Saturday, January 29, 2011

It's (partially) the food, stupid!

On the face of it, the protests currently sweeping across the Arab world have been driven by overwhelmingly leaderless, frustrated, impoverished, unemployed youths battling, geriatric dictatorial regimes, supported by a pampered military--and the United States.

Fueling all these protests though, from Egypt, to Yemen, to Jordan to Tunisia to  Algeria is another common factor: rocketing food prices, just as they fueled the French revolution.

A “perfect storm” of natural disasters around the globe, plus rising oil prices and rapacious speculators have produced the current dramatic spike in food prices, but even without those events, the fact is food prices will continue to spiral upward, and will continue roiling the planet, no matter who is governing.

What is outrageous is that our leaders know this—they’ve known it for years--but, like deer transfixed by the lights of an onrushing truck—they’ve done precious little to avert catastrophe.  Indeed, rather than deal with impending disaster, they’ve made the situation even worse.   

The statistics are stark:  Almost 7 billion people currently inhabit this planet, one billion of whom are already on the brink of starvation. By 2050 the total will be 9.2 billion, with higher incomes for many; thus much larger and demanding appetites.

The bottom line is the world will need 70% more food in 2050 than it produced in 2000. But at the same time, the resources available are plummeting. The amount of agricultural land per person on the planet will drop from 10.6 acres in 1961 to 3.7 acres in 2050.  

As for water, just to maintain current levels of (mal) nutrition--never mind improving things—farmers will need 17% more fresh water by 2050.  Problem is 70% of the world’s fresh water is already used for irrigation.

But instead of investing in agriculture, the world’s leaders, and development organizations have been obsessed with industrialization. The statistics are shocking: development assistance from all sources to agriculture went from 20% of all aid twenty-five years ago--to only 4 % today.   

Developing countries themselves reduced their own investment in agriculture from 11% twenty-five years ago to 7% in 2007.

These figures from Pandey Shivaji, a soft-spoken Indian official I spoke with at the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Offices in Rome.

First off, he says, food production has to be transformed from a dull, bureaucratic backwater to page one of the international agenda.  75% of the world’s hungry and poor still live in rural areas and derive their livelihood from the land.

O.K., I ask, but surely it makes sense to industrialize, get those people good factory jobs and off the over-crowded land, right?

Wrong, he says.  “Agriculture has been shown to be twice as effective in eliminating hunger and poverty as any other kind of development. There is scientific evidence that every one percent increase in crop productivity will reduce the number of poor and hungry by .4 percent.”

What about the wonders of the “green revolution”? That’s over,” says Shivaji. “Sixty years ago, rice, wheat and maize yields in countries like India, were dramatically rising at 3% a year. No longer. The rate of growth instead is declining heading for about one percent a year by 2050.”

It was the soaring food prices of 2007 and 2008 and the radical political unrest they sparked, that finally got the world’s leaders to start paying attention.  One result, Pandev Shivaji heads a steering committee under the auspices of the FAO, tasked with figuring out how to dramatically increase food production without at the same time destroying the ecology.

One of the first things he did was to tell his experts to stop their research.  “Of, course, there are still things to learn,” he says, “but we already know a lot of the answers. We’ve known for decades.”

 The problem is that the politicians who call the shots have refused to listen.

-To arguments against protectionism, for example. According to Mark Malloch Brown, the former head of the UNDP,  the developed world, lavishes a billion dollars a day on subsidies and support prices to protect their farmers, many of them huge agribusinesses. That protection costs developing countries $50 billion in potential lost agricultural exports. That sum is the equivalent of all development assistance to the third world.  

--Another well-known problem: since bio energy became the flavor of the month, almost 5% of the world’s cereals are now used not to feed people but to produce 0.3% of the world’s energy.

--One major problem, says Pandey Shivaji, is that many of the new technologies have been developed for rich, large farmers. Governments have generally ignored the 400-500 million of the world’ farmers who cultivate less than 5 acres of land. “They have no strong political voice, but those small farmers produce more than half of the world’s food.”

It was small farmers tilling an average 2.7 acres of land in India’s Punjab who were responsible for the Green Revolution in the 60s and 70s, a revolution that took India from the brink of famine and to actually exporting food by 1985.   Similarly, the agriculture revolution that occurred in China in the past twenty-five years occurred on the back of farmers with less than half an acre of land.  

The “white revolution” that made India the world’s number one milk producer was achieved by women and men farmers with only one or two cows.

Says Shivaji, “In a country like Madagascar, where seventy percent of the population live on less than one dollar a day, where agriculture is the most important contributor to the GDP, if it is not agriculture that will get them out of their misery what do the so called experts propose? So many other countries are in that same situation in Africa.

“Certainly some consolidation of small land holdings would be better, but today we can make this world a better place only by making it easier for those who’ve been ignored for so long.”

--But one of the biggest victims of the lack of investment in agriculture is teaching and research. Says Shivaji, “Around the globe, many of the so-called “agriculture experts” are less qualified than they were fifty years ago. Many don’t even understand what they’re supposed to be teaching. They don’t even know that they don’t know.”

-There’s also been no investment in infrastructure to aid the farmer. That means roads, storage, electricity, and access to credit.

Of course, all that costs money. But some solutions are remarkably—if deceptively--simple. For instance, huge numbers of small landholders across the globe don’t have title to their farms. Says Shivaji, “If I don't own it I’m not going to invest in it or protect it. So they don’t invest.” In Vietnam in 1989, in the face of a dramatic food crisis, the Communist government—which was importing food--gave titles to the peasants. Within just three years, Vietnam became the world’s third largest rice exporter. “It wasn’t the only factor, but giving those titles had a major impact. Even Cuba now is talking about giving 7000 square meters of land to farmer.”

Some ways of raising production would actually save money. Thirty years ago, for example, the “experts” advised farmers to thoroughly plow their land, get rid of all weeds, ruffage and waste. Bad advice, says Shivaji.  Such methods actually destroy the soil. 

“Now we tell them to till the earth only when and where necessary.” Sounds simple, and there are dramatic side effects. In addition to saving the land, less plowing also means the farmer spends less for tractors and fuel. It also means less greenhouse gas emissions—in two ways:  less fuel burned, but also, if the soil isn’t thoroughly plowed, more carbon remains trapped in the earth —74 kilograms per acre per year.
“This reform actually means spending less, and it requires no new technology. It’s just teaching the farmer not to do something,” says Shivaji.

-It all seems obvious, but less than 10% of global farmland—largely in North and South America --is under this kind of system.

-Other reforms—like rotating crops, cutting back on rampant use of pesticides and fertilizers—are nothing new, but they can have a revolutionary impact, often in ways you would never think of. Such as teaching farmers not to burn their waste, but to use it as a mulch on their fields. That improves soil quality, but it also means less evaporation, which means farmers will need 30% less water. Also, in Australia researchers found out that such mulching also reduces the temperature of the plants by one degree--which could greatly reduce the impact of climate change on crop production.

Shivaji’s task force will present these and other strategies to agricultural ministers from around the world in Rome this June. “We’re going to boil thing down to 100 to 120 pages, something that national leaders can digest in a couple of hours while they’re flying from one spot to another.”

            On one hand, there’s reason for optimism, says Shivaji,  “The lessons we have learned in the past 40 to 50 years have taught us now we can produce more on the same amount of land, and can do it in a way that does not destroy the ecosystem.”

            Problem is, implementation is not in the hands of FAO experts. They have to convince policy makers to make the reforms, many of which have been proposed for decades.   

            Perhaps this current dramatic wave of unrest will convince at least some leaders they no longer have a choice.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A tale of Two Tyrants

There's a certain irony to the fact that as a bloody, corrupt Tunisian dictator headed off to ignominious exile in Saudi Arabia, thousands of miles away, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, another corrupt and bloody former dictator,who had fled his country ignominiously almost 25 years ago, returned to Haiti-- to the jeers, but also the cheers, of a mob of supporters.

Another irony: despite his brutal reign, France had welcomed Baby Doc when he originally escaped his homeland, but France refused entry to Tunisia's equally repugnant Ben-Ali . Yet just three days before the Tunisian dictator was forced to leave his homeland, as his police were shooting down scores of protestors in the streets, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Michele Alliot-Marie, had proposed a new French security agreement with the Tunisian police. (Of course, the current centrist-right Sarkozy government was able to defend itself by pointing to the times that previous French socialist officials had welcomed Ben Ali with high praise and open arms.)

There are many, of course, who are demanding that Duvalier be put on trial for the brutal acts and flagrant corruption of his regime. But it's highly unlikely he would have risked a return without having first worked out a deal with what passes for a government in Port au Prince--at the cost perhaps of a few of the hundreds of millions of dollars he is said to have stolen from his woebegone people.

Ironic also how the image of brutal dictators can be transformed over the years. When Baby Doc fled a quarter century ago, Haiti's economy was in ruins, his people the poorest in the Hemisphere. With his panicked departure, the ecstatic crowds in the streets cheered on a new era: things were going to radically change. New untried leaders-many returning from exile-promised an end to corruption and poverty, a glorious future for all---.the same refrains we're hearing from Tunisia these days.

Unfortunately, in Haiti, thanks to the acts of Man and Nature, those hopes were never borne out. So for a large number of Haitians, Duvalier may, incredibly enough, remain a political option--or at least a possible ally in the current scramble for power.

Under the ruthless Duvalier regimes there was at least a semblance of order. The woefully impoverished people in Haiti today have not even that. The torture, imprisonments and killings under the Duvaliers, the lurid tales of corruption, may be forgiven or forgotten or rationalized: Yes, he robbed, but...Yes, he had to clamp down on his opponents, but they were irresponsible, bickering and inept. What else could he have done? Once again we need a strongman to bring order.

(Europeans need not look down their noses at such sentiments. After all, it's disgust with the political options in Italy that's partially behind the Italians' continuing willingness to put up with Sylvio Berlusconi, no matter the charges of corruption nor the tender age of the prostitutes he's said to consort with.)

Hopefully, Tunisia will emerge from the darkness of dictatorial rule and, its leaders somehow make their way through the looming political turmoil. Of course. their history and culture are totally different from Haiti's as is their natural wealth and level of education. On the other hand, there are too many radical political groupings bubbling to the surface in Tunisia, too many foreign powers ready to interfere,and probably at least a few Tunisian generals ready to heed the call to save their nation.

Above all,there are few examples around anywhere of countries that have managed to make a smooth transition from iron-fisted dictatorship to something resembling democracy. The odds are not with them.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tunisia: Democratic Triumph or Prelude to U.S. Disaster?

Officially, the Obama administration greeted the “Jasmine” revolution in Tunisia with open arms, calling for free and fair elections as the U.S. scrambled to get aboard the democratic bandwagon. 
Celebration is restrained, however in Washington. Instead, there’s serious concern about who will take the place of the corrupt, 74 year-old Tunisian dictator, who, until the end, was considered an important American ally in the War against Terror.
Assuming the Tunisian military actually agrees to hold free elections [not at all a sure thing] will the generals really throw open the doors to all political groups? Nationalists? Islamists? Marxists? Anti-militarists? What forces will roil to the surface after decades of political repression? Will they throw in their lot with America’s War against Terror, or join the ranks of those in the Middle East who increasingly see what’s going on as the U.S.’s war against Islam?
Washington’s ambivalent view was evident even before the revolution was victorious. In Doha on Thursday, Hillary Clinton lectured Arab autocrats and others meeting there on the urgent need for reform and an end to rampant corruption if they wanted to save their regimes.
But just a couple of days earlier, as young demonstrators were being gunned down in the cities and towns of Tunisia, when Hillary was asked which side the U.S. was on, she replied that the U.S. was “not taking sides"
U.S. officials have reason to hesitate. Jasmine uprisings across the Middle East and Central Asia could spell disaster for American policy.
--There is no way, for instance, that Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for 30 years, will permit a democratic opening. Thanks to his ironclad dictatorship, the only group who has been able to organize politically are the Islamic radicals. More secular-minded opponents have been either co-opted or imprisoned or totally cowed. The influence of the religious extremists has grown throughout the country--anti-American and anti-Israel. It’s only the military that stand between Mubarak and chaos.   
But, like a deer frozen in on-coming headlights, Washington seems immobilized. On the one hand, there’s the corrupt, despotic, and failing Mubarak. But he’s a friend. On the other hand, truly free and fair elections would almost certainly bring leaders to power much more virulently anti-Israel and opposed to U.S. policies. Perhaps they’re hoping for the Egyptian the military to step in again to save itself and its privileges--and the U.S.
-Indeed elsewhere throughout the region, from Saudi Arabia to Jordan to Yemen to Ethiopia to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the picture seems markedly similar: U.S. allies are invariably corrupt dictators, maintained in power by lavish patronage and the military.
-Ironically, in Lebanon, where the public has had a growing voice in national politics, it’s the anti-American and anti-Israel Hezbollah who have ridden popular acclaim to become the decisive voice in the country.
-Similarly in Iraq, popular participation has also benefited America’s most outspoken enemy there: Moqtada al-Sadr., whose followers fought bloody battles against the U.S. after the invasion.  Seemingly vanquished, he has returned from three years in Iran to wield a decisive political voice in Iraq. He demands the withdrawal of all U.S. troops and bases from his country.
Ironically, because of the elections in Iraq, the country that will almost certainly be calling the shots there in the future will not be the United Statues—but Iran.
-Meanwhile moderates pushing for something akin to democracy and secular rule are losing ground. In Pakistan, the soldier who killed the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who had been outspoken in his fight against religious fundamentalism, that soldier was showered with rose petals while many of the country’s lawyers—who had once gone to the streets demanding democratic reform—celebrated the murderer as a national hero.
-And democracy in Israel? A true democracy with a vote for every person—Jews and all the Arabs under Israeli control—including those living on The West Bank? Forget it. It would be the end of the Zionist dream of a Jewish State.  We don’t hear Hillary or Obama talking much about that these days.
-Indeed, at the end of her lecture to the Arab leaders in Doha, one of  Hillary’s Arab audience asked why the U.S. wasn’t doing it’s share to fight the war against Islamic fundamentalism by putting more pressure on Israel to deal with the Palestinians.  Her answer –pointing out that the U.S. paid more to finance the Palestinian Authority than did most of the Arab countries—simply dodged the issue.
-Of course, it would be unfair to point out that, after her civics lesson in Doha,  Hillary returned to Washington where, even after the lurid shootings in Arizona, U.S. legislators are unable to even to discuss  clamping down on firearms, because of the all-powerful gun lobby.  It’s also Washington where American officials, from Obama on down, are terrified of taking on the pro-Israel lobby - not because the lobby represents the views of the majority of Americans—or even a great majority of American Jews, but because it wields a very undemocratic power far beyond its  numbers.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Congresswoman Giffords meets Julian Assange:The Liberal's Dilemma

We Liberals instinctively rose to defend Julian Assange’s right to publish hundreds of thousands of confidential government documents on Wikileaks. Freedom of the Press, the public’s right to know trumps all.

But the Internet is also threatening our liberal democracy-as the flood of oped comments generated by Congressman Giffords' shooting makes clear: any frenzied zealot has a forum to spew the most incendiary lies to millions around the globe. They are abetted, of course, by rabid TV broadcasters whose ratings are directly related to their gall.

This in a country already roiled by political passions, where any half crazed lunatic can get hold of a semi-automatic pistol, including those unhinged enough to believe that their mission is to save the nation or mankind from the forces of darkness.

For instance, the same day the Congresswoman was shot, a friend in Vancouver Canada relayed a blog to me vilifying financier George Soros in the most violent terms:

‘George Soros is an evil man. He’s anti-God, anti-family, anti-AmerIcan, and anti-good. He killed and robbed his own Jewish people. What we have in Soros is a multi-billionaire atheist, with skewed moral values, and a sociopath’s lack of conscience.

“Soros is the main obstacle to a stable and just world order in the United States.”

“Soros has vigorously, cleverly and insidiously planned the ruination of American and his puppet, Barack Obama is leading the way.”

On the face of it, the charges were outrageous, But the author of the blog attributed the statements to “four months of research” by Steve Croft at Sixty Minutes.
That attribution was the reason my friend, a very educated sophisticated woman, had not simply deleted it. After all, Steve Croft. Sixty Minutes.
“Is this true?” she wanted to know.
Google showed me that these charges had been ricocheting around the Internet in basically for more than ten years. Many of the paragraphs were verbatim the same. This despite the fact that Soros’ lawyers in several jurisdictions had obtained public apologies from editorialists in the U.S. and Canada who had repeated the lies.
What about the attribution to Steve Croft and Sixty Minutes? 
In fact, none of those wild-eyed charges were actually reported by Croft in his 1998 Sixty Minutes profile of Soros.
The only unattractive fact from the report that came to close to anything in the blog, was the explanation that Soros was born Jewish and when the Nazis took over Hungary in 1944, Soros father bribed a government official to “adopt” the young Soros, as his godson.
As thousands of Jews were being deported to the death camps, the official protected Soros, occasionally taking him on official rounds, once while confiscating property of a large Jewish landowner who had fled the country.  Croft asked Soros how he felt about that situation.
KROFT: And you watched lots of people get shipped off to the death camps.

Mr. SOROS: Right. I was 14 years old. And I would say that that's when my character was made.

KROFT: In what way?

Mr. SOROS: That one should think ahead. One should understand and -- and anticipate events and when -- when one is threatened. It was a tremendous threat of evil. I mean, it was a -- a very personal experience of evil.

KROFT: My understanding is that you went out with this protector of yours who swore that you were his adopted godson.

Mr. SOROS: Yes. Yes.

KROFT: Went out, in fact, and helped in the confiscation of property from the Jews.

Mr. SOROS: Yes. That's right. Yes.

KROFT: I mean, that's -- that sounds like an experience that would send lots of people to the psychiatric couch for many, many years. Was it difficult?

Mr. SOROS: Not -- not at all. Not at all. Maybe as a child you don't -- you don't see the connection. But it was -- it created no -- no problem at all.

KROFT: No feeling of guilt?

Mr. SOROS: No.

KROFT: For example that, 'I'm Jewish and here I am, watching these people go. I could just as easily be there. I should be there.' None of that?

Mr. SOROS: Well, of course I c -- I could be on the other side or I could be the one from whom the thing is being taken away. But there was no sense that I shouldn't be there, because that was -- well, actually, in a funny way, it's just like in markets -- that if I weren't there -- of course, I wasn't doing it, but somebody else would -- would -- would be taking it away anyhow. And it was the -- whether I was there or not, I was only a spectator, the property was being taken away. So the -- I had no role in taking away that property. So I had no sense of guilt.”
In America Soros has poured billions of dollars into liberal causes, from the Democratic Party to legalizing marijuana, making him a prime target of the right. They’ve had no hesitation in transforming a frightened, 14 year old Soros into “Hitler’s henchman”
Take for instance, Anne Coulter on the March 26, 2009 Fox News Hannity:
COULTER: I don't think George Soros' name should come out without pointing out that this is not the first crisis he's done well in. He collaborated with the Nazis in Hungary, as he admitted, so he did well under the Nazis.”
But that’s just for starters:   a March 10, 2009, Human Events Online column:
“Soros is a behind-the-scenes despot. He is an evil man who has used his wealth to further all the causes the Democrat Party holds dear. He was also a Nazi collaborator. ”
Or March 11, 2009, Investor's Business Daily editorial:
“His ultimate goal is to create a global socialist collective where we hand over our money and/or freedom and sing "Kumbaya."

Repeating these charges in the blog that was sent to me, the anonymous author called Soros “One Evil Son of Satan.”
And  he concluded: The words of Patrick Henry are apropos: "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"
After such rhetoric, why wouldn’t a gullible young patriot pick up his semi-automatic, write a Facebook farewell, and head out to save his nation by blowing a apart that Evil Son of Satan?  Or better yet, Barak Obama himself. Don’t forget millions of Americans view the president as a witting ally of radical Islam.
We’ re getting similar panicked calls for action in France, where political rhetoric is also roiling. The day after receiving the Soros blog, I was forwarded another blog predicting the imminent “French  revolution” --provoked by the inexorable flood of Muslims swamping the country.

This from another very well educated, sophisticated friend in Paris—who herself has long been convinced that the Muslims will in fact take over.

Source for that story? Supposedly a CNN report which I was never able to find. But the facts given were wrong and the sites posting that blog were mainly right wing backers of the virulently anti-immigrant Jean-Marie Le Penn.

Still, the statistics presented to prove a Muslim takeout appeared to be solid, accompanied by neat graphs demonstrating the soaring Muslim birthrate and the waning population of native French. Problem is these days it’s easy for anyone to make neat look graphs and power point presentations. 

And how do you argue with statistics, right? A birth rate is a birth rate is a birth rate.
In fact, the statistics are  wildly inaccurate and blown out of context.

I know all this because I went to the trouble of checking the stories out. There are sites around like SNOPES which make it their business to examine sensational charges. But most people, even if they’ve heard of such sites, don’t take the time to check. Life is too hectic.  

When they get a startling blog they read it, shake their head, and, as often as not, send it on to their friends. After all, if Steve Croft of 60 Minutes reported those facts about Soros, must be something to it.Twitter and Facebook and Youtube transform that process into a whirlwind.

 And even if discredited once, the lies never disappear. A story shot down in 1998, as were the charges against Soros, for instance can be revived by anyone retrieved from their resting place on the Internet and sent coursing again around the globe, igniting the demented passions, perhaps, of yet other killers.

How are liberals to deal with this dilemma? Hope that the spewers of hate can be convinced to tone down their rhetoric?

They won’t.

So then what?


Monday, January 3, 2011

In our Matrix World

 A glance at the New York Times this morning (downloaded to my iPad in Rome) and it’s evident we’re already in a Matrix world.  A threat by Julian Assange last November 29th to “take down” a major American bank and reveal an ‘ecosystem of corruption’ plucked from an unnamed executive’s hard drive, has set off a massive internal investigation by a team of 5 to 20 top Bank of America officials who fear that missing hard drive may be from one of their own.
With their stock price falling, the bank has also hired the consulting firm of Booz Allen Hamilton to join in the inquiry. Meanwhile, of course, the world’s media is still feeding off the hundreds of thousands of classified Pentagon and State Department documents, new revelations continue each day.
Meanwhile Mark Zuckerberg’s personal fortune may have doubled after a massive new investment of $500 million from Goldman Sachs and a Russian investor that values Facebook at…..$50 billion. Another social buying site, Groupon, just recently $6 billion takeover bid from Google.
And ebook sales are soaring—will surge by one billion dollars per year in 2011—headed for 3 billion by 2015.  As for traditional publishers, like Borders, well, they’re shutting down brick and mortar stores in an attempt to survive.
We’re on an IT rollercoaster. And what lies beyond the next curve? Who knows? Who just five years ago could have predicted the mammoth presence of Facebook and Wikileaks and Kindle?
As this New Year begins, you can either rail against it all—or hold on—and enjoy the ride.