Coffee has never really been my thing. Even when I came to Dartmouth where Keurigs ubiquitously nestle atop dorm room desks and KAF fuels a large portion of the undergraduate population, I was never addicted to that morning jolt of caffeine.

An offhanded remark in a relatively early season of Gossip Girl, haphazardly thrown into the script probably in attempt to breathe some Brooklyn authenticity into the character Dan Humphrey, was the first time I recall hearing about Stumptown. Over the course of 14X, I went to a single meeting of the Dartmouth Coffee Club solely because they were serving affogato, espresso poured over gelato for all the coffee greenhorns out there, and I have an understandable propensity toward Morano. Even there, I rejected the undistorted espresso until its creamy, dreamy companion melted fully into its chestnut depths.

My latte orders always featured some pumps of artificially-flavored syrups, vanillin usually, while sugar from multiple packets and milks perpetually permeated my iced coffees. Omnipresent Instagram and Pinterest posts of caramel and whipped cream-topped blended coffee drinks proved that I was anything but alone.

So when I decided to take my junior fall as my first off term (not counting the summer after freshman year), interning at a coffee startup wasn’t quite the obvious choice.

Upon entering the office, I learned about the twice to thrice-daily coffee tastings and ratings (for “bouquet,” “cleanness,” “charisma,” etc.) of beans sent in from roasters in the hopes that we would carry their products. These assessments took place without additional sweeteners, flavorings or dairy products. I was apprehensive, to say the least, but figured this was as good a chance as any to become a black coffee-drinking real adult.

So I quit enhancers cold turkey and, if Tom Hanks’ character in the Da Vinci Code realized the “biggest coverup in human history,” I unearthed the biggest coverup in the past century. Contrary to what coffee chain giants brainwash the masses to believe, unornamented coffee is not terrible. In fact, black coffee can be amazing. That is, to qualify the previous statement, good coffee can be amazing.

But the coffee giants with which we grew up and see on every street corner don’t have good coffee. Their inferiorly sourced beans are mechanically scorched by the truckload before mingling with sugars, flavorings and milks to feign quality. And yet, millions of people happily spend over four dollars per cup every day for these well-masked atrocities. Starbucks’ top line is a testament to the power of this deception. This fraud has similarly allowed Starbucks to remain the leading coffee chain even after competition intensified over the past decade and a half with McDonalds’ McCafe product line release and Dunkin’ Donuts’ slogan change to “America Runs On Dunkin’” to push harder into the coffee market. This battle of quick service coffee became known as the Coffee Wars.

When the 2008 recession hit, many analysts predicted Starbucks to finally succumb to their lower-price adversaries. McDonalds’ ad campaigns targeted the favorable price discrepancy between themselves and Starbucks. One franchise even posted a billboard adjacent to the Starbucks’ Seattle headquarters simply stating “four bucks is dumb.” Even with McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donuts’ economical pricing and extensive restaurant remodelings to more fit the café look (Wifi, comfy chairs, etc.), Starbucks is considered the current champion of the Coffee Wars. The continuation of their domination is attributed to the fact that McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts’, though successful in pulling away the price-conscious customers, have never paralleled the variety and quality of Starbucks’ offerings.

These quality-conscious patrons who indulge their daily Starbucks cravings, who have allowed their favorite chain to weather the storm of competition, are currently at risk of inducing its obsolescence. Fortunately for all of us with taste bud-covered tongues, the proliferation of Third Wave coffees is exposing Starbucks’ camouflaged mediocrity.

To back up a bit, the Third Wave refers to coffee’s artisanal revolution from commodity to gourmet item, much like the popularization of craft beers and single origin chocolates. This followed the Second Wave of coffee, referring to the propagation of players such as Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and Keurig, characterized by the widespread popularization of espresso drinks and regionally labeled blends. Before that, the First Wave encompassed the mass adoption of coffee into daily routines and concurrent production industrialization and commercialization. Folgers and foul instant coffees of that ilk constituted the First Wave.

With personal relationships with individual farmers and growing regions, meticulous small-batch roasting methods and an emphasis on quality rather than quantity, Third Wave roasters like Stumptown, Blue Bottle and Counter Culture have confirmed that the third time’s the charm. Bags of beans from Third Wave roasters frequently highlight the coffee farm’s name, the growing region, the varietal, the roast date and sometimes the farmer’s name. It’s not even uncommon to see the altitude at which the coffee cherries grew, to the nearest 100 feet above sea level, labeled prominently. Third Wave coffee is meant for consumption within days to, at most, a couple weeks from the roast date. Keurig K-Cups and Starbucks beverages, on the other hand, contain coffee roasted weeks to many months prior to brewing. While establishing that good, freshly-roasted, black coffee eclipses pure functionality, Third Wave coffee threatens Starbucks by tempting their quality-conscious patrons who haven’t yet run off to lower-priced, quality-comparable competitors.

The current picture of the coffee industry is nebulous. For the benefit of coffee farmers’ livelihoods, growing countries’ economies and drinkers’ palates, hopefully Third Wave roasters will prevail over their frilly, quality-impersonating predecessors. The sheer omnipresence and brand power of Second Wave chains, however, could prove unshakeable in the end.

 

Could the meteoric rise in popularity of the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte have catalyzed a “Pumpkin Boom”? The recent craze for everything pumpkin and a correlated rise in pumpkin sales begs the seductive question of whether a seasonal, brand-specific drink could have revitalized an entire industry.

Some of you may be hearing about the Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL) for the first time, but others have eagerly been waiting for its reintroduction as the drink is offered exclusively in the fall. Since Starbucks first introduced the drink in 2003, to the dismissive predictions of many, the PSL has seen a phenomenal rise in popularity. Starbucks has now sold over 200 million cups of the PSL, making it Starbuck’s most popular seasonal drink. Each year, Twitter and Facebook statuses loudly clamor the arrival of the PSL. In fact, the Twitter account, @TheRealPSL, enjoys close to a million followers.

Following Starbuck’s success with PSL, there has been an explosion of pumpkin related beverages and foods. McDonalds launched its own pumpkin lattes in 2013, and Dunkin’ Donuts added pumpkin flavors to muffins, donuts and coffees. Baskin Robbins, Kraft, Oreo and even Pringles have introduced pumpkin flavors to their product. Pumpkins and pumpkin products have successfully been marketed as a comfort food that inspires warm image of Thanksgiving, home and the beauty of the fall. Nielson, a global information and measurement firm that enables companies to understand consumer behavior, reports that sales of pumpkin-flavored foods and beverages increased 14% from 2012 to 2013.

In conjunction with this “pumpkin craze” of sorts, pumpkin sales have risen 34% in the last five years, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Virginia, which had no pumpkin farms 15 years ago, now has over 4000 acres of pumpkins. Several commentators from CNN and NBC have thus suggested that the PSL was responsible. Individual farmers have reported that they have seen a significant rise in pumpkin sales since the PSL debuted. Jamie Jones of Jones Family Farms (Shelton, Conn) estimates that sales on his farm are up 25%. While the drink does not even include any real pumpkin in its ingredients, people have argued that PSL inspired a craze for pumpkin related foods that increased overall demand for pumpkins across the country.

While this is an appealing theory, it is debatable whether the PSL could have single handedly caused a boom in pumpkin sales. The link between the rise of a celebrity drink and an increase in pumpkin sales seems tenuous at best. Most of the pumpkins produced go into filling Thanksgiving pies and it is unlikely that seasonal drinks and pastries could significantly increase overall demand. Instead, experts point to the fact that increased sales could simply be due to increased production. In other words, they argue that there had always been latent demand for pumpkin but that limited production, along with bad agricultural conditions over the past years which prevented farmers from meeting demand. Second, some argue that the growth in pumpkin sales since 2009 could simply be attributed to the recovery from the 2008 recession. All things equal, increased spending power translates into a greater desire to spend on holiday-associated goods. Finally, experts point to the fact that overall value of US crop sales has been continually rising, implying that the rise in pumpkin sales isn’t such an exceptional phenomenon. The rise in pumpkin sales thus more likely reflects a market that is moving from a state of shortage in supply to one that is able to meet aggregate demand. To the extent that demand is increased, this is more likely dependent on factors like population and increased disposable income.

However, if the pumpkin craze has one definite lesson for the rest of us, it will be the sheer power of marketing force (or shall we even say, genius?) of Starbucks. Before deciding to launch the PSL, Starbucks invited customers to pick a theoretical latte (mostly variations of chocolate or caramel) that included a pumpkin pie latte option. The pumpkin pie latte fell near-bottom flat. As if to prove the survey’s point, Einstein Bros Bagels launched a pumpkin-flavored latte before Starbucks did, but quietly withdrew it from the menu. But where the Einstein experiment failed, Starbucks became sensational. With a widespread outreach via social media, and careful emphasis of the fall atmosphere, momentum rose slowly but surely. With a bit of cinnamon or nutmeg the drink could be made at any time of the year but Starbucks cleverly emphasized that that the drink was available for a limited time only, fuelling the instinct to get the PSL now before it disappears. Starbucks enjoyed such success that even Einstein Bros Bagels hopped back onto the wagon with its own slew of pumpkin-infused coffees and bagels.  The drink has  proved itself a heavenly concoction that combines homely comfort with freshly brewed coffee.

 

Agralogics calls itself the “Internet of Food” company. Based in Sunnyvale, CA, Agralogics helps farmers by providing them with detailed analytics about their crops – information about everything from weather, thermal energy, soil quality, pollination, and much more. The firm is a unicorn of sorts in Silicon Valley, where tech-driven innovation in agriculture is secondary to flashier, consumer-facing products.

The DBJ sat down with co-founder and CTO Sanjay Dayal to learn more about Agralogics and the food ecosystem.

Dartmouth Business Journal (DBJ): Tell us about the data you collect.

Sanjay Dayal (SD): We look at data not as a means to an end, but almost an end in itself. First, we take data from the public domain. There’s a lot of data around satellite imagery, weather, soil, crops, pests, plant phenologies, growth stages, and much more.

Then there is partner data. There are sensor networks, which are generating an amazing volume of data, at increasing velocity.

Then there is private data, which comes from our customers. This could be collaboration noise or ‘chatter’, it could be how much water they applied, or how much pesticide they are using.

We can see that there’s an explosion of data. Whenever there’s an explosion, there is blindness. Despite so much data being produced, it’s not actually making things clearer. Because of the volume of data, you don’t know what’s relevant and what’s not.

To give you an example, there are soil sensors, which can tell you about 160 different characteristics of the soil. How do you map that to what is relevant to your crop production at different stages? It’s a hard problem. The simplest way is to do a linear regression, try to find what’s important, and then do some kind of closed loop sampling. But it just doesn’t work, because next year, the temperatures are completely different.

So I think what is needed is not necessarily giving data to our customers, but really giving them context.

I’ll give you another example. The CDC does flu modeling. It says “this is how flu is going to spread.” Google does that simply from its users, who are doing searches on ‘flu’. It can actually find out how the flu is spreading better than the CDC, just by looking at searches in different parts of the country. Data has a lot of insights, but just data itself is so much that for most people. It’s unusable. What we do is extract context from it, and then provide that context to our customers.

“Data has a lot of insights, but just data itself is so much that for most people, it’s unusable.”

DBJ: With data coming from the government and sensors, do you foresee problems with expansion in areas where that infrastructure doesn’t exist?

SD: We are very agnostic of where the data comes from. We are not dependent on the data coming in a specific format. We have built our backend to consume as much or as little of the data as is available. If we only get data on high and low temperatures, we will consume that and extrapolate other characteristics. But then there are weather stations which not only give you highs and lows, they give you surface temperature, humidity, wind speed, all kinds of stuff. And that type of data is pretty much available for most regions in the world.

There are at least eight or nine public domain satellites which give you reasonably high resolution data for the entire world. More and more, people are also moving towards putting sensors in their soil. And there’s a lot of math in the background. For places where you don’t have these things, we can do a first-order or second-order approximation.

Now, as more accurate data is available, we can improve our model, and our ability to predict. For regions you don’t have data, you do sampling and then modeling. For regions you have more data, you are more accurate.

I would say that for 90% of the globe, most of the basic data is available. And since this is just the start, we believe that in 10 or 15 years, because of the pressures of global warming, population growth, and unpredictability of weather, we will have more and more precision, which we’ll need when it comes to how we produce, distribute, and consume our food.

So I think your question is very valid in that there are regions where data isn’t fully available, but there are workarounds.

DBJ: Suppose I am a farmer, and I say “My family’s been doing this for generations, I don’t need anyone telling me how to grow my crops.” What would you say?

SD: We are not trying to tell you how to grow your crop, because we know you do that much better than us. But what we can do is make your life easier. Things that you need, the information that you need, we can provide readily to you, on any device you work with.

What crops do you grow, and where do you grow them? It’s a mathematical problem, basically. But the variables are so many, and the volume of data is so large, that individuals cannot do it. It’s not only about how much water you put in, it’s also about the other things. Is my land too wet or too dry? What phenological stage is my plant in? If you’re spraying a chemical the week before flowering, your flowers may not pollinate properly. Things like that are very contextual. Growers know about these things, but we want to make this information so easily available that they do not have to work for it.

Here’s an example. Food production doesn’t happen on Gregorian calendars. You cannot say, “I have planted my tomatoes in April, so I will get a harvest on the first of August.” Tomatoes don’t grow that way. Tomatoes grow based on how much thermal energy is given to that plant. If it’s colder, it will take longer. If it’s hotter, it will take a shorter period of time. You might have heard of the Pennsylvania groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, which people use to predict whether the winter will be short or long.

And guess what? Most farmers have this clock in their heads today. They say “March is warm this year, so I think I should plant early, because this year kind of resembles how it was four years ago.” They are all working in their minds. What we can do is give them a calendar based on a thermal clock. This tells them that in two months time, this much thermal energy will be given to your plant. And this amount of thermal energy looks like what you got three years ago.

Just that information is very important for the farmer to say “I’ll do what I did three years ago, because I had a great crop that year.”

A lot of planning in the farm happens around when it is hot or not, when it has rained or not rained, how much water has been given to my soil, both by nature and by me? How is the soil losing water, because that determines when I need to water my plants again. All of that is done by heuristics, and because conditions change so fast, your past wisdom may not be applicable to your current situation.

What we can do is help by doing a large-scale analysis of, for example California, and understand how water availability is changing based on reservoir levels, aquifers, etc. We can predict that, and tell a farmer, “these are the new areas that you can expand,” if their current areas are becoming less productive. All of that is very data-driven, and that’s where we think we can help the entire food ecosystem.

The biggest problem for today is that people work for data – data doesn’t work for them, especially in the food ecosystem. We want to turn that on its head.

DBJ: Do you think Agralogics will get to the point where its technology can predict a drought, or a massive crop blight?

SD: Absolutely. I think some of that work is already done by some companies. You might have heard of Climate Corp. Their claim to fame was that they could provide rates for crop insurance based on the weather.

What we have is not only weather-based data, but we have soil data, private data, management practices. The combined data is a much better predictor of success than just the weather. In a few years, I think we’ll have enough statistically significant data worldwide that our system could start to approach that problem.

Right now we’re focused on California, which provides a great sample. We have customers from 24 different crops, across all counties, using our platform. We can actually, in an anonymized way, what’s happening in their fields, both from remote sensing and their private data. From this, we can make larger scale predictions. We’re not there yet, because we need more data. But I think we’ll be there soon.

DBJ: In this day and age, data privacy is very important. But without using private data, is it possible to make such predictions regarding droughts and other phenomenon?

SD: All private data is never shared with anyone else. This is like Google doing an anonymized analysis of your Gmail, but not sharing those contents with anyone. It’s in a very similar spirit, where we only use anonymized data from our customers for our analysis.

Coming back to your first question, ‘can this be done with only public data?’ It can’t. That’s why Google has the public data, but they can’t do it. There is no feedback loop telling them that their analysis is right or wrong. It’s like a scientist only having theories that they can’t test.

So it’s very important to have that private data.

DBJ: You mentioned ‘chatter’. Could you elaborate on that?

SD: When we talk about data, we aren’t just talking about ‘transactional data’, such as how much water or pesticide I used. It’s also about how you came to the decision to apply this much water, what ‘chatter’ happened prior to that decision. Think about a decision to apply a certain amount of water being a communication between the ground staff and the field supervisor. We want to capture that chatter, and see if there was a better way to collaborate. Because unless you optimize that process, the outcome will always be suboptimal.

It’s not just about what happened, but also how it happened.

Around that, we are creating collaboration. So think about a Facebook wall, where field staff collaborate with everyone else around pesticide management, land management, pollination, and the food supply chain. Collaboration between the grower and the processor. Collaboration then between the processor and the distributor. It’s a highly connected ecosystem.

If you look at the food graph, it is superconnected. It is more connected than Facebook. Facebook is a relatively uniform graph, where each person has around the same number of friends. The food graph is much more connected. The way the farmers are connected to consumers: it’s not six degrees of separation. It’s sometimes two degrees of separation,  sometimes 10 degrees of separation. So the graph complexity is pretty high. And these are not reciprocal relationships. So once you look at the graph and say, my god, this graph has to be the basis of any information flow and understanding, you come to that “aha” moment. It’s the data and the ‘chatter’, in the system which needs to be captured first, in order to optimize what’s going on.

DBJ: What has been Agralogics’s biggest challenge?

SD: Every startup has some basic challenges that all startups face. Having a startup is like having a baby. I have two, so I always compare them. Besides the work, it is a lot of faith. You need to believe that what you’re proposing has value. Most of the time, that value is not seen immediately. There is a lot of that effort and proselytizing you have to do, for people who are the change makers, to see that value.

When you try to drive something as big as what we’re trying to do, you cannot do it alone. We need the opinion makers, the people who can make things happen, to be on our side. And we believe that it has to be a much bigger effort than who we are – a tiny little company.

Especially for Agralogics, I see that as a big challenge. We are not trying to come up with a better algorithm to match consumers with products. We are trying to disrupt the food ecosystem. There are very powerful stakeholders who we have to work with, and convince that what we are proposing is good for all of us. And that’s definitely a challenge. We will continue to do that because we believe in this.

DBJ: Where do you see Agralogics in 10 years? or maybe 5 years?

SD: Where we want to be is a ubiquitous platform for anything related to food collaboration. Collaboration can be as simple as the ability of a food processor to inform its customers about what is in their food. For example if there is a pesticide scare, I as a consumer should be able to scan my label, and get a response saying that this particular product is completely free of pesticides. Or the label should be able to tell me exactly how many miles away this was produced. Or it should be able to tell me its actual nutritional content. Today, an apple is an apple is an apple. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an organic apple, whether it grew in rich soil, or whether it was a hydroponic apple. You get the same nutrition information for all of them today. So that is one type of collaboration, where the consumers want to find out information about food.

The other type of collaboration is that which enables growers to grow their crops more optimally. Suppose a bank is trying to give a loan to a farmer, and they want to understand their risks. Right now, the farmer would have to submit documents, monitoring of his fields. The bank guys have to physically visit the fields to make sure the crops are growing.

And then there’s a predictive side of it. Based on all this data, we can start to help countries, financial markets, future markets, to plan better on how to grow food and feed humanity.

But unless we have the data, we’ll never get there. So our first phase is to make sure that the platform is ubiquitous, or at least used by enough people, and enough stakeholders in the ecosystem, that we can go to our second purpose, which is to plan at a much larger scale, at a county, state, national, or even continental scale.

DBJ: That’s great, because my last question was going to be you see any humanitarian potential for Agralogics?

SD: That’s what drives us. It’s a big dream, but all big dreams start small.

DBJ: Is there anything else you wanted to mention Agralogics?

SD: We are about a year old company. One thing I would say is that there are some visionary investors. We are just a seed stage company right now, but we already have some of the most visionary investors in Silicon Valley, who are willing to part with some of their money in pursuit of this dream, which is very satisfying, because sometimes me and [my co-founder] Soumesh say to ourselves ‘We’re not smoking dope, are we?’, and when there are so many very smart people willing to help you, then I think it’s a confirmation that it’s some good stuff. Support of people who are influential is what I believe is the key for doing something at a scale of the problem that we’re trying to address. So far, we have had very good encouragement from people who are the fathers of the Silicon Valley.

Now we have customers, who have validated our solution. Most of the customers we have presented this to are wowed. They tell us that “we were waiting for something like this.” We are very happy to report that there is a strong adoption that is happening as we speak.

DBJ: You’ve worked at startups before. How is it different as a co-founder?

SD: The startup journey is very challenging. This is my first startup as a founder, but I have done two more startups before this. One of them went public, and one of them busted. Then I was at Sybase in its very early stages pre-IPO. I have seen phenomenal successes, and phenomenal failures, but mostly from the eyes of an employee. This time, I am seeing things from the eyes of a founder, and it’s very different. But it’s very exciting. Because that ability to pursue a dream, and seeing the milestones, is more satisfying than anything you can imagine as an employee. The only other feeling better than this was the birth of my sons. It’s at that level.

In 2009, in a promotional presentation to prospective investors, Susan Payne, CEO of the largest land investment fund in Southern Africa, touted Africa as “the last frontier for finding alpha.” Her company, Emergent Asset Management, a private limited liability company based in London, has invested over 540 million dollars in land acquisitions and controls 100,000 hectares of land in a dozen sub- Saharan countries. Once the industrial agricultural projects are fully operational, Emergent Asset Management expects to make annual returns of twenty-five percent or more. Emergent Asset Management is one of many foreign investment companies participating in a massive rush to acquire huge tracts of land spanning the entire African continent. Triggered by the recent financial crisis and high global food prices, investment banks, hedge funds, international agribusinesses, commodity traders, and even governments have amassed an estimated 32.8 million hectares of land in Africa in their quest for high returns and potential profit from future food crises. These corporations claim that they will bring modernization and spur a long needed “rejuvenation of African agriculture”. Agricultural yields will increase tenfold and hunger and poverty will be eradicated.

However, critics assert that talk of eradicating hunger in Africa is simply a cover for the exploitation of natural resources by powerful international corporations. Abetted by the World Bank, outside investors are introducing an industrial model of agriculture, connected to large far-off markets, in complete disregard of local communities. Large scale commoditization of agriculture, with the introduction of genetically engineered seeds protected by Western patent law, are in effect disenfranchising local communities in a movement that can qualify as nothing less than a dispossession on a massive scale and a new twenty-first century form of colonialism.

In most of the developing world, small scale farming remains the most basic foundation of life, playing a crucial economic as well as social and cultural role in local communities. For centuries, the agriculture of developing countries was built upon the local resources of land and water, capitalizing on local seed varieties and indigenous knowledge of farming practices. Farmers save and share seeds, and for tens of thousands of years have been practicing seed selection to develop unique local varieties of food crops.  Professor Miguel Altieri from the University of Berkeley writes in “Agro-ecology, Small Farms, and Food Sovereignty” (2009) that traditional subsistence farming nurtures biologically and genetically diverse small farms with a “robustness” and “built in resilience” that forms the basis of indigenous cultures.

However, seeds are big business for Western corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta which seek to sell their patented genetically modified seeds throughout the developing world, including Africa.  Genetically modified seeds require agricultural chemicals, herbicides and pesticides, also manufactured by the same multinational companies, to be productive.  By imposing a chemical input and GMO seed based agriculture on African farmers, these companies are creating a new form of dependence among African farmers, and new sources of profits for foreign shareholders. Unfortunately, powerful international bodies, such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, as well as certain UN affiliated entities, encourage or even coerce African nations to allow Monsanto and Syngenta and other big Agribusiness suppliers into their markets. Under the banner of modernizing agriculture, and also through trade agreements, these companies are given access to the African market where they have few competitors and where farmers often feel that they have no choice but to join the chemical agriculture bandwagon.

While large corporations want to convert African farmers to an agricultural model dependant on chemical input, other Western and Chinese business interests simply want to acquire African land to farm. To this end pressure is put on African governments to “reform” their legal systems governing ownership rights. Traditional African tenure laws view land as a complex interlocking and overlapping system of rights, in which private property cannot be categorized as private property in the same way that it is in much of the Western world. Western conceptions of ownership, Parker Shipton contends in “Land and Culture in Tropical Africa: Soils, Symbols, and the Metaphysics of the Mundane” (1994), “impose alien assumptions or emotional charges on African tenures. Legal language implying human mastery over land misfits some peoples who speak of it more often the other way around”. While true equality is elusive in Africa as elsewhere, Shipton argues that nevertheless egalitarianism has been a “stock theme” in African anthropology. As such, he contends, “An ideal often perceived to underline indigenous tropical tenure systems across the continent might be called fairness and flexibility. According to this principle, access to land should go to those who need and can use it, and no one should starve for special want of it.”

In “Seized: The 2008 land grab for food and financial security,” Grain, an international non-profit research organization, chronicles how foreign corporations are getting new forms of control over farmland to produce food not for local communities but for an international export market. A number of African countries, such as Malawi, Senegal and Nigeria were identified as offering fertile land, relative water availability, and potential farm productivity growth. Within five years, a dizzying 3.28 Million hectares of land across Africa was amassed by a multitude of corporations and countries across the world, and this trend is expected to continue as up to thirty percent of all arable land has been identified as potentially up for grabs.

BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, is one of many that have identified African agriculture as a new source of profit. In 2008, it set up a $200 million agricultural hedge fund used to acquire farmland around the world. The life of such a fund is typically 10 years with expected annual rates of returns as high as 400%, with the clear understanding that they will build an industrialized infrastructure in order to mine as much output from the land as possible.  Corporations and countries usually strike deals to acquire land under the pretext that it is “fallow”, but Grain points out that this is rarely the case as local farmers typically utilize land on a rotational basis in order to enhance soil fertility. In other instances local communities are simply not accounted for at all. Jettie Word, policy analyst at the Oakland Institute, reports that a map produced by state technicians in Senegal, before leasing twenty thousand acres of land to Senhuile Senethanol, confirmed the existence of only six of the forty villages that were using the land which was subsequently leased to foreign companies.

The lease and purchase of farmland previously used by small subsistence village based farmers robs millions of Africans of their livelihoods. Furthermore, the elimination of small farmers undermines the moral and ethical underpinnings of rural culture and society. In Stolen Harvest, Vandana Shiva argues that hidden behind complex free trade treaties promoted by Western countries and the World Trade Organization, are shrewd ways to essentially disenfranchise local farmers. “As farmers are transformed from producers into consumers of patented agricultural products, as markets are destroyed locally and nationally but expanded globally, the myth of free trade and the global economy becomes a means for the rich to rob the poor of their right to food and even their rights to life.”

In 2013, leaders of the most powerful western countries convened at the G8 Summit in London to address malnutrition and hunger in the third world. The summit culminated with the signing of the Nutrition for Growth Compact. Hailed as a great humanitarian success by most of the media, the compact received financial commitments from western and Chinese governments that surpassed expectations. Essentially the compact offers African countries public and private money if they strike agreements with G8 countries and their private sectors to ”develop” agriculture. Many critics view this foreign aid as a Trojan horse designed to help Western corporations to exploit third world resources. Critics such as George Monbiot, a columnist for The Guardian, argue that G8 countries use their leverage and funds to force African countries to undertake structural reform, rewrite laws facilitating foreign access to lands, and undertake partnerships with global corporate partners such as Monsanto, Cargill, Dupont and Synegenta.

Under the official purpose of “lifting 50 million people out of poverty over the next 10 years”, this deal is essentially a self interested effort by the G8 countries to take land away from the very people who supposedly need to be lifted out of poverty, and reallocating them to these global corporations. The African countries that agreed to sign the Nutrition growth summit must comply with the demands of the G8 countries or they will not receive any aid. Ivory Coast must “facilitate access to land for smallholder farmers and private enterprises” which in practice means evicting smallholder farmers for the benefit of private enterprises. Already it has signed deals with French, Algerian, Swiss and Singaporean companies leasing 600,000 hectares of prime arable land which Grain reported in “ G8 and land grabs in Africa” will displace tens of thousands of peasant rice farmers. Similarly, Mozambique, Ghana and Tanzania must rewrite laws to promote these same types of “partnerships” and are obliged to draw up new laws granting intellectual property rights in seeds under the pretext that this will “promote private sector investment”. These new intellectual property rights essentially turn staple crops into patented property, owned by companies such as Monsanto and Cargill, which criminalizes sharing and saving seeds thus eliminating centuries of collective innovation by farmers and peasants.

In essence, foreign development undertaken under the pretext of “fighting hunger” or “eradicating poverty” is simply a channel through which to usher in foreign private capital with little regard for the local communities.  “What we are seeing,” writes Vandana Shiva is “the emergence of food totalitarianism, in which a handful of corporations control the entire food chain and destroy alternatives… Local markets are being deliberately destroyed to establish monopolies over seed and food systems.”

Under the auspices of the World Trade Organization and agreements such as the Nutrition for Growth Summit, western countries are forcing third world countries to recognize US style patent regimes. “Instead of the culture of the seed, which privileges reciprocity, mutuality, permanence, and exhaustless fertility, corporations are redefining the culture of the seed to be about piracy, predations, the termination of fertility, and the engineering of sterility”. This new system, Shiva argues, “is transforming farmers highest duties- to save seed and exchange seed with neighbors- into crimes.” Under the pretext of foreign aid and development, the G8 Summit ultimately aims to facilitate a market infiltration of foreign agri-businesses into Africa, turning local farmers into disenfranchised tenant farmers who can no longer claim title to the land they till or the crop they produce.

The new waves of agricultural development have drastic effects on pastoralists, traveling herdsman who follow a seasonal migration pattern to find land for their cattle. About 40% of land had up until recently been dedicated to pastoralism but recent development and foreign land grabs are compromising their access to land and the means of their subsistence. With the guidance of the World Bank, African governments enacted land privatization policies that have made it increasingly difficult for these traveling herdsmen to move across land. In 2006, the Tanzanian government authorized the eviction of Pastoralist communities from the Usangu basin in the Southern highlands of Tanzania without offering them any other land to use. As huge tracts of lands are taken away from them, competition for grazing space has exacerbated conflict and endangered Pastoralism as a viable lifestyle.

There is no doubt that African farming needs support—millions of families struggle to feed themselves, don’t have access to clean water, and die from poverty every year.  The Food Policy Research Institute says that Africa needs to increase its food production by 40%. However, there is no evidence that the arrival of Western agribusiness enriches local people.  A small wealthy urban African elite and foreign stockholders and owners reap most of the benefits.

Could it be that we are once again seeing exploitation and colonialism hidden behind false humanitarian rhetoric? Is this simply a new age of imperialism driven not by lofty political ideals but rather corporate profits?

It is time to acknowledge that combating household food insecurity will involve more than just increasing food production and must instead emphasize access. Helping poor households in rural Africa feed themselves requires introducing low-cost, sustainable enhancements to farming. Intercropping, agro-forestry, composting and soil conservation are all valuable measures to enhance soil fertility and control pests without massive cash outlays for expensive chemicals and fertilizers.

 

 

 

Most of us know that tomatoes come from vines, but few are actually aware of the story fro behind the juicy red fruit that we often find at our dinner table. In fact, most people can only trace their tomato’s heritage as far back as the supermarket. Therefore, this spring, wanting to learn more about the story behind the famous fruit and the process it takes to bring it from the vine onto my plate, I took a trip to Immokalee, Florida, as part of Tucker Foundation’s Alternative Spring Break Program.

Immokalee is a small migrant town in Florida, about 30 miles inland from wealthy beach resorts such as Naples and Fort Meyers. According to the New York Times, it is a town of “taco joints and backyard chicken coops where many farmworkers still live in rotting shacks or dilapidated, rat infested trailers.” The rent to live in a single trailer exceeds their income, so most live as multiple families under one very small roof in packed and deplorable conditions. Although in recent years, “affordable” housing communities have been built in the Ommokalee area, the majority of these homes cost between $80,000 and $100,000, a hefty price tag that new migrant families cannot afford. Immokalee stands in stark contrast to the wealthy beach resorts only 30 miles away, and it is not a huge stretch to say that it almost resembles a town in a developing country.

Although Immokalee is generally reasonably safe, it nonetheless gets it share of crime and violence. In 2008, a case of modern day slavery was discovered in the center of the town where a group of undocumented migrants were imprisoned in a trailer house and forced to work against their will in fields for no pay. For many years, lack of labor inspection made migrant workers in this community extremely vulnerable to unethical working conditions. Indeed, until recently, migrant workers were forced to catch a bus to work at 4 a.m. but would only receive compensation for hours logged after 8 a.m. During the hot and humid summers, workers, not permitted to take breaks, suffered hardship under the grueling conditions. Verbal abuse, including racist remarks and discriminatory behavior, was widespread as the unregulated farms at which they worked were largely free of any government oversight.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, focused on advocating for better conditions for migrant farm workers, has been educating local farm workers about their rights and protections under the Fair Food Code of Conduct. Their efforts led to the creation of the Fair Food Program, a unique worker-led, market enforced social responsibility program which aims to address issues of unfair wages and sexual assault in the fields. Sexual assault, violence, and unfair wages, is not unique to Immokalee and has plagued farm worker communities around the world. Indeed it is estimated that 50 to 80 percent of all female farmworkers have been sexually harassed while working in the fields according to the Huffington Post.

The Fair Food Program involves over a dozen major food retailers, including Wal-Mart and Whole Foods, who have signed on and committed to only buying tomatoes from trusted and verified producers that provide safe and fair working conditions. Additionally, the retailers that have agreed to participate in the Fair Food Program have pledges to pay one more cent per pound of tomatoes with the money going directly to supplementing the tomato pickers wages. The companies have also pledged to drop any suppliers that violate the standards of the program.

In the past 10 years, the program has had considerable success. By having as many large retailers sign on as possible, tomato producers are left with no choice but to abide by the new regulations. Consumer and retailer pressure has made the program incredibly effective and migrant workers have directly benefited from the program. There has been a significant reduction in the amount of reported sexual harassment cases in the fields. Thanks to the additional penny per pound, the tomato pickers are paid an additional $60 to $80 a week, amounting to an additional $4 million a year received by tomato pickers according to the New York Times.

Although the Fair Food Program is not perfect, it sets a precedent for future change. The Fair Food Program currently applies only to tomato producers and there are many large retailers that have yet to sign on whose presence would greatly solidify the program. However, Industries worldwide can learn a lot from the Fair Food Program. Hailed but the New York Times as “one of the great human rights success stories of our day,”  it has demonstrated the substantial impact consumers and retailers can have on improving the well being of workers around the world.

While marching in Lakeland, FL against Publix, a major food retailer in Florida, I was amazed to see the spirit and will of the community where the national movement was initially born. Marching for three miles, they chanted, “Up, up with the fair food nation; down down with the exploitation,” unified in their strong commitment to fight for what they know is right.

Kenya is soon to become the next hotbed for genetically modified crops, with its government’s intention to introduce new GM cotton and corn varieties within the next few years. While proponents hail this development as a huge step in the fight against hunger, their notions of boosting productivity to “feed the world” are divorced from how GM crops would actually increase the vulnerability of Kenya’s poorest farmers. In fact, small farmers are the most susceptible to famine in Africa, and so any agricultural development approach needs to be evaluated in terms of its effect on farmers.

GM crops render the agricultural system highly capital- intensive, which is not the right path for Africa’s smallest farmers. The seeds themselves are expensive, and they require massive amounts of chemical fertilizer and water in order to grow. Here the social consequences of India’s Green Revolution must be heeded: the deployment of high- yielding crop varieties and chemical inputs were inaccessible for the nation’s smallest farmers and benefited only large-scale growers. India may have raised its food output, but it came at a great cost to the rural poor. And today, even the greatest beneficiaries of the Green Revolution are now suffering, as farmers’ indebtedness—due to reliance on costly chemical inputs—has led to their suicides.

The development of GM crop technologies sets the stage for agricultural research institutions and multinational seed corporations to trample on farmers’ rights. Many of the seeds controlled by multinationals actually contain traits found in farmers’ traditional crop varieties. They take copies of farmers’ local seed varieties, add new genetic traits, and then sell the seeds back to those same farmers. What an injustice–farmers now have to purchase the genetic resources over which they once had control. When in the 1990s Kenya was forced to slash public funding for agriculture because of World Bank- imposed structural adjustment programs, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute was starved for cash and had to turn to the private sector. The result: international corporations took control of the nation’s public research agenda, a reality that continues to this day.

If farmers’ rights are to guide the agricultural development in Kenya, then traditional seed varieties must be at the top of the agenda. Farmers can harvest and re-plant the seeds every year, shielding them from expensive seed markets. For the past two months I’ve been visiting smallholder farmers in Kenya, and my conversations with them have revealed that the local seeds are the best adapted to local climatic conditions, rendering them the best option for resilience to drought. Proponents of technological fixes to hunger often assume they have all the answers to dealing with drought, but neglect how farmers’ own indigenous knowledge—like traditional seeds—are a viable solution. Likewise, chemical fertilizer is not the only way to nourish soils; farmers can also employ nitrogen-fixing crops, crop residues, and livestock manure to provide nitrogen to soils.

Indeed, the farmers whom I’ve interviewed in Kenya have told me almost invariably that their biggest challenges are the high cost of seed and fertilizer. It seems, then, that what the development establishment and multinational agribusinesses hail as the answer to food insecurity—external inputs—is actually a key threat to farmers’ livelihood stability. Thus the problem with today’s corporate- controlled global food system is that it forecloses consideration of alternative forms of seed and soil nutrients, which are best suited to the poorest farmers. “Food sovereignty” is the umbrella term that represents these approaches contesting high-input agriculture.

Locally-controlled food systems also warrant a focus on the so-called “orphan crops”—sweet potato, cassava, sorghum, and millet. These crops have largely been abandoned in Kenya in favor of corn, which farmers told me they grow for market opportunities. Yet the orphan crops are important for nutrition, particularly at a time when the need to integrate agriculture and nutrition is garnering increasing attention in high-level policy forums. One challenge is to develop local markets for orphan crops as a way to complement their contribution to farmers’ own nutrition.

Farmers must have a greater say in the global agricultural research agenda in order to mainstream the sorts of approaches that don’t rely on external seed and inputs. The international research establishment— represented by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research —has largely focused on improving the productivity of globally-traded commodity crops while neglecting locally-important crops. Yet one promising development is that small farmers have their voices heard in the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA).

“Farmers have been able to initiate a lot of reforms,” said Philip Kiriro, the farmers’ representative on the ASARECA board and the President of the Eastern Africa Farmers’ Federation. “We’ve been able to get researchers to expand their insights to capture orphan crops that are very important for small farmers.”

Furthermore, the International Institute for Environment and Development recently convened a “citizens’ jury” in Mali that brought together farmers to make recommendations on the governance of agricultural research. They suggested a focus on the production and storage of traditional seed varieties, rather than hybrid or GM varieties.

Yet what’s striking to me is that high external-input industrial agriculture—the wrong approach for the poorest farmers—seems to be the prevailing view in Kenya. It is the approach supported by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which seeks to bring to the continent the same technical solutions seen in India and Latin America in the 1960s. But why are Kenyan government officials and prominent researchers supporting a type of agriculture that would be detrimental to their poorest farmers? I think this largely has to do with the hidden social costs of an agricultural system dependent on expensive chemical inputs and seeds. While large- scale food production systems in the West may produce massive amounts of food, government subsidies mask their social impact: after all, if farmers are guaranteed a minimum price for their crops, then they remain virtually unaffected by high chemical and seed costs. The fundamental problem is that industrial agriculture is judged narrowly by crop productivity but hardly at all by farmers’ livelihoods. So this model is problematic when transmitted to African countries, precisely because their farmers are affected by high input prices and crop price volatility.

It appears, then, that Kenya’s elites have been co-opted, by international institutions and corporations, into supporting a model for agriculture that would only exacerbate the susceptibility of its small farmers. We’re in an era where “good governance” means not only charting a course of market-led development but accepting as legitimate the arguments put forth by mainstream development institutions. Who, then, will stand up for the poor farmers at risk of losing control over their own food systems? Who will demonstrate that local, agro-ecological methods that don’t rely on high-yielding seeds and chemicals are perfectly capable of achieving food security?

The next few years are sure to be filled with activism on both sides of the crop biotechnology debate, and will serve as a test of whether the food sovereignty movement can effectively battle the intrusion of new crop technologies into Africa.

Ever since the 2008 global food crisis put agriculture back in the spotlight, the international development community seems to have zeroed in on three key themes—smallholder farmers, higher investment in agriculture, and increasing productivity.

Hardly is this approach more evident than Pepsi Co.’s involvement in chickpea production in Ethiopia, a project focused on increasing chickpea yields and helping smallholders get access to markets.

“What’s exciting about this is that in order to manufacture the product, they will buy from smallholders,” said Ertharin Cousin, the U.S. ambassador to the UN Food and Agriculture agencies in Rome.

“In those same places you have jobs being created that are off farm jobs that exist for unskilled labor that was previously unemployed. Those are the kinds of collective partnerships that smallholders benefit from and that the private sector helps drive.”

Yet if the Pepsi project is evidence of the increased attention to African agriculture, it also points to a fundamental problem: multinational corporations are able to legitimize their role in agricultural development by devoting their resources to boosting smallholders’ yields. But all this really does is perpetuate the myth that increasing yields will reduce hunger.

In fact, it is the large seed and agrochemical companies that benefit from the narrative that higher yields will solve world hunger—precisely because they can use that narrative to justify their highly technical approaches. These actors are able to gain acceptance by framing their initiatives as “development,” which inherently becomes associated with “goodwill” and “compassion.”

Yet despite the huge gains in productivity throughout the 20th century, there are nearly one billion hungry people in the world today—stark evidence that enhancing yields and ending hunger are not so closely correlated.

To me, this suggests the need for a fundamentally different vision for global agriculture. Most important, food systems must center on the multi-functionality of agriculture: nutrition objectives, rural livelihoods, climate change mitigation, and adaptation.

This vision was precisely emphasized by the International Assessment of Agriculture Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) — considered the most comprehensive review of the current global agriculture situation. Altogether, IAASTD represents a stark rebuttal to the highly reductionist approaches that assume yields to be the sole factor in improving food security.

However, the U.S. government refused to endorse IAASTD, largely, I suspect, on the basis that the strategies embraced by IAASTD may pose a threat to U.S. economic interests—namely the large seed and agrochemical companies that the U.S. government believes should be beneficiaries of U.S. international development policies.

Thus the U.S. government’s failure to endorse IAASTD essentially says something more broadly about agricultural development: corporations’ agricultural approaches are incompatible with the equitable model of agriculture espoused by IAASTD.

The agricultural transformation needed today should be anchored by “food sovereignty”—the idea that local communities have control over their markets, their farming practices, and their nutritional adequacy. Locally-led agricultural innovations—relying on agro-ecology—should be at the forefront, rather than the technical approaches often propagated by multinationa corporations and the U.S. government. Beyond their inherent environmental sustainability, these local knowledge-based practices are more socially inclusive and pro-poor, in the sense that farmers aren’t dependent on external inputs. One recent effort to spotlight such small farmer-centered food systems can be seen in the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet Project, focused on sun-Saharan Africa.

“Part of my job with Nourishing the Planet has been to highlight the things that funders and donors don’t know about—the innovations that farmer organizations without fancy websites are doing to prevent soil erosion in Mali, the work being done by Prolinnova in Ethiopia to make sure water gets to crops, the market garden projects in Niger that have helped women boost their incomes from $300 per year to more than $1,500,” Danielle Nierenberg, co-director of the project, told me. “These innovations are overlooked and they have a lot of potential to be replicated and scaled up all over Africa and beyond into Asia, Latin America, and even the United States.”

The challenge now is to redirect agricultural investment away from merely increasing yields and toward the IAASTD report’s idea that agriculture has a wide array of objectives.

“One of the biggest things I learned is that agriculture and farmers are often blamed for things [such as] deforestation and climate change,” Nierenberg said. “I think we’re seeing this shift that agriculture is emerging as a solution to the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges.”

The shift toward more pro-poor agriculture requires a fundamental rethinking of the neoliberal free market agenda that for decades has dominated the global food system. The result is that food systems are in some cases tailored more toward commodity production than toward guaranteeing food as a human right (this explains why some communities in Africa may export cocoa when they themselves are food insecure). Free market advocates assume that income generation will enable Africans to purchase food produced anywhere, and largely neglect the importance of food self-sufficiency. The fallacy inherent in this ideology came into sharp relief when the 2008 food price spike triggered riots in over 30 countries.

Indeed, the overemphasis on free market agriculture was embedded in European powers’ colonial structures in Africa, according to Macalester College geography professor Bill Moseley.

“The colonial powers in a sense changed local economies from ones largely based on subsistence or engaged in local regional trade, to ones that move away from subsistence production and start producing crops useful to the core powers,” Moseley said. “Related to this was the notion that colonies should be not a burden on imperial powers but be generating enough revenue to be self-sustaining. There was a big push for them to be more export-oriented.”

It appears that African countries’ subordination to Western powers, however, didn’t necessarily come to an end despite the dawn of independence. In response to the debt crisis plaguing many African countries in the 1980s, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund implemented structural adjustment programs, forcing African governments to slash their investments in the agriculture sector. “In theory governments had a choice, but if you wanted any access to international credit you had to adhere to this set of reforms—cutting back on government civil service, cuts to social services, and freer trade,” Moseley said.

The pitfalls of the structural adjustment programs have been acknowledged even by the World Bank itself. But at the same time, the ability for corporations such as Pepsi to legitimize their role in agricultural development suggests that the free market agenda underlying structural adjustment is still very much prevalent today.

That’s why we have to embrace a type of agriculture that suits the needs of the world’s poorest. This movement is going to have be bottom-up, led by African smallholder farmers who push their governments to make food a human right.