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A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.



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Entries since February 2011

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Organics and the Science of Farming

February 17, 2011 ·


Danilo working in his organic rice field.
Danilo made the switch to organic farming
for its economic benefits as well as to
avoid health problems caused by
chemical pesticides.

Photo by John Cavanagh.

This article was originally published on the YES! Magazine website.

One of the biggest myths about organic farmers is that they are “unscientific” and “backward.” After time in the southern Philippines with Danilo and Carlito, we learn something quite different.

Danilo is slight in build, with a deep tan and a shy but engaging smile. We stand at the edge of his hectare of neat, nearly mature, green rice stalks, our gaze drawn to Mt. Apo, the Philippines’ largest peak, rising majestically in the southwest. “It is all ‘zero-chem,’ that is to say organic,” Danilo tells us proudly.

It was the simple economics of organic farming that won Danilo over. He calculates that his costs have fallen from about $400 each planting-to-harvest cycle to roughly $160, and that his yields have dipped only a bit. Bottom line: he is making a lot more money each harvest. Every organic farming family we talked to reported lower costs and, as a result, liberation from the debts that haunted their lives. Health is also a key factor: Danilo describes the spells of dizziness that he used to suffer when spraying chemical pesticides before his switch to organic rice.

As we talk, “farmer scientist” Carlito pulls up on his motorcycle, dressed in a white racing jersey and dark glasses. Carlito works for a local citizens group called the Davao Provinces Rural Development Institute (DPRDI) that is helping farmers shift from chemical to organic rice and providing continued support after they do so. Carlito is not a formally trained agricultural scientist; he is largely self-taught and he scoffs at the chemically oriented mindset of the agricultural schools.

Bibing (left) and other women
making one of the natural
"concoctions" that have 
replaced chemical fertilizers
and pesticides in organic
agriculture. All the ingredients
can be grown at the farm
or purchased at the local

Photo by Robin Broad.

Danilo is concerned that some of his rice leaves have turned red recently, so he contacted Carlito. They fall into a deep discussion about whether to ignore the red leaves for now or spray them with what they are calling a “concoction.” Carlito is a humble yet animated person, with an easy, joking manner. A farmer himself, he knows that decisions about rice are life and death for farmers, and he treats Danilo with deep respect. In the end, they decide to make the final choice the next day when Carlito will stop by again.

We ask more about what’s in the “concoction” they’re thinking of spraying. Carlito invites us to his barrio where his wife Bibing and her neighbors agree to show us how to make the various natural “concoctions” that have replaced chemical fertilizers and pesticides in organic agriculture. We are, of course, game. At their home, Bibing and three friends feed us lunch. Then, they light a fire under a large pot filled with water, and tell us how they began to make these mixtures. “In 1997, the DPRDI taught us how to make eight different concoctions,” one tells us. “Some are made with fermented fruits, some with vegetables, some with fish bones or egg shells, or with seaweed. Some help prepare the soil; some discourage certain viruses or pests.”

Another woman adds: “All the ingredients are grown here or available at the local market. Each member of our group focused on one of the concoctions, and we sold quite a bit in the first few years.” Bibing laughs with pride as she describes their short-lived financial success: “Then, many farmers learned to make them on their own, and our sales went down.”

As the water starts to boil, Bibing stirs in carefully measured amounts of molasses and then seaweed. The fire is hot and, with sweat rolling off their faces, the women take turns stirring. As Carlito cuts bananas to ferment for another concoction, he explains that the recipes came originally from the innovations of Korean organic farmers. After the designated 45 minutes of cooking and stirring, the seaweed concoction is finished and ready for fermentation in an air-tight container.

The next afternoon, we travel back at Danilo’s rice field to see whether he has chosen to spray. He tells us that he and Carlito have decided that the red stalks are not dangerous at this point in the rice growing cycle. Instead, his nephew is now spraying an aged batch of the seaweed concoction cooked by Bibing’s group to make the rice stalks firmer as they grow heavier. 

“The timing of spraying is as important as what to spray,” Danilo explains. At around 5 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. each day, “the vegetation is moist with dew and comes alive with insects.” As we edge into his rice field, Danilo serves as our teacher of the animal life on and around his ripe stalks. In Hollywood, spiders periodically star in horror movies. In Danilo’s rice field, they are friends that eat the larvae of the “bad” stem borers. We discover a batch of bright red snail eggs, but Danilo is not concerned. They are a pest at planting time, he explains, because they eat the young rice shoots; now, close to harvest, they are helping by eating the weeds.

As we jot down the names and descriptions of various bugs and watch Danilo’s nephew spray, it’s clear that organic farming has evolved far beyond simple composting of biomass. It requires a mix of science, math, common sense, and hard work. Unlike chemical farming, with organic farming each day is new adventure of weeding, monitoring insects, making concoctions, and weighing options. To Danilo, this is empowering rather than overwhelming.

Many outsiders believe that the farmers who embrace chemical agriculture are the ones embracing science and progress. But in different farms around the world, we are discovering that the true pioneers of a healthier, debt-free, and more “scientific” food future are organic farmers such as Danilo. 

John and Robin

John Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Robin is a Professor of International Development atAmerican University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is on leave from directing the Institute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group. They are co-authors of three books on the global economy, and are currently traveling the country and the world to write a book entitled Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability. Over the decades, this husband and wife team has worked in a number of countries, including the Philippines, where Robin first lived in 1977-78.

Arizona Vigilante Declared Guilty on All Charges

February 15, 2011 ·

Via Colorlines:

This afternoon a Pima County, Arizona, jury found Minuteman border vigilante Shawna Forde guilty on two counts of first-degree murder for killing nine-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father Raul Flores Jr. in May 2009, the Arizona Daily Star reported.

Forde was also convicted of attempted first-degree murder for shooting Brisenia’s mother Gina Gonzalez, along with other aggravated assault and robbery charges.

When the judicial procedures following the murder of a 9-year-old and her father conclude in the sentencing of those responsible, it’s a sign that, at least in its corrective functions, the law has done its job. But in the larger scheme of things, the factors that gave rise to the monstrous Minuteman movement that claimed the lives of Brisenia and Raul Flores continue unchecked, and seem likely to stay that way for a long time.

Forde’s activism thrived in an era when Americans have become more alarmed about immigrants. In 2010, on average, American respondents believed that 39 percent of the population was born abroad, according to a Transatlantic Trends poll. The real number is about 14 percent. In Congress, the Democratic strategy to appease the anti-immigrant voices by engaging on their level of finger-waving discourse has lefts us farther away from immigration reform than before Obama took office. The DREAM Act is dead, and any version that could clear the GOP-dominated House would over-emphasize the enforcement that people like Forde want.

Latino voices and experiences continue to be shut out. The mass media did not cover this trial for months, and then only on the surface. In its own lethargic reaction, the FBI knew in advance that Forde’s group was planning to break in to houses where they suspected they could steal from drug cartels. Their surveillance and intelligence was useless in preventing this loss of life.

Shawna Forde, the gun-happy, conspiracy-minded member of the Minuteman American Defense, seemed to enjoy the attention she got by border-watching in this 2008 video dug up by Crooks and Liars: “When the sun goes down, all bets are off,” says a smiling Forde to a Norwegian TV crew that traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border. “I have my gun, and you’ll be very sorry that you did not have one.” Forde will be sentenced next week, and her two associates will go to jury trial later this year.

Our prayers remain with Brisenia’s family and the people in Arizona working everyday to bring this human rights crisis to an end.

The High Road to Profitability in the Restaurant Industry

February 14, 2011 ·

This Valentine's Day, the busiest restaurant day of the year,  I attended Behind the Kitchen Door summit at Eatonville Restaurant. The Summit brought attention to inequality in Washington DC's thriving restaurant industry and was organized by The Restaurant Opportunities Center of Washington, DC, Restaurant Opportunities Center United, and the Washington DC Restaurant Industry Coalition. About 200 people were in attendance and Eatonville Restaurant provided coffee, service, entertainment and breakfast.

The summit explained two routes to profitability in the restaurant industry:

  • The high road: liveable wages, health benefits including paid sick leave, and opportunities for advancement.
  • The low road: low-wage jobs, meager benefits and unsafe or even unlawful workplace conditions.

Among the speakers were Dr. William Spriggs, Assistant Secretary for Policy at the U.S. Dept of Labor; Barbara Ehrenreich, New York Times bestseller author and member of the board of trustees of IPS; DC councilman Phil Mendelson; Algeronon Austin from the Economic Policy Institute; Andy Shallal, owner of Eatonville and Busboys and Poets restaurants and also an IPS trustee; as well as other civic leaders and restaurant workers.

I was surprised to learn that the current federal wage for "tip workers" (those who rely on tips in addition to a baseline hourly pay) is $2.13. This is the same wage I made as a server 20 years ago. The wage has not increased since 1991. Ehrenreich reminded the audience that a living wage in DC, defined as the least needed to make ends meet in the city, is currently $12.50 per hour.

And did you know that about three-quarters of restaurant workers do not have paid sick days and that nearly two-thirds of them report that they have served or cooked while sick?

The lack of paid sick days not only endangers the worker and consumers, but also drives up health care costs for the businesses and the public as a result of worsening and spreading illness. According to a fact sheet from the National Partnership for Women & Families, workers who do not have paid sick days are more than twice as likely to use emergency room care than workers with access to paid sick days. Numbers increase for their children and relatives as they are unable to take off work to care for their loved ones when necessary.

Many "low road" restaurant owners will cite obstacles to profitability for their resistance to pay living wages and grant paid sick leave to their workers. However, beside being the right thing to do, it not only saves money in the long run to provide good wages and benefits, it can be highly profitable as evidenced by such successful "high road" restaurateurs as Andy Shallal.

Mr. Shallal is a pioneer in providing paid sick leave, living wages and opportunity for promotion to restaurant workers in his employ. His restaurants, I can attest, are packed virtually every night of the week with long waiting lines. This is a businessman who teaches us much about doing the right thing and being wildly successful in business at the same time.

So whether you are dining out for Valentine's Day, having coffee with colleagues midweek, or enjoying a cold one with friends on the weekend, please ask the management at the restaurant of your choice what road they take when it comes to being a good business owner and employer, and give your valuable business only to those who take the high road.

Now, that's love.

Liberation of a Nation: a Timeline

February 11, 2011 ·

Military Spending Cuts: Depends on what the Meaning of 'On the Table' Is

February 10, 2011 ·

Deficit pressure has put "everything on the table" for cuts, including the Pentagon. Everyone from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to President Barack Obama agrees on this. But what they mean by this is all over the map.

The budget Obama will present to Congress next week will likely begin what the Pentagon is billing as $78 billion in cuts to its budget over five years. In fact these are cuts to their plans for expansion, i.e., slowing a proposed increase is being defined as a cut.

While both Obama and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan pay lip service to the "defense is on the table" mantra, both also exempt the defense budget from their budgetary restraining actions: a five-year discretionary freeze, in Obama's case, and $100 billion in cuts, in Ryan's.

The president’s debt reduction commission proposed real cuts, but these would leave the military budget only 5 percent below where President Reagan jacked it up to militarily defeat the Soviet Union — shortly before its collapse.

Defense Secretary Gates describes even those modest potential cuts as "catastrophic."

Let's define budget cuts as spending less next year than this year. Nothing else should qualify.

Savings aren't just needed because of the nation's massive debt. We also need to address our security deficit. The civilian and uniformed military leadership agrees on a key point: U.S. foreign policy needs to be less dominated by the military. Achieving that goal would entail decreasing the proportion of resources devoted to offense (the military) relative to defense (homeland security) and prevention (non-military foreign engagement). IPS will score this proposed budget's mix of security expenditures, and report the results after Obama releases it.

Miriam Pemberton, an Institute for Policy Studies research fellow, leads the task force that produces the yearly Unified Security Budget for the United States with Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress.

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