Suspicious moo-tives?

For persuasive essays, insults don’t help.

So we aim for restraint in responding to Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development, his bitter essay for Foreign Policy, “Got Cheap Milk?” and the argument, “Why ditching your fancy, organic, locavore lifestyle is good for the world’s poor.”

After reading his essay, this fishing family – along with many relatives, old and young, who have worked in agriculture, all local and hardworking, intent on delivering quality apples, milk, albacore tuna, pork, tomatoes and other vegetables; none of us “fancy” – remain unconvinced. In his September essay, Kenny describes a small target for cuts in the federal government’s ongoing attempts to reduce the deficit: $5 million in subsidies for farmers’ markets in the 2012 Farm Bill: ” these First-World food fetishes are positively terrible for the world’s poorest people.”

Kenny blasts consumers who prefer the taste of local food and relationships with providers, who avoid genetic modification of food, herbicides and pesticides. He criticizes excessive land set aside for organic crops. He claims it is twice as energy efficient for people of Britain to eat dairy products from New Zealand than from domestic producers. He claims that “organic is no friend to the world’s poorest consumers.”

The arguments are contradictory: On one hand, he notes that “Many live [of the world’s poorest farmers] in water-stressed environments on fragile land” and yet he expects the world’s poor with severely declining water tables to produce extra food for themselves or  consumers of the West? More importantly, an essay that claims to have the interests of the world’s 1 billion malnourished at heart – without mentioning overpopulation and the countless associated tragedies – is unconscionable.

Notably,  Kenny provides no sources for his claims and anonymous research cited in the article, likely studies funded by factory farms. Such vague reporting and sourcing is not worthy of a publication like Foreign Policy or the Peterson Institute for International Economics, which helped start the Center for Global Development, where Kenny is based.

Clearly, Kenny lacks tastebuds and does not shop for his own food. He gripes that organic milk costs twice what he calls “the regular kind,” a vague term for factory milk producers who crowd their cows into warehouses and treat them in ways we do not care to describe here.

Ignorance is not bliss. Anyone who has sipped the sweet, fresh taste of Stonyfield, Organic Valley,  Organic Cow and Horizon brands will never again buy the “regular kind.” Taste aside, the organic brands are an incredible bargain because they remain fresh for two or more weeks longer than any regular factory brand.

Not long ago, we served an organic brand to an 82-year-old elderly relative who grew up on a small family-owned apple farm that also kept a few cows. He took one sip, and the smile on his face is a priceless memory.  He commented on how the taste reminded him of fresh milk of his childhood on the Massachusetts farm. “I never thought I’d taste such milk again,” he reminisced.

Consumers are willing to pay a price premium to producers who love their work and earn profit margins that are barely above costs. These consumers and producers have a right to pursue quality – and not settle for cheap, mass-produced, shoddy products. Nations have a right, indeed a responsibility, to maintain strong agriculture programs within their borders, and be ready to help neighboring states when natural disaster strikes, whether that’s a tsunami in Japan or flooding in Missouri, New Zealand or Thailand. Over-reliance on trans-global shipments of food products is a recipe for disaster.

Reliable info on the 2012 Farm Bill can be found at Harvest. Consider contacting your congressional representatives and urge support for subsidizing local farms and farmers markets.

An extended bio for Kenny at the Center for Global Development provides more details about his background as an economist who once worked at the World Bank.

Yes, the World Bank, of which criticisms are bountiful, including the 2006 report of its history of taking more contributions from developing nations than it disbursed.  Critics like the IPS  argue the World Bank “has embarked on a public relations offensive using good governance and poverty eradication rhetoric to mask its unpopular neo-liberal agenda of deregulation, privatisation, and removal of government subsidies for essential services.” Even the World Bank addresses such criticisms, its failure to tackle root causes of poverty, in its own FAQ, after decades and billions in expenditures.

Perhaps that is why Kenny’s essay does not address the keen interest of corporations and wealthy nations in purchasing up fertile farmland in Africa and beyond, leaving many poor farmers to complain about losing their land and livelihoods. Does Kenny advocate a method for ensuring that cheap food gets into the hands of the world’s poor? Do factory farms promise to serve those markets and keep costs low, or do they want to ensure their own profits?

Consumers increasingly express a preference for organic and local products, from farms they can visit and inspect. But the free-trade advocates do not respect these  preferences.

No wonder the global economy is in shambles with rising inequality and thousands of young people, alarmed by such hypocrisies, have joined the Occupy Wall Street movement. Something is wrong with the system.

Kenny’s essay gives us an idea, though, for helping to reduce the US deficit. Congress and economists like Kenny should think bigger than reductions like $5 million for farmers markets. Instead, Congress should reexamine the US contribution of $3.6 billion to multilateral organizations like the World Bank.

And while we’re at it, we could end US tax deductions for contributions to shadow organizations like the Center for Global Development. Funds should be directed to government programs that prevent global poverty, subject to democratic review, rather than a burgeoning number of charities and think tanks that provide careers for elites and serve special interests of a few.

If Kenny wants to ignore the many contributions and benefits of farmers markets, then supporters of farmers markets can easily ignore contributions of the World Bank or the Center of Global Development.

One of Kenny’s many research interests listed in the bio is “the role of technology in quality of life improvements.”  Another requirement for solid persuasive writing is ensuring that readers share assumptions. We certainly do not share Kenny’s views on “quality of life.”

Farmers markets, the local movement, small community producers and consumers who appreciate high quality are not the reason for global poverty.

Photo of dairy cows in Great Britain, courtesy of John Haynes and Wikimedia Commons.

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