Monday, December 31, 2007

Where credit is due

" When money is on the table, there can be plenty to fight about. And right now there is a hefty wad of cash being dangled before governments and NGOs that comes with a catch: accept carbon trading as the deal or get nothing at all. Even so-called adaptation funding, arguably the largest piece of the pie, if done correctly, is being proffered to cash-poor countries--but only as a percentage of the carbon-trading budget. The message: accept carbon trading or your poor will starve.

But here's the deal: carbon trading is not some innocuous attempt at climate stability. It is the neoliberal agenda writ large. Countries that are already on the treadmill of debt will become even more beholden to the institutions that have so successfully advanced the corporate agenda via the World Bank, the WTO and other agents of hegemony.


"Imagine a planet where nuclear-powered desalination plants ring the world's oceans; corporate nanotechnology cleans up sewage water so private utilities can sell it back to consumers in plastic bottles at huge profit; and the poor who lack access to clean water die in increased numbers."

Big Bother

"NAIS, which the US Department of Agriculture has been rolling out in concert with many states since 2003, is stunning in its projected scope. Over the next few years each of the nation's 1.4 million farms (plus thousands of veterinary facilities, export/import stations, livestock barns and genetic facilities) will be affected, with all their approximately 95 million cattle, 1.8 billion chickens, 60 million pigs, 93 million turkeys, 6.3 million sheep, 2.5 million goats and every other livestock species, including bison, camelids, cervids, horses and llamas. In all, more than twenty-nine species and more than two billion animals are slated to be fitted with the ID tags or be injected with transponders that transmit, to a national network of databases, information as basic as date of birth and as sophisticated as DNA profiles and chemical-residue measurements in the bloodstream." (Thanks D.)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Will the river stay

أيدوم النهر

أيدوم لنا بستان الزهر

والبيت الهادئ عند النهر

أن يسقط خاتمنا في الماء

ويضيع... يضيع مع التيار

وتفرقنا الأيدي السوداء..

ونسير على طرقات النهر...

لا نجرؤ تحت سياط القهر

أن نلقي النظرة خلف الزهر

ويغيب النهر

أيدوم لنا البيت المرح

نتخاصم فيه ونصطلح

دقات الساعة والمجهول

تتباعد عني حين أراك

وأقول لزهر الصيف.. أقول

لو ينمو الورد بلا أشواك

ويظل البدر طوال الدهر

لا يكبر عن منتصف الشهر

آه يا زهر..

لو دمت لنا..

أو دام النهر.

أمل دنقل


Will the river stay

Will the flower garden remain with us
and the quiet house by the river
our ring falls into the water
and is lost....lost in the current
as the black hands separate us...
and we walk on the river paths
not daring under the reins of sorrow
to look beyond the flowers
And the river flows
Will the happy house remain with us
to fight in and make peace
the ticking of the clock and the unknown
become faint when I see you
and I say to the summer flowers...I say
if roses grew without thorns
and the full moon remains
without growing its monthly share
Oh flowers...
If you could stay with us...
or if the river stayed.

Amal Dankal, 1980

(Translated jointly by Karin and I)

This is the end

Walid Khadouri asks in A-Hayat: Is it the end of cheap food and cheap oil? Khadouri is an "energy writer" but his column often raises pertinent issues. There has been tons of similar articles in the Northern press, but so far, this is the best one I have read in an Arab political daily. I don't like Al-Hayat, a Saudi mouthpiece, but I think Khadouri's column is often interesting.


Al-Akhbar's site is back, and I can therefore link the latest issue of Badael-Alternatives. The topic was "meat". The main article was written by Leila Abu Saba, who lives in Northern California and who wrote about her experience and her perspective. More on Leila's thoughts from her blog. My editorial: Meat or beans? An article on tofu by Rana Hayek, another on Qawarma (meat confit). If you read Arabic, count how many puns or "bon mots" Rana has put in the text and the titles. She is very good.

Saturday, December 29, 2007


Pollan argues that the industrialization of our food chain has not only robbed us of all sorts of micro-nutrients and ruined the environment, it has also left us adrift in a confusing maze of fad-diets and conflicting health claims.

''In Defense of Food'' tries to answer many of the troubling questions raised by the earlier book. The answer is simple. Pollan boils it down to just seven words: ''Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.'' (Thanks D.)

Good NYT review of Pollan's (The omnivore's dilemma) new book. I like it because that's how I eat, and it is still surprisingly easy to do so in Lebanon, even in Beirut. Added bonus: if you eat mostly plants in Lebanon, you're sure to eat mostly local, short-supply chain foods, and benefit the smal-medium producer. Except for bread, which is all made from imported (GMO?) wheat. But if you ask me nicely I will tell you where you can buy bread in Lebanon made from local wheat.

Land belongs to those who farm it

"Morning Edition, December 26, 2007 · Farmers in several Chinese provinces are confronting the government over land-ownership rights. They've claimed title to the land they farm in response to what they see as illegal seizures by local governments and developers." From NPR, a 4 minutes segment. worth listening to.


"Last month, the Ministry of Agriculture, Hydropower, and Marine Resources and the French company AgroEd signed a framework agreement for developing a biofuels industry in Burkina Faso.

All entire process will take place in Burkina, from the cultivation of plants (cotton, Jatropha, etc.) to the production of fuel.

This idea has been greeted with enthusiasm by more than one person. Biofuel experts believe that, “Africa has a real chance to enter this industry, which is profitable now especially with the price of oil, rising day by day,” [FR] writes journalist Alban Kini.

However, many netizens have expressed skepticism about whether Burkina Faso can become a competitive producer of biofuels, and whether ordinary people, in particular the farmers, will benefit." (Thanks D. )

From Global Voices, check out this post which also reports on the fears of many Burkinabe about the establishment of monopolies around the ludicrous idea that is being peddled by Sir Boomtown Rat. See my previous post for more.

Friday, December 28, 2007


"WASHINGTON (AP) — The gap between rich and poor remains huge, but a survey of global health finds that significantly fewer people in poorer countries say they have had to go without food or health care because they lacked the money to pay for it.

The phenomenon was evident in almost two dozen of 35 countries in which trends were available in both low-income and middle-income countries, the Kaiser/Pew Global Health Survey, released Thursday, found. It credited improved national economic conditions since a similar survey in 2002.

The study was a joint effort of the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Pew Global Attitudes Project."

It's not that I distrust the Pew GAP, but look at who their board members are. And what can you say about a project that consistently finds that globalization is good for you. That it was created precisely to show that globalization is good for you? Anyways, I hope their findings are true. But re-read the first line before cheering.


Cypriot-no-Turkish-no Cypriot delight

"As Turkey pursues its dream of joining the European Union, its most famous sweet is already set to win coveted EU recognition.

But instead of causing Turkish delight, it has all left a bitter aftertaste.

The reason is that the gooey, sugar-coated cubes the Turks call Lokum will soon be granted EU trademark protection under the Greek-Cypriot name Loukoumi, the result of a campaign by Cypriot confectioners to boost their version's international profile."

Agricultural trade, facts and figures

Agricultural Products Share In Trade, 2000
Share in Total Merchandise, Percent

Exports Imports

World 9.0 9.0
North America 10.0 5.9
Latin America 18.4 9.0
Western Europe 9.4 10.0
Central/Eastern Europe/
Former Soviet Union 8.9 10.7
Africa 12.9 15.1
Middle East 2.4 13.1
Asia 6.5 9.4

Source: WTO Trade Statistics 2001.

Poor man

"In September, Youssef Boutros Ghali, the finance minister, told a conference of investors that the plight of the poor was “a basic challenge that keeps me awake at night”."

Scared? He should be.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Senate skeptics

"Over 400 prominent scientists from more than two dozen countries recently voiced significant objections to major aspects of the so-called "consensus" on man-made global warming. These scientists, many of whom are current and former participants in the UN IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), criticized the climate claims made by the UN IPCC and former Vice President Al Gore.

The new report issued by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee's office of the GOP Ranking Member details the views of the scientists, the overwhelming majority of whom spoke out in 2007. "

For the skeptics among us, fed to me again by A.

It got me thinking: I'm an environmental scientist, but I've never had time to review the "evidence" for the anthropic causes of global warming. I operate on the principle that global warming is a reality and that it is human-made, because a lot of reliable sources told me that, and because I read it in learned journals. When I said, in my opening speech for the launch of UNEP's Global Environment Outlook-4 in Beirut: "There is now irrevocable evidence that climate change is taking place..." I was reading from a statement prepared by UNEP. Faith-based science it may be, but who has time to review all the evidence? I'll continue to act on the basis of anthropic climate change, but I really need to put some more time into this.

Well it IS about food, innit? By Steve Bell in The Guardian.

Gore exposed

George Monbiot reminds me why I don't trust Al Gore and the whole Nobel Prize bizness: Gore was the man who sank the Kyoto protocol, and then got a Nobel for it. Shame.

"Most of the other governments insisted that the cuts be made at home. But Gore demanded a series of loopholes big enough to drive a Hummer through. The rich nations, he said, should be allowed to buy their cuts from other countries. When he won, the protocol created an exuberant global market in fake emissions cuts. The western nations could buy "hot air" from the former Soviet Union. Because the cuts were made against emissions in 1990, and because industry in that bloc had subsequently collapsed, the former Soviet Union countries would pass well below the bar. Gore's scam allowed them to sell the gases they weren't producing to other nations. He also insisted that rich nations could buy nominal cuts from poor ones. Entrepreneurs in India and China have made billions by building factories whose primary purpose is to produce greenhouse gases, so that carbon traders in the rich world will pay to clean them up."

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Food and AIDS

On the linkages between Food and AIDS in Uganda.

"Women, in particular, confront what medical anthropologists call “structural violence,” the social, cultural and legal constraints that often rob them of control over their own and their children’s destinies.

“I used to tell my husband that we should use condoms, and he outright refused,” a mother of four says in a tone more resigned than bitter. “If I wouldn’t have live sex with him, he would refuse to bring home food and take care of the children.”" (Thanks D.)

Slaughterhouse 5

70% of the slaughter of animals in Lebanon takes place in illegal slaughterhouses, in the absence of the most basic veterinary or sanitary standards. And the Lebanese love their meat so much they import most of what they eat: 825,000 heads per year.

Don't look now!

While no one is looking, the Lebanese government engages in a "classical" IMF structural adjustment program. The opposition, as usual, has nothing to say. A few economists, when prodded, make mild statements. But the staff in the Economy page of Al Akhbar wont let it pass: Rasha Abu Zaki writes about it, and Mohammad Zbib is flabbergasted: While the IMF itself is advising the Lebanese government to cool its ardor regarding the IMF-styled reforms, and the World Bank advises against the privatization of electricity, the Sanioura government is adamant on "liberating" the economy. And the opposition, Zbib says, has not even taken a position. Isn't this surreal?

Project waste

A few years ago USAID went high on cleaning up the Hasbani river, which starts in Lebanon and then runs across the border into occupied Palestine. I have blogged earlier on the Israeli hijacking of the Hasbani water, but I don't think I've mentioned that the Israeli not only steal the water, but they also complain about it being polluted by the discharge of wastewater originating from the olive oil mills. The pollution is indeed pretty bad, and endangers the survival of a tiny fish that lives in the river and that is consumed by the local population. Mercy Corps, a US NGO working with USAID funds, decided that it should construct a waste treatment station in Hasbayya to clean up the olive mills effluents before disposal in the Hasbani. And it did. I'm not sure if the station ever worked, but I'm sure it is not working now. This article reports on the fate of the Hasbayya treatment station, which, like many (or most?) development projects lack sustainability. This is another sad story of money being spent on "projects" that only end up supporting the implementing agency and the political programs of the donors. Infrastructure projects like wastewater treatment, solid waste, water, cannot be implemented piece meal, and this for a number of reasons, one of them being simply the economy of scale. Another reason is, of course, the fact that projects end after a period of 3 years after which there is no one left to manage and repair the structures. A similar station was built in Hammana in the 1970s with donors money. It needed repair in the early 80's and has not operated since, and the villages wastes are sent down the river to the next village downstream. And there are many many similar stories.

Waste disposal is a state responsibility and a service. Not an NGO project.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Think big

For this year's presents, instead of increasing the wealth of multinational corporations:

"Choose from Oxfam America Unwrapped’s catalog of gift items — a sheep, a dozen baby chicks, a bucket of worms, a pile of seeds — and Oxfam will send you (or your giftee) a personalized card and photo. (Aww, look, a whole quinoa crop!).
Plant 50 trees for $30, buy a rowboat for $150, or build a house on stilts for ten grand. Think big." (Thanks N.)
Available online at

Good, Clean and Fair

"Higher education can be an exacting, cruel enterprise. It can demand a mind-bending consideration of quantum physics, an eye-glazing trek through archaic literature, a soul-chilling plunge into the darkest recesses of history.

Or it can present wine, cheese and the palate-tickling challenge of figuring out why prosciutto is so delectable and how best to describe its salty bliss. The University of Gastronomic Sciences stands ready -- almost -- to burden students with that assignment."

This is where I spent the past few days. A very interesting place, with a novel, hands-on approach to education. The curriculum includes agricultural sciences, food sciences and appreciation of food. This is the only place I have seen where gastronomy is given its true value, as a potential contributor to rural development. The reasoning is simple: if the public (the co-consumers as they are called in Slow Food parlance) starts demanding a "good" product, a product that is exceptional and that carries the specificity of locally made, artisanal production, then the small producers can enter a parallel market, a gastronomic market. Further conditions are that this production must be clean (environmentally) and fair. Good, Clean and Fair: a pretty good starting point for any agricultural and food policy.

Ice green

"Santa Monica city officials, hoping to put an end to the blight of discarded take-out boxes and beverage cups on their beach, are gearing up to implement a ban on nonrecyclable foam and plastic early next year.

Facing a Feb. 9 deadline, most of Santa Monica's restaurants have switched to biodegradable food containers. For many, however, the switch has been a struggle, with some small-business owners saying they are still scrambling to find affordable material to replace cheap polystyrene, or plastic foam.

The prices could be crippling to smaller businesses, such as Sparky's Frozen Yogurt Shop on Main Street. Tommy Makino, who owns and runs the small shop alone, said he recently spoke to a paper distributor about switching out the shop's plastic and polystyrene cups." (thanks D.)

Clustered crimes

"The Israeli army on Monday said it will not press charges against officers who ordered the use of cluster bombs during last year's war in Lebanon, brushing off international criticism that the weapons unnecessarily put Lebanese civilians at risk.

Announcing the results of a more than year-long probe, the army said investigators determined Israel's use of cluster bombs was a "concrete military necessity" and did not violate international humanitarian law.

Lebanese officials accused the army of covering up war crimes."

I did not expect self indictment. I'm only blogging this as a follow up to my previous article: "Why South Lebanon remains unfarmed this year".


"To call a practice or system unsustainable is not just to lodge an objection based on aesthetics, say, or fairness or some ideal of environmental rectitude. What it means is that the practice or process can’t go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very conditions on which it depends. It means that, as the Marxists used to say, there are internal contradictions that sooner or later will lead to a breakdown.

Two stories in the news this year, stories that on their faces would seem to have nothing to do with each other let alone with agriculture, may point to an imminent breakdown in the way we’re growing food today.

The first story is about MRSA, the very scary antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus bacteria that is now killing more Americans each year than AIDS—

The second story is about honeybees, which have endured their own mysterious epidemic this past year. Colony Collapse Disorder was first identified in 2006" (Thanks Leila).

Excellent and timely article from the NYT. Read to see what the intensification of food systems and their total control by the food and farm industry is leading to. In the US, country of control, standards and quality.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I'm off to the Slow Food University in Pollenzo, Italy to present the results of our "Inventory of the Traditional Foods of Lebanon" project. Back on Sunday Dec. 23.


"Woody Agriculture refers to the intensive production of agricultural staple commodities from highly domesticated woody perennial plants. It differs from agroforestry in that no annual crops are grown, and thus little or no tillage is performed. Permanent stands of the woody crop are established and seeds are harvested annually. Once every 5-10 years the wood is harvested for biomass by coppicing, whereupon the plants regenerate from the roots and resume production of the food crop one year later." (thanks Leila)

Mixed effect

"The Gates Foundation has targeted AIDS, TB and malaria because of their devastating health and economic effects in sub-Saharan Africa. But a Times investigation has found that programs the foundation has funded, including those of the Global Fund and the GAVI Alliance, which finances vaccines, have had mixed influences on key measures of societal health:" (thanks D.)

Development mercenaries

The Bush administration is trying to pass another bill, this time to embed development into military action. This from an article by sen. Lugar and Condie in yesterday's Washington post.

"The Senate has likewise recognized the need for a stand-alone rebuilding capacity and last year unanimously passed legislation to create a Reconstruction and Stabilization corps within the State Department. Legislation before the Senate would take further steps to establish the operational elements necessary for this work. The bill has three parts:

First, it calls for a 250-person active-duty corps of Foreign Service professionals from State and USAID, trained with the military and ready to deploy to conflict zones.

Second, it would establish a roster of 2,000 other federal volunteers with language and technical skills to stand by as a ready reserve.

Third, it would create the Civilian Reserve Corps the president called for, a group of 500 Americans from around the country with expertise in such areas as engineering, medicine and policing, to be tapped for specific deployments. The corps could be deployed globally wherever America's interests lie, to help nations emerging from civil war, for instance, or to mitigate circumstances in failed states that endanger our security."

This was quickly picked by Ernest Khoury from Al-Akhbar. He wrote an article today called "Bravo USAID" in which he says: "In her attempt to convince congress, Rice almost makes a Marxist argument, blaming wars and conflict on the absence of state institutions and on economics." Khoury then points to the article's praise of USAID's achievements, and links it to the flurry of adverts for USAID we are currently seeing in the Lebanese media, even in the media that claims to represents the opposition to the US project in the Middle East.

If I remember well, Al-Akhbar ran one of those ads a few days ago.

The bill

On NPR, an excellent item on the new US farm bill. Why is it important to us? Because it is a bill of global importance: its value over 5 years is of $290 billions. Compare this to say, the accumulated public debt of Lebanon ($40 billions) or the price paid to Abou Mazen for Palestine during this week's Paris meeting ($7.3 billions), and you will have an idea of the enormity of the bill and of the distortion it will causes to the world markets.

"The Senate begins voting Tuesday on amendments to a new farm bill, which includes billions of dollars in subsidies for farmers and will set the country's agriculture policy for the next five years. Robert Reich, former labor secretary, and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) discuss why the federal government subsidizes farming.

In late July, the House passed its reauthorized version of the bill — a massive, $290 billion spending plan that would keep existing agricultural subsidies in place through 2012, while also adding new ones: for growers of specialty crops, the settlement of discrimination suits, and an expansion of the food stamp program, among other things."

Bill breakdown:

Crop subsidies: between $10 and $20 billions A YEAR.
Qualifying for payment: anyone who owns land qualifies for payment, even if they make $millions per year (this is mad)
Conservation programs: $ 3 billions per year
Food Stamps and Nutritional Programs

and of course
International Food Aid

Here's what the article has to say about international food aid:

"In a Nutshell: The bill authorizes the Food for Peace program, under which the government buys food commodities in the U.S., turns them over to private aid organizations such as Catholic Relief Services, and pays to ship the food to countries where it's needed. The U.S. spends nearly $1 billion each year on Food for Peace.

Supporters Say: The program is a humanitarian success story. The U.S. is the world's largest donor of food, and Food for Peace shipments have kept people from starving. That's because of political support from farmers, shippers and aid organizations, all of whom benefit.

Critics Contend: The program wastes much of its money. Under current rules, food must be bought in the U.S. and shipped abroad, even though studies show that, in many cases, the food would be cheaper and get to its destination much more quickly if the U.S. bought it closer to where it's needed. In some cases, private aid groups sell the food in foreign markets to raise cash. Critics say that's terribly inefficient, compared with simply giving aid organizations cash in the first place."

(Thanks D.)

Monday, December 17, 2007

An article on biofuels in arabic. Not great, but at least it raises the food-biofuel issue. From Sunday's Al Hayat.

Notable resistance

Last month, I blogged a long article (in English) on how Egypt was returning to the ancient regime by canceling its land reform program. In today's Al-Akhbar, 2 related items: In a short article on the confessional violence (rather one sided, as it was muslims burning a church), a small paragraph on the demonstration by 30,000 peasants against "the new feodalists", who are getting back the lands that were given to farmers during Nasser's land reform. However, in the opinion page, there is a very good article by Dina Hashmat on a decade of resistance of Egypt's peasants, since their lands were taken to be given back to the notables. For more info about the notables and the role they played in Egypt, see the poem by below. I wish I had time to translate the article.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Sunday's poem: "Your sorrow" by Abdel Rahman al Abnoudi

الحـــــزن محاوطكي
وهــمــك تاعــبكــي
وليــــــــــــــــــــه ؟
ليه مش قادرة تبكي ؟

الأعيــــان خـــانوكي
سـارقين طين أبوكي
لعـــدوّك بــاعــوكي
ولإيــــد الــــزمــــن

باعــوكي وشافـوكي
وهــما بيــدبحــوكي
وضــحكوا وفاتوكي
وقبــضــوا التمــــن

عرّوكي ف ميدانهم
ولا واحــد أدانــهـم
وعــلّـــوا أدانــهــم
وبـقـــالهم جـــرس

جــــلاّدك محـــامي
وحـــاميكي حرامي
وبــإيه ينفع كلامي
يا ســـاكنة الخرس

عبد الرحمن الأبنودي

Your sorrow besieges you
And your worries exhaust you
And why?
Why can’t you cry

The notables have betrayed you
Those who stole your land,
Sold you to your enemy
And did not look back

They sacrificed you and watched you
Being slaughtered
They laughed and left you
And went to get paid

They undressed you in their courtyards
And no one blamed them
They raised their ears
And wore their bells

Your executioner is a lawyer
Your protector is a thief
What use are my words?
When you are a mute

Ton chagrin te cerne
Et tes soucis t'épuisent
Et pourquoi?
Pourquoi ne peux tu pas pleurer?

Les notables t'ont trahi
Les pillards de la terre
T'ont vendu à ton ennemi
Et à ta destinée

Ils t'ont sacrifié et t'ont regardé
Te faire égorger
Ils ont ri et t'ont abandonné
Et se sont fait payer

Ils t'ont déshabillé dans leur cour
Sans en être blâmés
Ils ont dressé leurs oreilles
Et ont mis leurs clochettes

Ton bourreau est l'avocat
Ton protecteur est ton voleur
A quoi servent mes paroles
Quand tu es muette

(I really have to thank Karin for helping me get right les accords du participe passé)

Qulaylah's bird sanctuary

Near Sour (Tyre), a nature reserve with bird watching facilities.


I've been so busy lately that I forgot to post the links to the Badael/Alternatives page of Friday December 14 in Al-Akhbar. The page's theme was HIVAids, and here's the link to my editorial "for the rich only" in which I look at who has really access to aids drugs and to aids awareness programs in the world and in the US. Then the main article by Faysal al Kak, a reproductive health specialist, who talks about the need for a human rights approach to aids, about sexuality education and about the aids situation in Lebanon, (with figures). A small article by Rana Hayek about sex enhancement pills. Other stuff: a short piece about darfieh cheese, a very interesting dairy product made by the herders of Ehden and Bsharreh, and matured inside a goat pelt. In the aromatic herbs section: Fennel.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


"A fascist government is one which is terminally ill with an incurable cancer. In a fascist society this system of mutual balance has completely and utterly collapsed to the point where government is not functioning as the representative of the people, but the security guard for the corporate interests. So if “experts” can throw around the word “Islamofacism”, let me make up a term “Corpofascism.”

So what happens when corporate interests rein supreme? We get a government system that exhibits the following:

1. It is a system where business interests and motives are held supreme over the interests of the public – usually leading to detrimental impacts on the public good.

2. It is a system where government has compromised every ounce of its duty, in order to serve the interests of the power brokers and money men through the legislation of laws and policies which benefit the rich and the corporations over those of the society.

3. It is a system where members of the government and the business community are indistinguishable from each other. Thus leading to patronage and cronyism beyond the normal expectations of a government official.

4. It is a system dominated by think-tanks and lobbying groups that influence politicians to act in the benefit of the industries and businesses they represent.

5. It is a system where politicians are corrupted and compromised through significant political contributions by big business (both under and over the table).

6. It is a system where the military, government and business are indistinguishable from each other. Succinctly described by Eisenhower as the “military industrial complex”.

7. It is a system where no distinction can be made between the overall policies and stances taken by opposing political parties within the Corpofascist system. The approach may differ, but the end result is the same.

8. It is a system with a domineering drive to reduce the scope of public services and the continued drive to privatize essential societal needs – health, education, welfare, etc.

9. It is a system where the public is inundated with propagandized rhetoric in order to distract them from the important issues. This maintains resistance to a minimum and enables the corporate interests to be served unabated.

Once a government structure begins to exhibit the above characteristics, it is safe to say that the government is now simply a tool – a very powerful tool at that – to serve the interest of the corporate masters. The checks and balances that once existed to keep government from falling into such a state have effectively been overwhelmed and defeated. The system is effectively broken and replaced with a Corpofascist operating racket."

The full article, (not very long) sent to me by A., is very interesting. The author writes about the US, but it applies as well to other nations, especially good old Lubnan, the republic of merchants, bankers and warlords. At times, it is disturbing, read it in full to see what I mean

“Wine, a little cedar honey, of dried things, the flowers of copper, myrrh, dried pomegranate rind.” Hippocrates, on ulcers remedies.

More figures and opinions

Karin, an economist comme je les aime, sent me this response to my previous post of Muhammad Zbib's article in Al Akhbar:

"Lebanon has an extraordinarily regressive tax system, while progressive (i.e. redistributive) taxes on the highest income and profit brackets were reduced from 32% and 50% respectively, to 10%, and corporate tax became a flat 10%, regressive, indirect taxes on consumption goods, especially gasoline, are increasing: a 'gradual' increase of VAT from 10 % to 12% by 2008, then to 15 % in 2010 is planned. This penalises particularly poor people who spend a higher proportion of their income on consumption goods (food, clothing, transport) than rich people who own/invest in shares/bonds/real estate and collect rents on these, which are liable to much lower taxes. Infuriatingly, these taxes buy the Lebanese very little, no roads, health care only for a lucky few, no good schools, no reliable electricity grid....

Indeed, cynics might say Lebanon is a glorious exploitation machine: consider the country as a company, it made a profit (also called budget surplus) last year, most of which was used to pay interest on the atrocious debt, most of which is not held by a bunch of greedy foreign financiers but honourable, rich Lebanese who make a healthy profit off the sweat of a few."

Friday, December 14, 2007

Carbon control

"What we see unfolding in Bali is one of the major final stepping stones on the road to a complete globalist stranglehold on reducing the living standards of everyone in the industrialized world, and a scheme to prevent the third world from ever lifting itself out of poverty.

Seven years ago former French President Jacques Chirac said the UN’s Kyoto Protocol represented "the first component of an authentic global governance." The imminent agreement arising out of the Bali summit will be one of the final nails in the coffin aimed at decimating the middle class and the right of free people to strive for prosperity and happiness without laboring under suffocating serfdom imposed by unelected elitists.

As MIT climate scientist Dr. Richard Lindzen warned earlier this year, "Controlling carbon is a bureaucrat's dream. If you control carbon, you control life.""

A. keeps feeding me these...
"How to Open a Pomegranate Without Looking Like You Just Lost a Nasty Bar Fight"

Culinary orientalism

"Tell me what you eat,” wrote the 19th-century French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, “and I shall tell you what you are.” In other words, an understanding of a community’s cuisine entails an understanding of the community itself. Of late, the cookbook industry seems to have made — perhaps unwittingly — a case that understanding Middle Eastern cuisine is the path to resolving the world’s geopolitical crises.

Consider Claudia Roden’s “Arabesque,” a cookbook that takes in the variant cuisines of Turkey, Morocco and Lebanon. In a review in Slate, Michael Lukas, an American living in Turkey, points out that “Arabesque” is not just — is not even primarily — an excellent cookbook: by socially, politically and historically contextualizing the three cuisines, he argues, Roden has also written an effective primer on the diversity of the Middle East. Lukas even goes so far as to suggest that the late scholar and activist Edward Said (the author of “Orientalism,” an influential critique of traditional scholarship about the Middle East) might have recommended Roden’s book as a reliable guide to the region."

Food miles

"As the food miles debate rages in the UK, Kenya’s traditional international market for flower and horticultural products, fresh produce growers are searching for alternative destinations in the world market.

Convinced that ‘food miles’ constitute a non - tariff barrier to the market they have dominated for many years, horticultural producers say more attention should now be focused on the emerging Middle East and the Far East markets. That thrust was sown when James Finlay took over the control of Homegrown, another horticultural heavyweight, last July."

There it goes, I've been waiting for this to happen, what do we do now? The big paradox is unfolding: reduce food miles and support local food systems in the global north, and you get producers in the Developing world who cannot export. Make no mistake however, these are not small African farmers, they are capital intensive industries that have good financial connections to international finance, and who often exploit landless farm workers.

Of course one can argue that Kenya should not produce cut flowers for Britain, but food for its own people, and this is a correct evaluation, but only to some extent, otherwise what would countries that cannot produce enough to feed its own people do? I'm thinking of the UAE and Qatar for example. Also, we need to reduce consumption but there are limits to that too. I do not believe a return to subsistence farming is possible or desirable. Trade is necessary, provided it is fair. But trade implies transport and this means food miles...


"While for rural people the river represents sustenance, at the theme park, it's simply another form of entertainment."

Thursday, December 13, 2007


Also in the economics page of Al-Akhbar, Antoine Howayek responds to the article on banana cultivation in Lebanon. He says that it is a great opportunity and gives figures for investments vs returns and justifies the expansion of banana farming. He also says that the producers greatly benefit from the export to Syria, which imposes heavy tariffs on banana imported from all countries but Lebanon. This is because Syria implements GAFTA, the Arab Free Trade Agreement which imposes free trade between Arab countries. I don't get it Antoine, a few months ago, you were complaining very loudly about GAFTA and the policy of open borders with Syria because it ate up the Lebanese farmer. Now you are happy with free trade because it benefits the Lebanese farmers who have a climatic comparative advantage. You can't have it both ways Antoine. And remember: we export more food to Syria than we import from it, black market or not.

Figures, not opinions!

I love the economics page in Al-Akhbar. Here's an article by Mohammad Zbib called: "These are figures, not opinions" (my translation).

"The Lebanese government does not admit that there are real monopolies in Lebanon, and therefore does not find a justification for acting in this area. In fact, it uses legal and illegal methods to protect the exclusive trade dealerships, usually owned by ministers, deputies and friends of presidents...This in spite of the fact that a study commissioned by the Ministry of Economy and Trade shows that in every major economic supply chain of the Lebanese economy, less than 5% of the businesses control more than 50% of the sales and profits.

And because the government denies the existence of monopolies, it therefore also denies their role in increasing prices and costs, and does not find enough reasons to address the recent wave of price increases, which it attributes exclusively to external factors. The government's sole response has been to subsidize the wheat cartel, and to fabricate a mazout (fuel) subsidies mechanism that only benefits the chalet owners. The price of 20 liters of fuel is 23,300 Liras, and the cost of heating a rural house is about 250,000 liras per month, or 83% of the minimum wages.

Which brings us to the minimum wage, which has been frozen since 1996 at 300,000 Liras, to serve the big investors and the capitalists. Whenever ministers are cornered on this issue, their answer is ready: "no one in Lebanon earns the minimum wage". This in spite of the fact that the surveys from the central bureau of statistics and the Ministry of Social Affairs and the UNDP and the World Bank show the opposite. According to these sources, 8% of the Lebanese or nearly 300,000 live in abject poverty, and are unable to meet their basic needs as they live with under $2.4 per capita per day. The surveys also show that 28.5% of the Lebanese live below the poverty line, on less than $4 per day.

Of course, the government does not admit to all that, and does not see the danger of its economic and financial policies of increasing the cumulative taxation such as the VAT that will be raised to 12% or the gazoline tax that will be raised to 6,000 Liras on every 20 liters. It insists that there is no danger, because its sole raison d'etre is to represent the rich consumers who are not affected by this kind of taxes. It sees no harm in the fact that the poorest 20% of the Lebanese consume 7% of the national consumption, while the richest 20% consume more than 43%."

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Is it?

"Climate scientists at the University of Rochester, the University of Alabama, and the University of Virginia report that observed patterns of temperature changes (‘fingerprints’) over the last thirty years are not in accord with what greenhouse models predict and can better be explained by natural factors, such as solar variability. Therefore, climate change is ‘unstoppable’ and cannot be affected or modified by controlling the emission of greenhouse gases, such as CO2, as is proposed in current legislation.

These results are in conflict with the conclusions of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and also with some recent research publications based on essentially the same data. However, they are supported by the results of the US-sponsored Climate Change Science Program (CCSP)." (thanks A.)

From my friend A. who believes this is all a conspiracy.


"After former NPR reporter Sarah Chayes reported on the fall of the Taliban in 2001, she decided to stay in Afghanistan as the country was being rebuilt. In 2005, she established the Arghand Cooperative, a business that sells local products for use in perfumes, soaps and food.

The author of The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban, Chayes wrote about her experiences starting the cooperative and selling beauty products in December's Atlantic Monthly." (Thanks D.)

Great project, very nice article in Atlantic Monthly (I like this magazine). Read about her disappointment with corporate international development and how she eventually did the job herself. The project has lots of similarities with what Land and People does in South Lebanon after the Israeli war on Lebanon of July 2006. Except of course that we are locals helping locals, and that we have a tiny weeny budget. We help local southern women produce laurel oil soaps and traditional breads, but our sales are all in Lebanon. There is a reason for that, which is our commitment to foster short supply chains, and to keep the products affordable to the local people. But i think there is also a place for (fair) international trade and that we should be looking towards sending some of the stuff abroad, as it will contribute to further enhancing local livelihoods. My great fear is, in case things pick up, that these products start to be only manufactured for export, and that supply and demand will place them beyond the reach of the community that manufactures or produces them. Something to be thought about carefully.

One of my favorite parts of the article:

"To be fair, ALP/S was subject to the mercurial temper of its USAID masters. Chemonics employees complained that the agency kept moving the goalposts, a charge that one of them detailed in a letter written after he resigned in disgust and left Afghanistan. For months after the start of Chemonics’ contract, according to several former employees, it had been nearly impossible to hammer out even a basic plan to govern ALP/S activities because USAID kept changing its mind. And while the organization in charge of the crucial alternative-livelihoods dossier was treading water—at roughly $45,000 per month per person—the Afghan south was falling prey to resurgent Taliban and drug smuggling."

To listen to a 44 mins interview with Chayes, follow this link

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Organic=Free Range + £10

"Shoppers were warned yesterday that there could be a shortage of organic turkeys at supermarkets this Christmas. In the past year, the organic turkey market has increased by almost 50 per cent as shoppers spend more for top-quality, traceable produce. Last Christmas alone organic turkey sales doubled. Waitrose said yesterday that it could not risk lowering its standards by switching to other suppliers for its organic turkeys. It was therefore cancelling its 1,300 advance orders. Instead, customers who placed orders will be offered a free-range bird and a £10 gift voucher."

Never thought about it before, but can one buy Halal Christmas turkeys? Talk about niche...

"Wheat grains nearly 5,000 years old found at a Chinese archaeological site reveal that western man traveled, brought new agriculture and settled in China much earlier than previously believed.

Wheat and barley are not indigenous to China and originated in the Middle East around 10,000 years ago, so the discovered samples had to have come from the west, the researchers said."


Nearly 10 years ago, Rafic Hariri initiated a program called Export-Plus to support the export of farm produce from Lebanon by subsidizing transport costs. He placed the program under IDAL, the Investment and Development Authority of Lebanon, one of those para-governmental outfits the late Hariri loved so much. One condition was to abide by quality criteria. It did not work too well, because small farmers (the vast majority of the farmers of Lebanon) could not benefit from it and because there was no farm extension programs associated with export-plus. But Hariri liked it because it was perceived as supporting agriculture without actually having to subsidize poor farmers. Sanioura, a firm believer in ultra liberalization, was always opposed to it, when he was Minister of Finance. Then came Sami Haddad, the Minister of the (disastrous) economy and (one-way) trade who lobbied against the program, instead of trying to improve it. He used the well worn argument: "if you don't scrap it, They wont let us into the WTO". So the government courageous as always, decided to play along and to gradually cancel the program. Meanwhile, IDAL, whose death was not foretold, prepared a new strategy to learn from their past mistakes and address better the real needs. This article describes the strategy, and from the main headings, it doesn't look too bad. It's actually better than the (non-existent) agricultural strategy of the ministry of Agriculture. That's probably why the Sanioura government will go ahead with the execution. And probably create an Import-Plus program.

Export-Plus, which was meant to support trade with the West, benefited primarily the classical trade routes: 32% of exports went to Syria, 21% to Saudi, 15% to Kuwait, UAE and Egypt 9%, Jordan 3% and Iraq 1%.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Smiley is hilarious

I have blogged earlier about the article in the NYT about agriculture in Malawi. I wrote a long serious post, which a couple of people thought to be interesting. But nothing I wrote or have read about this issue comes near to Jane Smiley's article in the Huffington Post. It is a classic, an absolute gem, a gut response: i love it. Here's an extract, but read the whole thing, well worth it.

"According to the article, part of the hunger problem in Africa is a lack of fertilizer (something they have plenty of in Washington, D.C.). The World Bank opposes fertilizer subsidies in order to -- well, it boggles the mind. In order to what? Get rid of the population? Degrade the soil beyond repair? I cannot think of any other reasons.

What is the goal here? Regularized financial markets? More billionaires? Really, it makes you almost vomit to imagine how the minds of these people work. Don't they understand free market capitalism? Free market capitalism operates by lurching here and there and then correcting itself. Every correction is a correction for a reason -- people made bad choices and then had to pay for them, often with their houses, sometimes with their lives or those of their relatives.

In the US, the agricultural free market has brought us lots of booms and busts, depleted soil, contaminated groundwater, superbugs, obesity, the end of the family farm, and numerous other
disasters. But the World Bank says "More of the same". Free marketers never seem to understand what an investment is -- it is something that cannot actually be "corrected" at all easily, and so people who make them (as in ethanol factories for processing corn kernels into fuel) want to protect them. In order to protect them, they fight tooth and nail against innovation and "correction". You and I might call this stupidity. The free marketers call it "creative destruction". During "creative destruction", lives and livelihoods are lost."

The price is right

"It is possible to conceive of all manner of climate disasters, it seems, but not to think outside the box of the economic systems that have contributed to their happening in the first place.

There is an important lesson here for those of us who are campaigning on climate change, and it is that being armed only with peer-reviewed science is not enough. Nor is it enough to ask governments simply to urgently formulate an international agreement. We need to look, instead, at the politics behind the marked-based solutions currently being proposed to deal with global greenhouse gas emissions, understand why these mechanisms are failing, and promote other measures for a just transition away from fossil fuel dependence through public investment, regulation, changing subsidies and taxation. "

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Sunday's poem

Two strangers, by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.


يرنو الى أَعلى

فيبصر نجمةً

ترنو إليهْ

يرنو الى الوادي

فيبصر قبرَهُ

يرنو إليهْ

يرنو الى امرأةٍ،

تعذِّبُهُ وتعجبُهُ

ولا ترنو اليه

يرنو الى مرآتِهِ

فيرى غريباً مثله

يرنو إليهْ

Two strangers (my translation)

He stares at the sky
And sees a star
Staring at him
He stares at the valley
And sees his grave
Staring at him
He looks at a woman
Who torments him and delights him
And she does not see him
In his mirror
A stranger like him
Stares back

Deux étrangers (ma traduction)

Il contemple le ciel
Et voit une étoile
Qui le contemple
Il contemple la vallée
Et voit sa tombe
Qui le contemple
Il contemple la femme
Qui le tourmente et qui lui plait
Mais elle ne le voit pas
Dans son miroir
Un étranger comme lui
Le contemple

Saturday, December 8, 2007


This is really the international year of the potato: in 2006 Lebanon exported a total of 370,000 tons of fruits and vegetables (7% lower than 2005). Top export were potatoes (109,000 tons), followed by oranges 72,000 tons, apples 68,000 tons...


A tannour is a vertical oven in which bread is cooked by sticking the dough on the walls. I think it is the same as the Indian tandoor. It used to be very common in Lebanon, but had almost disappeared. One reason is that it is too hard work: there is a saying that says" She's coming back from the tannour" to indicate that someone is very tired. Tannour is making a comeback in the Bekaa area of Lebanon, this article says. This is a small story about Umm Muhammad, who built her own tannour on the main road between Hermel and Baalback and makes bread with her daughters and sells it (10 big loaves for $1). She must not be making much profit, considering the price of wheat and flour. Poverty, she says, estranges you in your own country.


"Britain's supermarkets and dairy groups have been fined £116m by the Office of Fair Trading, after admitting fixing the prices of milk, butter and cheese.

Sainsbury's, Asda, Safeway, Dairy Crest, Wiseman and The Cheese Company have all admitted to anti-competitive practices and the case against them has now been resolved, the consumer watchdog said today. But it is continuing its investigation into Tesco, Morrisons and cheese maker Lactalis McLelland, which continue to deny that they were involved.

The price collusion is estimated to have cost consumers £270m in higher prices."

Friday, December 7, 2007

Bad tastes

"On the demand side of worldwide food production, globalisation, economic growth, and urbanisation in places such as China and India have impacted people's dietary preferences and food choices, the report noted. While demand is on the increase for processed food and high-value agricultural crops such as vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy, demand for grains and other staple crops is declining.

This shift in "tastes" represents a microcosm of the food costs issue, said IPFRI research analyst Timothy Sulser, who also contributed to the report. As wealthier populations shift to a diet full of meat, fruits, and vegetables, poorer populations will struggle to afford ever pricier food staples. " (thanks Anna).

I don't think this issue ("tastes") is sufficiently addressed. I am convinced that the reason is that this will reduce demand, hence sales, financial flows and profit. That's what I like least about Green Revolution II. We're trying again to increase supplies via technical fixes, while we know that every solution carries with it its own problems. We absolutely must change our way of life when it comes to food. I know what people say, that asceticism is not the answer, that purchasing is a basic human right (!), that people have a right to chose and to spend their private money if they so wish. They point at the experience of the former Eastern block countries, and challenge me loudly by asking if my idea of a sustainable future is to buy sujuk (armenian spicy sausages) on the black market. What I can say is that it is not acceptable that personal choices destroy the environment and natural resources and to hinder a fairer distribution of food resources for the dubious pleasure of eating fast foods. And that I'm not talking about asceticism, I'm just asking if people really have to eat meat everyday?

Banana republic (so facile)

An extensive article on banana farming and its export potential in Lebanon. Its not a bad article, with lots of useful background info. But it forgets to tell us that the reason why banana cropping has been so successful in Lebanon is that the successive Hariri governments have singled it out for protection, and they have imposed tariffs on banana imports. This was exceptional and did not apply to any other fruit crops, like apples for instance, which are grown in the mountains. I'm not sure why they did that, but it may be related to the fact that many of the large scale banana farmers are from Saida, Hariri's town.


The new issue of Bada'el, (alternatives) published by Al Akhbar: Rania Masri explains how the small scale fishermen are caught in the net of large fishing corporations. A small cadre by Alia Sabra, a fresh graduate from AUB's environmental program on the pollution of fish and oysters after the Israeli-caused oil spill of July 2006. My editorial: "The sea is laughing", on how the Lebanese government never cared about local fishermen, or about fish farming, and gave instead the rights to the shore land to casinos, restaurants and overpriced resorts where they only admit "beautiful people". A small article on pomegranate molasses and its benefits, about purslane, the omega-3 rich plant, and Rana Hayek asks: what fish to buy, fresh or frozen?

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The other half

"The biggest barrier is the global marketplace, which helps to distort everything. Buying local is fine, but some say it disadvantages people in the developing world: those out-of-season green beans from Kenya and bundles of asparagus from Peru add up to vital foreign currency for poor countries and money in the pockets of impoverished people.

But that is only half the story. The other half is that decades of good intent and food aid have done nothing to change a system that is loaded against the poor. Those bundles of asparagus and packets of beans, grown by workers earning a dollar a day, are meagre exchange for allowing the likes of Coca Cola and Big Mac to bestride the world free of constraint in a global economy controlled by the Western-led World Bank."


"The Red Palm Weevil - il-Bumunqar Aħmar tal-Palm - is a relatively large species of beetle about 3cm long. Its common English name is derived from its rusty red colour. Scientifically known as Rhynchophorus ferrugineus, the Red Weevil originates from tropical Asia, but has now spread to Africa and Europe. It reached Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman in 1985. And by 2006 it was recorded in France and in Cyprus."

A very good article on the palm weevil from a Maltese newspaper. This beast really causes tremendous damage and there is no effective control except cutting and burning the affected trees and crossing your fingers. Most of the Arabian groves are affected, and I even saw infection in palm groves way up the wadi Hadramawt in south Yemen in June 2006. But I blogged this also because I love the Maltese language: a lot of it is colloquial Arabic written in latin script. The red palm weevil becomes: "il-Bumunqar Aħmar tal-Palm" or "the red beaked-one of the palm". Weevils have long snouts for those of you who are wondering.

yo mama's couscous

"The Middle East was a strong category. The Alexandria cold and angry shrimp would have worked well with its Israeli couscous had the pasta not been overcooked. Other favorites included the grilled filet mignon kebab and its cucumber-tomato salad, and the arugula salad with a warm sesame-crusted goat cheese slab, well melded by an unobtrusive walnut vinaigrette."

What is Israeli couscous? A tradition that goes back...60 years? They took the land, the water and the falafel but I draw the line at the couscous. Where are the Danish cartoons protesters when we need them?
Karin has complained that I don't edit my writing carefully enough. I re-read the last post about GMOs and found out that she is right. I promised her to be more careful.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

More palm

"Only five years ago, Helman says, he earned nearly $100 a week catching shrimp. Now, with logging activity having poisoned the rivers snaking through the heart of Riau, he says he is lucky to find enough to earn $5 a month."

More bad news about indonesia's palm industry (I blogged about this earlier)

For GM crops

" The broader driving force behind the excessive regulation of GM crops, however, is the cult of "back to nature," which has also inspired the propaganda against agricultural biotechnology as a whole. This cult has many manifestations. One is the popularity of organic farming, which is based on the manifestly false principle that artificial chemicals are bad and natural chemicals good. Another is the rising fashion for alternative, non-evidence based medicine. The dogmatic opponents of GM crops in Europe believe that interference with the genetic make-up of plants is essentially a moral issue. It is to be condemned as part of mankind's sinful attempt to control nature, which contributes to global warming, to epidemics of cancer and all the blights of modern life.

Why is a technology which has so much to contribute impeded by regulations that make no sense? Part of the blame lies with the large agrobusinesses. They initially welcomed elaborate regulation to discourage competition from small companies that could not afford the cost. Indeed, they successfully resisted every attempt by advisers in the Reagan administration to regulate each GM crop simply as a new product, rather than by the process by which it was derived, an approach that would have treated GM and conventionally grown crops similarly and made more scientific sense. But the large companies won, and the concentration of agricultural biotechnology in the hands of a few giants, like Monsanto, is the result. Furthermore, although tight regulation was backed by some supporters of GM who believed it would reassure the public, it has had the opposite effect. If governments appear to think it necessary to take extreme precautions, the public will conclude that the technology must be dangerous. A third element has been mistrust of multinationals. This has intensified opposition to GM crops because it is widely felt that companies are the main, if not the only, beneficiaries—and that, since they are responsible for most of the development of the crops, this must be subject to the strictest possible regulation. The inept PR that accompanied Monsanto's introduction of GM crops to Europe was also bitterly criticised by other agrobusinesses." (thanks D.)

This article makes the case for GM crops. It is well written, and some of the points made are correct. He touches upon the role of corporations and makes a big issue of the famine reducing capabilities of GMOs. Even if we accept the presented evidence that GMOs are not harmful to nature and to health (controversial because one needs to ask: where do the genes that have been transferred come from?), lets remember that developing GM crops is an expensive business. R&D departments in major corporations invest in it. They are not going to do it for the poor, and not going to distribute it for free. Moreover, the min causes of famines are economical and political. There is enough food to go around, but those who need it cant have it if we don't change our lifestyles (and we wont have it ourselves soon). There is not enough food for all if we accept that there are rich and poor and that the rich have no responsibility towards the poor in society. For too long we have relied on technical fixes. we know now that for environment, technical fixes wont work, and that it is at the level of policy that we have to act. i dont have more time today, but this issue is interesting and well worthy of debate. For instance, the US agricultural economy is intimately linked to GM crop. A ban on them would be disastrous for US food exports, and for thousands of subsidized farmers.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Why not?

(D. too...a real gold mine)

Midnight peak oil

"For 25 years Peter Garrett was the frontman of Midnight Oil, an Australian rock band known for its raucously loud music and protest songs about social and environmental issues. Then the bald 6ft 6in singer hung up his microphone, disbanded the group and exchanged his rock star clothes for the sombre suits of a politician." (Thanks D.)

I used to like that band.

Global warming ready

"The scientific debate over global warming may not be entirely settled, but in the American clothing business, at least, it is over. The apparel maker Diesel ran magazine advertisements this year proclaiming that its cold-weather clothes — in one ad, a woman’s puffy coat and shorts — were “global warming ready.”" (thanks D.)

Monday, December 3, 2007

Ending famine: a little more complicated

This article by Celia Dugger on how fertilizers subsidies to Malawi farmers helped boost cereal yields to the extent that Malawi appears to be about to break free from famine and to become independent from food aid was sent to me by Dragon Horse, Marcy and Leila. Leila also sent me a link to a blog by Brad DeLong, a professor of economics at Berkeley where the article is thoroughly discussed.

I have a few comments:

This is a very interesting departure from the IMF-WB-WTO "no agricultural subsidies" rule imposed on developing nations (at the same time when the euroamerican world feeds money to its cows and makes cotton from dollar bills).

There is no doubt that fertilizers are important. If they are organic, that's better, but it is extremely difficult (but not impossible) to create a large scale fully integrated system. I work in organic farming and in its promotion, but I know, as a trained soil scientist, that soil impoverishment from years of intensive cultivation based on nutrients mining is a reality, and that there are times when mineral fertilizers are needed. One example is the use of powdered rock phosphate in rangeland rehabilitation. There are problems with the whole economic chain of mineral fertilizers starting with the energy needed to produce and transport them, all the way to the ease with which they can pollute soil and ground water and degrade soils further by masking temporarily the impacts of soil erosion and loss of organic matter. Nevertheless, there are situations where they are important, as a temporary boost in degraded lands, where organic manuring is not possible (it has its own shortcomings, like availability, transport, incorporation).

i have been working in agricultural extension for 15 years, and I can vouch for the fact that farmers would much rather receive a couple of bags of free fertilizers than the visit of an extension agent. Whether this is the correct approach is arguable, and i for one think that the level of technology and knowledge can greatly be improved through farm extension, with a corresponding improvement in yields.

Moreover, responsiveness to fertilizers, especially mineral fertilizers is predicated on the availability of responsive seeds and on water (either adequate rainfall, or, as is the case in the Middle East, irrigation water). In fact it is water that is the most limiting factor to plant growth in arid and semi arid lands, like the Middle East, rather than soil nutrients (they come a close second), and irrigation is often needed. But irrigation is problematic: you need infrastructural investments to deliver it where it is needed, it is often poorly managed and results in salinization as in the Indus basin or in California or in the Euphrates plain. Water is also often mined from deep aquifers at great environmental and fuel costs. This is why it is true that this specific case (and as much as I hate to grant him that), the US ambassador might have been right: “The plain fact is that Malawi got lucky last year,” he said. “They got fertilizer out while it was needed. The lucky part was that they got the rains.”

I'm also wondering about the seeds package that's eventually going to accompany fertilizers. Corn is not native to Malawi, it's an american crop (i'm assuming it is corn, Zea mais, not sorghum as in east africa). Most of the commercial corn is now GMO. Is it going to be part of the package?

This is where it is important to use this success to catalyze a shift in the way farming is practiced. The long term solution is to use the subsidies to support a policy of integrated, diversified farming on the small landholdings. This is essential in order to transform the whole farming system into a more sustainable version, that is more apt to use lower inputs. For example, soil organic matter replenishment will help conserving soil water and reduce erosion, and reduce fertilizers need. Diversification will also mean less crop failures, lower risks, and the availability of animal by-products. Most of this is usually practiced in subsistence agriculture, but the challenge is to modernize it in order to reach a commercial size and create surplus. Apparently, this is possible and the current Ethiopian experience on institutionalizing organic farming is one to be watched.

Another question needs to be posed: does a bumper crop in a country automatically means the end of famine? I was watching a documentary on ARTE a couple of days ago about the famine in Niger in 2005. Apparently the southern region of Niger, which is the granary of the country, had enough crop (millet) to feed everybody. But crops were also below expectation in neighbouring Nigeria. So traders from Niger, who hold growers in virtual bondage through debts, preferred to sell the millet across the borders than locally. If these issues of "free" trade and "free" market are not controlled then famines will happen (as they usually do) because people are poor, not because there is not enough food, no matter how much fertilizer is distributed.

On this issue, my brother, who works for commodities traders in Ghana, Togo and Benin tells me that a major crash is imminent: rice prices have increased (although less than wheat and corn) and they are expected to continue to do so. This is the main staple in the region, and imported rice has replaced traditional foods such as taro a long time ago. He promised to write something a bit more in depth about this, because he said something about losing millions of dollars in "futures".


According to the World Bank Lebanon is with 22.8% of GDP on rank 8 in "remittances as % of GDP". (Thanks Karin)

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Raabi`a al `Adawiyya

I love this poem so much I had to translate it. It was written by Raabi`a al `Adawiyya, (Raabi`a as in "the fourth") a sufi mystic woman from Basra who died in 808 AD. It is beautifully sung by Sylvie Haddad on the CD by Nida' Abou Mrad: "Faithfuls of Love". There is an English and a French translation in the CD sleeve, but I didn't like them. I don't think the translator really captured the essence of the words. Or maybe I didn't.

"I have only known love when I loved you
and i have closed my heart to all but you
i have confided in you
you who can see
the heart's secrets
but remains unseen

I offer you my two loves:
a love of passion and a love you deserve
when I invoke your name
takes me away from all that is not you
And the love you deserve
is when you unveil yourself to me"

and here's the French translation (also mine):

"J'ai n'ai connu l'amour que quand je t'ai connu
Et j'ai fermé mon coeur a tous sauf a toi
Je me suis ouverte a toi
Toi qui peut voir
Les secrets du coeur
Mais qui reste invisible

Je t'offre mes deux amours:
Un amour de passion et l'amour que tu mérites
La passion
Quand j'invoque ton nom
Me soustrait a tout ce qui n'est pas toi
Et l'amour que tu mérites
C'est quand tu te révèles a moi"

C'est beau etre ecrit pour Dieu, ca m'émeut...

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Staying power

"The only affordable clean drinking water comes in plastic sachets, too. Deola Asabia, who runs an environmental charity in Lagos, says there is little hope of a ban on plastic bags in Nigeria until the population has access to clean drinking water."

A big wave of plastic bags activism is shaking the world. British cities, San Francisco, Nairobi are engaging in it. And they are right. I know from experience and research that sea turtles, who mistake floating plastic bags for jelly fish, used to be found dead in Lebanon. I know that they are every where, and virtually indestructible. You'll find them in the most remote locations in the deserted Yemeni mountains, where hardly anyone lives. But the reality bites hard: only those countries that have achieved a decent level of services and of wealth and of regulatory control can actually progress on this issue. Like on all other issues. So plastic bags are here to stay in Kenya, Nigeria, Yemen and Lebanon.

Katz cradle

"Dr. Katz said the impetus for developing a rating system for groceries was his real-life experience as a doctor and father of five children. His patients and his family struggled to interpret the labels on food packaging.

For instance, a consumer may think that Hellman’s Light Mayonnaise is healthier than the company’s regular mayonnaise. In fact, it has less saturated fat than the regular mayonnaise but more sodium; over all, by Dr. Katz’s calculation, the regular mayonnaise is healthier.

A preliminary ranking of foods found many predictable results, but some that were surprising. Cocoa Krispies scored last for nutrition among breakfast cereals, and salmon was tops among meats. Kiwifruit rated at the top among fruit.

Oh, and Cheerios, by Dr. Katz’s method, are better for you than Special K. Chunky Chips Ahoy turn out to be slightly worse than Nilla Wafers." (thanks D.)