What’s In A Strawberry? Poverty and Racism | 

Michael Valiant/Flickr

There’s nothing like sitting down at the table with a bowl of fresh berries from the store. Rinse them, maybe sprinkle a bit of sugar on top, and enjoy. Sweet and healthy.

What’s not to like?

Seldom do we consider where the berries come from. That’s where medical anthropologist Seth Holmes comes in.

A doctor and Assistant Professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Holmes spent months traveling and living with migrant farmworkers from Oaxaca, Mexico. He accompanied them across the desert border, all the way to farms in the Skagit Valley just an hour north of Seattle where they work bent over in the fields in harsh conditions – living in labor camp shacks, earning minimum wage or less, subject to racist taunts, and barred from promotions despite years of farm experience. His new book about all of this is called Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies.

And as we discuss in this conversation, the issues go full circle. While demand increases for organic food here at home, farmworkers are forced off their own farms in Mexico (which resemble the idyllic, nature-friendly farms we like to imagine) and migrate to the the United States because of our own economic policies, namely free trade agreements like NAFTA, which have flooded their country with subsidized American corn.

Do we, as a society, care about the people working speedily and skillfully to harvest our food – the very stuff that gives us life? The answer seems to be no. But with this book and other efforts to challenge the status quo, that all could be changing. Listen to learn how.

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Are there trade-offs in feeding the world? | 


A world-wide hunger problem with a continuing growing population means that food is increasingly important.

Some 842 million people suffer from chronic hunger. That means one out of every eight people is food insecure.

More than 7 billion people are on the planet today. The additional population (roughly 10 billion by 2015), will largely come from low and middle-income countries where food security is greater issue.

In short, we will need more and better food. The future of farms is coming under increasing scrutiny.

“Already, the world’s farms take up an area the size of South America. By 2050, a global population of nearly 10 billion people will require roughly 70 percent more food. We have two options: Either we need to get more food out of the land we already farm, or we need to farm more land,” said Stephen Porder, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University, in the New York Times last week. Continue reading

The 10 stories you missed while following the Philippines | 

The disaster following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines rightly has dominated the global twenty-four hour news cycle. Humanosphere has devoted more of our reporting time to the issue than anything else this week. With nearly one million people displaced and close to twelve million affected, the scope of the problem is vast and the relief effort has a long way to go.

While we were paying attention to the Philippines, there were other notable news stories that garnered less attention. Here are ten notable events and happenings (presented in no particular order) that you might have missed this week. It is by no means a comprehensive list. Do add anything else of note in the comments section.

1) Polio is worse this year in Pakistan, so the region is taking on the challenge by working together.

Gates Foundation

The number of polio cases in Pakistan have already exceeded the total from 2012. Health officials announced Wednesday that there are sixty-two cases of polio in 2013. The total for 2012 was fifty-eight. Pakistan is one of only polio-endemic countries, alongside Afghanistan and Nigeria.

Attacks on polio workers over the past year have hampered the effort to vaccinate children. An estimated 240,000 children living in the northwest were not vaccinated in August due to a ban by the Taliban.

The problem is affecting neighboring countries. An outbreak of polio in Syria was recently linked to Pakistan. To deal with the issue, the WHO is working with twenty-one Middle Eastern countries to stop polio in its tracks. However, much of what happens in Pakistan is out of the control of the UN and its neighbors.
Continue reading

How much do your food snacks and beverages hurt the poor? | 

Have you ever wondered to what extent that can of Pepsi or Coke – or the quasi-potato-chip Pringles or that quasi-chocolate Snickers bar – hurts the poor?

No? Well, Oxfam and its Behind the Brands campaign staff would like you to wonder about that.

And they would like you to then go check out the anti-poverty advocacy organization’s colorful online interactive chart that will tell you in quantifiable terms just how well, or badly, the top 10 food companies do when it comes to helping the poor or displacing poor farmers from their land – or otherwise undermining their rights and well-being.

The latest salvo on Oxfam’s ongoing campaign aimed at encouraging the food industry to ensure workers and poor farmers are not exploited by their practices is focused on sugar and ‘land grabs.’ Here’s the official report and, in case you are like most of us and prefer YouTube to a lengthy text report, here’s Oxfam’s video.

In the news:

The Independent Oxfam accuses Coke and Pepsi of taking land from the poor

Bloomberg Sugar trade spurs land grabs in poor countries, Oxfam says

Food Magazine Associated British Foods rejects Oxfam’s land grab accusations

IRIN Global sugar demand leaves Cambodian farmers landless

If you actually read Oxfam’s report, it’s clear that some of these mega food companies are, in fact, trying to improve when it comes to worker rights, environmental protection, water, women and other issues. Nestle scored highest in total for seven categories of rankings. Coke did better than Pepsi and Associated British Foods scored the worst, by Oxfam’s tally. Continue reading

Bringing better nutrition to Tanzania’s farmers | 

Abdullah Muhammad in his home.
Abdullah Muhammad in his home.

Morogoro, Tanzania - Abdullah Yahya’s farm sits above the dirt road that is unfriendly to cars after it rains.

Corn stalks remain in the ground, withered by a lack of recent rains. The morning rain is a good sign. Abdullah will soon uproot the failed crop and plant wit the hopes of a successful harvest.

He lives in a two-room home with his wife Zainabu, their four year-old son Idrisa and one year-old daughter Ailat (rhymes with violet). Another son lives with Zainbu’s brother. Idrisa is tiny and shy. By appearances he looks smaller than the average boy his age. Ailat, on the other hand, is full-faced and engaging with everyone around her.

Zainabu says the difference is because she continues to breastfeed her daughter, but did not do so for the boys. She learned through the Mwanzo Bora Nutrition Program (MBNP), implemented by the NGO AfriCare, that she should continue breastfeeding for the first two years of Ailat’s life.

While the measurable impact of the scheme on stunting is not available, the participants appear to be happy with the program so far. Mothers said their children are gaining weight, reported breastfeeding infants longer and said their children are noticeably healthier. Continue reading

Why food security and conflict may not be linked | 

Food prices go up and people revolt, right? Maybe not.

Conflict does lead to food insecurity. That makes sense because broken markets means it is harder and more expensive to get food. But what about whether high prices cause conflict. Do people protest and conflict follows because food is too expensive?

“It seems to me the food security linkage suffers from the same problem that an awful lot of the environment and conflict literature suffers from: There are more negative cases than positive cases,” said Ed Carr of the University of South Carolina to the Wilson Center’s New Security Beat podcast. “In other words, you have a lot of cases where there is a [food] price spike and no violence or no conflict.”

When it comes to conflict, food security could contribute to problems as might other factors. Carr argues that a focus on food may be misplaced if it not a main cause.

“If it’s that far down the line, is this something that USAID or any other donor organization should be looking at, or should they be dealing with the first six problems?” asks Carr.

He does not say that food security is definitely not a leading contributor to conflict, rather he questions the available research that makes such claims.

Listen to the full conversation below:

What explains the weird way Congress voted down food aid reform? | 

Food Farm Market
Flickr, pinehurst19475

The recent defeat in Congress of legislation aimed at improving the efficiencies of our foreign efforts to feed the hungry didn’t fall into the normal partisan divisions, or even expected special interest categories.

The Obama Administration has proposed changes to our nation’s uniquely wasteful and self-serving system of food aid (which requires we buy only American food and ship only on American-flagged vessels, to be distributed by American humanitarian groups). Experts say we could feed anywhere from 4 to 10 million more hungry people a year for the same amount of money if we just bought some of the food overseas and cut transportation/distribution costs.

But this most reasonable (and arguably, morally superior) proposal is not going anywhere, with bleeding-heart liberals voting against the proposal to improve food aid while red-white-and-blue semi-isolationist conservatives voted for reforming food aid. What the heck is going on?

We’ve tried to dig into an apparent split (since healed?) on this within the humanitarian community, here and here. Below is a map of the way Congress voted on food aid reform. Can somebody explain this wackiness?


Continue reading

Last Ditch Effort for Food Aid Reform | 

Food aid in Sudan
Food aid in Sudan
Flickr, UNEP

The widely supported, bipartisan attempt to modernize and improve the U.S. government’s food aid system is not yet dead.

What’s at stake: Between 4 million and 10 million more hungry people overseas could be fed — for the same amount of money — if proposed changes are enacted, according to experts at a leading anti-poverty think tank, Center for Global Development.

Proponents argue that the proposed reforms would reach more hungry people faster, save money and save more lives. And it will knock $150 million off the federal deficit. The changes to food aid, initially proposed by the Obama Administration, are backed by a wide range of supporters from the conservative Heritage Foundation to the liberal opinion page of the New York Times.

Where we’re at: An amendment sponsored by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) will allow USAID to spend as much as 45% of its emergency food aid budget for non-American food purchases. The amendment more closely reflects the White House plan than the small sum included in the Senate version of the Farm Bill. Relaxation to food procurement laws will make a big difference. Engel and Royce estimate that the amendment will save the federal government $215 million every year. Continue reading