Land, Debt, Food

Reading the “Land Grab” and “Combatting Monsanto” reports by La Via Campesina shows that the issues of land, debt and food are intimately interwoven. Speculative capital has moved into land, food and climate change offsets as a new market since the collapse of debt-based securities in 2008. The global land-grab now underway is enabled in part by getting peasant farmers so into debt that their only option is to sell or self-kill.

I’ve discussed how the dramatic expansion of the Commodities Futures Index after the 2008 crash led to an inflation of food prices. In turn, many believe that the Arab Spring received a decisive impetus from this deterioration of living standards among the poorest. The land, debt and food crisis may–indeed, should–provide another turn of that screw.

Land grabbing resembles both colonization and the formation of plantations. What’s new is both the scale of the preset movement and the multinational origin of the speculators. A 2012 report by The Land Matrix shows that since 2008, some 82 million hectares of land–1.7% of the world’s agricultural space– have been “granted” or otherwise obtained in developing countries by such enterprises. Data and ownership trails are difficult to establish, it should be noted, so some estimates are much higher.

La Via Campesina rejects all these legal niceties and calls them all land grabs. Governments and multinational corporations are involved, including nations from the global South like the West African Economic and Monetary Union. There are cases like Mauritius, trying to secure land in the event that sea-level rise renders their nation uninhabitable:

Therefore it is not always a question of countries of the North buying land from countries of the South. However, it is always a question of industrial agriculture replacing sustainable family farming.


Palm oil plantations in Bajo Aguan

For example, in the Honduran region of Bajo Aguán, peasants were compelled to grow palm oil for biofuels and then found their land subject to enclosure by the leading landowners in what is called “land counter-reform.” There are widespread reports of human rights abuses, including fifty deaths.

In Asia, debt is the primary weapon against landowners. As public services are privatized, peasants and family farmers are compeled to borrow to pay water and electricity bills, or even health care. Micro-credit provided by institutions such as the Banque de promotion agricole in Laos have no provision for crop failure or other accident. Money lenders move in, and soon the land is lost. In India, the epidemic of farmer suicide is so intense, it’s almost hard to believe: over a quarter of a million farmers have self-killed, often by consuming the pesticides given to them for use with the Bt cotton (designed to be resistant to pesticide for bollworm). Official figures underreport, not least because women are not considered to be farmers.

Ironically, land is being taken from peasant and indigenous farmers in the name of climate change mitigation. In Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and India, forest is being assigned as REDD (Reducing Emission from Deforestation and Forest Degradation).

In Africa, subject to the worst of all these practices, there are 80 million small-scale farmers most of whom are women. Land grabs are also seen in Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Programs to defend small-scale farming have been defeated by “developed” nation resistance, such as the 2006 Declaration of the International Conference on Agrarian Reform. The World Bank’s “Responsible Agricultural Investment” program is a charade in which legal titles are invented for land that was never held in that fashion and then “sold” or transferred to multinationals.

Several important considerations arise from the report, as Jun Borras notes in his conclusion:

  • climate-change mitigation, biofuels and food needs are being used to justify the land grab
  • Traditional imperial centres are involved but so are the BRIC nations and even middle income countries creating a “polycentric agro-feed-fuel regime.”
  • Given this polycentrism, four movements need to work together: agrarian justice, environmental justice, labor and food movements.

We certainly need a new geo-imaginary adequate to this. More than that, even, we need a new democracy. I think that only direct democracy can (or might be able to) solve this kind of intense nexus of activist interest, political power and financial speculation. NGOs, the UN and the nation states have all tried and failed. Ironically, it may only be the prospect of major financial collapse, such as that now emerging from Europe, that gives us the opportunity. We need to be ready.


Capital and the Drought

From the Guardian

There is devastating drought across about half of the US, caused by fossil fuel capitalism. The drought and resulting food shortages, price rises in basic foodstuffs and resulting inflation is likely to intensify the crisis of capitalism. There will be food riots in places where incomes are low and mostly spent on food. That may include parts of the fossil fuel intensive world, as well as the domain of the wretched of the earth. All the anxiety about the technicalities from CDOs to LIBOR may pale beside the fundamental crisis in producing food for humans and animals, should the drought continue.

The photograph above makes it clear that this set of circumstances is the product of a certain form of financial capital. The ostensible subject of the picture is the wizened corn, so dry that farmers would be delighted to salvage a third of the crop. Any neutral person is also going to want to know about that sign.

It indicates that the corn being grown is not “natural” but a proprietary product of Croplan by Winfield, number 6125VT3. This varietal is intended especially for use in the West. One of its alleged benefits is being drought-resistant:

Hybrids are selected for strong drought tolerance, even when planted at a high plant population. This is important in the western Corn Belt where low plant population is used as a hedge against drought.

Oops. Now you might think that this would lead to farmers not using these crops next year. But it’s not that simple. The seed always belongs to the supplier and contracts lock you in. The particular varietal shown drooping above is a test variant being tried out in various locations. According to a farmers’ chat site, Croplan

source their germ plasm from Monsanto, Syngenta, Pioneer, Mycogen

meaning the major GMO food monopolists. Croplan is part of WinField Solutions, the third largest seed company and number 1 pesticide outlet in the country. Both are owned by Land O’ Lakes, the dairy conglomerate, itself part of Dean Foods. As a result of these interfaces, Croplan is very keen on corn that is pesticide tolerant.

Again, the supposed benefit to the farmer is plants absorbing more moisture and nutrient.

So farmers have paid for expensive drought-resistant seed that didn’t deliver when really tested. The ramifications of this failure go in many directions. There are vast numbers of genetically modified varietals interacting with the existing seed population to unknown effect. It’s an article of faith among dog owners that GMO corn makes dogs allergic. What does it do to us? Food is becoming more expensive with food prices officially rising 4.8% in 2011 and likely to be much higher again in 2012. An economist with the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas explains:

The impact of higher food prices is felt disproportionately by poorer Americans, Mr. Henderson said. For Americans in the bottom 20% of income, food typically takes up more than a quarter of household income, compared with about 10% for wealthier Americans.

So if food rises 10% in price over two years, you can be sure that the wages and salaries in the lower half of the economy have not risen to match. While the poorer will do worse, the corporate fear is that food will ignite inflation and reduce profits. Dean Foods, owner of the whole chain of corn and milk we’ve been discussing is down 22% in the stock market. I wonder if capital can survive another shock of this size, despite what Naomi Klein has called the “shock doctrine.” If the largest monopolies are struggling, who can take them over?

La Via Campesina in action

So climate change is not “just” a disaster caused by capitalism, which it is; but it’s also a disaster for capitalism. Last week, Via Campesina, the international land-use and peasants’ movement, concluded a successful conference in Indonesia. The Governor of West Sumatra returned expired land use contracts from corporations to ulayat (indigenous peoples/community rights). The final declaration called for the movement:

to incorporate other peoples who are threatened by the same current phenomena, including urban dwellers threatened with impoverishment and with eviction to make way for real estate speculation; peoples who live under military occupation; consumers who face ever higher prices for food of ever worsening quality; communities facing eviction by extractive industries; and rural and urban workers.

I would say that sounds like an agenda I can agree with, wouldn’t you? More than that, it sounds like the agenda we need.


Bring Back The Just Price!

One of the first consolidated revolutionary gains was the idea of a just price for food. Direct action in the French Revolution (1789-99) enforced a consensed “maximum” for staple foods and punished speculators in foodstuffs. For nearly two centuries the French state set prices for bread, coffee and sugar. Now we treat the market as a force of nature, immune to all sense of fairness. Wholesale commodity food prices are rising rapidly, exacerbated by the climate-change generated drought across the U. S. Why should the very people that refused to mitigate the warming effects of climate change be able to profit from its effects? Time to remember the maximum. 

There’s plenty of nervous discussion in the media about food prices. Somehow they seem unaware that the prices those of us who actually shop for food are asked to pay have been rising for some time. There are concerns that cereal price rises similar to those that fuelled the Arab Spring might revive dissent. Today, soy prices hit an all-time high, while corn was 1% off a record. All of this is unfortunately great news for people who trade in commodity futures, like our old friends at Goldman Sachs.

Withered corn in the Midwest

So far 2012 has been the warmest six months on record and crops are withering. There’s a certain irony here. Fertilizer plus GMO Round Up resistant corn adds up to an almost automatic corn crop. Once planted corn requires only forty days of attention before harvest, allowing farm labor to have decreased to only 2% of the total. The one thing you need is rain. But all that fossil-fuel generated fertilizer has been one component in creating the climate change temperature rise that has been accurately predicted.

Seventy percent of the Midwest “corn belt” is in an official drought, the worse conditions for half a century. Result:

Grain prices pushed to record highs on Thursday as scattered rains in Midwest did little to douse fears that the worst drought in half a century will end soon

While you may never eat corn, it’s in just about everything, as Michael Pollan has shown. In order to appease voters in the wretched Iowa caucuses, ethanol is in almost all gasoline now, although there is no net carbon emission benefit. Corn is fed to cattle in feed-lots, although they are not evolved to digest it properly. On average there are ten pounds of grain used for every pound of beef, while ten calories of fossil fuel are used to make one calorie of meat.

The price rises that are now being passed on to us were, then, in the broad sense entirely foreseeable and foreseen. It was the corporate-funded climate “skeptics” that insisted this would never happen. So why should we and, more particularly, the global subalterns who are most vulnerable to food price rises have to subsidize their political action?

When sugar and coffee prices rose in Paris following the revolution in Saint-Domingue (Haiti), even government officials found it “sophism” that “the consumer’s fancy” should determine prices. So the supposed “law” of supply and demand is nothing more than a means of policing dissent. In 1793, the French popular forces were having none of it, and set their own prices. A police report of the time described what happened:

There was a woman of fairly good appearance, about five feet, one inch tall, thirty years old, with blonde hair, white skin and slightly red eyes.  . . . This woman did everything in her power to add to the sedition. She had gone on the inspection [of the warehouse]. And once they returned, it was she who set the price for soap at twelve sous per pound and for sugar at eighteen.

What this woman had done was cut the price of sugar from 60 sous (one-twentieth of a pound) to 18, lower than the pre-speculation price of 25. I’ve written here on a number of occasions about land-sharing among the freed (formerly enslaved). Egalitarian price control was the metropolitan equivalent. It was revolutionary direct action to make the food market benefit the people rather than speculators.

Following such direct actions, the Convention (as the French National Assembly was then known) legislated maximum prices on the following essentials:

fresh meat, salt meat and bacon, butter, sweet oil, cattle, salt fish, wine, brandy, vinegar, cider, beer, firewood, charcoal, coal, candles, lamp oil, salt, soda, sugar, honey, white paper, hides, iron, cast iron, lead, steel, copper, hemp, linens, woolens, stuffs, canvases, the raw materials which are used for fabrics, wooden shoes, shoes, turnips and rape, soap, potash, and tobacco.

That list gives you a sense of the life-world of an eighteenth-century French sans-culotte, the street radicals who had created the maximums. Soon afterwards, they abolished slavery. It was Carlyle’s “hero” Napoleon who re-introduced it.

Now that we have seen that the so-called free market has been comprehensively fixed with regard to interest rates and other supposedly naturally occurring phenomena, there should be renewed calls for price maximums, and an end to speculation in food prices. It’s happened before in the U. S. Voltairine de Cleyre described how in 1912

many persons will recall the action of the housewives of New York who boycotted the butchers, and lowered the price of meat; at the present moment a butter boycott seems looming up, as a direct reply to the price-makers for butter.

In the struggle to recognize the United Farm Workers:

According to polls, about 12 percent of US adults avoided table grapes in the late 1960s, and grower prices for table grapes fell.

Anti-apartheid boycotts were also a part of the successful long-term strategy against the racist regime. There’s history here.



Reconstructing Haiti 1801/2010 and on

Reconstruction in the US after abolition was, whether it knew it or not, following the pattern established by Haiti during its revolution. So it seemed like a good time to take a look and see how reconstruction after the disastrous earthquake of 2010 has been going. The headlines are bad: multinational sweatshops and mining are moving in, very little of the promised aid has been disbursed, debt continues to be a burden. The glimmer of hope comes from the literally grassroots work of the Haitian peasant movement. It is as if nothing has happened since 1801: capital wants to see a restoration of the plantation, while the peasants want land, water and sustainable employment.

The Haitian revolution was long and violent. By 1801, it was clear that the formerly enslaved would win. Toussaint Louverture issued a constitution, which intensely disappointed his own side. For Toussaint, large scale cash-crop agriculture was vital both to the formation of a nation-state in general and to repaying his loans to the United States in particular. The formerly enslaved were to work as laborers for a wage.

The subaltern rank-and-file revolted against their own revolution, in search of small plots of land they could farm collectively and create a long-term guarantee against re-enslavement, whether as chattel or wage slaves. Toussaint felt compelled to repress the revolt, and even assassinated his own nephew Moïse who was its leader. The Trinidad radical C. L. R. James later saw this as the defining failure of the revolution in his classic The Black Jacobins (1938, reissued 1968).

CLR James

Although Pétion, later President of Haiti, did indeed begin an experiment with land redistribution, until the imposition of a massive indemnity on the country by France in 1825 did away with it. The indemnity of 150 million French francs is widely held to have decimated Haiti’s nascent recovery from the revolutionary wars and pushed it towards the poverty with which it is now synonymous. At the time of the disastrous earthquake in 2010, Haiti had once again accumulated extensive external debt of about $1.8 billion, mostly due to the antics of the U. S.-backed Duvalier dictatorship. Although the IMF and World Bank were pressured into cancelling about $250 million of that debt, the bulk remains.

A group of intellectuals, led by Etienne Balibar and Noam Chomsky, reiterated in 2010 the call made by former President Jean-Baptiste Aristide in 2003, for French reparations to Haiti. Needless to say, given that Sarkozy was then President of France, this did not happen. But finally, two centuries after the citizens of Haiti had done so, the op-ed intellectuals began to call for small-scale sustainable agriculture as the way ahead for the country.

At the Rio+20 summit, some information did emerge about what has happened since 2010. The UN has come to be seen as a neo-liberal occupation force. Mining companies have moved in. The Guardian reports:

More than a third of Haiti’s north – at least 1,500 sq km – is under licence to US and Canadian companies.

It’s such a small country, but there is allegedly copper, silver and gold up there and very little of the environmental legislation that is so bothersome to mining elsewhere.

Map of Caracol from the NY Times

The one major financial investment to date is by a South Korean company who intend to create a maquiladora site in Coracel. Needless to say, the plant will use heavy fuel oil for electricity generation (built by the US) and is situated on prime farm land and at a key watershed.

Jean Anil Louis-Juste (1957-2010)

There are glimmers of hope, even if one of most effective intellectual advocates for change, sociology professor Jean Anil Louis-Juste was mysteriously assassinated just prior to the earthquake. He created reading groups like the Gramsci Circle at the State University’s School of Human Sciences and Ethnology, where he taught. He wrote and taught in Kréyol, the local language that emerged out of slavery. Anil had advocated for a $5 a day minimum wage, especially at his university, and for an a new environmentally-centered education program and citizenship. He noted that the ecological disaster in Haiti has accelerated, rather than improved:

In the 1920s, we had 20% of the country covered with forest. In the 1990s,we had less than 2%. We are about 60% short of the land we would need to live in equilibrium with the environment.

The Mouvement paysan de Papaye (Peasant Movement of Papaye) are another. They advocate for sustainable agriculture, health care, education and a self-supporting Haiti.  MPP’s website appears to be down at the moment but others report on their work educating farmers how to conserve water through the dry period and to create irrigation. However, this is slow work, 60 peasants at a time.

But the multinationals won’t stay once the easy money from the Clinton foundation dries up.

The MPP have been working on this for two hundred years.

Occupy is ten months old today.

Reconstruction at Work

What would we have to reconstruct after abolition? How might we think about the relations between the gender and sexuality expressed in finance with the exploration of  new forms of living? The abolition of debt and the refusal of heroes was and is mediated by land. Land is a way to think our relation to the biosphere extinction. It’s at the root of the ongoing disaster of personal debt via mortgages (details tomorrow), just as it was key to the possibility of a post-slavery Reconstruction.

I can’t as yet make this all come out neatly. But here are the things circulating in my mind. The 1868 Constitutional Convention in South Carolina was pre-occupied with debt and identity. A proposal was made to ban the words “negro, nigger and Yankee” but it was voted down at once. There was a debate whether to outlaw discrimination by “race or color.” Many of the freed wanted to keep the word “color” out of the new Constitution. Others feared that without an explicit ban, Democrats would find a way to  divide people by “race,” as indeed they did. Very late in the Convention there was an unsuccessful proposal to enfranchise women, who did so much of the work of abolition and reconstruction.

The true division of the sensible that was the ongoing class war in South Carolina in 1868, as it had been since 1863, was over land. The freed wanted above all to have some land, as means to form autonomous communities. They saw that the altermative was poverty and/or the penitentiary, as Angela Davis has so often reminded us.

Richard H. Cain

The minister Richard Harvey Cain, who later served two terms in Congress as a Republican, proposed a solution: the Convention would apply to Congress for a $1 million loan in order to buy land for re-sale to the freed and poor whites. The ensuing debate was the nastiest of the Convention and made it clear to the African American delegates that the Confederates still believed that a “negro would never own a foot of land” in the state.

In the Convention, Cain put his proposal to sell plots of land over a five-year period like this:

We want these large tracts of land cut up…What we need is a system of small farms…I believe there are hundreds of persons in the jail and penitentiary cracking rock today who have all the instincts of honesty, and who, has they the opportunity of making a living would never have been found in such a place.

Reconstruction was made to fail by means of the emergent prison-industrial complex, from the determination of planters to offer only starvation wages to make share-cropping seem preferable to the use of all state apparatus to confound efforts to buy land.

The resolution to request a loan from the Bureau of Freedmen passed but was ignored in Washington. In 1869, the state established its own Land Commission to buy and resell land. The freed made all efforts they could.

South Carolina Land Commission Records

You can see here that the land was selling for $1.50 an acre, compared to the planters’ (starvation) wages of $5 a month. A woman called Lucy Singleton bought a 30 acre plot, as did Charlotte Johnson with her spouse or relative Toby. For the most part, these ventures did not end well. The repayments proved beyond them, as the Wall Street crash of 1873 depressed prices for all produce. The very short repayment window was not a great idea.

Some did succeed. Cain himself established a settlement called Lincolnville with six others, which they selected because it was next to the railroad tracks. The town is still there today. Others survived in what had long been liminal spaces on the coast. If you’re of a certain age you might remember the intersection of Carrie Mae Weems and Julie Dash’s work on the Sea Islands twenty years ago.

Carrie Mae Weems, “Ebo Island”

This was the first time I had heard of the self-killing of the enslaved–it happened often in fact, because in their world-view death would later be followed a re-birth in Africa.

Her photograph of the site of Ibo Landing had no caption. It still gives me the creeps today. Released at the same time, Julie Dash’s now classic film Daughters of the Dust (1991) visualized the hyperlinked time of Reconstruction between past and present. Set in 1902, the film shimmies between African pasts and futures in the Sea Islands. Dash explicitly wanted her viewers to think about the beginning and end(s) of the twentieth century, a task that we perhaps have to revive for the new century that is upon us.

None of this provides a simple set of “to do” items that will resolve these interfaces of the economic, with identity, history and temporalities. I would say, though, that those interfaces are exactly what I have taken Occupy to be. It’s not of course that Reconstruction alone pre-figures Occupy. But once you think of a lineage that includes Du Bois, Angela Davis, feminist and African American arts and culture, alternative economics and food provision, you do have something you can work with.

From Debt to Land: via the Farm and the Forest

Yesterday, I talked with friends about whether it might be possible to do for climate and food justice what David Graeber and others like Occupy Student Debt have done so powerfully with debt–transform it from a guilt-inducing issue to a mobilizing one. In Debt Graeber both refuses to accept that the modern has priority and more simply still talks about a one-word term that has resonance for all of us.

As I write a major university is evicting people who wanted to farm disused land: and I wondered if land might be that word for the set of issues around food, climate, animals, and so on? This is just the beginnings of an idea but here’s my train of thought, FWIW.

Quick background: in Albany, CA, Occupy the Farm took over some land owned by the University of California at Berkeley on Earth Day (April 22) and began to cultivate it as a local farm. Although you might want to see the name as a shortening of “occupy this land in order to make a farm.”

Occupy the Farm

Lesley Haddock, one of the occupiers, specifies:

Since taking over this land, the university has chopped up the original 104-acre plot and sold piece after piece to be developed. Now only 10 acres remain. That remaining plot has been transferred from the College of Natural Resources to U.C. Berkeley Capital Projects, the branch of the university responsible for securing development plans. Five of the remaining acres are already fated to be paved over for a high-end senior complex.

The occupiers have cleared and tilled the land and planted thousands of pre-prepared seedlings on about five acres of the plot. It’s a really beautiful action. The University is using the law and the police to get them out.

It’s easy to see that there is a direct link from debt to land here. UC needs to raise money because the state has cut its funding due to the Republican refusal to raise any form of taxation. Tuition is about as high as it can go, so the privatizing logic goes that it’s time to asset strip.

The land at Gill Tract happens to be Class One soil, perfect for farming. To put that in perspective, compare the urban farmers in Brooklyn, many of whom have to cultivate in planters because the soil is too contaminated, or plant sunflowers to help clean the soil of heavy metals. Even so, such land sells for about $180,000 a square foot, according to the NY Times. While the buildings that UC wants to create could in theory go anywhere, and good urban farmland like this is very scarce, it becomes highly valuable when it converts from land to “real estate.” One rumor has it that there are plans to build a Whole Foods on the site.

Now the cycle of escalating force has begun. First the UC police turned off the water. Today they locked the fence, so people are passing water and food for occupier/farmers over the fence.

Water over the fence at Gill Tract

All this reminded me Hardt and Negri’s reference to the Charter of the Forest in Peter Linebaugh’s Magna Carta Manifesto. So I looked it up and it is very intriguing. Magna Carta is so known because it was linked in 1217 to the Charter of the Forest. According to the British Library,

The Charter of the Forest, 1217

The Charter of the Forest restored the traditional rights of the people, where the land had once been held in common, and restrained landowners from inflicting harsh punishments on them. It granted free men access to the forest (though at this time only about 10 per cent of the population was free).


Free men could enjoy such rights as pannage (pasture for their pigs), estover (collecting firewood), agistment (grazing), or turbary (cutting of turf for fuel).

As Linebaugh puts it, the Charter defined the limits to the privatization of the commons. Against the conservative view of the commons as a disaster waiting to happen (because everyone would use them to the maximum), he cites a definition from 1598 that stresses that the common is

a Communitate, of communitie, participation or fellowship.

You might begin to think about this defense of (limited) rights as defining a long period of land use rights from the eleventh century to the eighteenth in which there were two notable attempts to scale them back

The first was back by King John, leading to the Charters of 1217 and then King Charles attempted to revive and extend his feudal rights in the 1630s, leading to the English Revolution. The Diggers and other radicals claimed that they were defending “Anglo-Saxon liberties” against tyranny and you could see the 1649 Digger slogan “the earth a common treasury for all” as being in the spirit of the Charter.

The Marxist historian Christopher Hill used to suggest that when the Diggers called for people to abstain from waged labor and instead till the common land, it was a call for a general strike. There were explicit calls for workers to take “holidays” during the English Commonwealth (1649-1660) that led to the Chartist call for a Grand National Holiday, or general strike, in 1839. Enclosure–the private occupation of common lands– has long been understood as a key moment in the agricultural and industrial revolutions alike. The larger farms produced more food, while the displaced tenants became factory workers.

So it’s perhaps less surprising than it might seem that during the 1999 global justice protests in London, banners were again seen with “the earth a common treasury for all.” Perhaps where the Earth, the global, the environment, ecology and so on have failed to become real abstractions that motivate social movements, land might do it. Just a thought.


Another Brain Is Possible

Immaterial labor, the knowledge economy, service-based industries, call them what you will but they depend on the brain, in the same way that factory labor depends on the body. It is, then, a symptom of the suicidal autoimmune capitalism that has been forged in the past thirty years that fish, the single food most associated with improving the brain, actually kills it. Our brains ourselves demand a new global system as the precondition for our survival.

Nearly all varieties of fish, long exalted as brain food, contain significant quantities of mercury. The mercury arrives in the ocean as a by-product of coal, used above all in power stations. Washed out of the air into rivers by rain, it accumulates in the sea. It is absorbed by fish and more particularly by carnivorous fish. So the higher up the food chain you go the worse the problem becomes, because fish that eat other carnivorous fish get more concentrated doses. By the time you get to top-end carnivores like tuna, shark, marlin and swordfish, the levels are very noticeable.

But there’s no such thing as a “safe” level. Mercury doesn’t simply harm the brain–it makes it disappear. Here’s a video from the University of Calgary that shows how brain neurons wither and disappear in the presence of mercury–at 2 mins 30 if you want to skip ahead

So let’s say you don’t really worry about rising temperatures, drought and the other indices of climate change: do you care that you’re killing your brain by what you eat?

The dots are easy to join. A fossil fuel based energy economy puts increasing amounts of mercury into the biosphere, which concentrate in the bodies of fish. This toxicity makes the flesh of humanity’s last remaining wild food source unambiguously hazardous for consumption. It threatens the very possibility of human creativity itself. This problem is easy to describe but cannot be solved in the present economic system. Increasingly the choice is between sustaining the greatest number of human lives or the largest profit. The change for the former cannot be achieved by policy, by interstate treaty or by the market. It will either happen post-catastrophe or by systemic change.

Surely this is the usual alarmist stuff from environmentalists we have become so adept at ignoring? Last year Time journalist Bryan Walsh had himself tested for mercury–and found his levels at twice the government recommended limit. He bizarrely adds that this is not a problem for men, presumably because they don’t use their brains. Under heavy pressure from fossil fuel industry and fishing alike, government has simply caved and designated mercury a risk for women and children only.

Still not bothered? Now studies are showing that sharks and other top predator fish are contaminated with BMAA, a neurotoxin related to cyanide that accumulate in human flesh:

A growing body of research suggests there may be a connection between exposure to the toxin and the development of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The bacteria that cause the toxin are naturally occurring: perhaps it’s just an indication that we did not evolve expecting to eat sharks and other animals with extensive rows of teeth that live in the open ocean.

Who eats shark anyway?

Shark fins, second row from the top, China Town NYC

Lots of people, that’s who, mostly as shark fin soup, which now stands revealed as the ultimate autoimmune dish. The fins are, even by shark standards, intensely concentrated sources of mercury and BMAA. The soup is eaten to celebrate special occasions or as a luxury item, mostly by Chinese people. I’m not even going to get into the practice of harvesting fins from sharks that are then thrown back into the ocean to die.

Let’s not get a frisson of superiority here if we don’t eat such soups but restrict our choices to more “sensible” fish. So many “forage” fish, the small fish humans don’t eat but larger fish do, have been fished that the species now face serious risk of extinction. What happens to them? Fish farms grind them up and feed them to their animals–what better way could be imagined to intensify the concentration of mercury and BMAA in the food chain? Your reasoned choice for a farmed salmon or whatever else is just as implicated in the collapse of world fish stocks and the toxicity of top-end fish as shark’s fin soup, just in different ways.

As usual, it’s Africans, least involved in any of this, who are paying the highest visible price. Off the coasts of West Africa, huge quantities of forage fish are gathered by European Union supertrawlers that freeze the fish on board. As such fish constitute a vital food source for Africans, the risks of overfishing are literally life and death for subaltern populations. Yet the European fishing industry is more concerned about Chinese boats than the sustaining of local people. Once again, threats to profit are taken more seriously than threats to people.

We like to say another world is possible. Another one is actively being made right now in which wild species of fish will be close to extinction with their few remaining specimens will be too toxic to eat. Human brains and bodies are suffering. Another world is necessary.


M17: Why Occupy is Hunger, Climate Change and GMO food

Storm over GMO corn

OWS and the campaigns against hunger, against GMO food and against climate change are different ways of saying the same thing: capitalism is an autoimmune disease that is now threatening the viability of its host. Occupy signifies here that these issues cannot be contained, let alone solved, by the normative political process, whether at national or interstate level.

It’s important to recognize how far things have gone in the past year. Harper’s magazine tells us:

  • there has been a 33% decline on newspaper mentions of “global warming” and “climate change” in 2011
  • Obama used the phrase “climate change” once in the State of the Union but mentioned “energy” 23 times.

Autoimmune capitalism believes it can afford the planetary degradation that is now under way worldwide and is indifferent to it. European airlines filed this week to be exempted from the EU carbon levy because of a possible trade war with China: in short, climate can only be a priority if it has no impact on capital.

By the same token, there was barely a ripple when Climate Central reported on sea level rise this week:

At three quarters of the 55 sites analyzed, century levels are higher than 4 feet above the high tide line. Yet across the country, nearly 5 million people live in 2.6 million homes at less than 4 feet above high tide. In 285 cities and towns, more than half the population lives on land below this line, potential victims of increasingly likely climate-induced coastal flooding. 3.7 million live less than 1 meter above the tide.

There’s a 1 in 6 chance that the Battery in New York City will flood– not far into the future but by 2020. Zuccotti will become waterfront. You can only assume that people either think that these reports are false or that when they happen, there will be benefits because 5 million people will need new homes.

As I’ve often argued, the reason there’s a global movement of which Occupy is the U. S. variant is the interface of climate change and hunger. In 2008, a global food crisis was caused by the interplay of climate-change induced drought;  the switch to biofuels caused by climate concerns reducing the food supply; and the creation of the Goldman Sachs Commodity Futures Index.

This index was allowed to trade in futures as of 1999, on the principle “long only,” i.e. that prices would always rise. Investors included: Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Pimco, JP Morgan Chase, AIG, Bear Stearns, and Lehman Brothers. Foreign Affairs magazine commentator Frederick Kauffman notes:

In the first 55 days of 2008, speculators poured $55 billion into commodity markets, and by July, $318 billion was roiling the markets. Food inflation has remained steady since.

What that means is an 80% price rise from 2003-8 that has kept moving upwards. One half of the world’s population spends 50% of their income on food. The real consequences were so-called food riots in 37 countries–they should have been called anti-autoimmune capitalist riots.

From here we can summarize:

•2008 food crisis added 40 million to world hungry list
•2008: 943 million hungry
•2009: One billion hungry
•2008: 100 million Africans move into poverty
•A one-meter sea level rise, now regarded as inevitable, will destroy the Nile Delta
This already disastrous situation is now being exacerbated by the intervention of genetically-modified plants into Africa. The African Center for Biosafety, based in South Africa, reported this week:

Between January 2008 and January 2012, the cost of a 5kg bag [of] super maize meal increased by a staggering 83%. In 2007, the poorest 30% of the population spent approximately 22% of their monthly income on food, including on maize–a staple. The latest figures from January 2012 put this at nearly 39%.

In South Africa, Monsanto has cornered 77% of the seed corn market that generated over R1 billion in revenues, while one in four South Africans is “food insecure,” or hungry, in plain English.


In Europe this week, researchers showed that both the genetically modified component of MON810 Bt corn and the Roundup that is sprayed onto that corn kill human kidney cells. So in a particularly telling instance of autoimmune capitalism, the patented seed will either kill you by starvation because you can’t afford to grow it; or kill you by kidney disease because you emmiserate yourself to eat it.

Oh, and by the way? There are plenty of Roundup resistant plants in the U. S. now anyway, about twenty at last count. How could this have been predicted? Because Monsanto found the gene in plants growing downwind of its filthy Louisiana chemicals plant in the first place.

What to do?
For you: do not eat GMO based products–which is likely to mean anything with soy or corn in it, which is to say just about all food industry products. Go organic, go local, grass-fed meat and poultry only.


For all of us: be at or with the March Against Hunger tomorrow M17:


Seeds of Democracy and the Smog of Law

Today was the inaugural Liberty Plaza/Zuccotti Park seed swap and seed library. Just to be sure we got the point, a federal judge rejected a class action lawsuit by organic farmers against Monsanto. Chemical culture got a boost from the UK government who decided that their own Parliamentary recommendations on clean air are too expensive, even though the pollution is acknowledged to kill thousands a year. To adapt Gandhi, we might say that Western democracy would be a very good idea.

Seed swapping at Liberty/Zuccotti today

Occupy the Food Supply’s day of action began outside the Stock Exchange and then marched to Liberty. We heard from David Murphy (below), an Iowa-based activist with Food Democracy Now! about the threat posed by Monsanto’s aggressive patent campaign for its genetically-modified corn. He held up an ear of Oaxaca corn that he had acquired at the recent California seed swap (covered here).

Murphy with indigenous corn

Because it has been decreed by agribusiness that corn is yellow and that other forms are therefore not corn, this green cob is a biological misfire in their view. In fact, Monsanto used the food crisis to push GMO corn into Mexico:

After originally denying authorization for a pilot program to cultivate its GM corn in Sinaloa last year, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA) just gave the company the green light to plant genetically modified yellow corn resistant to the herbicide glyphosate as a part of a pilot program in Tamaulipas’ current agricultural cycle. According to the National Commission for the Use and Understanding of Biodiversity (CONABIO), Tamaulipas is home to 16 of the 59 remaining strains of native corn.

The risk of contamination between the GMO corn and native varietals is clear to everyone except agribusiness and their allies, who don’t care. Nonetheless, Monsanto also aggressively sue farmers who find themselves accidentally growing Monsanto’s patented pesticide-resistant plants because of seed dispersal. That is to say, they not only patent life, they sue it.

The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association and several other growers and organizations filed a counter-suit against Monsanto to prevent the company from taking such hostile action. Regrettably but unsurprisingly, today we learned that:

U.S. District Court Judge Naomi Buchwald, for the Southern District of New York, threw out the case brought by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) and dozens of other plaintiff growers and organizations, criticizing the groups for a “transparent effort to create a controversy where none exists.”

The hard lesson here is that seed democracy is unlikely to be fostered by a legal system whose prime function is the defense of “property” rights.

Against this grim background, Liberty was filled with would-be urban growers collecting and swapping seeds. The organizers had sensibly brought an extensive collection, which they gave away in packets and then encouraged us to sub-divide amongst ourselves.

Seed distribution

The promise exchanged was that everyone who grew plants should let a portion run to seed and bring them back to the next seed swap, or to create a seed library. On the way downtown, I happened to read an essay by Jeff Sharlet about OWS in which he spoke of the “joyousness” and “beauty” of what he called “the physical democracy” of Zuccotti during the encampment. In the more confrontational atmosphere post-eviction, we sometimes forget what that was like and how good it felt. This event reminded me and gave me hope.

And in case you wondered why we occupied in the first place, a quick look over the Atlantic shows why. In November 2011, a Parliamentary committee reported that air pollution caused over 30,000 death in 2008. EU air quality standards are being flouted wildly in London, whose air is notorious.

Welcome to London

Yet today the appalling heirs to Mrs Thatcher (another quick boo for Meryl Streep here, please) in power in the UK dismissed the issue as generating “disproportionate costs.” Disproportionate to whom? Certainly not to the one in five Londoners whose deaths are attributable to the pollution, a figure the government did not dispute. And, let’s see, who thinks we’ll have a debate about London air quality before the Olympics in the way that we did before the Beijing Olympics?

These two issues are linked biologically as well as conceptually. Aldo Gonzalez, a Zapotec engineer who has led the struggle against GMO corn in Mexico, points out that indigenous varietals evolved over 10,000 years in a great diversity of climates and altitudes. It may very well be literally life-saving to have some of these hardier plants at our disposal once the neo-liberals have had their way with the climate.

Let’s go back to the beginning. When the Occupy movement began, the Very Important People wanted to know what our demands were. When the courts and the representative governments reject basic claims to life–except should one happen to be a foetus–there was and is no point in making demands to them. You have to sow democracy.



Seeds of Change

A seed is a dense amalgam of bioinformation. SInce Darwin did his first experiment on seeds, they have also been subject to biopolitics in the most direct sense. As Monsanto and other corporations seek to privatize the genetic commons, it’s time to join the seed revolution.

Sow Seeds Not Greed

Charles Darwin’s first published experiment was called “Does Sea Water Kill Seeds?” This apparently innocuous question concealed a major biopolitical contest. Darwin sought to prove whether or not seeds could germinate after being soaked in sea water. As he observed in his essay:

such experiments…have a direct bearing on a very interesting problem, which has lately, especially in America, attracted much attention, namely whether the same organic being has been created at one point or on several on the face of our globe.

Darwin spliced two related issues here: first, the debate prompted by British geologist Edward Forbes who asserted that Europe’s landmass had been far more extensive in the relatively recent past so as to account for the spread of plant varietals to islands like the Azores.

For the “common sense” of received science said that sea water killed all seeds. Therefore, if the same species was observed in different places, then it must have been “created” separately. Pro-slavery apologists used this argument to propose that there were distinct and different forms of the human species and it was therefore acceptable for white North Americans to enslave Africans.

Darwin’s simple test demolished the theory: seeds germinate perfectly well after an immersion in salt water, meaning that they could be disseminated by the ocean across the planet. Species thus originated once and not repeatedly. But other interesting questions opened:

But when the seed is sown in its new home, then comes the ordeal: will the old occupants in the great struggle for life allow the new and solitary immigrant room and sustenance?

Darwin’s language here is fascinating and provocative, showing that five years before the formal publication of Origin of Species, he was already thinking far down the road. His experiment did not, of course, demolish slavery’s logic but it removed one of its purported strands of “empirical evidence.”

Fast-forward to our own day, and the occupants are making very little “room and sustenance” for the “immigrants” in all senses. As the chart below shows, only 4% of the commercial vegetable varieties being grown in 1903 are still in cultivation today.

The decline in seed varieties charted

Whereas there were nearly 500 commercial varieties of lettuce in 1903, now we must choose from only 36–if you’ve ever wondered why your “Mesclun” always tastes the same, here’s your answer.

The reduction in variety is part of the effort to commandeer the food supply. Monsanto now  controls 93% of the soybeans and 80% of the corn growth in the United States by its seed monopoly and produces 27% of all seeds sold. Many of these, especially the corn and soy, are genetically manipulated and have worked their way into the entire food chain.

Activists have had some signal successes against this monopoly in Europe where France and Hungary recently joined Germany, Austria, Peru and Luxemburg in banning GMO seeds. Hungary insisted that sprouted plants from genetically-modified seeds be thoroughly destroyed.

French beekeepers demonstrate against GMOs at Monsanto HQ

In the US, while the seed industry remains in charge, organizers have created a brilliant alternative strategy: the seed library. The seed library stocks seeds of all kinds, “lends” them to a library user, who then “returns” them once the crop is harvested. One of the founders of this movement was Gary Paul Nabhan, co-founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH.

Seed libraries are formal and informal, sometimes actually taking space in public libraries next to books as in Richmond, VA. The action combines two of the best internal projects of the Occupy movement: to offer nutritious, organic and non-genetically modified food to the Occupiers and others; and to create libraries.

On February 27, there is a day of action for Occupy the Food Supply. More exactly, following Darwin, the project is to un-occupy food, seeds and thereby our bodies. Their coalition of organic farmers, farm laborers, urban farmers, seed activists, librarians, foodies and all those concerned with personal health reaches far beyond the stereotype of Occupy.

Join them, support the action, plant heirloom seeds, join a seed library–it’s all fun and it’s all radical in the old sense: it goes to the root.