Bittersweet Economy

Posted January 5, 2008

Categories: Articles

The breakfast that greeted me at my San Francisco hotel last week was bright, cheerful, and utterly appalling. The hotel management, with typical euphemism, called it a “continental breakfast.” But only the denizens of the great continent of sugar — which encompasses a large swath of America and some of its overseas dependencies — could enjoy such a breakfast. There was a choice of Fruit Loops or Apple Jacks. There was an array of sticky buns, sugary muffins, and danishes, to which you could add a smear of jam if they weren’t sweet enough. The fruit juice machine dispensed liquids that bore only a passing resemblance to their labels. White flour, high-fructose corn syrup, cane sugar: such a breakfast could get you through an hour or so of hyperactivity before the inevitable sugar crash.

Devouring sugar is a dubious way to jumpstart the day. It’s also a dubious way to jumpstart our faltering global economy. Yet our leading scientists, policymakers, and energy mavens are pinning their hopes on sugar.

In the labs of corporate giants like DuPont and Cargill, scientists are extracting sugars from a variety of crops, plant oils, and even algae, fermenting them, and producing new chemicals and fuels. This latest biotech revolution sounds great on paper (such as the glowing press releases from these corporate giants). What, after all, could be better than replacing petroleum and coal, non-renewable resources, with sugar, which is everywhere, from the Fruit Loops on your table to the weeds in the your backyard?

Not so, explains Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Hope Shand. DuPont and Cargill “promise a greener, cleaner post-petroleum future, where the production of economically important compounds depends not on fossil fuels but on biological manufacturing platforms fueled by plant sugars,” she writes in The Perils of the Coming Sugar Economy. “It may sound sweet and clean. But the ‘sugar economy’ will be the catalyst for a corporate grab on all plant matter as well as the destruction of biodiversity on a massive scale.”

The first fruits of this biotech revolution — biofuels derived from corn and other sugars — diverted land away from food production and drove up prices, contributing to the ongoing food crisis. The next round might turn out even worse as the search for biomass to convert into the new fuels and plastics and pharmaceuticals threatens both farmers and the environment. Small-scale farming will face competition from huge biomass plantations owned by industrial giants like Cargill, and the forests that we need to fend off global warming will be cut down for corn and cane sugar production.

Grabbing a candy bar in the middle of the afternoon for a jolt of energy is the very definition of a quick fix. So is relying on doughnuts for breakfast. What goes up — as we learn from Isaac Newton as well as today’s financial pages — must also come down. Building an economy on sugar, like constructing castles out of its granular cousin, is likely to be an unsustainable enterprise.

Bad for Your Health

Sugar isn’t good for your health. The IFIs are iffy too.

According to FPIF contributors David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, international financial institutions (IFIs) like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have a bad influence on the health of a country and its inhabitants. The two health science professionals discovered that rates of tuberculosis went up as soon as the IMF began working in a country. “When countries ended their participation in the IMF programs,” they write in The IMF and Tuberculosis, “tuberculosis rates fell by close to the same amount as they had risen upon IMF participation.”

The IMF has dismissed this study. Stuckler and Basu aren’t surprised. “When the IMF’s own Independent Evaluation Office, consisting of some of the world’s premier economists, found that IMF programs did not work under some circumstances — and sometimes made economies and social conditions worse — the evidence was also ignored,” they write.

Then there’s the World Bank’s impact on the health of the planet. FPIF contributors John Cavanagh and Robin Broad write in AlterNet about how the Bank has been part of the problem, not the solution. “When the Institute for Policy Studies started monitoring World Bank greenhouse gas emissions in 1997, the Bank was investing roughly 100 times more in fossil fuel energy projects than in clean energy,” they write in How Badly Can the ‘Experts’ Ruin the Planet? “Tens of billions of dollars of dirty energy lending later, the Bank certainly has demonstrated its ability to contribute to climate chaos.”

Spies and Activists

Aminatou Haidar won this year’s Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. She is a nonviolent activist from Western Sahara, a region currently occupied by Morocco, and has been working on behalf of independence for more than 20 years.

As FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes explains, Aminatou Haidar’s work has implications beyond the borders of Western Sahara. “A successful nonviolent independence struggle by an Arab Muslim people under Haidar’s leadership could set an important precedent,” he writes in Haidar’s Struggle. “It would demonstrate how, against great odds, an outnumbered and outgunned population could win through the power of nonviolence in a part of the world where resistance to autocratic rule and foreign military occupation has often spawned acts of terrorism and other violence. Furthermore, the participatory democratic structure within the Sahrawi resistance movement and the prominence of women in key positions of leadership could serve as an important model in a region where authoritarian and patriarchal forms of governance have traditionally dominated.”

In this week’s FPIF Pick, FPIF’s Emily Schwartz Greco reviews Tim Shorrock’s Spies for Hire, a new book on the privatization of the intelligence industry. “Thanks to his dogged parsing of every single shred of documentation he could get his hands on, Shorrock discovered that about 70% of intelligence work is now outsourced to private companies, creating a nearly $50 billion market that gobbles our taxpayer dollars with insufficient oversight,” she writes.

War Averted

Over the weekend, the Bush administration removed North Korea from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. To reach a compromise with Pyongyang, the administration backed away from a more intrusive inspections regime and agreed to focus on the plutonium facilities at Yongbyon. U.S. inspectors will visit other sites only on the basis of “mutual consent.” For now at least, the “stealth crisis” in Northeast Asia is averted.

Finally, for those of you who were unable to make it to our panel “War, Peace, and the U.S. Elections,” the video is now available on the web. Check out Phyllis Bennis, Selig Harrison, and William D. Hartung on the prospects for peace in the Middle East, Iran, and the Pentagon.

FPIF, October 14, 2008

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