Unstructured Finance

Michael Pollan: “What’s in the beef?”


Photo by Kris Krüg

Where does your burger come from? Journalist and food writer Michael Pollan has traced back the source of much of what we eat, and says that the ultimate answer is oil. Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, argues that it takes massive amounts of petroleum-derived fertilizers and pesticides to run industrial farms and feed lots, with dire consequences for human health and the Earth’s climate.

Check out Pollan’s multimedia presentation below, from the Poptech conference in Camden, Maine last month.

[Editor's note: After some Reuters fact-checking, Pollan withdrew his Poptech assertion that "A vegan in a Hummer has a smaller carbon footprint than a meat-eater in a Prius," and his statement has been edited out of the video. The erroneous meme has nevertheless continued to spread on Twitter]

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FOOD/More on the Future of Food:

Is Monsanto the answer or the problem?

The fight over the future of food

Is Africa selling out its farmers?

India’s food dilemma: high prices or shortages

A food czar could bring sexy back to agriculture

It seems if you got a problem in Washington today, you need a Czar to take care of it. And now some powerful U.S. senators believe the agriculture sector should get one to sharpen efforts to feed the world’s poor.
foodaid3Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman told lawmakers on Tuesday that too often agriculture takes a back seat to other “sexier” issues in policymaking, but it must be a priority if the country hopes to address global hunger and malnutrition.
“It is not a secondary factor,” Glickman said before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator Dick Lugar, the Republican leader of the committee, supported appointing a White House food coordinator to take on raising agriculture and food aid’s prominence.
This “food czar” would be tasked with coordinating efforts between the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies involved in food aid and agriculture production.
The need for a food czar doesn’t seem as far stretched when considering recent events that have nudged agriculture over into the realm of a national security issue.
Soaring food prices last year sparked food riots and led to political instability in some parts of the world. The threat of violence and coups continues as the recession makes it increasingly difficult for even more people to buy food.
A food czar could possibly mitigate future riots by improving the United States’ role in making other nations self-sufficient in agricultural production, an area some say the country has failed in. 
In fact, U.S. efforts to address the long-term challenge of persistant malnutrition earn an ‘F,’ according to political science professor and author Robert Paarlberg.
He said U.S. agriculture assistance to Africa has plummeted 85 percent since the 1980s. “So as things have been getting steadily worse in Africa, the United States goverment has curiously been doing steadily less,” Paarlberg said.
A food czar, Lugar said, would have the difficult job of addressing this conundrum.

Photo Credit: Reuters/Luc Gnago (Farmers in Cote d’Ivoire work on a rice field); Reuters/Alberto Lowe (Riot police clash with Panamanians over food prices in Panama City); Reuters/Margaret Aguirre (A child in Ethiopia is severely malnourished due to widespread starvation brought on by drought and soaring food prices)

Farm fight gives Argentine newspapers plenty to chew on


Argentine farmers’ decision to resume their anti-government protests dominated Sunday’s newspaper editorials, with some commentators saying the seemingly never-ending conflict over soy taxes risked spilling into political turmoil and even violence (Joaquin Morales Sola in right-leaning La Nacion).

Most agreed the conflict’s resurgence was down to last week’s surprise announcement by President Cristina Fernandez to share the soy tax revenue with the provinces, which critics see as an election ploy ahead of a mid-term vote due in June. Farmers took as proof she is unwilling to lower the levy.

Some columnists criticized the government for erratic policies that have stoked the conflict at a delicate time for the country (Eduardo van der Kooy, in top-selling daily Clarin), saying Fernandez needed to change tack to reflect the changed economic reality (Miguel Bonasso in Critica).

The Perpetual war of the Pampas

tractor-protestIt all looks very familiar. Argentina’s rebellious farmers are threatening to go back to their highway protests, the government is refusing to cut export taxes on soybeans and another showdown in Congress is on the horizon.

If ruling party lawmakers’ continue to refuse to take their seats and allow a vote on an opposition-led bill to cut the taxes, farmers will have a good excuse to resume road protests and a freeze on grains sales to starve the state of revenue.

President Cristina Fernandez will be loath to see another showdown on soy taxes after last year’s crushing defeat when her own vice president cast the deciding vote against her in the Senate, forcing the government to roll back the sliding-scale system that set off months of political turmoil.

The answer is 99,439. Pass it on.

During his first week on the job, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said no one knows for sure how many people work at the Agriculture Department. Speaking to USDA employees and later to reporters, he used that startling anomaly as an argument to update USDA’s computer equipment.

Like the admonition against saying “never” or “always” during an argument, there could be a corollary: Never say “no one knows” in a bureaucracy.

A USDA employee quickly provided an answer for Reuters: 99,439 fulltime, part-time and temporary federal employees as of Monday based on figures from the payroll agency.

Obamamania missing in farm country

obama1Many U.S. farmers don’t have confidence in President-elect Barack Obama, with many fearing the new administration will not be receptive to the needs of American farmers and ranchers.

A Reuters straw poll of more than 800 farmers at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting in San Antonio found 72 percent of the respondents did not believe Obama would have the best interest of the farmer in mind.

Instead of helping U.S. sectors that produce goods for the country, such as farmers, several mentioned Obama would focus on programs that work to even out income and help those that are seeking something from the government.

The tequila sunrise could soon set

agave.jpgInvestors — and drinkers — got sobering news on Thursday when Brown-Forman described how agricultural difficulties rocking Mexican farmers hurt the bottom line of the company, which is based in Louisville, Kentucky.

Brown-Forman saw a big part of its first-quarter profit guzzled by a $22 million charge it had to take to deal with an abnormal number of dead or dying agave plants, which it uses to make its Herradura and el Jimador tequilas.

According to Brown-Forman executives, there had been a glut of blue agave cacti in Mexico, which led prices to collapse. That has caused farmers to abandon their fields in favor of more profitable crops like corn. The neglected agave plants became more susceptible to diseases, and Brown-Forman said it recently noticed that about 25 percent of its agave crop is unusable.