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The Black Death Undermined Feudalism. What Does COVID-19 Mean for Capitalism?

You pay little attention to the systems of your body — circulatory, digestive, pulmonary — unless something goes wrong.

These automatic systems ordinarily go about their business, like unseen clockwork, while you think about a vexing problem at work, drink your morning cup of coffee, walk up and down stairs, and head out to your car to begin your morning commute. If you had to focus your attention on breathing, pushing blood through your veins, and metabolizing food, you’d have no time or energy to do anything else. The body abhors the micromanaging of the mind.

The same applies to the world’s markets. They whir away in the background of your life, providing loans to your business, coffee beans to your nearby supermarket, labor to build your house, gas to fill your car. You take all of these markets for granted. All you have to concern yourself with is earning enough money to gain access to these goods and services. That’s what it means to live in a modern economy. The days of hunting and gathering, of complete self-sufficiency, are long past.

And then, in a series of sickening shifts, the markets go haywire. As with a heart attack, you no longer can take the optimal performance of these systems for granted.

The coronavirus crisis has thrown the global economy into cardiac arrest, and now you are acutely aware of the very markets that you had previously just assumed would function as normal. The first indication was the precipitous drop in the stock market that took place in late February. Then, as the United States began to enter quarantine, the labor market collapsed and hundreds of millions of people were suddenly out of work. Shortages in a few key commodities — masks, ventilators, toilet paper — began to appear.

It is one of the central tenets of laissez-faire capitalism that markets behave like automatic systems, that an “invisible hand” regulates supply and demand. Market fundamentalists believe that the less the government interferes with these automatic systems, the better. They argue, to the contrary, that markets should increasingly take over government functions: a privatized post office, for instance, or Social Security accounts subjected to the stock market.

Market fundamentalists are like Christian Scientists. They refuse government intervention just as the faithful reject medical intervention. Much like God’s grace, the invisible hand operates independent of human plan.

Then something happens, like a pandemic, which tests this faith. States around the world are now spending trillions of dollars to intervene in the economy: to bail out banks, save businesses, help out the unemployed. Countries are imposing export controls on key commodities. As in wartime, governments are directing manufacturers to produce critical goods to fill an unexpected demand for greater supply.

These are emergency interventions. The market fundamentalist looks forward to the day when stay-at-home restrictions are lifted, people go back to work, the stock market barrels back into bull mode, and the invisible hand, with perhaps a few Band-aids across the knuckles, returns to its job.

But some pandemics fundamentally alter the economy. In such emergencies, people realize that an economy is constructed and thus can be reconstructed. Are we now at just such a moment in world history? Will the coronavirus permanently transform the relationship between the state and the market?

Let’s take a look at three key markets — oil, food, and finance — to measure the impact of the pandemic and the prospects for transformation.



In 2007, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa offered to forgo digging for oil beneath the Yasuni national park in exchange for $3.6 billion from the international community. No one took him up on the offer.

When the U.S. price of oil went below zero last week, I immediately thought of Correa’s offer. The mainstream scoffed at the Ecuadorian leader back in 2007. How on earth could you possibly propose to keep oil under the earth? The world economy runs on fossil fuels. You might as well ask your kid to keep her Halloween candy uneaten in the back of the cupboard.

Today, however, the world is glutted with oil. The global recession has radically reduced the need for oil and gas.

In the United States, transportation absorbs nearly 70 percent of oil consumption. With airplanes grounded, fewer trains and busses in operation, and highways uncongested, the demand for oil has dropped precipitously. Businesses, too, are using less energy. It’s not just oil. Companies devoted to pumping natural gas out of shale deposits are filing for bankruptcy as their market value drops precipitously: the price of a share of fracking giant Whiting Petroleum fell from $150 a couple years ago to 67 cents on March 31.

It’s gotten to the point that you almost can’t give away the stuff.

After all, if you somehow found yourself with a bunch of barrels of oil, where would you store it? Oil-storage tanks in the United State are near capacity. “Oil supertankers are looking like petroleum paparazzi, crowding the Los Angeles shoreline, either as floating storage or waiting on some kind of turn in sentiment,” Brian Sullivan writes at CNBC. “With prices higher in coming months, for now it pays to sit on oil and hope to sell it for more money down the pipeline.”

Oil-producing nations, after years of boosting their supplies, finally agreed in mid-April to cut production by 10 percent — about 10 million gallons a day. In other words, they are deciding to leave oil in the ground. Now, however, it doesn’t even qualify as a half-measure, since demand has dropped by 35 percent. The oil producers are awaiting the end of recession, when the quarantined go back to work, and everyone jumps on their transport of choice to make up for lost travel. They are awaiting a return to normal.

But the market for fossil fuels is not normal. The notion that the invisible hand will steer economies in a sustainable direction is hogwash. We are long past the moment when we should have paid Correa and everyone else to leave the oil and gas in the ground and move toward a world powered entirely by clean energy. The market treats the environment either as a commodity like any other or as an “externality” that doesn’t factor into the final price of goods and services. That is so nineteenth century.

Climate change demands an intervention into the energy markets with restrictions on production, subsidies for clean energies like solar, and government purchases of electric cars. Returning to “normal” after the pandemic is not a viable option.



Like the oil exporters, food producers in the United States are restricting production as well.

In Delaware and Maryland, chicken producers are euthanizing two million chickens because the processing plants don’t have enough workers. Sickness and death in these facilities, which has caused closures that are disrupting the supply chain, has prompted Trump to classify such plants as “critical infrastructure” that needs to remain open. Meanwhile, thousands of acres of fruits and vegetables are rotting in the fields in Florida because of the suspension of bulk food sales to schools, theme parks, and restaurants. The shortage of pickers — often migrant laborers whose mobility has been restricted — is complicating harvests.

Unlike oil, however, the overall demand for food remains high. The grocery business is booming. Food banks are overwhelmed by a surge unlike any in recent decades. The U.S. Department of Agriculture ordinarily could swoop in and buy up surplus production — as it did for soybean growers during the trade war with China — for use in food banks and other distribution programs. But as with so many other government agencies in the Trump era, the USDA has been slow to act, despite repeated pleas from growers and governors.

The pandemic is highlighting all the problems that have long plagued the food supply. First, there is the mismatch between supply and demand. Around 820 million people globally didn’t have enough to eat in 2018, a figure that had been rising for three years in a row, and contrasts with another rising number: the 672 million obese people in the world. In the United States, fully 40 percent of food goes to waste every year. So, obviously the invisible hand does a pretty poor job of achieving market equilibrium.

Second, despite a growing movement to eat locally and seasonally, the food system still eats up a huge amount of energy. The problem lies not so much with bananas arriving by cargo ship, which is relatively efficient, but with perishable items delivered by plane. And it’s what we eat, rather than where the products come from, that matters most. “Regardless of whether you compare the footprint of foods in terms of their weight (e.g. one kilogram of cheese versus one kilogram of peas); protein content; or calories, the overall conclusion is the same,” writes Hannah Ritchie. “Plant-based foods tend to have a lower carbon footprint than meat and dairy. In many cases a much smaller footprint.”

Third, because of economies of scale and abysmal labor practices, food in the industrialized world is too often grown by agribusiness, processed by transnational corporations, and picked or handled by workers who don’t even make close to a living wage.

Returning to this kind of food system after the pandemic fades would be truly unappetizing. The livable wage campaign must spread to the countryside, meat substitutes must get an additional lift through government and institutional purchases, and innovative programs like the Too Good to Go app in Europe — which sells extra restaurant and supermarket food at a discount — must be brought to the United States to cut down on food waste and get meals to those in need.




The financial crisis of 2008-2009 exposed the fragility and fundamental inequality of the global financial system. But all along the invisible hand has been pickpocketing poor Peter to pay prosperous Paul. Bankers, stockbrokers, and financial gurus have constructed a casino-like system that occasionally doles out a few pennies to the people playing the slots even as it enriches the house — the top 1-2 percent — at every turn.

The most outrageous part of this scheme is that the financial crisis demonstrated just how bad the financiers were at their own game. Not only did they not go to prison for illegal activities, they were with a few exceptions not even punished economically for their market failures. They were either too big, too rich, or too powerful for the government to allow them to fail.

In The New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten quotes a prominent investment banker at a bond fund:

“In the financial crisis, we won the war but lost the peace.” Instead of investing in infrastructure, education, and job retraining, we emphasized, via a central-bank policy of quantitative easing (what some people call printing money), the value of risk assets, like stocks. “We collectively fell in love with finance,” he said. 

After the last financial crisis, the wealthy, who are heavily invested in the stock market, did quite well, while everyone else took a hit. Explains Colin Schultz in Smithsonian magazine: “While families hovering around the average net worth lost 36 percent over the past decade — dropping from $87,992 in 2003 to $56,335 in 2013 — people in the top 95th percentile actually gained 14 percent in the same tumultuous period — going from $740,700 in 2003 to $834,100 in 2013.”

The Trump administration is clearly in love with finance. Even before the pandemic hit, Trump’s tax reform provided the top six U.S. banks with $32 billion in savings. That’s more than what the 2008 bank bailout provided (and remember, banks mostly paid back those earlier loans). The stock market also benefited from an unprecedented upswing in stock buybacks — $2 trillion combined in 2018 and 2019 — that enriched shareholders at the expense of workers.

The $2 trillion in initial stimulus funds that the U.S. government is providing this time around has gone to individuals (those Trump-signed checks in the mail), small businesses (except when it went to big businesses), hospitals, and unemployed workers. There’s also money for farmers, schools, food stamps, and (alas) the Pentagon. Future rounds of stimulus spending might include infrastructure, more aid to states and localities, and funds for smaller banks.

There’s not much enthusiasm, at least publicly, to bail out Wall Street. Stock buybacks were explicitly excluded from the stimulus package. Meanwhile, the stock market has begun to climb out of the basement in the last couple weeks, largely on the strength of the news of all this new money being pumped into the economy.

But just as the tax bill was a covert giveaway to financial institutions, so have been several of the administration’s pandemic responses. Quantitative easing, by which the Federal Reserve buys bonds and mortgage-backed securities, has increased the amount of liquidity available to financial institutions.

In the latest effort, the Fed announced that it will buy $500 billion in corporate bonds, but without any of the strings attached to other assistance such as limits on stock buybacks or executive compensation. The banks are even nickel and diming people by seizing stimulus check deposits to cover overdrawn accounts.

Out of a total pie of around $6 trillion in potential stimulus spending, banks and major corporations are well-placed to grab the lion’s share. Writes Nomi Prins at TomDispatch:

In the end, according to the president, that could mean $4.5 trillion in support for big banks and corporate entities versus something like $1.4 trillion for regular Americans, small businesses, hospitals, and local and state governments. That 3.5 to 1 ratio signals that, as in 2008, the Treasury and the Fed are focused on big banks and large corporations, not everyday Americans.

Invisible hand? Hardly. That’s the very visible hand of government tilting the financial markets even more in favor of the rich. As for the invisible enrichment that goes on beneath the surface, otherwise known as corruption, the Trump administration has gutted the oversight mechanisms that could bring those abuses to light.

It’s time to end America’s love affair with finance. That means, in the short term, higher taxes on the very rich, limitations on CEO pay built into all bailouts, and reviving all the reasonable proposals for reforming the financial sector that were either left out of or didn’t get full implemented in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act passed in the wake of the last financial crisis.

Post-Pandemic Economics


The Black Death depopulated Europe, killing as much as 60 percent of the population in the middle of the fourteenth century. Feudalism depended on lots of peasants working the land to support the one percent of that era. By carrying off so many of these workers, the Black Death made a major contribution to eroding the foundations of the dominant economic system of the time.

The coronavirus will not kill anywhere near as many people as the Black Death did. But it may well contribute to exposing the failures of “free markets” and the scandal of governments intervening in the economy on behalf of this era’s one percent. The pandemic is already, thanks to huge stimulus packages, undermining the “small government” canard. A state apparatus deliberately hobbled by the Trump administration — after earlier “reforms” by both parties — did a piss-poor job of dealing with this crisis. That doesn’t bode well for dealing with the even larger challenge of climate change.

The short-term fixes described above in the oil, food, and finance sectors are necessary but insufficient. They shift the balance more toward the government and away from the “free” market. They’re not unlike the New Deal: reforming capitalism to save capitalism. But this pandemic is pointing to an even more fundamental transformation, to a new definition of economics.

The tweaking of markets to achieve optimal performance is much like the rejiggering of earth-centric models of the universe that took place in the Middle Ages. These models became more and more complex to account for new astronomical discoveries. Then along came Copernicus with a heliocentric model that accounted for all the new data. It took some time, however, for the old model to lose favor, despite its obvious failures.

The global economy remains market-centered, even though the evidence has been mounting that these markets are failing us and the planet. Tweaking this model isn’t good enough. We need a new Copernicus who will provide a new theory that fits our unfolding reality, a new environment-centered economics that can maximize not profit but the well-being of living things.

Foreign Policy In Focus, April 29, 2020

Articles Featured Food US Foreign Policy

The Hunger President

One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

The quote comes from Stalin. The policy comes from Donald Trump.

Trump famously changed his policy on Syria after seeing photographs of a couple Syrian children killed by a chemical attack. It didn’t matter that the Syrian government had already killed thousands of children. In targeting the Assad regime, Trump was moved by the tragedy, not the statistic.

When it comes to world hunger, Trump’s resistance to statistics is even more appalling. There are now 1.4 million children at risk of dying from famine. No one apparently has shown Donald Trump, or his daughter Ivanka, any photos of these at-risk children. So, the U.S. president is comfortably ignoring this statistic.

Because of a combination of weather conditions and military conflict — the two horsemen of the 21st century apocalypse — 20 million people are on the verge of starvation in four countries: Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria. It’s the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, according to a senior UN official. In response, the UN put out a request for $4.4 billion in emergency assistance to avert catastrophe.

As of the middle of April, it hadn’t even received a billion.

At first glance, the United States comes out looking pretty good in terms of contributions. It tops the list of donors at $407 million (followed by various EU countries, Canada, Japan, and even $60 million in private pledges).

It turns out, however, that all the money that Washington has contributed this year comes from an allocation made during the Obama administration. Last year, in fact, the United States provided 28 percent of the assistance to the four countries.

This year, USAID hasn’t added anything to meet the emergency famine relief appeal, which is no surprise. In Trump’s budget request, USAID stands to lose 37 percent of its funding. After all, Donald Trump has declared foreign assistance a zero-sum game: What doesn’t go to them can go to us. “America First” means that we protect our own first.

Except that Trump isn’t giving to the most needy at home. Our billionaire president is also threatening to take away the health care of millions of Americans. His proposed federal budget would dramatically reduce programs for the working poor like affordable housing.

The Trump doctrine, such that it is, is really all about taking from the poor and giving to the rich.

Trump’s America First approach, then, is a shortsighted, cruel, and ultimately self-defeating shell game. Unless Donald Trump reverses his opposition to foreign aid, he will go down in history not just as the Absentee Golfer President or the Insane Clown President.

He’ll be forever known as the Hunger President.

Full-Spectrum Famine

Yemen has been in a precarious state for some time. It’s a desperately dry place where as many as 4,000 people a year were dying in disputes over land and water even before the outbreak of the current hostilities.

In 2014, a Shia religious-political movement known as the Houthis threw their lot in with ousted leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, a corrupt politician who’d ruled for three decades before losing his position during the Arab Spring protests that swept through Yemen in 2011. Together, they took over the capital and surged southward to expel the government of former military commander Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who had holed up in the port city of Aden.

That’s when Saudi Arabia intervened on the side of Hadi and against the Houthis. The United States has been assisting the Saudis from the beginning by sending weapons and providing intelligence. The United States has also been helping to refuel bombers that have increasingly targeted civilian sites such as schools and hospitals.

It’s all part of a larger struggle in the region between the Saudis and their Sunni allies on one side and Iran and its Shia allies on the other, though Iran denies that it has much to do with the Houthi struggle. The Trump administration has only upped the ante by restoring the arms sales to Saudi Arabia suspended by the Obama administration and aligning itself even more closely to Riyadh’s war effort.

The war has pushed Yemen over the brink. The areas where the most fighting has taken place — Taiz and Hodeidah — are, not surprisingly, where the risk of famine is greatest. Both sides are to blame, says Mark Kaye of Save the Children in Yemen:

This crisis is happening because food and supplies can’t get into the country. Yemen was completely dependent on imports of food, medicine, and fuel prior to this crisis. You have one party delaying and significantly preventing food from getting into the country, and another on the ground detaining aid workers or preventing aid and food from getting to areas they don’t want it to go to.

Of course, it doesn’t make much sense to send in food and water to people only to make them into better-fed casualties in the ongoing conflict. And the conflict shows no sign of abating, with the Houthis governing in the capital and the Saudi-backed supporters of Hadi only in tenuous control of areas in the south. The geographic and sectarian divisions that make the conflict more complicated than just Houthi vs. Hadi also make a peace deal that much more elusive.

Of the four countries at risk of famine, Yemen is the place where the United States has perhaps the greatest chance of making a difference. It can stop supporting the Saudi war effort. It can begin to scale back its own drone attacks in Yemen. It can support the UN peace process.

Even just stepping back from the conflict — something that Donald Trump seemed to favor during the campaign as a general approach to any conflict not involving the Islamic State — would deprive the ongoing war in Yemen of some of the oxygen that keeps it going.

Climate Change and Famine

The Pentagon long ago figured out that climate change was becoming a chief driver of conflict worldwide. If anyone can persuade Donald Trump that climate change is real, it’s not going to be environmentalists. It’s going to be people with a lot of medals on their chest, people who know better than anyone that you can’t bomb a famine to make it go away.

The generals could begin a climate-change discussion with Trump by talking about what’s currently going on in Africa. The three African countries on the famine alert – South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria — are all dealing with endemic military conflict. They’ve all been vulnerable to famine in the past. And climate change has been pushing them ever closer to the edge.

Take the example of Somalia, which last experienced a famine in 2011. Somalis depend on agriculture and livestock. Even the most modest increase in temperature throws the ecosystem out of equilibrium.

“Awareness is growing among Somalis themselves about climate change: Communities across the country have noticed marked changes in temperature and rainfall, although most attribute it to divine retribution for the failings of humankind,” writes Halae Fuller in a Stimson Center brief from 2011. “African farmers and herders have adapted to changing environmental conditions with remarkable resilience. But where individual ingenuity fails, Somalia lacks the institutions and government structure needed to protect its population against increased food insecurity.”

A growing population and a shrinking resource base are a recipe for disaster under any circumstance. Throw in two dry spells in 2016, and now nearly half the Somali population needs emergency food relief.

The failure of the international community — and particularly the United States — to help those in desperate need in Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria could become a powerful recruitment tool for anti-Western terrorist organizations. At the very least, the increased competition for limited resources will sharpen already-existing political and sectarian divisions.

The Trump administration could continue to avert its eyes from famine. It could continue to deny the real-world impact of climate change. And it could insist that drone attacks from above are the only way of dealing with terrorists on the ground. But it won’t be able to pretend for long that these problems won’t ultimately affect the United States. The growing number of refugees pouring out of those countries and the growing anger of those who perceive that they’ve been abandoned by the West will necessarily have a blowback effect on the last superpower standing.

On this narrower issue of famine relief, the Trump administration can still change its position. Right now, it’s living off the political capital and budget allocations of the Obama administration. That will run out very soon.

If humanitarianism fails to persuade Trump, perhaps naked geopolitics could do the trick.

Significantly, on that list of donors answering the UN famine appeal, one country is conspicuously absent: China. In the Trump era, China has been very vocal about its desire to be a more prominent player on the world stage. But here’s a reminder: It’s pay to play. If China wants to shoulder global responsibilities, it must start by paying attention to the world’s most vulnerable people.

In the meantime, while China considers the costs of global leadership, the United States still has a chance, by making a splashy and significant contribution to famine relief, to regain some portion of its status as a global leader in an arena that actually means something for the lives of millions of people.

If it doesn’t, Trump will have more than just a couple tragedies on his hands. He’ll face some very damning statistics indeed.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, April 19, 2017

Articles Featured Food

Menu for a Hot Planet

In many ways the human race hit the skids when we stopped throwing spears and gathering berries. Once we started planting seeds and harvesting the produce, we grew shorter, fatter, sicker, and considerably more overworked. An alien visiting from another planet during that critical transition period to a more settled existence might easily have thought that we were being domesticated by our livestock and not the other way around.

Sure, hunting and gathering was hard, what with either hunger or saber-toothed tigers always breathing down our necks. But it was actually the daily grind of agriculture that took a heavy toll on us. More predictable food surpluses allowed for greater concentrations of people and thus more opportunities for microbes to hang out, party, and develop new diseases. Easy-to-store grains could be made into porridge so that babies could be weaned more quickly. “As a result, the sicklier agriculturists were able to outbreed the more robust hunter-gatherers,” writes Elizabeth Kolbert in her recent investigation into the Paleolithic lifestyle. “More farmers then needed even more land, which further reduced the resources available to foragers.”

Agriculture allowed for the development of everything we associate with modernity: politics, economics, MTV. But there was a major trade-off: Suddenly we had to work a whole lot harder. As Jared Diamond wrote in his famous 1987 essay “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” those early foragers were probably much like today’s modern hunter-gatherers, who “have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors.” Since those early days of farming, we’ve regained our stature and we live longer, on average. But we’re still overweight and overworked compared to our Paleolithic ancestors.

Now that there are more than 7 billion of us on this planet, going up to nearly 10 billion by the middle of this century, we don’t have the luxury to choose between agriculture and the Paleo life. There’s not much big game around anymore, and even a modern all-meat diet would soon consume all the world’s resources. We’re stuck with farming. But forget those Arcadian visions of agriculture as a benign activity. Even small-scale farming leads to the clear-cutting of land, the reduction of biodiversity, widespread soil erosion, and the kill-off of otherwise beneficial insects. I hold out great hopes for techniques pioneered at places like the Land Institute to bring back perennial versions of staple crops. But it’s not going to feed 7 billion people any time soon.

Here’s the even more troubling part of the story: agriculture is helping to push up global temperatures. Up to one-third of all the carbon emissions responsible for climate change come from farming, from fertilizer production to growing crops to refrigerating and transporting goods to market. Throw in livestock, and things look even worse: a whopping 18 percent of greenhouse gasses, according to one Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, come from the mass production of cows, pigs, and chickens (and World Watch argues that the FAOundercounted by a factor of three). Climate change in turn is having an impact on agriculture by leading to a projected 10 percent reduction in yields over the same period that food production must nearly double to handle more mouths (and more mouths eating higher up the food chain).

Modern agriculture: can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

World leaders met in New York this past weekend to deliberate over the coming catastrophes of climate change. Several hundred thousand people marched in the streets to demand that politicians come up with an agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions, finance a global shift to clean energy, and make sure that the burden doesn’t fall on the poorest nations.

The focus of protest has been on energy, and strategically this makes sense. But at some point, we’re going to have to rethink the much more fundamental structures that have been with us long before we discovered fossil fuels or even harnessed the power of the wind and the water. We desperately need to rethink agriculture.

From an organizing point of view, the easiest approach would be to ask “What would Monsanto do?” and then do the opposite. That means standing up against industrial agriculture, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the mass production of substances like high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that have generated an obesity problem the world over.

I have an instinctual preference for family farms, organic produce, and coops that refuse to stock HFCS. But I need to set aside my preferences for a moment to ask a different question: “what kind of agriculture can best sustain the human race in this era of climate change?” This question actually contains two challenges. How can we produce enough food to feed a growing population, and how can we do this without generating the carbon emissions that will overheat the planet and literally take the rug out from under us?

The obvious answer would be to immediately implement a “lentil dictatorship.” By forcing people to shift to a mostly legume diet, we would reduce the enormous drain of resources caused by eating meat—up to 16 pounds of grain goes into one pound of steak—and naturally replenish the soil by planting these nitrogen-affixing plants. Given the difficulties that former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg faced when he tried to wean people off sodas larger than 16 ounces, the move to a mostly legume diet would require a seriously strong-arm vegetarian. Hitler aside, vegetarianism and authoritarianism generally don’t go hand in hand.

So, if a lentil dictatorship isn’t in the offing, what’s next? The United Nations has come up with its own answer to this problem. It calls its initiative the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture. It involves using the latest technology to maximize yields and minimize the impact on the land. For instance, farmers use lasers to create level fields to reduce water use and consult precise weather forecasts to know when to sow and irrigate. In essence, the UN wants the Global South to take advantage of the technology that has already improved farming in the richer countries. These are useful techniques, but they are largely palliative. They help farmers adjust to rising temperatures and dwindling water resources rather than help to reverse the negative feedback loop pushing up the thermometer.

Advocates of organic farming argue that a shift way from energy-intensive industrial agriculture will do the trick. But organic farming faces two challenges. Even if the world’s farmers were willing to shift to organic, it’s not clear that it could produce enough to feed the planet without cultivating what little land remains in the wild (goodbye Amazon rainforest!). And where organic farmers have been able to scale up, they have begun to resemble the very industrial producers they aimed to replace (in what Michael Pollan has called the organic-industrial complex). Moreover, as I’ve pointed out before, traditional farming techniques have failed us in the past, when over-farming precipitated civilization decline in many parts of the pre-modern world.

But on the energy side of the equation, organic farming does represent a reduction, by about 30-50 percent according to another FAO report. That mostly comes from cutting out commercial fertilizer, a petroleum product, and substituting some human labor for machines. When we’re scrambling to cut emissions, that’s nothing to sneeze at. But when it comes to energy consumption, eating locally can be more important than eating organically, since it reduces all the energy used to send grapes from Chile and garlic from California to dinner tables on the East Coast.

Another way to go is low-tech. Instead of plowing up the land in order to plant the next crop, many farmers don’t overturn the soil of the entire field. They simply dig narrow trenches. This “no-till” agriculture produces comparable yields but without the considerable erosion caused by conventional farming. The problem is, no-till agriculture uses more herbicides to get rid of all the weeds that aren’t plowed under. And it is traditionally associated with mono-culture farming.

Then there’s GMOs. “Between 1996, when genetically engineered crops were first planted, and last year, the area they cover has increased a hundredfold—from 1.7 million hectares to 170 million,” writes Michael Specter in The New Yorker. “Nearly half of the world’s soybeans and a third of its corn are products of biotechnology.”

I have my doubts about what GMOs will do to our guts and our biosphere. It’s not necessarily the existing strains that worry me so much as the sheer number of genetic combinations that scientists are developing, any one of which might inexplicably turn our brains to mush after 20 years in the food chain or interact in some unanticipated and devastating way in the wild.

On the other hand, what if we discover a new breed of nitrogen-affixing, high-yield wheat that dramatically reduces fertilizer use or a new kind of soybean that allows us to do no-till agriculture without the heavy herbicide application? Biotechnology can’t save us. But we shouldn’t automatically assume that it can’t play a role.

After all, there is no perfect agriculture that can both feed 7 billion people and improve the planet. Throw in climate change and the trade-offs become even more challenging. Every technique comes with risks. The danger of industrial farming is precisely its reliance on monocultures: field after field of a single variety of grain that runs the risk of being wiped out by a new kind of blight.

The solution is diversity. “No single crop or approach to farming can possibly feed the world,” Specter concludes. “To prevent billions of people from living in hunger, we will need to use every one of them.”

To feed the world and save it at the same time, let a thousand wheat stalks bloom.



World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, September 24, 2014


Blog Eastern Europe Featured Food Uncategorized

Going Organic

Ten years ago I visited Slovenia to do a report on organic farming for the Bay Area-based organization Food First. I was drawn to the former Yugoslav republic because it had recently joined with several neighboring Italian and Austrian provinces to create the world’s first organic bioregion – the Alpe-Adria. Organic farming made a lot of sense for Slovenia since its farms were relatively small and it was close to European markets that put a premium on organic produce. Slovenia, I thought, could show the way for other East European countries by leapfrogging from collectivized agriculture over industrial farming to the organic alternative.

I conducted a series of interviews in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. There I learned that the government’s commitment to making the country the “garden of Europe” involved pouring resources into “integrated farming,” which was an improvement over chemical-intensive agriculture but didn’t qualify as sustainable. European Union subsidies were useful for preserving agricultural land, but the country wasn’t exactly on the verge of becoming an organic poster child. Then I got on a bus heading south to Slovenia’s tiny Adriatic coast to meet organic farmer Boris Fras.

His back bent from years of tending his vines, Fras showed me around his plots. He grew olives and grapes on land with spectacular views of the Adriatic. He grappled with the usual concerns of a farmer – getting sufficient water, finding markets for his products, negotiating good prices. He also faced a potentially more serious threat – developers who wanted to buy up land in the area to build a golf course and the tourism infrastructure to go with it.

Ten years later, I met Fras for a cup of coffee in the coastal town of Ankaran. The developers were still eyeing his land, and the golf course remained a live option. But the financial crisis had undercut some of the construction fervor, and Slovenia had passed laws in the meantime to protect fertile land. Fras was more worried about the water situation, since the region was suffering through a mini-drought.

He was still committed to organic farming and had begun growing vegetables as well to diversify what he could offer to consumers. But the share of organic farming has not increased very much in Slovenia, even though more and more people are buying organic. They’re just not buying Slovenian organic produce. Nothing gets Fras more agitated than the tendency of Slovenians to buy imported food.

“It’s a huge debate now — not just in Slovenia but also at the EU level – about how local food is better than imported food not just because of freshness but the waste of energy in transportation,” he told me. “All Slovenians say, ‘Yes, bravo!’ But they are still buying cheap imported fruits and vegetables. When they do a public opinion poll, they all say, “Yes, we are for local food.” But then you go to the markets and you see that they are buying the opposite.”

One way for the Slovenian government to boost local organic agriculture would be to facilitate institutional purchases – schools, hospitals, and so on. Italy adopted this approach and the organic sector is now 10 percent of its agriculture. Slovenia has yet to follow this path.

“Sodexho from France offers food to Slovenian schools for practically nothing,” Fras complains.” And I’m competing against this huge thing? It’s impossible! You break the law if you speak directly with the school. It’s crazy. In Italy, they don’t have public food in school. It’s private. The schools get money from the larger community, from the village, and from the parents. They can organize what they want, by themselves. There’s no state law preventing that. Not that long ago organic was only 3 percent of the farming in Italy.”

We talked about producing organic olive oil, EU farming subsidies, and why even fruits and vegetables need a “story” in order to lure consumers into buying them.


The Interview


When I was here nine years ago, the major issue for you was these golf courses that they were thinking of building here.


Yes, they wanted to build golf courses. And they still want to. But it’s still not built yet. And it will be difficult to build them because a few laws were enacted here in the last few years to protect fertile agricultural land. Slovenia comes in last in Europe in terms of square hectares per capita. We have only 800 square meters of good fertile agricultural land per person on which to grow food. The rest is forest and pasture land. After some public discussion, we decided to protect such land. It will work maybe against the gold courses.

But in Slovenian law, the power of changing the scope of what to do with the land is at the community not at the state level. The state has the right approach to land protection, more or less. But at the community level – and we have three communities here along the coast: Ankaran, Koper, Izola — there are business interests behind creating an industrial zone, selling land for a mega shopping center, building a golf course, or building new houses. This is one of the easiest ways for the community to get money. They get it from the state, from a percentage of salary, and what they can sell. And they can sell land. That’s the only thing left to sell here.

I don’t remember how intensive the fight was nine years ago. The proposed golf course is 70 hectares. It’s not big, but it’s big for this area. What’s important is the possibility to irrigate the field. You can see now with the weather. Up until the end of April, it rained each day – there’d never been so much rain during the year. Then from that time, there’s been no rain. We are in the middle of a dry season. With no water, everything is dying. Without irrigation you can’t grow vegetables and maybe no fruit.


And golf courses take up a lot of water.


Yes. Okay, they presented some alternative ways of maintaining the golf course with less water and different kinds of grass. But in the end, it’s the same. They would also change the countryside. It’s flat in the proposed site. And golf needs some hills.


You don’t have to convince people at the national level but there’s still support for this course at the community level.


Not just at the community level. Tourist organizations and hotels support the golf course. Also these people who run bars and restaurants, and the association of construction companies. They all are pushing for golf. The airport in Portoroz also wants it. They calculate that some new tourists will come in to play golf in the wintertime. But there’s a modern golf course near Trieste, in Italy, 15 kilometers from here. And still they don’t fly there from Germany or Britain during the wintertime. The golf course there is empty.

These companies that want golf also want to build apartments, a whole tourist infrastructure. It’s not just golf. But these are difficult times to sell things now, because of the crisis. No one is building new flats or houses, because there’s no one to buy them. There are a lot of empty complexes. They expect that the Russians or the Italians will come here to buy. But the Italians go to the countryside in Istria or the Karst region and buy up the most beautiful properties. They don’t want to buy anything here.


You talked before about all the pressure to sell agricultural land for development. Given the financial crisis, is there still the same pressure to sell?


Yes. Fewer and fewer people are doing agriculture. Each day we have fewer farmers but more public debate in the media about having a garden, building urban gardens, and unemployed doctors and lawyers becoming farmers. Yes, there are projects that have begun. But you know agriculture is difficult. You have to work from dawn to dusk. There’s no big money in it. I’m speaking about traditional farmers. If you have 100 or 200 hectares, you’re still a small farmer. You plow, you plant seeds, you harvest — you do everything yourself.

You even have to sell your own produce. A small farmer is in a difficult position because 20 or 30 years before, there were logistic places where you went with your products to sell. It was a zadruga, a cooperative. Each village had a place where a small farmer could sell even as little as 20-30 kilos each day. The state sold these off during privatization, and now the farmer here must drive everything to a center in Koper. Some farmers don’t have vans to drive the produce over there.

It’s a huge debate now — not just in Slovenia but also at the EU level – about how local food is better than imported food not just because of freshness but the waste of energy in transportation. All Slovenians say, “Yes, bravo!” But they are still buying cheap imported fruits and vegetables. When they do a public opinion poll, they all say, “Yes, we are for local food.” But then you go to the markets and you see that they are buying the opposite. Sometimes it’s not even the price that matters. So, the only possibility for small farmers is the local marketplaces.

They’re not even always local. I go to Ljubljana for instance. There are also some alternative ways of selling products. We organize our own places of distribution to connect with buyers. It takes a lot of time and energy. All day, you are driving and phoning, instead of being in the fields. This aspect of agriculture is very difficult. If you’re supplying the big institutions, like shopping centers, it’s also difficult. They say, “I want such and such tomorrow morning at 5 am,” and then you have to do it. You also have to fill out forms before packing everything.


You are still growing olives, grapes, and…


And more and more vegetables. I got two hectares five years ago near the water. It’s five kilometers from me. I have two possibilities of getting water. Last year it was a really dry season, and I had to buy 200 meters of pipe for irrigation and then dig it in. But I saved my produce. So, I’m happy that I have this possibility.


Do you also grow the vegetables organically?


Yes. Growing vegetables is new for me. Each year I discover something new, and that makes it more interesting. Growing the grapes and olives can be boring. Also, it makes my position in the market more interesting. Because on my table is also tomatoes and other vegetables. More people come, and I sell more.


You are pressing your own olive oil?


No. To press quality olive oil requires machines that cost a minimum half a million euros. The technology of pressing has advanced. Now you have these closed systems of pressing and separation to prevent oxidation, and the product is of a very good quality. Our olive oil is now at top world quality. We have people who get international medals for their oil. We have here a geographic origin for Slovenian olive oil. First, it means that it must be organic, which is controlled. Then it has to be collected within two days for pressing. We must collect in small boxes, not large boxes. Then it must be pressed under 27 degrees — cold pressed — and someone has to be there to verify that. You must store the olive oil between 16 and 20 degrees in particular boxes. The result is quality olive oil. I’m also in this system. There are only eight places around here where you can press olive of that quality.


You supply all your olives to one of those?


Yes, at one of them, all at the same time.


When we talked before, you were proud of your olive trees. Non-organic olive trees last 20-30 years, but you thought yours would last for 100 years.


I hope so! They’re doing well.


How are the grapes doing?


I became more and more bored with these grapes. I have four hectares. It’s not enough to produce a lot of wine. For that you need at least 8-10 hectares. And you need to be in an area of wine consumers. You must also use special descriptions for the wine. I don’t see myself with this kind of people. For me, up to 7,000 liters I sell very easily. But the rest, no. For selling 10,000 liters or more, you have to work hard on marketing and distribution. I don’t have the time or the energy to do that. I have now four vineyards, and three are quite new. One is more than 35 years old, and it’s quite finished. Maybe if I have energy or money, I’ll grow some fruit. But there’s no water. So, if I try to plant 8,000 different fruit trees in these weather conditions, the young trees will just die.


Is the drought this year unusual? Or has this been a problem for the last few years?


It’s cyclical. But you don’t know when the cycle will come. Last year was a problem. This year is a problem. Three years before it was not a problem. If I planted fruit trees in November or December and then it rained until May, it would be good. But three months without rain is very difficult.


Are you still the head of the organic farming association here in Slovenia?


Yes. There’s nothing dramatic going on with this. During all these years, we took some positions, and now we protect this position. We are only the sector that is successful. More or less, what we produce we sell for a sufficiently good price to survive, though not to be rich. It’s commonly believed that everybody wants organic products and that there’s more demand than supply. It’s not true, but that’s what people think.

And now the ministry did a stupid thing. They made the subsidy for pasture land the same as the subsidies for agricultural land. We told the minister that it takes two or three people to work a hectare of agricultural land but on pasture land there’s a cow and hardly any work to do at all. Then he offered double subsidies to those who begin the conversion process to organic. Now we are like hyenas. The people who were against organic agriculture have now entered the business.


Because of the double subsidy.


Yes. We already had a problem with people cheating. You can’t just buy an organic conscience or environmental protection. The standards for the welfare of animals in organic agriculture are quite high. But you can see people who sell these organic goods but treat animals very poorly. We are afraid that this ruins it for everyone. The consumers will see a problem, and they won’t know who is reputable.

Our organic association, over the last five to six years, we did intensive research into creating a different selling basis for our farmers. We work a lot with partnership agriculture, what you call community-supported agriculture (CSA). This works quite well in Slovenia. I thought that we’d follow the French system of CSAs, because there’s a social dimension to it. The small farmers and the group of consumers work together. They make a plan together. The consumers go to help the farmer. They understand that farmers have a difficult life, that there might too much rain or not enough. So, they support the farmers even when they don’t produce food. Then the next year the farmers pay them back with products. There is a direct connection between the consumers and the farmers. There are no coordinators.

But in Slovenia there is a huge number of coordinators. They are basically doing nothing! In the end if there’s someone in the middle who buys from farmers and then sells, this is just normal selling. It’s not partnership agriculture. But still there are a lot of groups doing this. Farmers are happy that it works. I have 12 or 15 boxes here in Koper and about 30 in Ljubljana. I have a full van to drive to Ljubljana, 100 kilometers away. The consumers say the price and quality are okay. There are more than 30-40 groups, and this has the potential to develop more.

We also work a lot on how to get into schools and kindergartens. They have public kitchens, which means that they have to use public bids. The lower price always wins in this competitive bidding. And we small farmers always lose. Some schools negotiate with a farmer but only for a small quantity. I’ve contacted the bigger food companies, but they’re just selling a little bit of organic, all imported.


Do you have an idea of how much organic food is imported compared to how much is grown here?


Twenty times more is imported. It’s not just food. That also includes food supplements and cosmetics. Slovenians cry that they have no money, but they buy huge new cars, not organic food. Slovenia spends the second least amount in the EU per capita on food. It’s something like 11 percent of income. Italians, Germans spend more like 14 or 15 percent.


More than 10 percent of Italy’s farming is organic now.


Yes. And the biggest opportunity for that was organic food in schools and kindergartens. But Sodexho from France offers food to Slovenian schools for practically nothing. And I’m competing against this huge thing? It’s impossible! You break the law if you speak directly with the school. It’s crazy. In Italy, they don’t have public food in school. It’s private. The schools get money from the larger community, from the village, and from the parents. They can organize what they want, by themselves. There’s no state law preventing that. Not that long ago organic was only 3 percent of the farming in Italy.

In the public school system, the school lunches are nearly 100 percent organic — only the fish from the sea is not organic. That means the organic food is at normal prices. It’s mostly produced at the local level – the schools in Rome source from around Rome, not from Milan. So, it’s easy to distribute. It’s great for the farmer. He speaks directly to the school, and they say that they need in June 1,000 watermelons. So, it’s easy to calculate. But if you’re only producing for the market it’s very difficult. You always make some mistakes. Last year, it was celeriac. I planted a lot of this last year, and it was impossible to sell. Then, this year, everybody asked me, “Where is your celeriac?”


Is it possible to get any subsidies from the EU for organic farming?


All farmers get subsides, organic and non-organic. If you establish a new plot you can get EU subsidies. But it’s very complicated. You have to pay up front. Nobody gives you credit. You must do it quickly. And you must do everything as an enterprise. Before you worked with your son, your family, your neighbors. Now, you have to have a bill, which you put inside. It’s too complicated even for me.


Do you think Slovenia’s entry into the EU is a minus or a plus?


A minus. But it’s not just because of entering the EU. After our “liberation,” as people say, when we separated from Yugoslavia, people had a vision of a very easy life: no more work, just trading. We are talented at trading.


For the organic farming organization, what are your goals for the next couple years? Any specific legislation?


With legislation we can have some influence on some pragmatic issues. But still, political power is on the side of conventional farming. Organic farmers currently have a good image in our society. We must work on how to maintain that image, how to improve it, and be careful not to destroy this image. We are something like a brand. People know us everywhere you go. We have 20-30 well-known organic farmers who are national personalities. They are always in the media. People want to hear what they think. So, we have a good position from the point of view of consumers. Even professionals a few years ago finally accepted us. But with this economic crisis, now the situation has changed and people are looking for cheap food.

For organic farmers the biggest challenge comes from the local food movement. People think, “Ah, it’s local, that’s great! Maybe it’s even better than organic!” We provide some exclusive products like strawberries and cherries to schools and kindergarten. And they say, “Well, local is good enough for us.”

In the future, for me it’s quite important to find out which products in which regions are leading products. For example, here olive oil is a leading product. If enough organic farmers start to produce such a champion product, it will be good for our recognition. For the next five years, it will be fine. Growth will be gradual and stable. We still have a few regions where there are not a lot of organic farmers. Here, there were 10 organic farmers in the Koper region. Now there are 300. That’s because the existing olive growers went organic. Now it’s difficult to sell regular olive oil.

It’s important to create stories. About five years ago, I created a story about “golden apples” — persimmons – and the story was great for promotion. Almost all the persimmon growers became organic. It’s good because schools and kindergartens buy them. We were growing 50 hectares of persimmons. For us, that’s big. We must create these stories all the time to keep up public interest in our activities.


You’ve done a lot of things since 1989 and 1990 and since independence. What do you think about the changes overall that have taken place in the last 23 years?


There have been a lot of problems here in Slovenia over the last year. We ate much more than we produced. And then the bill came! People don’t want to work any more. It’s really crazy. The web doesn’t do everything. People live better, work less. But I think that they don’t enjoy this more passive life.


Have you changed your worldview over the last 23 years?


I’m more conservative. But this is probably normal. I’m more careful. I think that rights come from work: you’re not born with them.


When you say you’ve become more conservative, how would you describe that?


Not just politically but also in terms of values. Farmers have always been something the political system hasn’t been able to capture. Okay, the Church and some Right parties have tried, but they haven’t succeeded. A little conservatism here helps us survive. In such a small and fragile countryside, change could be a disaster for our heritage. On this issue, I side with conventional farmers. So, for instance, we have to be careful with this technology in farming. My consumers don’t want things from greenhouses. They recognize what’s grown in a greenhouse and what isn’t. They trust me. I’m honest with them. I say to consumers, I don’t have it, but I can offer you it from my colleague who has a greenhouse. But nobody buys it.

We have another problem now with the chemical industry, which smells organic as a good business. Now they produce something new for organic farmers. For instance, we need good compost, so we make a few teas from plants that provide protection. It’s very simple. But if you don’t have enough time, you can buy Nimazal.

I no longer want to be president of the organic farmers association. It’s time to go. If I see someone who is okay, I’ll immediately resign. There’s one guy, but he doesn’t want to take the position. Others are not good enough in comparison with him. So I put pressure on him. Maybe one day he will.


When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed in Slovenia from then until now, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10 with 1 being most disappointed and 10 most satisfied?




Same time period, same scale: your own personal life?




Looking into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for Slovenia on a scale of 1 to 10?


Also 7.


Ankaran, August 5, 2013



Grapes, not Golf


July 30, 2004


Boris Fras is the Jose Bove of Slovenia. He hasn’t attacked any McDonalds with sledgehammers. Nor has he made it into the headlines for destroying genetically modified crops. But in his vineyards and among his olive trees along the Adriatic Coast, Boris Fras is waging the same battle as his farming comrade-in-arms in France.

Fras once lived in Yugoslavia but now he is officially a European. On May 1, Slovenia became the first ex-Yugoslav state to enter the European Union (EU). It is a small country of only 2 million people with a reputation for tolerance — though the government’s disenfranchisement of 18,000 non-Slovene residents in the 1990s and the lack of public outrage when this problem of the “erased” surfaced in 2002 suggest that the country’s relative ethnic homogeneity goes hand in hand with deep-seated intolerance.

Nevertheless, Slovenia weathered the Balkan wars of the 1990s with relatively little damage and is now widely considered the best-prepared of the ten latest additions to the EU. When it comes to agriculture, though, the country doesn’t have much in the way of exports — some wine, some chicken. It sees its niche as a garden of Europe, a place where Germans and English can hike in the countryside, admire the splendid mountains and caves, and even pass a few nights on an organic farm.

As an organic farmer, Boris Fras is integral to this plan. He doesn’t live in a farmhouse, just an ordinary suburban ranch not far from Slovenia’s port city of Koper, and he drives his truck to his plots to tend the vines and trees. He doesn’t have much land and it is divided into several plots. But the land he farms is idyllic.

One plot of grape vines stretches down to the sparkling waters of the Adriatic. Red poppies interspersed among young olive trees brighten another stretch of land. Everything Fras grows and produces is organic, including his wine and his olive oil. He sells locally and also at the organic market in Slovenia=92s capital city of Ljubljana. He was not born to this work, but came to it gradually. “I started farming against the advice of all the people who said I was crazy,” he says.

Fras is also the head of the Union of Slovenian Organic Farmers Associations (USOFA). Slovenia, he says, doesn’t have a choice but to go organic. Its geography makes corporate-style agriculture unprofitable. With their small holdings, Slovenian farmers struggle to make their conventional produce competitive against cheaper imports.

Last year, USOFA teamed up with its counterparts in Austria and Italy and persuaded the governments of Slovenia, the Austrian province of Carinthia, and the northeastern Italian province of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia to create the world’s first organic bioregion — the Alpe-Adria.

The area will not only be free of all genetically modified organisms, but committed as well to encouraging the spread of organic farming. The number of organic farms in Slovenia stood at 41 in 1998 and grew to over a thousand four years later. While this still accounts for only a little over 3 percent of agricultural land, organic farming advocates hope to push this much higher in coming years.

It sounds like a grand plan. But there are no quick profits in organic farming. Organic farmers need subsidies from both Slovenia and now the EU.  Some of these subsidies fall under the “agri-environmental” heading that rewards farmers for such initiatives as reducing the density of herds or enriching the soil through cover crops.

Still, organic farming does not exactly resonate with go-go capitalism. Land is extremely expensive here, more expensive than in the center of the capital, Fras explains. Other interests are eying the property.

Istrabenz, based in the port city of Koper, is Slovenia’s largest energy company. It has teamed up with the Austrian company OMV to operate filling stations across the region (over 100 in Slovenia, 70 in Italy). Istrabenz also has invested in banking operations, Bosnian hydroelectric plants, and grand tourism projects on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast.

And Istrabenz wants to turn some of the prime real estate along Slovenia’s tiny Adriatic coast into golf courses. In areas where vineyards grow and where there were once salt panning operations stretching back to Roman times, Istrabenz wants to build tourist facilities.

The golf courses, designed to attract a higher class of clientele, will consume precious water that farmers need. Local politicians see development, and so do powerful political interests in the capital, like the informal clique of politicians and businessmen in Forum 21 led by former president Milan Kucan.

“The local politicians expect a return to the Golden Age of tourism of the 1970s and 1980s,” Fras said, when rich tourists came and sprinkled their foreign currency like fairy dust. He is assembling a team to defeat the golf courses — an architect-activist, someone who can work the legislative angle, a former insider in the golf industry. “We have to activate people in the capital. It’s where the decisions are made,” Fras strategizes.

The Slovenian government, despite its commitment on paper to bold projects such as the Alpe-Adria bioregion, often does not put farmers or the environment first. In 2004, it overcame civic resistance to site a wind power plant on the Volovja Reber ridge, an environmentally protected area. One could argue that in this case, at least, Slovenes confronted two different versions of sustainable development.

The golf course plan, however, is the antithesis of environment-friendly policies — like the bioregion — and activist-farmers like Boris Fras rightly see it as a structural not merely an ad hoc threat. His anti-golf course activism has already resulted in what he calls “harassment” from the authorities. The inspectors descended recently on his wine-bottling operation and identified a series of changes that he will have to make, at considerable expense.

Boris Fras is waging a fundamental battle over the heart of Europe. Will multinational operations gobble up the land for dubious development or will organic farmers, environmentalists, and sensible government officials work together on plans for sustainable development? Boris Fras, Jose Bove, and thousands of farmers across the new Europe are holding their ground.


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Eating History

The GDR Museum in Berlin is actually two museums in one. And these two parts, both devoted to everyday life in the German Democratic Republic, subtly contradict one another. That might not have been the intention of the museum founders. But this tension actually captures the ambiguities of East Germany and the ambivalence that many Germans feel today about the erstwhile communist state.

The experience inside the main part of the museum is quite interactive. You can put on headphones and watch TV shows from East Germany, walk into an interrogation room and a prison cell, and sit at a high-ranking bureaucrat’s desk. You can take a test of your Russian. You can vote in a rigged election.

This part of the museum is also full of objects from East Germany that people either donated or sold to the curators. These objects are very cleverly arranged in the rather small exhibition space. Cabinets and closets lining the wall and dividing up the space are grouped according to topic: clothing, music, books, industrial production, nude beaches, and so on. You can peer into glass cases at consumer products that have faded into history such as Wald Gold liquor and Florena Cream.

But you are also encouraged to pull out drawers and open cabinets to reveal even more objects, such as a floor plan of a GDR apartment or a report from the state security (Stasi). In this way, you feel as though you are uncovering a hidden society, which is appropriate since the society was largely hidden from Western eyes for many years.

If you don’t read the accompanying descriptions, you could walk away from this part of the museum feeling that you had just seen an objective portrait of a society. And according to the ticket seller that chatted with me, most people rate their experience at the museum very highly. And there have been quite a few visitors: nearly half a million in 2011.

“What about people from the former East Germany?” I ask him. “What do they think?”

“80-90 percent of them are very satisfied.”

“And the other 10-20 percent?”

“Well, they are not happy with…the tone.”

The tone of the museum is most evident in the descriptions. For instance, here is part of the description of GDR tourists. “GDR citizens were not particularly popular in Eastern bloc states. Waiters in Prague could recognize them easily. Western tourists used paper money: Deutschemarks or dollars. East Germans counted their aluminum play money.”

Another description begins with a joke: “The director of the Meissen porcelain factory told Honecker [the communist party leader in the GDR]: ‘Five percent of our production is rejected.’ To which Honecker replied, ‘Is that enough for the whole country?’” It was commonly assumed that the best production ended up as exports to get hard currency.

This tone is familiar to anyone who enjoys Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, or the many similar shows around the world that take a comic look at the news. In these exhibits, everyday life in the GDR comes across as quaint, inefficient, boring, comical, and worthy of a varying degree of derision. It’s no wonder that some people from the former East Germany find the experience somewhat upsetting.

It’s not that people in the GDR didn’t have a sense of humor. They made fun of the system all the time. And they continue to look back at that time with a mixture of humor, dismay, horror, and relief that much of that experience is behind them.

But the exhibits at the GDR museum are meant for tourists, specifically tourists from the West. The wall texts invite you into a shared joke: how silly/strange/exotic those “Ossies” were! It’s not just a matter of making fun of the old-fashioned products and notions of a past generation. At Berlin’s municipal museum, by comparison, a whole room is devoted to how cool and chic the Kurfurstendamm area of West Berlin was during the 1960s. In general, West Germany’s past is treated reverentially while East Germany’s past is treated like an enormous dead end. The proof is obvious: West Germany lives on and East Germany has been absorbed like a disagreeable meal.

Which brings us to the other half of the GDR Museum: the restaurant.

Here, in a replica of a restaurant from a fancy East Berlin hotel, you can sample the best of GDR cuisine, washed down with Vita Cola or Rotkaeppchen, the Coca-Cola challenger and the sparkling wine that are two of the few GDR products still produced in the united Germany. You can order smoked pork with potatoes and sauerkraut, allegedly Erich Honecker’s favorite dish, or what I tried, the stuffed cabbage in bacon sauce.

The food is quite good, at least what I ate there. It’s not prepared in a funny or ironic way. After all, the restaurant is designed to be successful, and no one wants to eat bad food, however representative of a country’s cuisine it might be. You can find some mildly amusing descriptions in the menu. But there’s nothing amusing about the food.

True, these were recipes created for the most elite restaurant in East Berlin. But Vita Cola and Rotkaeppchen were available to everyone. In other words, the restaurant sends a very different message than the other exhibits. It says there was something good about East German life, something worth praising, saving, and even serving to people today. This isn’t simply “ostalgie,” the nostalgia many Germans – even West Germans – have for Trabants and GDR TV programs. It’s an appreciation for the fact that people in East Germany were not simply puppets but active participants in their lives.

I’ve recently met with many former citizens of East Germany. The vast majority would never want to go back to those times. Many suffered a great deal at the hands of the state security forces (Stasi). Some were jailed, others lost their jobs, still others were sent into exile in the West. But they also married, raised families, went on vacations, hung out with friends. They aren’t happy when people from the West dismiss this part of their lives as if it were simply a bad movie.

It’s worse, perhaps, when the West simply ignores the East, pretends that it never happened, like a 40-year-long pratfall that you turn your eyes from. Travel to the western parts of Germany and many people treat the fall of the Berlin Wall as if it happened in a different country.

A recently formed group of young people from eastern Germany – Third Generation East – is an example of how the GDR will not go quietly into the night. These young people want to have an honest conversation about the country they were born in and which disappeared before most of them were old enough to understand what had happened. They’re not into nostalgia. They’re not ready to put East Germany into a museum. For them, it is still very much part of their lives, and they want to know why they feel like a minority. The same holds true for their parents.

Half of the GDR Museum exudes an implicit triumphalism. The other half conveys a more complicated message, the same message as Third Generation East: that East Germany lives on in many ways and reunification remains very much an unfinished business.

Hankyoreh, Foreign Policy In Focus

[picture of Trabant on display courtesy of DDR Museum]

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Jeju Island: Paradise with a Dark Side

I’m standing with a social worker beneath the palm trees outside a municipal building in the main city of Jeju Island. We’re talking about a nearby naval base, which the South Korean government is trying to build and a number of islanders are trying to prevent. She’s repeating a familiar refrain about Jeju — that it’s a paradise on Earth, but one with a dark side. The naval base is only the latest indignity inflicted on this semitropical island 60 miles south of the Korean mainland.

“It’s just like the story of Genesis in the Bible,” I say. “Even the Garden of Eden had a snake.”

She likes this line. Throwing her head back, she laughs very hard.

Then she wallops me on the shoulder.

It’s supposed to be an affectionate cuff. But the social worker is a solidly built woman in her 50s, and she nearly throws me off my feet. I laugh, too, while covertly feeling my shoulder for damage.

The women of Jeju have a reputation for strength. The island is famous for its haenyeo, female divers who gather abalone and other seafood for up to five hours a day in the cold sea — without scuba gear. The diver figurines for sale in the haenyeo museum on Jeju look like Snow White with goggles. But the real haenyeo are squat, powerful women, many of them still working in this dying profession into their 60s and 70s.

The contrast between the hokey figurines and the people they depict illustrates the contradictions of Jeju. The island features several UNESCO World Heritage natural sites and is a premier honeymoon destination for Korean newlyweds. But the South Korean government is tearing up the island’s southern coastline to build a modern naval base that would host the country’s three top-of-the-line destroyers. Islanders have a reputation for being more laid back than mainland Koreans, but Jeju also has a long tradition of fiercely resisting outside pressure.

This is my first time in Jeju. After dozens of visits to South Korea, I’m astonished by this island; it’s as if I’ve discovered that a relative’s dark, cramped house has a large, sunny room that I never knew about.

South Korea is certainly a dynamic place, as the tourist bureaus endlessly repeat, but it doesn’t win a lot of points for prettiness. The capital, Seoul, is almost wholly without charm. The country’s reputation for rapid change — and the almost ceaseless destruction of war and invasion over the past 1,000 years — has eradicated much of what attracts visitors to other regional jewels such as Japan’s Kyoto and Suzhou in China. Korea possesses a good deal of natural beauty, such as the forests around Mount Sorak in the northeast and the seaside villages. But Jeju is the one place in Korea where the attractions — from magnificent beaches and splendid coastal hikes to excellent food and intriguing museums — are concentrated in a single easily accessible stretch of territory.

In fact, Jeju Island is the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s only triple-crown winner, with designations as a natural preserve, a natural heritage and a geological park. Recently, the island was also listed as one of the new seven wonders of the natural world. Jeju has a spectacular volcanic cone that looks like a grass-covered butte, the longest lava tunnel in the world, and an immense extinct volcano, Mount Halla, at the very center of the island. Jeju is three times the size of Thailand’s Phuket but attracts one-sixth the number of foreign tourists.

* * *

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Jeju is its contribution to the relatively new field of “dark tourism.” Over a meal of the island’s famous black pig, Anne Hilty, a cultural health psychologist from New York now living on Jeju, tells me that tragic sites, such as Holocaust museums or the new Sept. 11 memorial in New York, are drawing tourists looking for something beyond escapism. For the people of Jeju, she says, a focus on these dark patches of history can either perpetuate a “victim mentality” or serve “as a reminder of the need to work for peace and human rights issues on the premise of ‘never again.’ ”

My first brush with Jeju’s dark side comes on arrival, although I won’t find this out until later. The airport outside Jeju City is bright and new. But buried beneath the runways are hundreds of victims of execution who were thrown into mass graves. Excavations in 2007 turned up more than 200 bodies, a small fraction of the roughly 30,000 islanders killed in 1948 when Korean authorities and right-wing vigilantes, with the compliance of the U.S. military, suppressed a popular rebellion.

This sordid history is captured with elegiac power at the 4.3 Museum. Located in the Peace Park on the outskirts of Jeju City, the museum is named after an uprising against Korean and U.S. military authorities on April 3, 1948. The crackdown on the uprising not only left 10 percent of the island’s population dead but also produced a huge wave of emigration. For decades, the Korean government suppressed the history of the 1948 tragedy. Only in the late 1990s did it acknowledge what had happened, and only in 2006 did it apologize. The museum memorializes the victims with photos, videos and oral histories.

A visit to the other major museum in Jeju City, the Jeju National Museum, reveals that the 1948 rebellion was part of a longer tradition. The most famous example involves the 13th-century Koryo dynasty on the mainland, which, after initially combating the invading Mongols, ultimately switched sides and in essence collaborated with the enemy. The Jeju islanders, by contrast, continued to resist the combined Mongol-Koryo forces, just as they were later to put up a sustained fight against the Japanese, who occupied Korea during the first half of the 20th century.

* * *

The island and its beauty are well worth fighting for. I take a day trip from Jeju City due east to Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak, a kind of Mont St. Michel of compacted ash that’s connected to the island by a spit of land. Walking along the water, with the lava mountain rising up before me, I happen on a group of haenyeo preparing for the day’s work. They are dressed in black rubber suits and carry bright orange taewak, or floats, that look like fluorescent pumpkins and keep the divers buoyed as they recover their breath between dives. I chat with them about the weather conditions before they set off in their boat. Then I duck into a waterside restaurant for a breakfast of broiled chub mackerel, which comes out sizzling on a metal plate alongside a delightful assortment of panchan (side dishes) including cold acorn squash and warm strips of fish cake.

Climbing up Seongsan, which is technically not a mountain but the result of an underwater volcanic eruption, is an ordeal. It’s not particularly steep, and the trail isn’t long. But it’s so crowded with tourists that you might as well be at the mall on Black Friday. The views down onto Seongsan port and the nearby islands, however, make enduring the ascending scrum worth it. For a more tranquil hike, I take a ferry to the largest of the islands — U-do — where the highest point affords similarly spectacular views. U-do is known for its peanuts, so I make sure to try the peanut noodles at a cafe at the base of the promontory and the peanut ice cream at a convenience store as a reward after making my way back down.

Heading back from Seongsan, I tramp through the nearly mile-long Manjanggul, the largest lava tunnel in the world. It’s cold, dark and wet, which is perfect for a hot summer day in the semitropics. Another must-see site is the Cheonjiyeon waterfall in the southern part of the island, with a nearby temple and arboretum (and a Teddy bear museum if your kids aren’t nature types).

Not far from the waterfall is Gangjeong village, the site of the naval base under construction. Protesters have tried to stop the bulldozers. The town’s mayor has gone to jail over the base, the country’s most prominent film critic has gone on hunger strike, and celebrities such as Gloria Steinem have raised their voices in protest. Now, since the police pushed them back from the construction site, the protesters occupy an empty lot not far from the large metal fence that shields the base construction from view. Every night they sing, dance, pass around tangerines and speak out against the Korean government’s actions. It’s protest Jeju-style. Not everyone in Gangjeong opposes the construction. Some believe that the base will bring jobs to the island. The protesters believe that the price is too high to pay.

The island, after all, depends on tourists, drawing them with its natural attractions, the haenyeo and quirky museums such as Love Land, with its 140 outdoor sculptures of couples in myriad sex positions. There’s also the food. I try the Jeju versions of yukejang, which is more like comforting beef gravy than the traditionally spicy hot broth, and samgyetang, a soul-warming chicken soup featuring an entire chicken, ginseng, Chinese dates and abalone with so much rice in it that it’s practically gruel. I also have a couple of meals of Jeju’s famous black pig. The meat arrives in thick fatty slabs, pink and white, which you grill and eat with soy paste and cabbage kimchi and wash down with the rice wine known as makgeolli.

But my most spectacular Jeju meal is in the Samyang neighborhood of Jeju City after my day of climbing lava formations and tunneling underground. I’m supposed to meet someone at Momaejon Garden restaurant to try its famous pumpkin duck. But my guest can’t make it, so I’m there by myself.

I order the duck because it’s a dish served nowhere else.

“That’s too much for one person,” says the proprietor, Lee Hae Seong.

“But I’ve heard so much about this dish, that it’s unique, that I have to try it,” I respond.

“It’s for three or four people,” she says.

“I’m pretty hungry,” I say, embarrassed.

She looks skeptical. “You’ll take the leftovers home?”

“Absolutely!” I promise.

The order arrives: a mound of smoked duck with wild mushrooms and garlic atop wedges of acorn squash, drizzled with barbecue sauce and surrounded by an astonishing assortment of side dishes: pickled persimmon, spicy sesame leaves, fried tofu. Next to it is a big bowl of greens that include lettuce, chicory, sesame and kohlrabi. There’s a special mustard sauce alongside the usual red spicy pepper paste.

The owner sits down across from me and we talk. She asks where I’m from, about my family. She tells me that she used to have a restaurant in Seongsan. She opened this place seven years ago. I ask whether she runs the place with her family.

“No,” she says. “Just me. And my staff.”

I hear a sad story in her voice, but before I can probe, she takes a piece of lettuce and a piece of chicory, places a piece of duck and a piece of squash in the middle, adds some spicy bean sprouts and some of the mustard sauce. She wraps it up and holds it out for me. I start to take it in my hands.

But no, she ignores my hands and pushes the little bundle directly into my mouth as if I were a baby.

I could try to resist. But she’s a strong and persuasive woman. And the pumpkin duck is like nothing I’ve ever tasted, sweet and salty and smoky but with a touch of bitterness from the chicory. I feel as though I’ve taken a bite out of Jeju itself. The more I eat, the more I think I understand the island. But in the end, it’s too much for me, too much to eat in one sitting, too much to absorb in one short visit.


Washington Post, April 20, 2012

Articles Food

Smart Mouth: Extending the range of a food lover, and a marriage

Washington Post, September 2, 2011


When I was in my early 20s, on break from university in England, I spent a whole month in Budapest because I’d read in a guidebook that there are three great world cuisines: French, Chinese . . . and Hungarian. The author of the book was Hungarian, and I was naive. But still, because I was willing to go anywhere for a really good meal, I spent those four weeks happily wandering the streets of Budapest, sometimes devoting as much as three hours around mealtime to the search for the perfect fish soup Szeged-style or venison steak with mushrooms. I didn’t consult any reviews. I didn’t ask the few people I met for their recommendations. I wanted to sniff around and discover these culinary jewels by myself.

Later, when I lived in Japan with my wife and we started traveling around Asia, she didn’t quite understand my approach to finding the perfect meal.

“I’m hungry,” Karin would say when we arrived in a new city and I was gearing up for a nighttime perambulation. “Let’s just get something quick. Something easy. Something near the hotel.”

My wife has a strong utilitarian streak. She’s half Scandinavian: Enough said. When she was in her early 20s, she was a tree planter and developed the habit of eating the same thing over and over: cheese sandwiches, peanut butter and powdered milk sandwiches, raw garlic and Miracle Whip sandwiches. Food was fuel, and taste took a back seat to cost and shelf life. Ten years before we met, I was in Budapest searching for the perfect goulash, and she was in a VW bus eating bowl after bowl of gruel. In terms of food appreciation, we came from opposite sides of the tracks.

“If we live to an average age of 75,” I explained to her, “we eat only 82,125 meals in our lifetime. That’s 82,125 chances — minus the pap we eat at the beginning and the pap we eat at the end — to get it absolutely perfect.”

Karin misunderstood me. She thought 80,000 was a lot of chances.

Our marriage teetered precariously on the edge every time we went out for dinner in Hong Kong or Seoul or Beijing. I didn’t want to eat at this restaurant because it was a tourist trap. Another restaurant had an unimaginative menu. A third place smelled bland. At the fourth place, the culinary feng shui was somehow not quite right. I wanted to spend just a few more minutes (and then perhaps just a few more) looking for the exceptional restaurant. And Karin, ravenously hungry, wanted to knock me over the head and drag me into the nearest food stall to eat the first thing at hand.

“You have 82,124 other chances to get it perfect,” my wife groused. “I’m getting cranky. I want to eat here. I want to eat now!”

So we came up with a compromise: the range extender. This is something small that you eat to enable you to continue your quest for the perfect meal. It can be anything: an onigiri in Tokyo, a raw herring sandwich in Amsterdam, a taco in Mexico City. In Macao, for instance, the street vendors sell a kind of meat leather called bakkwa: sticky red sheets of highly spiced, reconstituted pork. Imagine an exotic Slim Jim that’s been steamrolled and left out in the sun to crinkle. One sheet of that stuff can add a full hour to your search for the perfect Macanese meal, that irresistible combination of Chinese and Portuguese cooking. One sheet of bakkwa can stop your partner from talking about hunger, exhaustion and homicide.

You might call the range extender a mere snack. We called it a marriage saver.

Not long after we hit on this compromise, my wife and I found ourselves in Sweden, the land of half her ancestors. Suddenly, Karin was evaluating all our meals in Stockholm on the basis of a spectrum with her grandmother’s cooking at one end and the Ikea cafeteria at the other. My wife was on the lookout, in particular, for kottbullar, the famous Swedish meatballs, to see if a restaurant in Stockholm could outdo her mormor’s recipe.

There we were on our final night in Stockholm, trudging from restaurant to restaurant searching for the perfect kott­bullar. It was my wife’s turn to urge us on to search just one more block. It was my wife’s turn to seek out range extenders. And it was my turn to abandon perfectly good restaurants because they didn’t measure up to my wife’s idea of what our final, perfect Swedish meal should be.

I was starving. I was exhausted. And I was deliriously happy. Despite her history of Miracle Whip and raw garlic sandwiches, my wife finally understood the significance of the number 82,125. The range extender was no longer a compromise. And the perfect meal was just around the corner — for both of us.


Feffer starred in the one-man shows “Edible Rex” (from which this is adapted) and “The Bird.”