is ready for “Debbie Does Davos”, with various interesting personas from Russia, Saudi Arabia, USA, Italy, France, Germany, …
Might end up with more enemies than Julian A.

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Pandit’s parallel universe of gabfests

Felix Salmon
Nov 11, 2010 18:09 UTC

Is Vikram Pandit going to go back to Davos in January? He certainly seems to enjoy himself at well-meaning technocratic gabfests:

“I kind of feel like I’m living in parallel universes,” Mr. Pandit said in a forum that included Peter Sands of Standard Chartered Bank and Stephen A. Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group. “I’m here in Korea and I feel this warmth and need and the sense of trying to have a dialogue with each other, but then when I get back to my real universe, it’s cold in that universe.”

Well yes, Vikram, places like the G-20 Business Summit can credibly be described as a parallel universe. But not in a good way. They’re little bubbles of hubris and self-regard, where everybody is admirable, no one ever asks tough personal questions, and the enemy is a faceless mass of populists who just don’t know what’s good for them. I’m sure you feel all manner of warmth when you enter that particular universe, but don’t let it distract you from cold reality.

It’s good that Pandit is cognizant of the disconnect, and is willing to call such conferences out for being divorced from reality. But still, it’s so tempting to give in to their charms. Who doesn’t love to be loved?

COMMENT

“Who doesn’t love to be loved?”

There’s a lot of love in DC.

http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2010/ 10/jon-stewarts-video-take-down-of-mccai n-hes-been-saying-dcs-broken-since-1989- video.php?ref=fpb

(watch the whole thing)

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Davos hubris

Felix Salmon
Feb 1, 2010 16:37 UTC

On Friday, Lance Knobel rose to the defense of the World Economic Forum. On Saturday, I was cornered by a particularly aggressive Young Global Leader, who had taken the oath, and whose plans for making the world a better place I developed a severe aversion to quite early, at exactly the time that he used the word “platform” as a verb. On Sunday I talked to another YGL who had also taken the oath and was happy to defend it. And today I stumbled across a piece of Davos PR fluff claiming that “the Forum has reached a worldwide audience of 430 million readers online namely through the use of social networks”.

So I feel like I need to say one last time — and with any luck this’ll be my last Davos post for the year — No. No, your oath is not something which at best is a good thing and which in any case can do no harm. No, it’s not “pretty rare” to find well-intentioned people anywhere in the world. No, you didn’t reach 430 million people. In fact, you didn’t even reach 1 million, your high follower count on Twitter notwithstanding.

All of these things are part of the bigger phenomenon of Davos hubris and exceptionalism — the very thing which I think can be so very dangerous. Hang out at Davos for long enough, and you become convinced that you’re a special person who can make the world a better place and who indeed has a moral obligation to act thusly. If you start believing everything that people in Davos say to you, you can eventually end up with the kind of mindset which leads to a convinction that invading Iraq is a really good idea.

Why do people go to Davos? Because being invited makes you feel like you’re a member of a select club. Because the message makes you feel good about yourself and your ability to change the world. Because people keep on referring to you as a “leader”. Because, for the minority of people at Davos who genuinely are important, it’s a place where you can let your guard down for a bit, and chat to the person sitting on the couch next to you without having to deal with them as a potential starfucker or protestor or whatever.

That’s why it’s really not in the slightest bit impressive that Percy Barnevik was nice to Lance Knobel’s spouse — Davos does the prefiltering for you, and you can relax once you’re there in your bed of vanity. “You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t important,” the YGL told me, with a perfectly straight face, on Saturday night, basking in the reflected glory of being in the same bar as moguls and billionaires singing loudly along with Barry the piano man. Davos is a social occasion, and in many ways it’s closer to being a four-day-long cocktail party than it is to being a place where anything substantive gets done. Besides, interesting people often have interesting spouses, and Lance is no exception in that respect; more generally, just as the most interesting panels are the ones you know nothing about, the most interesting people you meet are likely to be ones you’ve never heard of before.

The problem here is that Davos isn’t content being a place where people make polite conversation and serendipitously end up sitting next to someone fascinating at dinner; it also aspires to changing the world. Lance says that I’m “overrating the Forum’s influence and power” when I say that it was responsible, at least in part, for the economic and financial catastrophe which befell the world in 2008 — but my point isn’t that Davos is influential or powerful in itself, just that it inculcates a mindset in its delegates where they’re convinced that they’re doing good (the oath is a prime example of this), and never stop to modestly wonder whether they’re wrong. And that kind of mindset can be very destructive: if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then Davos is the road crew keeping it smooth and fast.

COMMENT

I think perhaps it would be useful to back up and look at Davos’ original premise and ask yourself what is actually wrong with that idea? Davos started with a pretty simple premise: get the most important people in the world in one place and hope some good comes out of it. Because no one else was really doing that yet.

So, yeah, sure, a lot of annoying shit is going to happen around that premise, but ask yourself: is the premise flawed? Is there some potential utility to it? Isn’t it better to have all these people talking than not?

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World hunger and the locavores

Felix Salmon
Jan 30, 2010 09:48 UTC

Every so often at Davos you have a short, startling conversation which completely changes the way you think about a subject — and I just had one of those standing next to Dan Barber, the chef of Blue Hill Farm. He’s a very smart, very funny guy, who’s passionate about food on every level from preparing the ingredients of the dishes in his restaurants to the logistics of feeding the planet.

I bumped into Barber as we were milling around the Davos conference center, waiting for the panel on “rethinking how to feed the world” to begin. I asked him what he thought of the food in Switzerland; he compared in unfavorably to what he was fed by the airline on the way over here. “I haven’t seen a vegetable since Thursday,” he added, looking a bit overwhelmed by the number of things that the Swiss seem to be able to do with bread, cheese, and bit of veal.

When the panel started, I could almost see the steam coming out of Barber’s ears. It featured two heads of state; two agribusiness CEOs; a representative from the World Bank; and Bill Gates. All of them looked at food mainly as a matter of logistics and problem-solving, and they seemed to do so with real good will and good motives. (Well, maybe not the CEO of ADM.) But they were all very much bought into a model which looks, to Barber’s eyes, incredibly shaky.

Essentially the problem is that the people on the panel have internalized the principles of comparative advantage and free trade to the point at which they are more or less incapable of thinking any other way. In a Ricardian world it makes sense for Ohio to overwhelmingly grow corn and soy, since growing corn and soy is what it does best. And because of economies of scale, it makes sense to grow just one type of each, on farms of mind-boggling size. Ohio can then trade all that corn and soy for the food it wants to eat, and everybody is better off.

Except in reality it doesn’t work like that. Monocultures are naturally prone to disastrous outbreaks of disease, which can wipe out an entire crop. The panel at Davos has a favored method of dealing with such things: the development of disease-resistant crop strains, often through high-tech and patentable genetic modification. Bright research scientists create clever transgenic crops, and then people like Bill Gates and the World Bank try to get them broadly adopted while setting well-intentioned staffers to work minimizing potential problems with IP licensing. Innovation through agricultural technology is the obvious and necessary solution to the problem of global hunger.

Barber isn’t anti-science, nor is he anti-innovation. But he knows (and the panelists know too) that a system of globalized agriculture can break down, as we saw during the commodity boom of 2008. As the price of soy and rice and wheat soared, exporters started hoarding rather than selling, and importers couldn’t obtain necessary supplies at any price. As the World Bank’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala noted, Ukraine had 5 million tons of surplus wheat, but the international food markets were very thin, and it was extremely difficult to get that wheat exported. The system didn’t work like it was meant to: when put to a real-world test, it broke down.

Problems associated with monocultures can pop up even when there isn’t a commodity-price bubble, too: look, for instance, at the tomato plight which devastated the northeast US last year. Barber explains clearly what happened: millions of more-or-less identical starter plants were transported across the US by huge corporations like Home Depot and Wal-Mart which have neither the inclination nor the ability to notice when the plants are showing signs of blight. Those starters, planted by enthusiastic amateurs across the nation, then started “transferring their pathogens like tiny Trojan horses” into the local biosphere.

The solution to this problem, in Barber’s view, is indeed disease-resistant plants, but not in the sense that a company like DuPont thinks of such things.

To many advocates of sustainability, science, when it’s applied to agriculture, is considered suspect, a violation of the slow food aesthetic…

That includes the development of plants with natural resistance to blight and other diseases — plants like the Mountain Magic tomato, an experimental variety from Cornell that the Stone Barns Center is testing in a field trial. So far there’s been no evidence of disease in these plants, while more than 70 percent of the heirloom varieties of tomatoes have succumbed to the pathogen.

Mountain Magic is an example of regionalized breeding. For years, this kind of breeding has fallen by the wayside…

Healthy, natural systems abhor uniformity — just as a healthy society does…

What does the resilient farm of the future look like? I saw it the other day. The farmer was growing 30 or so different crops, with several varieties of the same vegetable. Some were heirloom varieties, many weren’t. He showed me where he had pulled out his late blight-infected tomato plants and replaced them with beans and an extra crop of Brussels sprouts for the fall. He won’t make the same profit as he would have from the tomato harvest, but he wasn’t complaining, either.

This kind of thinking involves education, but not education of the top-down, web-enabled type that one hears so much about at Davos every year. Instead, it’s a slower but more robust form of bottom-up education, enabling farmers to identify problems, find their own individual solutions, and reject one-size-fits-all approaches. Everybody in the audience was excited when Bill Gates started talking about how much extra wealth flood-resistant rice strains brought to some of the poorest rice farmers in south-east Asia. But no one talked about creating relatively small and self-sufficient agricultural communities: the model is still very much that you sell your one crop for money, and then use that money to buy whatever other food you might need.

And there are big problems with that model, not least because the hungriest nations on earth tend to lack the transportation infrastructure necessary to affordably get different crops from one side of the country to the other. There was some interesting talk on the panel about what the CEO of ADM called “post-harvest innovation” — research into the questions of how to get food from big producers of single crops and into the mouths of the hungry without it spoiling or getting somehow diverted or lost. And there was lots of talk based on a simple — indeed, simplistic — syllogism: there are 1 billion hungry people in the world who suffer from malnutrition, therefore there isn’t enough food in the world and we need to invest in agricultural innovation so that we can produce more.

But Barber doesn’t buy it: there’s more than enough food in the world already, he says. Literally more than enough: look at what’s happening to obesity rates, and look at how much food is wasted every day. In a world producing corn and soy on a mega-industrial scale, more food doesn’t necessarily mean less hunger: it’s much more likely to simply result in more waste and worse public health.

Barber’s vision of farmers listening to nature and producing a wide variety of crops suited to the local terroir is compelling, even if it isn’t a panacea: I’d urge you to watch his TED talk, especially where he ties it all together in the final three minutes. Food will always be a commodity, and as the world becomes increasingly urbanized, it will always be trucked in to massive cities over long distances. But there’s no reason why different cities in the same country should increasingly eat exactly the same food. Localization and heterogeneity have to be part of the solution, and there was no sense of that at all on the Davos panel.

When I was at Davos two years ago, Michael Pollan and Alice Waters were big draws. This year, Barber is getting a lot of attention. But there seems to be a disconnect: people think of the locavores as solving a luxury problem of how to eat healthier and more delicious food in rich countries, and they’re not asking whether they have anything to teach with respect to big questions like world hunger.

That might be changing: Barber told me about a brief conversation he had with Bill Clinton, where Clinton said that he now greatly regrets a lot of the agricultural policies he put in place as president. And Clinton, of course, is thinking long and hard about designing agricultural systems these days, given that agricultural production accounts for most of the wealth of Haiti and needs to be rebuilt more or less from scratch. Here’s hoping that Clinton helps to build an agricultural system in Haiti which is designed first and foremost to feed Haitians through diverse local food production, and only secondarily to provide export income to buy food and other necessities. Because the cash-crop model, as we’ve seen many times, is far too prone to disastrous failure.

COMMENT

Thank you to all of you….i had begun to despair of ever reading a civilized discussion of any merit on a comment board, so thanks to the moderators…seeing this kind of discourse gives me hope for all of us and reminds me that there are a lot of smart people out there (smarter than me thank goodness), and the fact that they disagree and can do so in a manner that grapples with the ideas and not the person having them is refreshing….

As to the global food situation, i believe that right resource sharing is at the root of many of our issues going forward, what a wonder it is just to be alive and then find our selves in a world so abundant that we thought it could not support 2 billion and now it can support 7 and soon 10… so to put the most outrageous solve out there, how about a world government that taxes all super rich and corporations at a high enough rate, and provides income/credit to all at a base level that enables them to survive…sort of a living stipend…it is my belief that life is hard enough without having to worry whether or not you’re going to eat tomorrow….

How you say? Well get rid of weapons spending and you’re done…Listen we in the West are already doing a lot of “make up” jobs anyway…let’s see we have cereal restaurants…personal shoppers, and Bloggers :) Why not use the robots and automated economy for all of our benefit?
After all in the end we’re all in this together…

Here’s how it works every one gets their 2K a month and they can do as they will…now you can still work a “normal” job and we hope you will…i wonder how much teacher’s or trash pick up personnel would get in the new world economy?….in the beginning we all have to put in 10-20 years etc to get funded in….and if you want to make more fine….but what if we agreed to a cap on personal income, you know let’s say $10,000,000 per year?

And if you make more, fine we’ll name the park bench/escalator or street light after you….Let’s face it you didn’t make that much without help from a lot of other people…

You people are smart you can help me figure out the details….And sure i know it’s idealistic and could probably not happen in our lifetimes, but hey i for one think it’s nice to imagine a world where money is not the highest value….

(e.g. “One last point. It is a fact that the continued existence of malnourishment in the world is a consequence of income (mal)distribution. It is true that the existing output of food is enough to feed the hungry. So why are 1 billion people hungry? Well, because they can’t afford to buy food, i.e. food prices are too high relative to their incomes.”)

And that scarcity is not our mindset…”We are all One, and there is Enough”—N.W. Walsch

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