Saturday, June 30, 2007

deserting deserts

“Already at the moment there are tens of millions of people on the move,” Dr. Adeel said in an interview. “There’s internal displacement. There’s international migration. There are a number of causes. But by and large, in sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia this movement is triggered by degradation of land.” (thanks Anna)

Soya want to save the world?

"Santos says his company's drive for efficiency is helping to feed the world. "The environmentalists are extremists who want to leave everything as it is," he says. "But soya is a great crop. It is an important part of sustainable development. We are contributing to Argentina and a better world.""

Charles ousted from supermarket

"Sainsbury's has dropped the Prince of Wales and the head of the Soil Association as vegetable suppliers because it says their produce did not meet the right standards, the Guardian can reveal.

The move has prompted the director of the organic food and farming charity, Patrick Holden, to accuse leading supermarkets of being so centralised and industrialised that they cannot deliver the local, organic food their customers want.

Mr Holden said he had decided to speak out because his case was typical. "Everyone who has supplied a supermarket own label will have a story similar to mine to tell but most daren't tell it for fear of being delisted. This is not confined to one supermarket. It is the unintentional consequence of the centralised supermarket distribution system."

Consumerism and imperialism

"All around the world, America is invading nations through its foods, medicines, consumer products, dangerous economic practices, synthetic chemicals and intellectual property. And everywhere that American products are adopted, widespread disease and death soon follows.

The World Trade Organization, for its part, makes sure that targeted nations comply with imperialistic western trade practices. The huge push of Big Tobacco into Asia, for example, is the result of support by "world trade" proponents who threatened to impose trade sanctions against Asian nations if they tried to ban cigarette advertising. Today, more than a third of Chinese men are addicted to cigarettes, generating billions in annual profits for Big Tobacco companies who are right now producing more Chinese casualties than any war in China's long history.

America is the world's largest exporter of disease. Through our popular soda products, cigarettes, fast food chains and manufactured foods, we have caused more death and disease around the world than any nation in human history (including Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot). And it all remains perfectly legal. Our chemical companies even manufacture and export pesticide chemicals that have been banned in the United States. Poor agricultural nations openly use those deadly pesticides on their crops, then ship the produce back to the U.S. where consumers buy it at grocery stores. It's all perfectly legal and, in fact, encouraged by U.S. political leaders.

Resistance is futile

It's actually more than legal: It's required! Any nation that says "no" to western products and intellectual property is immediately branded an enemy of world trade and is targeted for legal action by the WTO. Even creating pro-consumer safety standards such as banning aspartame, sodium nitrite or hydrogenated oils can be deemed a violation of international trade agreements. Product sales, you see, are the No. 1 priority, even when nations are being decimated by the products manufactured and exported by American companies.

Poor nations with undereducated populations suffer enormously under western economic imperialism. It's easy to sell Pepsi, cigarettes and lotto tickets to people in a country like Panama, for example, where the education level remains low and people are easily tricked into thinking that western products will make them happier. Pepsi, in fact, is the dominant consumer product throughout most of Central and South America. You can hardly travel anywhere south of the U.S. / Mexico border without being inundated with Pepsi propaganda. The Pepsi logo is more prominent than images of the Virgin Mary or the Pope, even though many South and Central American populations are Catholic. (It's quite clear what they actually worship!)

These international product invasions are important to the bottom line of U.S. corporations, of course, who are expanding their propaganda campaigns to non-U.S. countries following the wising up of American consumers. Only uneducated, ignorant consumers drink soft drink products in America these days. It's the same crowd that buys lotto tickets, smokes cigarettes, watches TV infomercials and lives on frozen dinners. Smart consumers in America switched to healthier drinks long ago. That's why soda sales continue to fall each year, and that's why U.S. soda corporations have to increasingly crank up their marketing machines in countries that haven't yet caught on to the toxicity of aspartame or the links between diabetes and high-fructose corn syrup. "

Read and weep. An excellent article, an absolute must read. The last part is a sort of a manifesto for sustainable nations, an alternative development strategy.

Isolate Syria-but after the potato harvest please

"Industrialists, farmers and economists on Thursday warned that Lebanon will suffer grave economic consequences if Syria shuts down the border crossings. "Most of Lebanon's agricultural exports go through Syria and if Damascus decided to close all crossing points than we will be deprived of more than $1 billion in export revenues a year."

Similar article in arabic in today's As Safir: Farmers are hurrying to pick the potatoes before Syria closes its last border still open in Masnaa. Farmers and farmer's unions foresee a disaster if this happens before the season is exported.

1. Please let those who keep complaining about agriculture being a useless sector that Lebanon exports $ 1 billion per year JUST THROUGH SYRIA.
2. Please let those who keep complaining about Syrian produce entering Lebanon remember that Syria imports more from Lebanon than vice-versa.
3. Please lets remember that we cannot want to wage a war against a state AND ask it to keep its orders open for our produce to keep flowing through it. I mean, we can, but it doesn't sound very serious.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Say farewell to Lebanese halloum

"The (Cypriot) Agriculture Ministry said yesterday they were progressing as scheduled with their application to the European Union to register halloumi cheese under the Protected Designation of Origin scheme.

Once received by the EU, a further six-month period must elapse, when other countries have the right to appeal.

A major issue in registering halloumi under the PDO term has been an ongoing row over what percentage of each type of milk (cow, sheep and goat) should be used in the product. Since countries like Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and Denmark are now producing cheese with the indication ‘halloumi’, this has for a long time been a pressing issue for the industry.

The EU last week decided to cut subsidies on the export of dairy products to non-EU countries.

The EU Committee on Dairy Products decided to adopt the proposal in order to combat the lack of milk production.When subsidies were in place, the government would receive 22.57 euros for every 100 kilos exported to non-EU countries.

The decision has come with halloumi exports on the rise in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE.

It’s also been said that Turkish Cypriot and Turkish halloumia are becoming increasingly popular in the market, as they are being subsidised by the Turkish government, meaning they are retailing for lower prices.

PROTECTED Designation of Origin covers the term used to describe foodstuffs which are produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area using recognised know-how.

It is designed to protect the names of regional foods and ensures that only products genuinely originating in that region are allowed in commerce as such. Its purpose is to protect the reputation of regional foods and eliminate the unfair competition and misleading of consumers by non-genuine products, which may be of inferior quality or of different flavour.

Products include the names of wines, cheeses, hams, sausages, olives, beers, and even regional breads, fruits, and vegetables.So, how do producers and processors go about registering a product name? A group of producers must define the product according to precise specifications.

The application, including the specifications, must be sent to the relevant national authority, where it will be studied first and thereafter transmitted to the European Commission. Here the application will undergo a number of control procedures. If it meets the requirements, a first publication in the Official Journal of the European Communities will inform those in the Union who are interested. If there are no objections, the European Commission publishes the protected product name in the Journal."

A small note: If Cyprus obtains the PDO for Halloumi, then the Lebanese dairy manufacturers will still be able to make Halloum, but not to call it Halloum. The same thing happenned with Greece and Feta. Feta-type cheese is still made in Denmark and elsewhere, but it cannot be sold as Feta anymore. Meanwhile in Lebanon, the PDO project funded by the Swiss government (and in which I am a consultant) is trying to survive in spite of the political deadlock, and the PDO law is still waiting to be passed.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Now you know what you eat

Kudos to Al Safir for an excellent food and nutrition page today, researched by Zaynab Ghosn and Milia AbuJawdeh. The articles include:

"Fatty poisons enter our food camouflaged in the absence of legislations" on the prevalence of trans-fatty acids in the junk the Lebanese love to eat.

"Levels of trans-fatty acids in Lebanon higher than what is internationally considered acceptable" a brief summary of AUB student Carole Saadeh entitled "Fatty acid composition, including trans fatty acids, of some local and regional bakery and snack products in the Lebanese market"


"Food industries raise sugar content of their products regardless of health impact"

In arabic

If interested, look up my previous post on food quality and safety of imported products and products locally sold

Grain of wisdom

Wheat production (in spite of the subsidies) continues to shrink in lebanon. This year's area planted in wheat is 13,000 hectares, 2000 ha less than last year. The cost of producing one ton is around $110. The Lebanese government buys it for $250, and sells it to the industrial mills for $200. So the subsidy is $50 per ton. The total production this year is expected to be 70,000 tons. If I'm doing my math correctly, the government subsidy will be in the order of $3.5 millions. The government thinks that by cutting subsidies and saving $3.5 million per year it is going to plug the $40 billions in debt it has created. Could the wish to stop subsidies be due to the Free Trade Agreements about to be signed with the US? At a time when grain reserves are at their lowest in the world? At the time when the price of wheat is expected to suddenly start climbing because of the biofuel craze? At the time when the US grain mountains have become pimples and free grain donations may evaporate soon?

Arabic article in al akhbar

The cherry on the Chebaa cake

Not only are the Chebaa farms still under Israeli occuppation, but its agricultural output has fallen by 60% according to this article in al Akhbar, due to total neglact by the government (so what else is new?) and to internal problems between the Hariri supporters and the Hizbullah supporters. By the way, Chebaa produces great cherries, and cherrie are the number one fruit in the world, and the international demand largely exceeds supply! (in Arabic)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Your trade or your life!

"The focus on bilateral agreements is a reflection, in part, of setbacks for the U.S. in the Doha round of WTO negotiations--and the failure of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which was intended to extend NAFTA throughout the hemisphere.

Bogged down in Iraq, the U.S. has been unable to “deal” with its waning influence in the region in the usual manner--through military coups, covert interventions and the like.

South Korea has an unusually large agricultural workforce for an industrialized economy. Even with rice taken out of the agreement, hundreds of thousands of farmers could face ruin if forced to compete with U.S. exports, which benefit from a complex system of subsidies and supports.

The Colombian FTA may be the hardest sell of all. Two thousand Colombian trade unionists have been murdered since 1991, and more than 400 have been killed since President Álvaro Uribe took office. As the watchdog group Public Citizen puts it, Colombia is a “country where the murder of union members is their comparative advantage.”

Even if the Colombia and South Korea deals go down to defeat, there will be more agreements coming down the pike. To defeat neoliberal “free trade,” labor and the left need to translate the growing mass opinion against these deals into grassroots struggle--and to build solidarity with those struggling against the U.S. empire abroad, whether in its military or economic forms."

Just in case you were wondering why the Sanioura government and Nobel contender Haddadamus are so keen on signing FTAs (Free Trade Agreement) with the US.

Rice crackers

"Yang was sentenced in 2005 to seven and a half years in prison for planting 17 explosive devices in public places to protest rice imports that were mandated by agreements with the World Trade Organization. The explosives had notes that read, "Opposing rice imports.""

No milk? we'll have yogurt instead

""Panic buying" appears to have broken out in the global dairy trade as supply constraints ratchet prices up into uncharted territory, according to agricultural forecaster Agrifax.

News of the surge follows the European Union's decision last week to scrap its dairy export subsidies in a move expected to cut dwindling European dairy production further.

The drought in Australia, increasing use of land to grow corn for biofuels in the US, and Westernised diets in rapidly developing regions such as Asia and the Middle East are driving a surge in dairy prices, and supply can't keep up with demand."

Still bandits

""Companies that are polluting in China are owned by American, European, Japanese and others. They are benefiting from the cheap labor, from the resources and at the same time accusing China of pollution," the Malaysian official said.
"Let's take the hypocrisy out of the equation," he said.

Chen Feng, the chairman of China Hainan Airlines, said now was not the time to assign blame but to create an international solution, saying developed nations were the original polluters.

"So the way I see it is, you were bandits before you became right-minded people," he said. "

They're still bandits, Chen, and of the worst kind.


I like this blog

Sterilizing culture

"The EU wants to stop the sale of dairy products made without modern sterilisation, cooling and transportation equipment - an impossibility for poor men who eke out a living in a wild and beautiful place where running water means a mountain stream and electricity only flows in the lightning that crackles over their pastures.

'I've been doing this 43 years and it hasn't changed,' said Aurel Cotinghi in the pungent little cabin where he makes cheese, as his two sons continue milking outside. 'Now I suppose things will change, but no one has explained it properly to us. Sometime, someone will have to tell us what to do or they will just close us down.'

'If we lose the sheep from the mountains, we have lost the mountains: the whole ecosystem will be destroyed and the wild animals will come to villages looking for food,' said Gontea. For Cotinghi's 19-year-old son Bogdan there is little to recommend this tough existence. 'Perhaps I'll be a carpenter,' he said as his father prepared a lunch of bread, cheese and spring onions. 'There's no way I'm doing this for the rest of my life.'" (thanks Rania)

Everywhere around the world, urban people who have lost most of their natural immunity from living in an over-sterilized world are passing laws that control the sanitary quality of foods. There is outcry in all of Europe, where not only farmers, but also food culture appreciators are fighting these laws. While there should be basic food health regulations, these should be edicted and implemented after having developed a good understanding of traditional processes which have been at work for so long without causing any major catastrophy. The new regulations favor most large scale industrial operators at the expense of the small producers, and cause the dissolution of the geographic specificity of products which is replaced by brand homogeneity.

Without small producers, rural culture disappears.

Deserting China

"The shifting sands have swallowed thousands of Chinese villages along the fabled Silk Road and sparked a sharp increase in sandstorms; dust from China clouds the skies of South Korea and has been linked to respiratory problems in California.

Since 2001, China has spent nearly $9 billion planting billions of trees, converting marginal farmland to forest and grasslands and enforcing logging and grazing bans.

The policy is driven in part by concerns over food, as farmland yields not only to the deserts but also to pollution and economic development. China has less than 7 percent of the world's arable land with which to feed 1.3 billion people -- more than 20 percent of the world's population. By comparison, the United States has 20 percent of the world's arable land to feed 5 percent of the population."

Monday, June 25, 2007

The children of Aytaroun

I went to Aytaroun a few days ago to check the possibility of expanding the work of Land and People there. Aytaroun is a small village right by the border, near Maroun el Ras and Bint Jbeil. Since the early 70’s, Aytaroun has been an active war zone. While the rest of Lebanon was still enjoying the oil boom of the 60’s, it was regularly bombed by the Israeli army which made frequent incursions in the region. Aytaroun was immortalized in 1975 through a song by communist singer Khaled el Haber that went:

“Your children Aytaroun dance in the trenches
Their toys are guns
Your children Aytaroun chant in jubilation
They sing an ancient melody:
lets resist! lets resist!”

The song was written as a eulogy for of a group of school children who had died as a result of an Israeli bombing episode.

Aytaroun went from war to war and through various periods of occupation until the liberation of the South in 2000. The Israeli war on Lebanon of July-August 2006 resulted in the near total razing of the village, although the Israelis were unable to occupy it.

As elsewhere in the South, especially in the area south of the Litani, farming is a major source of income in Aytaroun. Tobacco forms the bulk of the local produce: 80% of the farmers rely on it as a main source of income. Tobacco is important for 2 reasons:

1. It is a dryland crop. There is no irrigation water available in Aytaroun. The land is very fertile, but groundwater is at 600m depth, and irrigation would be uneconomical considering the price of fuel needed to pump water from this depth.

2. It is “subsidized”: the Lebanese government subsidizes the Regie Libanaise des Tabacs et des Tombacs, a semi-autonomous body largely under government control, which in turn purchases the tobacco from farmers at prices higher than international market price. The amount a farmer can sell is fixed, and depends on a special permit delivered by the Regie. The average annual gross income for a tobacco farmer is LBP 4.5 million or $3,000. Nearly half of the tobacco farmers of Lebanon are in the South. This is why tobacco has been called “the crop of steadfastness” (mahsoul al soumoud). Without tobacco farming, migration from the south would have intensified, and its villages would have become depopulated.

My visit to Aytaroun came in response to a local request for help in finding alternative crops to tobacco. I have been receiving similar requests since the end of the 2006 war, from villages in the Deep South. The southern farmers are worried that the Sanioura government might stop the tobacco subsidies, and not replace them with other subsidies. Since the Hariri times, Sanioura and his ultra-neo-liberal team has been pushing for the lifting of the tobacco subsidies, calling it a drain on the national economy. These are surprising requests at a time when one would assume that the government has other cats to flog. Still, there is genuine concern in the South that the tobacco subsidies may be lifted, and that the livelihoods of the local people would suddenly take a dip.

I went around the place and visited the main farming areas of the village. Right by the border with occupied Palestine, there is a large plain of several thousand hectares nearly all planted with tobacco or wheat in rotation. Its altitude (700 meters) makes perfect for many fruit trees. The barbed fence passes right through the plain, and about one third of it is under Israeli occupation.

To say that the Israeli occupied part looks like it could be in another country is an overused cliché. The hilly parts are forested, and there are vast fruit tree orchards. There is a large packing plant, belonging, I guess, to moshav Avivim which is right across the border and is home to a couple of hundred settlers. The roads are asphalted and the fields drawn with a ruler. Clearly, some serious farming is taking place there.

Since the creation of the first settlements in Palestine, farming has been a major angle of attack of the Zionists. They thought that working the land, vivifying it, investing in it and fostering attachment to it will create a “de facto” situation which will make the Zionist state come true. Over the years, they invested tremendous sums in the various kibbutz and moshav making Israeli agriculture one of the least economically efficient in the world today. It swallows large amounts of money from the state’s coffers to the dismay of many Israeli economists. But it has been, and remains, a political success. The kibbutz and the moshav produce the bulk of the radical forces in Israel. They have been used extensively to attract western youth and create sympathy towards Israel. The technology used in the settlements (regardless of the financial bill) has helped the Zionist state carve a niche in the field of agricultural development. Special trade agreements granted by most nations of the world to the State of Israel facilitate the export of (subsidized) Israeli goods. They provide an opportunity for advertisement deep into families and households. Israeli produce is a tremendous propaganda tool, and a very successful one.

In spite of frequent calls to end the subsidies by some economists, Israeli politicians continue unabatedly to support the agricultural settlements. Moshav Avivim, located a few kilometers away from the destroyed Aytaroun village and from its poor tobacco fields, stands witness to that.

In Aytaroun, there are stones and dry soil. In Avivim, Israel has invested in deep wells and in irrigation systems. In Aytaroun, the price of fuel is prohibitive and electricity strictly rationed. In Avivim special rates are offered to the settlers, making irrigation a low-cost operation. In Aytaroun, the lack of storage facilities limits investment in farming. In Avivim, Israel has built packing plants of international standards. In Aytaroun, the absence of decent roads means the produce will be pulped before it gets to the market. In Avivim, the roads are of smooth asphalt, and airplanes carry produce directly to international markets.

In spite of all that, the moshavim were quick to desert their lands when Israel attacked Lebanon in July 2006. Many of the inhabitants of Aytaroun remained steadfast, fought the Israeli army, and defended their land till the last minute. Could this be why thy are facing the threat of losing their pitiful tobacco subsidy?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Darfur: the climate did it!

"Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change." (Thanks Anna)

As much as I hate to quote Ban Ki on anything...

Dark roast

"Starbucks and the Ethiopian government will work together to promote three of the African nation's prized specialty coffees under a deal that supports the country's bid to control trademarks it believes will benefit farmers.The world's largest coffeehouse chain and Ethiopia's intellectual property office said Wednesday that their licensing, distribution and marketing agreement acknowledges the country's ownership of three coffee names - Yirgacheffe, Harar and Sidamo - regardless of whether they are trademarked.The deal will not reap Ethiopia any royalty payments, officials said." (Thanks Yasmine)

The Hungry Arab

I'm thinking about starting a new blog that will only talk about food and health, food traditions, local foods, cooking and recipes specific to the Arab World. I always get asked all sorts of questions by the most unlikely people, and they often ask me if there are recipes or diet plans or infos on nutrition in "Land and People". I'm also thinking about calling the blog "The Hungry Arab". I'm sure As'ad will love it.

Literature you could eat

"While his sideline may seem unusual, it places Peterson smack in the middle of an emerging literary movement: farmers who write. Their work encompasses a wide range of styles, from the homespun, mimeographed zine Farm News (which Sean Whalen, a Vermont farmer, seems to bang out on a malfunctioning vintage typewriter) to the polished op-ed page pieces sent out from Wes Jackson's nonprofit advocacy group, the Land Institute.Many of these writers say they are responding to the increased public appetite for food's back story. As they reveal their personalities, histories and insights, they bridge the distance between the people who grow food and the people who eat it. It's no coincidence that many of these writers operate small or midsize farms and sell directly to the public, either through farmers' markets or community-supported agriculture programs, or CSAs, in which customers purchase shares of a farm's harvest.
"I think it has something to do with the solitude, the magic, of the back field," he said. "That's what both a farmer and a writer cherish.""(Thanks Yasmine)

The world (read the West) is apparently going through a "farm phase". I didn't know when I started this blog.

Cotton club

"Agricultural economists at the University of California, Davis, who conducted the study for Oxfam, found that a typical farm family of 10 in Chad, Benin, Burkina Faso or Mali — Africa's major cotton producers — that now earns $2,000 a year would have an extra $46 to $114 a year to spend if American subsidies were removed.

Oxfam, which has long campaigned for reductions in rich country agricultural subsides as a means to fight rural poverty in the developing world, said the added income would help families feed and educate millions of children. It maintained that Congress, now debating the farm bill that will set the rules for farm subsidies for the next five years, should cut cotton subsidies.

Dani Rodrik, an economist at Harvard who is skeptical of the importance of reduced agricultural subsidies, said he found Oxfam's new estimates credible, but said the gains forecast were relatively small. He said advocacy groups should be careful not to oversell them. Helping Africa's rural poor escape poverty will require a different set of economic strategies, he said. There is a need to foster a shift to the cultivation of higher-value crops and to develop industries, like garments and toys, that bring jobs."

Yasmine who sent me this article has asked me to remind you that you can post comments directly on the IHT site. Thanks Yasmine!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

O Lebanese, if only you knew what you eat

An open letter from Antoine Howayyek, head of the Organization of Lebanese Farmers to the (resigned) Minister of Agriculture Talal Sahili (Amal Movement, Opposition, Shi’a), or to acting Minister Joe Sarkis (Lebanese Forces, pro-government, Maronite), or to whoever may be in charge of the country.

Howayyek is asking: why are there no standards and no controls over the quality of the imported food products: fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products? Why does the ministry not do its job and operate or outsource the quality control at the borders? A letter was sent to the minister over a year ago, but no reply was received.

Howayyek makes the following points:

  • The Arab Free Trade agreement was implemented on 1/1/05. The agricultural calendar was almost eliminated, and subsidized food imports from Arab countries flowed freely in Lebanon. Fuel oil in Syria costs 12.5 cents per gallon and in Lebanon it costs 65 cents per gallon. This and other subsidies result in a cost of production in Lebanon that is often 50% higher than elsewhere.
  • The anti-dumping laws, although allowed by WTO, are not implemented in Lebanon.
  • The Ministry of Agriculture does not operate any inspection or control on quality of food imports at the borders.
  • The consumer’s office in the Ministry of Economy and Trade is inexistent.
  • There is no way to know the origin of products sold in the Lebanese market. Most products are imported and yet sold as originating form Lebanon. Each year, 5000 tons of white cheese is imported and sold as Lebanese cheese. Lebanese law states that products have to be sold in their original packaging.
  • The borders do not have adequate locations for inspections nor do they have sufficient number of trained inspectors.
  • A meeting was held in February 2006 in the ministry of agriculture, and it was agreed to enforce existing regulations.
  • Since then nothing materialized. Produce still enters Lebanon freely, whatever its quality. We have become a good market for bad quality produce that cannot be exported other than to Lebanon, because we enforce no standards and no controls.
  • The questions Howayyek asks: Why does the government not take the necessary measures to protect the Lebanese citizen and to protect farming, and give it a chance to grow and develop? Who benefits from this intentional negligence?

I have a couple of things to say about this issue: I was adviser to the (resigned) minister of agriculture Talal Sahili and I worked with him for a brief period before resigning softly from my post (by stopping to go to the ministry). I had been the adviser to the previous minister too and had “softly resigned” too (by the way this is an unpaid assignment) because of the inefficiency and the lack of will in the government to seriously address agriculture. This time, I decided to try to do something, just one thing that could impact farming positively at the level of policy and its implementation.

I invited a small group representing the farming supply chain: One food industrialist, one medium scale farmer, and one large farmer/trader. I asked them: what is the single most important action this ministry could take to support agriculture without giving direct subsidies? They all agreed it was the control of the quality of the imports at the borders. We met several times with the people in charge of this file in the ministry and the minister even graced us with his presence once. Everybody was positive, but nothing happened. Why? As far as I could fathom, these are the reasons:

  1. There are no facilities at any of the borders for inspection, no staff (qualified or not), and no system. There needs to be serious investment in staff recruitment, training, and in the creation of facilities. But the Saniora government would not disburse any money for that.
  2. There is no consumer bureau in Lebanon. I mean there is one and the director is my friend, but it is inoperative. It does not have enough staff to check the quality in 1 shop a day. So they just let it go, waiting for things to change. A project for capacity building of the consumer office has been implemented in 2007, but without resources to recruit and operate, this is all money wasted on consultants.
  3. The government in Lebanon does not in any way want to be perceived as hindering imports. They are worried that quality control could be perceived as non-trade tariff barriers (which they are of course, but this is the way our produce is treated every where).
  4. The government of Lebanon does not want to promote local consumption of locally produced goods. Most of the development projects they endorse are designed to enhance export (Export-plus, the EU’s Agricultural Development Project, USAID’s agricultural development projects). Even the Geographic Indicators project (in which I am a consultant to the Swiss implementing agency) has been suffering from this. Instead of being a project to support local recognition of Lebanese products as it is everywhere else in the world, the Ministry of Economy and Trade wants it to be directed at exports only. Nowhere else in the world has there been a Geographic Indication that has been successful abroad before being successful locally. If the name “Kfarfila Sweet Onion” is not recognized and demanded and protected in Lebanon, how can it mean something to a customer in, say, Britain?

I am often told: you always complain about the government not supporting agriculture in Lebanon, and you never give any alternative that is realistic and viable. My answer is that it all depends on what you mean by realistic and viable. The starting point of any discussion on development and trade, especially for food and farm products has become the free market and unbridled competition. It is now our given. This is the greatest achievement of neo-liberal economist: free trade and ultra liberalization have become the grand narrative which has to be satisfied in quasi-religious manner and which precedes any other goal. You want to fight poverty? Fine, but it has to abide by market rules and to be translated into monetary terms. Mohammad Younis of Grameen bank has been given the Nobel because he has shown that the poor are bankable, according to market rule. You want to conserve the environment? Good for you, so start showing that it makes financial sense, otherwise don’t count on any support. So we invent economic methods of the most ludicrous type to commodify the environment, like the polluter pays principle or carbon credits, which allow us to keep polluting as long as we can pay for it.

But local farming is and should be different. I have written why before. There is much more to farming than economics and money. Like there is much more to art or beauty than money. People may want to eat local, because it reaches somewhere deep inside their soul, a place where what has neither utility nor efficiency can still find a place (Not my words, these are Romain Gary’s).

Any government, even the weakest, can do something about supporting local food systems, even without taking protectionist measures (in which there is no shame). The first and foremost action is to “bridge the information gap” that is to impose on vendors to tell the truth about the origin of the products they sell. This way, we can have the choice to purchase produce according to its origin, and to pay a premium if we so wish. This is NOT difficult to implement. This is much easier than imposing VAT or creating Solidaire, believe me. But the problem is that this government will not lift a finger to support the productive side of the economy, or to interfere with trade. Supporting local production through identifying origins may be the first step of something bigger, like food quality criteria. Imagine if we took a decision to clearly label GMO-containing foods. There goes US grain, US junk food, US soybean oil, and US confectionary. The bulk of our food import bill. Now the US masters will NOT be very happy with that, will they?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Corporate bread

"Leading Greek food and dairy group Vivartia has informed the local media that it will be establishing a joint venture in Saudi Arabia with Western Bakeries and Olayan Financing Company.

The Greek food firm will control 25% (worth 14 million euro) of the new company. Another 60% will belong to Western Bakeries, and the remaining 10% will go to Olayan."

...and he should know!

The oven is a social equalizer,” said Mr. Benaissa, who is also the foreign minister of Morocco. “It also creates jobs and is economical, especially in the summer, because we use little energy for so many people.”

New York Times article on bread making in Morocco. Orientalist romanticism at its best.

Islamists' new ally: global warming

"Jewish groups have briefed Congress on a new threat to stability in the Middle East: Global warming.

The idea that changes wrought by global warming — flooded coastlines, intense droughts and increased competition for water, strong storms — could destabilize volatile parts of the world is not new. Retired American generals, task forces within the Defense Department and even the CIA have warned of global warming’s geopolitical stakes.

A team of Israeli experts brought the message to Congress, with a warning that moderate Arab regimes — already under fire in many cases from Islamic extremist factions in their own countries — could be among the most stressed by climate changes. And that, in turn, could threaten America’s longtime ally in the region."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Mendicity as a strategy for development

"Lama Oueijan, a project manager for the United Nations Development Project and an adviser to the Lebanese economy and trade minister, acknowledged the agricultural sector's complaints, and said the recent political instability in Lebanon has pushed agricultural issues down on the list of governmental priorities. "There is simply not time to focus on agriculture in Lebanon," she said...

She argued instead that gaps in financing are the more pressing problem for the Lebanese agricultural sector, saying that agricultural projects planned by the Association of Lebanese Farmers are currently short on funding. She added that international organizations can play a role in helping to remedy these shortfalls.

Oueijan also placed some of the blame on the farmers themselves, saying they "weren't properly organized" before the recent establishment of the Association of Lebanese Farmers."

The Sanioura government's (and Haddadamus's and his advisor) plan for agriculture:

1. Blame the victims
2. Subcontract the sector to charities and aid donors

US penetrates the Middle East

"The web site,, provides a comprehensive overview of social and cultural relations, bilateral trade and security cooperation between the United Arab Emirates and the United States. The site also provides a regularly updated library of useful links and third-party analysis of the UAE, from US and UAE government sources, international media and high-level research and academic institutions.

Economically, the UAE is now the largest export market for US companies in the Middle East and North Africa, and therefore a significant trading partner."

The US is also the largest exporter of foodstuff to Lebanon. Lebanon's annual food import bill is $2billions. Lebanon's total food exports is $2millions per year. Only a small quantity reaches the US for many reasons, among them the bioterrorism act: products coming from countries like Lebanon have to undergo special scrutiny. This is also called a non-tariff trade barrier.

Lebanon's ministry of economy and trade ably led by Haddadamus is trying as hard as it can to sign a bilateral free trade agreement with the US. This should make it easier for the US to export even more junk food to Lebanon. So we are going to grant even more trade facilities to the country to which we pay most of our food bill, while they import almost nothing from us.

This is Nobel prize winning stuff.

China's biofuel: Pig Problem

"Disturbingly, this is the second time in seven months that the Chinese leadership has had to resort to the country's strategic reserves to stave off politically dangerous increases in food prices. In December, Beijing ordered the auctioning of some of the state wheat reserves to halt the rise in crops prices and prevent panic among the public.

Chinese economic minders, however, are not amused. Worried about social instability fueled by inflation, they have been mulling over whether to steady prices by using the state strategic reserveof hundreds of thousands of live pigs kept at special farms for contingencies.

Current hikes in both grain and pork prices are blamed on the same culprit - the ethanol industry, whose explosive growth has been gobbling up a growing share of China's corn (maize) harvest traditionally preserved for food and animal feed." (Thanks Rania)

Transparency Inc.

Al-Akhbar ran a small article today, but I cant find the link, on the recent aid package received by Lebanon from the US. Wheat (from the US surplus) for a value of $5millions was sent. The purpose is to sell the wheat on the local market, and use the money for agricultural development projects, managed by US NGOs and Lebanese partners. According to al akhbar, the requirements for the Lebanese NGOs is to have been operational for at least 5 years. There are no similar requirements for the US NGOs. The Ministry of Economy and Trade (Haddadamus) is to oversee the program. Al Akhbar also mentions the fine prints: That the decisions of who to grant the money to are the prerogative of the ministry and do not have to be justified.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

More to Brazil than the carnival

"Agribusiness exports to the Arab countries generated US$ 1.75 billion between January and May this year, an increase of 37.3% when compared to the same period in 2006. Total sector sales, which reached US$ 21.7 billion, grew 26.8% in the period. The figures were supplied by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply.

The main products shipped between January and May were chicken meat and cattle beef, with growth of 53% in the value of exports, sugar, with expansion of 20%, the soy complex, especially grain, up 5.7%, forestry products, mainly plywood and sawed wood, which grew 44.5%, and coffee, which rose 88.2%."

Biofuels again

As a crop, corn is very water- and nitrogen-intensive, meaning it requires massive amounts of water and fertilizers to grow. Year after year, corn crops on the same land exhaust the soil of nutrients and is ultimately unsustainable.

The United States produces 11 billion bushels of corn every year, and that crop makes some pretty extensive rounds around and outside the country.

It feeds U.S. livestock and is used in vast amounts of processed foods in the form of corn syrup, corn starch and other additives. The United States also uses our cheap, taxpayer-subsidized grain crops for trade with other countries, including Middle Eastern nations. The government then takes what's left and ships it to Africa in the form of food aid for poverty-stricken nations.

If the price of corn continues to rise and the United States continues to allot more of it to the ever-increasing amount of ethanol plants, domestic and international food prices will rise and the amount of food we're able to send to our neighbors in Africa may diminish.

Also, since it absorbs too much water, shipping ethanol through pipelines is impossible. What this means is it must be trucked from the refinery to the gas station, according to the Lansing State Journal.

Modern agriculture uses copious volumes of diesel to run the plows and other machines, so a large-scale switch to corn-based biodiesels will still promote extensive fossil fuel use

What's so Arab about this trade zone?

Look at this very interesting web site called the Arab Trade Zone. It has a multitude of food commodities and products on offer, all of which originate from China. They include sesame, walnuts, millet etc.. which are local Middle eastern staples.

Just in case you were still wondering about where does the manoucheh come from. I wrote in that previous post that sesame comes from Syria. Correction: it probably comes from China.

Promoting a healthy diet among the poor

"California no longer issues paper food stamps. Eligible recipients of food assistance in California are now issued a debit card called a "Golden State Advantage" card (known also as an "EBT card" or a "food stamp card"), and access their food benefits electronically by swiping their card when they buy food at the grocery store. California Farmers' Markets, and other outdoor food markets and produce stands, do not usually have the electricity and phone lines needed for all eligible food vendors to deal with electronic benefit transfers. Therefore, many such markets allow all eligible food vendors to sell eligible food products to EBT cardholders by setting up a Central Point of Sale (POS) Device to sell market scrip to customers, who can then shop in the market with the scrip. This system requires the market management to become authorized to accept EBT food benefits and to organize and promote the use of EBT cards at the market."

My friend Annie who sent me this link adds:

"Food stamps for low-income persons and families were issued as paper coupons in the past. In 2004, Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) replaced the traditional paper issues. It functions like a debit card/account for people to use. The Ecology Center, Berkeley coordinated efforts with several state, county, public, and community organizations to enabled certified organic farmers' markets to accept the EBT cards ( the California Farmers' Market Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) Implementation and Promotion Project) Basically, allowing recipients of food stamp benefits to have access to local organic markets. Which is a great way of promoting healthy diets among the poor, as well as sustainable living."

Facilitating access of the poor to healthy, nutritious food is often neglected. During the Israeli war on lebanon of July-August 2006, relief agencies were distributing tons of dry food to the refugees from the South and the Southern suburbs. The aim was to cover the need in calories without addressing nutrition needs. Healthy Basket, a company working in the marketing of organic produce started distributing fresh fruits and vegetables. The success was immediate, as people were starved for fresh produce.

In the current Nahr el Bared crisis, the Nahr el Bared relief Campaign started by purchasing and distributing dry food (powdered milk, tinned food). As other, more established relief outfits started moving in, the NBRC started distributing vouchers for the value of LBP5,000 ($3.3), which can be exchanged for fresh fruits and vegetables in some of the shops of the refugee camps. This is proving to be very popular and very successful, as people do not have access to cash and cannot spend on essential fresh produce.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Food in distress

الصناعات الغذائية اللبنانية... شهرة إلى زوال
الصناعات الغذائية هي أولى الصناعات اللبنانية لجهة حجم صادراتها إلى الخارج، الذي وصل عام 2005 إلى 200 مليون دولار. كان متوقعاً لهذا الرقم أن يرتفع عام 2006 إلى أكثر من 240 مليون دولار، إلاأن حرب تموز بدّدت تلك الآمال، وجاءت الأوضاع السياسية والأمنية الراهنة لتزيد الطين بلة
Lebanese food industry in decline
Food industries provide the bulk of Lebanon's exports, with a value of 200 million $ in 2005 (compare with 2 billion dollars in food imports). The export figure was expected to increase in 2006 to more than $240 million, but this did not materialize due to the July war and to the current political crisis.
Good dossier on Lebanese Food industries (in Arabic)

Subsidizing the rich

Lebanon subsidizes wheat farming, did you know that? On the face of it it is a good thing: apparently 12,000 ha are planted by 1200 farmer (assuming the figures are correct). The government buys the wheat at prices higher than market prices. And it doesn't cost much: $ 4 million per year. Problem is, many rich land owners take advantage of this and grow huge areas in order to cash the subsidy. Look at the figures: 12,000 divided among 1,200 farmers makes 10 ha per farmer. This is way above the mean land area held by Lebanese farmers (closer to 2 ha). In my village, no one sells the wheat back to the government. people use it to make burghul and freek, because the high yielding varieties are not good for that.

Friday, June 15, 2007

GMOs move into the EU: WTO again

"The European Union must accept more genetically modified foods to avoid renewed complaints about market barriers at the World Trade Organization, the EU trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, said Thursday.

Any EU delay over the approval of genetically modified crops declared safe by scientists risks prompting legal challenges from farm exporters like the United States, Canada and Argentina, Mandelson said. In a case brought by these three countries, the WTO ruled last year that a 1998-2004 EU ban on new genetically altered foods was illegal." (Thanks Yasmine)

Biofuel or Food? A difficult choice

"Jean Ziegler, UN special rapporteur on the right to food, accused the European Union (EU), Japan and the United States of "total hypocrisy" for promoting biofuels to cut their own dependency on imported oil.

Fears over climate change have boosted the demand for alternative fuels in wealthy countries, but the rise of biofuel has been criticised by some who say it will put a squeeze on land needed for food."

"US food consumer prices, as measured by the government's Consumer Price Index, have risen from a year-over-year rate of 2.5 percent in September 2006 to 3.7 percent this past April.

The RFA-funded study found a US$1.00 increase in the price of gasoline will result in a 0.6 percent to 0.9 percent increase in consumer food prices compared a 0.3 percent jump resulting from a US$1.00 per bushel rise in the price of corn.

"One of the reasons why energy prices have a much larger impact on retail food prices than does the price of they affect the entire food system" ranging from production and transportation, said John Urbanchuk, author of the study and director of LECG, a financial consulting firm."

(Thanks Rania)

Two articles on the risks of engaging into biofuel production and the potential impact on food, poverty and migration. To really read this in context, look for previous posts about the decrease in food reserves and the increase in world food prices (Got Milk?, Cherchez le biofuel)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

One ostrich, many poor

"Not far from piles of rubble still being cleared after last year's war with Israel, Mohamad Yassine recently took an important step in his own effort to rebuild. Middle East Ostrich, his first retail shop, got ready for its grand opening.

Passersby peered curiously through the window at his display of delicacies -- ostrich sausage, ostrich mortadella, and a basket of big ostrich eggs. Heat-and-eat ostrich cordon bleu and ostrich Kiev were stacked in a freezer nearby. Souvenir plumes adorned a vase near the doorway.

Before the war, Mr. Yassine planned a much larger business expansion"

This project was going to expand in my village, Sinai, where the inhabitants are landless peasants, and land is owned in large parcels of several km2 by absentee landlords. The project would have prohibited the local people from using the land they have been planting for centuries, and left them without assets or resources. All this for export oriented production, (the Lebanese dont eat ostrich and Louis Vuitton's factories are not in Lebanon) which would have made one man richer (possibly because the economics of ostrich farming are dodgy, as many kiwis will tell you), but it would have made 100s of people poorer.

Court Marshall

"A Muslim Marshall Plan will be as effective and as successful as our experts can make it. However, first we need the political will to make it a reality, and then we need to hire some new experts, because the current set is lazy, intellectually bankrupt, and complicit; these experts are focused on giving hand outs to dictators (and upon not seeing results agitating for invasion). That is the extent of their plan.

A Muslim Marshall Plan for the non oil-producing Muslim nations. That is the direction we must go."

Turkish roses

"Years later I came across what seemed to be the height of exoticism in rose-flavored Turkish delight. Fat, juicy, pale pink squares dusted in a mixture of starch and icing sugar that melt in your mouth leaving a lingering essence of rose. In the lands between Melbourne and Turkey, roses, and more commonly rosewater, are used in a multitude of foods, particularly in sweets. In northern India rosewater can be found in a fried dessert of milk solids, a little flour coated in sugar syrup flavored with cardamom. A similar dessert exists in Arab cuisine. Sweet lassi, a traditional South Asian yoghurt drink, may be flavored with rosewater while a popular syrup of the Middle East is made from dates, grape molasses and rosewater. In Iran ice cream, biscuits and other sweets are laced with the scent of rose. Western taste buds may be familiar with rose-flavored madeleines, the French sweet biscuit, or in marzipan flavored with rosewater." (This one's for you Anna, recipes included)

Got milk?

"The price of milk is soaring worldwide as a drought-stricken dairy industry struggles to meet surging demand for milk products in China and the Middle East.

A doubling in the price of wholesale milk over the past year is creating havoc among food manufacturers, prompting warnings about food price inflation in the UK. Aid organisations have also raised concerns about the depletion of government stockpiles of milk powder.

Changing diets and rising living standards in Asia, notably in China and the Middle East, have caught international milk processors on the back foot. Greater wealth is leading to a change in the Asian diet, explained Carmen Suarez, chief economist at the National Farmers Union. “There is population growth and higher incomes, which leads to higher consumption of animal protein.”
So rapid has been the escalation in demand that the EU’s milk surplus has dried up and the butter mountain has been flattened. Historically, the European Commission has given European producers subsidies to sell dairy products into the world market."

There has been an increase in the number of dairy farms in Lebanon in the past few years, and the local trade in milk has been booming. Forage is also being produced locally (though at great water costs). A large number of small farmers have been investing in the ownership of a few cows (1 cow costs $2000, and provides about $100 per month). The milk is sold to small local industries that manufacture yogurt and labneh and white local cheeses. If the trends continues as above (and it is a trend we are observing with many commodities, especially grain), then farming will start to make sense again. And we should consider ourselves lucky that, against all odds and all government ultra liberal policies, farmers in lebanon have persisted in their endeavor. With increasing world prices of basic food commodities, it is the domestic food bill that increases, and the poor who suffer first.

Sizzling summer

"He goes to an interesting part of the world, meets interesting people and eats interesting food.
The trouble was, he turned up in Lebanon in July 2006, and things got a little too interesting."

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Can it get more callous than this?

"Being a human guinea pig may be work that westerners no longer want to do, but that doesn't rule it out as a good deal for the poor, who benefit from the best care and get paid for it. If factories can be relocated to take advantage of lower salaries or less rigorous environmental constraints, why not clinical trials? "They said [I was] taking advantage," complained an industry researcher criticised for conducting trials in poor countries. "But without that trial, those children would be dead." "I think it is usually good for people to be in clinical trials," said FDA medical director Robert Temple. "Half of the people [get an active drug] and better care. The other half...[get] better care."" (thanks Kirsten)

Aid is good for poverty: it maintains it

"Foreign aid has sometimes been a very good thing. It has been rightly credited with solid contributions, such as in boosting post-war recovery in Western Europe, Taiwan and South Korea; rolling back somenasty tropical diseases; and (arguably) helping usher in majority rule in South Africa. Without foreign aid and the geostrategic interests driving it, such outcomes would probably not have been reached as rapidly or as smoothly."

But on the huge canvas of late-20th century history, it's hard to detect many more cases of sustained success, certainly on the poverty front. Indeed for over the past couple of decades, a major problem has been dogging foreign aid: where its leading institutions hold sway, poverty tends to get worse, not better...."

Aid appears to be no better at improving governance than tackling poverty. Indeed a number of studies indicate that the greater the intensity of aid, the worse the quality of public institutions and democratic politics. Aid revenues can undermine public politics just as oil revenues do. They enable elites to survive and prosper thanks to closed-door relationships with powerful institutions abroad; at the same time they help political classes avoid the headaches of managing political contracts of reciprocity with citizens at home." (Thanks Aiman)

How true. How very very true.

Capitalism and democracy: Just like gin and tonic?

"Now some scholars argue that a free market can actually undermine democracy. "Capitalism doesn't necessarily lead towards democracy at all," Scott said. "The one thing that you can say is that capitalism is going to relentlessly produce inequality of income, and eventually that is going to become incompatible with democracy."

More worrisome is that the widespread assumption that capitalism and democracy are closely linked can backfire, argues Lord Ralf Dahrendorf, a research professor at the Social Science Centre Berlin. In a recent discussion on democracy and capitalism sponsored by the Hansard Society, a nonpartisan charity in London that promotes parliamentary democracy, he argues that when democracy fails to deliver the economic goods, people begin to doubt its value. "Few things seem more difficult and yet few things are more important for sustainable liberty than to separate capitalism and democracy in people's minds," he writes." (thanks Yasmine)

Organic class system

"EU organic farmers have had difficulty selling organic food in different EU countries as there is a patchwork of national and private logos that can be costly and complicated to obtain. There are currently two labelling categories in the EU: a "gold standard" where organic ingredients comprise at least 95 percent of the final product, and "emphasized labelling" where there is at least 70 percent organic material.The agreement on new rules came the same day the EU statistics agency Eurostat said that organic farming has more than doubled its share of European agricultural land since 1998. Demand for food produced without artificial pesticides or fertilizers has been growing among Europeans following food scares and worries over biotechnology." (Thanks Yasmine)

Food comes from...the supermarket

"British adults are so ignorant about where or how food is produced that many don't know that staple items such as bacon, bread, porridge originate from UK farms.
Farmers produce 60% of all the food consumed in this country, yet many adults questioned didn't associated everyday foods with British farms. " (thanks Rania)

I'm not sure what the average Lebanese thinks, but if they believe that most of their food is imported, they would be right. I may have mentionned this before, but I'll repeat it anyway: Think of the average manoucheh (baked bread with thyme and oil). This is the penultimate Lebanese street food. Tons are consumed everyday. What does it have in it? US flour, chinese yeast, US soybean oil, Lebanese thyme, Syrian sesame. The Lebanese ingredients must make less than 0.1% of the weight and of the value of the manoucheh.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Do I really need to comment?

FY 2005 Program: Support Peace Processes ($1,500,000 DA; and $5,000,000 ESF to be
notified separately):

The U.S.-Israel Cooperative Development Research (CDR) Program is a USAID-managed, peer reviewed competitive grants program that funds collaborative research involving scientists from Israel and the United States working with counterparts in developing countries. Grants are selected based upon technical merit and relevance to the needs of the developing countries.
About 60 CDR projects are presently active. The Middle East Regional Cooperation (MERC)
Program is a USAID-managed, competitive research grants program specifically focused on
promoting technical cooperation between Arab and Israeli scientists, students, and communities
on topics relevant to development in the Middle East. MERC’s external peer-review panels
provide expert technical advice to a USAID/Department of State selection committee. Presently, 35 MERC projects are active, involving scientists and institutions in Jordan, Egypt, West Bank/Gaza, Morocco, Tunisia, and Lebanon. U.S. scientists may also participate in a MERC grant, but all MERC projects must demonstrate significant levels of direct Arab-Israeli

Some innocent questions about trade in Lebanon

In an open letter to Minister of Economy and Trade Sami Haddad, Fadi Abboud, the head of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists (by no means a lefty opposition figure) asks:

"Why dont you implement the anti dumping law? Why do you not treat the industry the way you treat commerce? Why be more royalist than the king? Why liberate trade beyond WTO requirements? Why break WTO rules when it comes to favoring trade and commerce? Why allow monopolies and exclusive agencies? Why protect ONLY A FEW LUCKY INDUSTRIALISTS?"

The answer my friend may be blowing in the wind, but you'll also find it in reviewing some of the posts on this blog, especially those that have to do with the declarations of our esteemed Minister of Free Trade trade and hell.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Food and class

"The key question about food in poverty: Did you have enough? In the middle class: Did you like it? In wealth: Was it presented well?"

Almost Organic

"But organic purists say the list of ingredients is the latest example of big business is trying to water down the organic standards in an attempt to cash in on the boom for organic products. They argue that allowing the nonorganic ingredients will weaken the integrity of the organic label."

"And the very idea that pesticide-laden, genetically modified grains would be allowed in 'organic' anything, whether its beer or another product, is not only illogical but inconceivable," (Thanks Yasmine)

Lebanon rose

Roses, very special ones, are cultivated in the small village of Ksarnaba in the Bekaa. They are very fragrant and are used to make rose water, a cure-all extract used in making sweets and in folk medicine. Very high quality stuff, most of it is exported. Would it surprise you if I told you that the governments of Lebanon never gave any importance to this product? And that it provides for the livelihoods of hundreds of small farmers. Arabic article

The one thing the Lebanese agree on

When the foes agree on marginalizing social issues (arabic article)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

World Bank: We said Free Trade, not Free People!

"Through the violent occupation of Iraq, the US is laying the foundations to further open the economy of the Middle East for their corporate interests. Countries once protected by oil revenues are lining up to sign bilateral agreements leading to a Middle East Free Trade Agreement. MEFTA would impose free market policies that have enslaved other regions of the global south to global capital. In Palestine, the World Bank has played a key role in facilitating the cooperation of global capital and occupation.

Central to the vision of the World Bank for a thriving and successful Palestinian “state” is the development of an export-orientated economy in which Palestinian dispossessed farmers are exploited as cheap labor and dominated by markets and free trade. Israeli and World Bank interests merge to destroy local forms of trade, sustainable patterns of agricultural production, and existing social structures.

The industrial zones are designed to serve the needs of the industry markets of Israel, whether by doing the most environmentally destructive production in Palestinian areas or by providing cheap labor. Additionally these zones would benefit the Israeli Occupation abroad where goods “Made in Palestine” have more favorable trade conditions in international markets.

While espousing the politics of free markets and free trade, the World Bank is not interested in the creation of a free people. Quite the opposite—its interests are best served by keeping Palestinians in economic enslavement. "

Please please read this article. And forward it to Lebanese minister of economy and trade, Sami Haddad, also known as Haddadamus (for his prophetic wisdom).

The day Damascus rose

"I am your destitute moon, donate me a bed, I haven't slept for centuries," wrote the Syrian poet, who lived for years in exile before his death in 1998. "I am your Damascene rose; put me in the first vase you find."

Left behind

"It is not that the right has a better or even good answer to the questions of our times. It is that the modern left, unless it is prepared to say something concrete about how it wants the economy to look in the future and takes steps to shape it, has little to say either. And if it's the incumbent government - the consequence is staring it in the face."

Article by Will Hutton in the Observer. About Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Not about Lebanon, where the "new left" (what a misnomer!) isn't even looking for something to say: it will say what it is told to say by the US and its proxies. And it won't be about the economy. Or human rights. Or the bombing of Palestinian refugee camps. Or the murder of Syrian workers.

Broken promises: good title for a new song, bob!

"So who are the villains? Well, it's a change from the usual story of US infamy because the core of this problem lies in Europe. It was European countries which made the biggest promises and which are proving so lamentably bad at implementing them. That's why what happens in Heiligendamm - the last G8 in Europe for several years - is so crucial. If Germany comes up with some money then it will pile the pressure on the worst offenders - France and, above all, Italy. Aid fell in the latter by 16% last year and unless something changes fast, it will deliver a paltry $1.4bn of the $9.5bn it promised by 2010. France's shortfall is running at 50% of its 2010 aid promise. Even the UK, which prides itself on its exemplary commitment to the developing world, is falling behind. If European countries got their act together, the Gleneagles agreement would be back on track."

Sir Bob and Mr. Bono fail to make poverty history. They still get invited to the Queen's birthday.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Spiritual heritage

"Araq is a national jewel that should be polished and presented to the world. Lebanon, which aspires to be the boutique nation, should be selling a boutique eau de vie. A new law should be drafted in which the strictest guidelines for the production of what could be called premium araq should be laid down. Let those who still want to make "ordinary" araq do so, but let there be a benchmark for a premium product that, like wine, will take the best of Lebanon to the world. The Scots did it with malt and premium whisky, and even the Mexicans did it with the foul tequila."

And there are so many other products, part of Lebanon's food culture, that can be brought out and shared with the world, and provide income for small and large producers.

Haddadamus' profecy

"It seems that some of the Western powers are telling the government that 'if you want us to continue lending you money, then you must join the WTO and other free trade agreements,'" he said. "Every time we ask the world to help us solve our problems some of the states will start putting new conditions."

Very good update on Lebanon's efforts to join WTO. Includes Sami Haddad's immortal visionary words:
'Without wto, the country will go to hell - and you can quote me'.

Go Mango

"George Bush's effort to lift the 18-year-old U.S. ban on importing Indian mangoes accelerated last year during a visit to India when, after biting into the peachlike flesh of an Alphonso, he said to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, "This is a hell of a fruit!" The President's enthusiasm proved fruitful for the two countries--the first shipment of Alphonsos arrived in New York in May--but the diplomacy has spawned unintended consequences.

"Definitely a war!" claims Mohan M. Shah, a New York businessman whose family orchard in Bhagalpur, Bihar, one of India's poorest regions, contains more than 4,000 trees producing the savory Langra mango. "America's appetite for mangoes is now 250,000 tons a year, and it can easily double with Indian mangoes being allowed in. But where are these mangoes going to come from, and at whose expense?""

Good Forbes article on the mango boom in India

Syria: low yields expected

"Bad weather hit Syria's harvest this year, with wheat and barley among the crops worst affected, the agriculture ministry's planning chief said on Wednesday.

Drought early in winter, followed by floods and unseasonable rain, over the last two months wreaked havoc, but Syria will remain a net wheat exporter, although it will require larger volumes of barely imports, Mohammad-Hassan Katana told Reuters.

Syria is a major food and farm commodities players in the Middle East. Its agricultural sector remains heavily subsidised despite widening budget deficits in recent years."

Syria's farming

"In Syria, around 9 million people live in rural areas. Agriculture is the main activity in these areas, employing 55% of the labour force. The sector accounted for more than a quarter of GDP and total employment in 2004.

According to the UN "Syria possesses impressive agricultural potential and a reasonably good level of food security". However, productivity in the sector is low and unemployment among adult males is 20%. The illiteracy rate is still a shocking 28% of rural adults. Many factors are to blame for the stagnation of agriculture, chief among them is the small and fragmented nature of land holdings."

From a blog, summary of an International Fund for Agricultural Development IFAD report on Syria. Not that I think the report is very good, but it is always useful to have information. But really, how can you say that the main cause of poverty in Syria is the fragmentation of landholdings when the Assad family plunders the country's riches. But the Rome-based IFAD would never say that. So what you get is another silly report and generic recommendations. And rich consultants.

Someone should also tell the blogger that the name of his blog is really...weird.

Soybean prices increase: cherchez le biofuel

"Soybeans fell from a 35-month high in Chicago on speculation that improved crop conditions in the United States would mean a bigger harvest this year than the government forecast last month.

An estimated 71 percent of the crop was in good or excellent condition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in its first assessment of the season. That was the highest initial rating since the assessments began in 1986. Prices had jumped as much as 40 percent in the past year on concern U.S. farmers would plant fewer soybeans in favor of corn."

And guess why they're planting corn? Yes, biofuels.

Sweet Dubai

"Sugar futures rose in New York on Wednesday for the first time in seven sessions after an official at giant sugar refinery in Dubai said that a Middle Eastern cyclone would not affect production."

Oil spill trial

"Judges may also consider civil damages of €1 billion, or $1.35 billion, in the case, which involves lawyers for Total, its subsidiaries Total Petroleum Services and Total Transport, and Bertrand Thouilin, head of legal affairs for shipping at the company.

The Erika, a 24-year-old tanker, split in two off the coast of Brittany in a storm on the night of Dec. 12, 1999. About 20,000 tons of heavy fuel spilled into the sea and along beaches, killing tens of thousands of birds and polluting about 400 kilometers, or 250 miles, of coast. RINA, an Italian company that checks ships' safety, had said the Erika was seaworthy; after the accident it was found to have a rusted hull. Total denies responsibility for the spill."

That's about as much oil as the Israelis spilled in Lebanon in July 2006 after they bombed the Jiyyeh power plant. So we have now a precedent, and a figure for the amount we should be asking for JUST FOR THE SPILL, not counting other damages from this special bombing episode. Do you think the UN will give us an International Tribunal for that? I mean we could really use the money. Will they impose it on Israel using the seventh article of the UN charter? More importantly: will the Sanioura government ask for it?

Deconstructing Silent Spring

"Carson presented DDT as a dangerous human carcinogen, but Baldwin said the question was open and noted that most scientists "feel that the danger of damage is slight." He acknowledged that pesticides were sometimes badly misused, but he also quoted an adage: "There are no harmless chemicals, only harmless use of chemicals.""

A useful reminder in these troubled times

"But Gonzalez-Torres also firmly believed that all art was political, whether it intended to be or not. He knew that his was, and he believed that for it to be effective, it should not preach or proselytize or even show its hand too fully. "The most successful of all political moves," he once said, "are ones that don't appear to be 'political.' " Such a strategy could be called subversive. Another way to describe it is to say that it worked on many levels: candy as candy; as art object; as a questioning of art objects; as a metaphor for mortality and depletion in the age of AIDS; as a means for his art and ideas literally to be spread, like a virus - or maybe like joy - by everyone who took a piece."

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Free Trade Agreements: dump subsidized dairy products

"The westernization of lifestyles and eating habits in many Middle Eastern countries has opened the door for the U.S. dairy industry – boosting U.S. dairy exports in the retail sector by an average of 5 percent annually since 2000. Dairy producers, through their checkoff investment in the U.S. Dairy Export Council® (USDEC), help increase sales by funding demand-building market development and expansion programs in Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, that help find a home for new U.S. milk production.

The Middle East represents the sixth largest export market for U.S. dairy products and ingredients. “The growth and lifestyle changes in the Middle East make it an important market for U.S. dairy producers,” said Kimberly Clauss, a California dairy producer and USDEC board member. “Without international markets like the Middle East, excess milk solids would be a burden on the U.S. market and would constrain industry growth.”"

I especially like the "demand-building programs". What does it entail? Really?

Iran bans GMOs

"Majlis Research Center has warned against official and unofficial entry of genetically-modified crops and foodstuffs into the country while commending Iran's progress in its fight against rice stem borer larvae.

Following comparative studies on social and economic condition of transgenic agricultural products in Iran and the world, the research arm of Iran's legislature regretted that GM crops or foodstuffs containing them still find their way into the country."

Black humor

"There is, admittedly, a humorous side to the debate over biofuels. A story that involves rocketing pork prices in China, expensive Mexican tortillas and Philadelphian farmers feeding their livestock chocolate bars has enough comic material to keep an entire classroom in giggles. Yet this argument has a darker side, because the search by politicians for a way to bring down carbon emissions is driving up food costs and enouraging destruction of land."

Like poisonous organisms, food additives are colorful and harmful

"Both the FSA and experts raising awareness of additives agree that if you want to live an additive-free life, the easiest option is to eat food that is freshly prepared. But if you do buy processed food, it can't hurt to know exactly you are feeding your body."

Lists commmon food additives and their effect. Essential reading.

Dont listen to what they say, look at what they do

Sometimes my resolve falters. Really. I mean, you understand, this is an uphill struggle against the policies and practices of all the governments in the world, and against all of the trading system and its component. That's a big bite, believe me. I start to want to believe that the Transnational Corporations may mean well, that they are here to stay, that there may be space for doing good together, that Corporate Social Reponsibility is not just a callous way of making more money. I also catch myself (but more rarely) wanting desperately to believe that the US and other G8 and the Bretton Woods cannot be just self serving evil and that they need guidance, and just they are not corrupt, just inefficient and that Scooter Libby and Chirac are only one off cases, and that Wolfowitz did what he did because he was in love, and he has shown us with his stand on Irak that he believes that alll is fair in love and war, and hey, who hasn't loved?

Then I wake up take a newspaper, and read one headline, any headline, and I'm cured.

But for those who need more to believe, read this great article by George Monbiot, one of my favorite writers.

"Last year, in the hope of arresting this public health disaster, the Philippines' department of health drew up a new set of rules. It prohibited all advertising and promotion of infant formula for children up to two years old. It forbade the formula companies from giving away gifts or samples, and from providing assistance to health workers or classes to mothers. The new rules seem stiff, but they all come straight from the WHO's code. Phap, whose members include most of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies, went to the supreme court to try to obtain a restraining order. When it failed the big guns arrived.

The US embassy and the US regional trade representative started lobbying the Philippines government. Then the chief executive of the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington - which represents 3m businesses - wrote a letter to the president of the Philippines, Gloria Arroyo. The new rules, he claimed, would have "unintended negative consequences for investors' confidence". The country's reputation "as a stable and viable destination for investment is at risk". Four days later, the supreme court reversed its decision and imposed the restraining order Phap had requested. It remains in force today. The government is currently unable to prevent companies from breaking the international code."

Unholy water alliance

"Coca-Cola, the world's largest soft drink maker, said Tuesday that it would invest $20 million over five years to improve global water conservation. The plan is part of the company's effort to adapt to global warming and to address a crucial constraint to growth in emerging markets.

About 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, many in emerging markets that are the beverage maker's fastest growing outlets. By 2025, two-thirds of the world's population will face water shortages, according to World Wildlife Fund, Coca-Cola's partner in the program.

Coca-Cola and its major rival, PepsiCo, have encountered controversy in India, which accounts for 1.3 percent of Coca-Cola's volume, over the quality of water used in beverages."

Note the increasing partnerships between Commercial Transnational Corporations and Environment and Develpment Transnational Corporations on issues of corporate social responsibility.

Poor of Lebanon, rejoice! The foes agree on your fate

"Rival Lebanese political parties seem to have a common interest: creating a just economic and social system. At least that's what the representatives of the main parties in the Parliament are conveying to the EU, which invited them to debate openly the future of socio-economic development of Lebanon.

Representatives of Hizbullah, Amal, the Free Patriotic Movement, Future movement, Lebanese Forces and the Phalange Party sat down with EU officials and independent economists from May 29-30 to reach a common understanding on economic and social issues that affect the entire population.The options include privatization and regulation, private management of state-owned utilities or better management of state assets in some cases.

"In all cases, the government should set the policies and the institutional framework for the sector in question and engage the private sector only in concluding transactions. The privatization process should be transparent, open and preceded by measures to ensure competition."
The participants emphasized the central role of the agricultural sector in improving the living conditions of the rural population, protecting the environment and reducing internal and external migration.
There was a consensus on improving the social and health benefits of all Lebanese.
But they stressed that these social programs should be developed without imposing an excessive burden on the treasury and with an appropriate involvement of non-state actors. "

It's not that I am a cynic, but really, how far can you go with generic statements? Note that no one opposes privatisation, they just want it to be transparent, meaning: "I want my share".

Israelis to bloom Nigerian desert

"In a unique collaboration between Nigerian and Israeli companies as well as governments of both countries, the desert region of the north would be transformed into habitable and cultivable farm lands through afforestation. The idea is to reclaim the desert for productive use and assist to create abundant food production through gradual planned technological advancement."

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

India's hunger

"In recent memory, the visitation from such a calamity occurred in 1974. In the pre-independence days, more often than not, famine-like condition prevailed in the countryside. In the more remote past during the era of domination of British colonialism, devastating famines decimated the rural population in 1943. Barring other small and big famines, history records another famine in the then Bengal only 16 years after the East India Company usurped political power of this land in 1757. Understandably, the famine came in the wake of indiscriminate looting, and plunder by the Company and its local hirelings that laid waste the countryside."

Very good article on the status of food in India, and food access by the ultra poor

Organic resistance

"This is resistance," Mouzawak said. "Resistance is trying to have a regular life." (thanks Renee)

Sales drop

"Sales have dipped at large supermarket chains across Lebanon as customers continue to avoid crowded public commercial outlets in favor of neighborhood grocers in the face of looming security threats. Business has declined across the board on all items at the country's larger franchises, said the head of the Syndicate of Lebanese Supermarket Owners, Nabil Fahad.
"I'm not sure of the reasons but our members are all complaining about it," he said of a drop in consumer traffic.
"I think people are worried about large shopping centers, so are going to smaller shops."" (thanks yasmine).

Sunday, June 3, 2007

My friend gets beaten by the Lebanese police

I have just learned that my friend X, who is Palestinian was stopped today arbitrarily and beaten by the Internal Security Forces, the official police force of Lebanon. I haven't been able to talk to him but the story I have heard from a reliable source is that he was stopped by a patrol in Hamra, near Barbar, one of the busiest spots in Beirut. I think he was stopped because he is dark skinned, and there is a common perception among racist Lebanese (a significant proportion of the country) that the Palestinians are "dark" while the true Lebanese are fair. Everyone knows the Phoenicians descended from the Norse: they were both sea faring people.

He was asked for his ID, and when they found out that he is Palestinian, they forced him to lie on the gound for half an hour after which they beat him and kicked him and then told him to go. Just like that, in the middle of the day, in the middle of the busiest district in Beirut. His crime: he is Palestinian.

Many people have forgotten how the Lebanese war started in 1975. All that remains in the selective memory of the Lebanese is that the Palestinians started a war to take over Lebanon and make it into Palestine, and that the Lebanese were getting along fine till the Palestinians forced them to fight each others. People actually believe that. But I remember otherwise. I remember when being a Palestinian in Lebanon was the worst thing that could happen to you, when they were stopped and beaten by the Lebanese police for no reason beside their being Palestinians. I remember this incident I witnessed in 1973, in a service (shared taxis) that was bringing me back from school. I was 15. There was a young man next to me and the car was stopped by a police checkpoint. The young man was asked for his ID and he said in a heavy Palestinian accent that he didn't have it and that he had left it in the pocket of his other trousers. The policeman started shouting: "you damn liar, you are Palestinian and you say you have two trousers! Who do you you think you are lying to?" And they beat him and took him away.

When the war started in 1975, I was not surprised when the Palestinians and their Lebanese allies vented their frustration on the police and took their cars and burned them and ridiculed them.

For a people that is always bragging about its unsurpassed contribution to humanity, I find many Lebanese surprisingly lacking in one of the most essential determinants of intelligence: the ability to learn.

Excuse me if I have lost my appetite.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

For my personal record

I've had to leave Lebanon to attend to some urgent and less urgent matters abroad. I have been following the news on TV, feeling so frustrated. I've just heard on al Jazira a broadcast from inside the Nahr el Bared camp by a health worker from one of the dispensaries. He was saying that the bombing was reaching all the camp, even areas where there are no Fateh al Islam. He also asked al jazira to correct its reports that said that the bombing was limited to Fateh al Islam areas. He said that his house where there are no militias received a 155 cannon shell (for those who dont know, that's pretty big). He also said that families were hiding together wherever there were safe places, like under a staircase, which makes the casualties heavier. He told of a shelter under a building that had collapsed, and of an unknown number of families trapped inside. He urged for a cease fire and for heavy lifting equipment before all die. He warned that after this shelling, the truth will come out abut the casualties and that it will be horrific.

There was then a footage of the Lebanese government meeting, al looking fresh and rested. Then Fatfat the sports minister, blamed Fateh al Islam who left the army with no choice, because FI are hiding among the civilians. Then Zaki, the PLO representative asked for moderation in bombing the civilians.

I write this for my personal record, lest I forget.

Half are poor

Half the lebanese people are poor, says this Akhbar article (this is confirmed by Oxfam study posted earlier and by the findings of the UN survey). The Lebanese government is unmpresed, and the minimum wages have been frozen since 1996, but not the prices of basic commodities. The worst regions: South Lebanon, Bekaa and North Lebanon. No surprise if most of the 'turbulence' in Lebanon originate from these regions. Could this be linked to the events in Nahr el Bared? Noooo of course not. In Nahr el Bared, it is just Palestinians trying once more to destroy Lebanon. Ask any Lebanese. Especialy (but not exclusively) those aligned with the government.

I hope that K., the american photo reporter I met at Kamal's and who was so concerned with the touristic season is reading this. I have this to say to you K.: poverty has been escalating in the periferies, and no amount of tourism has been able to address that. It takes more than boozing and prostitution to build a country. The proof: look around you.