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The Bread Revolution: Food Prices Play a Key Role in Egyptian Uprising

The Bread Revolution: Food Prices Play a Key Role in Egyptian Uprising

Time’s Ecocentric blog has an interesting story about the link between rising food prices and the unfolding revolution in Egypt.

In the last few days, soaring food prices have been cited as one of the proverbial straws that led Egyptians to take to the streets in frustration over Murbarak’s 30-year rule….Global wheat prices are at an all-time high, and other grains and meat prices were up over 20% by the end of 2010. Though some 40% of Egypt’s 80 million residents live in poverty, high food prices don’t have the same impact in Egypt that they might have in other vulnerable countries. The nation has a huge subsidy program that, when its working right, helps protect its poorest citizens from inflated food prices.

The most telling data point from the article is that bread is central to Egyptian culture and diet and they are in the unenviable position of relying heavily on imports.

In Egypt, the Arabic word for bread — “aish” — is also the world for life. Egyptians are the world’s largest consumers of bread and Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer.

To make matters more tenuous, Egyptians spend a very high percentage of their incomes on food. By comparison, Americans spend around 10% of disposable income on food.

How My Little Blog Out-Reported the New York Times

How My Little Blog Out-Reported the New York Times

On Monday I wrote up a post on the much heralded New York Times article,While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales. This kind of story is the bread and butter of the fast evolving food blogosphere, of which Year of Plenty is a very small part. A large media outlet like the Times does the original reporting and then it gets echoed throughout the blogosphere, Twitterverse, and Facebook Friend-Feed-Frenzyverse. It received so much attention that I initially wasn’t going to bother linking to it, assuming that everyone had already seen it. But when I got around to actually reading the Times article, something didn’t seem quite right. The article was factually correct in its reporting but cryptic in the way it described the relationship between the USDA and the Dairy Management Corporation. It hinted that the U.S. taxpayer-funded USDA was pulling the strings on the Domino’s marketing campaign.

This subtle hint in the article was turned into the brash assertion all over the internet that U.S. taxpayers were not only paying for the $12 million campaign with Domino’s for extra-cheesy pizzas, but that the USDA, and therefore the government, was running the ad campaign. While I highlighted in my post some smaller blogs that reported the story this way, Bill Bishop at the Daily Yonder gives a good summary of how this played out among some of the most influential people and news platforms in America:

Food writer and journalism professor Michael Pollan tweets that “our tax dollars (are) at work promoting Domino’s pizza.”

Kerry Trueman (co-founder of EatingLiberally.org) states on the liberalHuffington Post that Domino’s Pizza is selling gobs of cheese with the help of a “government handout.”

The Atlantic says the “government wants to fatten you up with cheese.”Paul Waldman at The American Prospect writes a government agency uses “taxpayer funds” — “your tax dollars” — to promote double melt cheeseburgers.  Matt Yglesias writes a headline saying “Tax Dollars Going to Subsidize Cheesier Dominoes (sic) Pizzas,” adding that this is the kind of “government spending…we could entirely do without.”

Because of previous stories I’ve done on the agricultural checkoff programs, these assertions didn’t sound quite right. So I did something that Michael Moss,“ace New York Times Reporter” didn’t do; I made a couple phone calls and actually talked to someone at Dairy Management about the program. As far as I can tell, in all the reporting that’s been done on the story, I’m the only “reporter” that talked to Dairy Management to better understand their relationship to the USDA. I also talked to a representative of United Dairymen of Idaho to get a better understanding of how the checkoff system works.

Moss explained in the article why he didn’t have those conversations:

The Agriculture Department declined to make top officials available for interviews for this article, and Dairy Management would not comment. In answering written questions, the department said that dairy promotion was intended to bolster farmers and rural economies, and that its oversight left Dairy Management’s board with “significant independence” in deciding how best to support those interests.

The crux of the whole story is the nature of the relationship between the USDA and Dairy Management and Moss didn’t speak to anyone at either entity? He apparently got a written response to questions from the USDA. This may be a case of the USDA and Dairy Management not doing their job of accurately explaining the nature of the relationship, but I’m baffled that I could get through to them to ask probing questions and he couldn’t.

So is it possible that I did a more thorough job of reporting on the relationship between the USDA, Dairy Management, and taxpayers than the New York Times?

I’m flattered that the “So Good” food blog seemed to think so. In assessing the reporting on the USDA and Dairy Management the blog says;

The most accurate breakdown of this organization’s role in this story can be found in this post on Year of Plenty, Newsflash: Dairy Industry Wants You to Eat More Dairy – What’s So Controversial About That?

I’ll let you read my blog post to decide if I did a more thorough job, but I do know that because of those phone calls I didn’t take the “tax-payers paying to promote cheesy pizza” bait, like so many others.

There are a couple of lessons for me in this;

1. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.

2. Don’t believe everything you read in the New York Times.

3. When it comes to food politics and debates about food systems, the problem is not the demonization of food, as the Daily Yonder proposes. The problem is the demonization of people. In this case the demonization of people at the USDA and Dairy Management as evil cheese-conspirators.

If this is the problem than the solution is to talk to people and give their perspectives a genuine hearing. In other words, to be in relationship with people. In my case, when it comes to writing about food, that means being in relationship with small local farmers and large scale farmers, conventional and organic, following Grist and #agchat on Twitter. It takes all perspectives to get the story straight. Go here for a recent post on why living in an agricultural region like Spokane where I am in ongoing relationships with people involved in all aspects of the food system makes me a better food blogger.

One of the grand lessons from our year-long experiment in eating local is that relationships with people involved in bringing food to market is the key to developing just and sustainable food systems. This includes farmers, but it also includes business people. The core crisis in the food system is a break-down in the relationships between people involved with bringing food to market and those sticking the food in their mouths. Relationships breed accountability, pride, quality, health, and sustainability. A vaccuum of relationships creates paranoia, pollution, corruption, unhealth, shoddy practices, and most of the other ills in the food system. That’s why I am committed to eating locally and promoting local food.

My diagnosis of the situation is more than just about good reporting and blogging. (Warning: If you don’t follow my blog this is going to sound totally random.) It’s actually rooted in my Christian faith and my role as pastor at a Presbyterian church. My focus on relationships arises from my understanding of Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. In my judgement, this call to be in relationship with people is the key lens through which to see everything, including food. In my upcoming book I have a chapter dedicated to explaining this perspective. I hope it will be a helpful contribution to food debates that too often get bogged down haggling about food miles, carbon footprints, or cheesy marketing campaigns.

Food Fight, Ctd – In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet

Food Fight, Ctd – In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet

A recent Chicago Tribune article had one of the more thorough treatments of the debates between industrial agriculture pragmatists vs. local food idealists.I was intrigued to hear about an upcoming book;

…economist Hiroko Shimizu and University of Toronto geographer Pierre Desrochers are finishing a 2011 book, tentatively called “In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet,” that argues locavorism is a misleading marketing fad that, among other problems, ignores the threat it poses to the current affordability of food and to the economic health of developing countries.

Food security can suffer if “you put all your eggs in one local basket and something goes wrong,” Desrochers said from his Toronto office. “I also have a problem when local food activists want to promote food that is either not economical or cannot compete with foreign food in that area.”

Go here for a brief article of the same name by Shimizu.

The whole Tribune article is worth a read but I should clarify one point regarding the use of food stamps at farmers’ markets. The article offers that as a counterpoint to farmers market elitism but early reports are that while many markets take food stamps, few consumers are taking advantage of it. Unfortunately, this has been true at the Millwood Farmers’ Market where we haven’t had a lot of food stamp transactions this summer.

Go here for my response to these debates.

The Goodwin Garden Seed Starting Schedule

The Goodwin Garden Seed Starting Schedule

I made my annual trip to Northwest Seed and Pet today to get my gardening game face on. It’s officially time to start rattling around the greenhouse and get some early season crops started. Here in the Spokane area May 15 is the traditional last freeze date, so short of using a hoop house over the soil you want to plan your seed starting around that date. I recommend Irish Eyes Seeds, a locally owned seed company in Ellensberg, WA. They source a lot of their organic seeds from the Inland Northwest. Just like most commodities veggie seeds regardless of brand are likely from the same source of “who knows where.” I like the local connection and local sourcing efforts of Irish Eyes. I noticed Seeds of Change Seeds at NW Seed for the first time. They are also a good choice.

Below is my game plan for the garden. I have a greenhouse which make managing larger plants easier. You might want to push it back 2 weeks if you’re putting them by a south facing window.

March 1 – 11 weeks ahead of last freeze date

  • Clean up greenhouse and get heater set up
  • Map out this year’s garden plan
    • rotate crops to limit disease (for example tomato, potato, eggplant varieties should not be planted in the same place from one year to the next.)
    • Be aware of plants that like each other and plants that don’t. Gohere or here for an overview.
  • Start seeds for peppers, eggplant and onions.
  • Plant parsnip seeds in the garden

March 15 – 9 weeks ahead of last freeze date

  • Start seeds for tomatoes, perennials and some flowers (I’m experimenting with wildflower seeds I collected last year so I’ll probably plant some trays of those for the fun of it.)
  • I’ll either start pea plants in the greenhouse or more likely just plant the seeds in the garden. It’s so mild this year you could probably get away with it.
  • Six weeks is probably more than adequate for starting most tomatoes but I like to make the most of the greenhouse. The bigger they are the more fun it is to give them to friends and neighbors.

March 29 – 7 weeks ahead of last freeze date

  • Start seeds for squash, lettuce, kohl rabi and other “cole” crops like cabbage. I might start the cole crops earlier. Every year I swear off growing cabbage, kale etc. because we don’t eat them. But the chickens sure do like it.
  • I’ll probably start a another tragic saga of the giant pumpkin somewhere in here too.

April 26 – 3 weeks ahead of last freeze date

  • Go cry on the shoulder of Bruce Metzger from GEM Garden and Greenhouse and ask him why my plants are dying.
  • Start seeds for cucumbers.
  • Buy some of his starts from his greenhouse and put them in my greenhouse and feel a lot better about the green in my greenhouse.
  • Plant pea and lettuce starts being sure to cover them at night if it freezes.

May 15 – historic last freeze date

  • Empty the greenhouse and get it all planted except the tomatoes and peppers that really like it warm. June 1 is the usual date to plant out tomatoes and peppers around these parts.
  • Beans really do best by direct seeding them into the garden so now is the time to do that. I don’t bother with corn anymore. It takes up a lot of space, hogs water and fertilizer and generally disappoints come harvest time.

May 22 – one week before I told everyone on the blog to plant out their tomatoes and peppers

  • Plant out tomatoes and peppers because I just can’t stand taking care of them in the greenhouse anymore.

The best way to learn is to try and try again.

My new policy on the blog this year is that regular commenters get dibs on some plant starts from the Goodwin greenhouse (if your interested). Prolific Twitter retweeterers will also get serious consideration. Nancy has made me promise to not crowd the garden so much this year so I’m going to have to do something with all the starts. Let me know what you’re interested in.

Almost Half of Western Washington Bee Colonies Suffer Collapse

Almost Half of Western Washington Bee Colonies Suffer Collapse

I ran into Jerry Tate from Tate’s Honey Farm at the Rocket Bakery this morning. I asked him how his bees are doing and he said they are great, but added that Western Washington Beekeepers are really hurting. I probed for more information and he explained that based on the research of the state beekeepers association, 45% of Washington bee colonies have collapsed (died) west of Ritzville. By contrast, only 25% of colonies to the east of Ritzville have suffered that fate, which is about average for beekeepers since the rise in recent years of varroa mites and the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder. The survey included all state beekeepers with over 1,000 colonies.

Jerry’s hunch is that the late supply of nectar in the Spokane region helped eastern Washington bees whereas western Washington bees didn’t have as much available late in the summer. From what I’ve read, the onset of colony collapse usually has a multiple factors that conspire together. It’s a good lesson in the complex nature of the environment. We’d like to think there is one innovation that will fix everything, when it’s actually the systems and the interactions of a variety of factors that need to be addressed.

One bit of trivia I learned from Jerry is that many western washington beekeepers send their bees to the Dakota’s for part of the summer. He also mentioned that California bees also come north and spend some time in Washington before heading east to the Dakotas.

Jerry and others from the state association will meet with the state Secretary of Agriculture tomorrow in Olympia. Our state’s economy is incredibly dependent on tree fruit, especially apples, and without bees to pollinate the trees there won’t be any apples.

WA State House Bill 2402 – Proposed Property Tax Exemption for Non-Profits Hosting Farmers’ Markets Originated in Spokane

WA State House Bill 2402 – Proposed Property Tax Exemption for Non-Profits Hosting Farmers’ Markets Originated in Spokane

I mentioned awhile back that a bill was in the works to help churches and other non-profits maintain their property tax exemption even if they host a farmers’ market. According to current state law farmers’ markets are considered commercial activity that nullifies a non-profit’s property tax exemption. This has translated to the churches that host the downtown Spokane and Millwood Farmers’ Market paying property taxes on their parking lots and has left the South Perry Farmers’ Market in limbo trying to find an alternative location to the church that has hosted them in a parking lot for the past four years.

This whole issue arose when the Department of Revenue was doing a perfunctory review of Millwood Presbyterian Church’s property tax exemption status, and they happened to show up on a Wednesday while the market was going on.

The bill has been fine-tuned and is now available for your reading pleasure, HB 2402 Farmers’ Market Exemption. Kudos to local Reps. Larry Crouse from the Valley and Timm Ormsby from downtown area who have co-signed on the bill. Special thanks to Ellen Gray, Executive Director of Washington Sustainable Food & Farming Network. who has been integral to the process.

Let the lobbying begin. Please contact your State Senator or Representative. Links for Spokane area folk are listed below.

State Representatives for the Millwood Farmers’ Market District Email Links:

Senator Bob McCaslin
Representative Larry Crouse
Representative Matt Shea

State Representatives for the Downtown Spokane Farmers’ Market and South Perry Farmers’ Market Email Links:

Senator Lisa Brown
Representative Alex Wood
Representative Timm Ormsby