A smarter approach to biofuels

A field of sorghum–it grows tall and fast!

The US biofuels industry has not covered itself in glory. It has consumed billions of dollars in taxpayer dollars, as much if not more from investors and in return delivered economic and environmental benefits that are murky at best, at least according to its critics.

You’ll hear a different story from the industry, which is desperately trying to retain its support in Congress and the White House. The  importance of the Iowa presidential caucuses virtually assure that no candidate for president can oppose support for corn ethanol, the dominant US biofuel. It was the Bush administration, you may recall, that launched the current push into biofuels, with the enthusiastic support of a corn state US Senator Barack Obama.

The thing is, biofuels need to be part of a low-carbon US economy. About 40 percent of emissions come from transportation–cars, trucks, trains, planes, buses, farm and construction equipment, etc.  These existing fleetss can’t be electrified en masse, anytime soon, if ever. So for decades ahead it’s fossil fuels or biofuels–an easy choice.

That said, it has become increasingly clear that corn ethanol “has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today,” according to this excellent analysis from Dina Capiello and Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press.

In their 2013 investigation, they write:

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies..

And as for the climate benefits of corn ethanol, the AP reporters say:

The government’s predictions of the benefits have proven so inaccurate that independent scientists question whether it will ever achieve its central environmental goal: reducing greenhouse gases. 

Great.

The trouble is that corn needs fertilizer (which is made from natural gas), requires irrigation (at least in some parts of the country) and, in an ideal world, would be used to feed people (or animals, if you insist), but not cars and trucks.

About the best thing you can say about corn ethanol is that it will pave the way (oops, that’s an unfortunate metaphor) for advanced biofuels that are cleaner and greener. Some of these are on the way–a bunch of cellulosic ethanol plants are scheduled to begin commercial operations this year, including the Project Liberty plant from Poet and DSM in Emmetsburg, Iowa, and a DuPont facility in Nevada, Iowa. Both will use corn waste.

Why, though, can’t we make biofuels from crops that are designed and bred for energy? That’s the question that led a young entrepreneur named Anna Rath to start a company called NexSteppe, whose current focus is sorghum. I invited Anna to Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference in May, where she won the “Great Green Ideas” competition, and wrote about NexSteppe the other day for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

As scientists around the world research biomass feedstocks — trees, shrubs and grasses that are designed to produce energy — a California startup called NexSteppe is betting that fast-growing, drought-resistant sorghum will emerge as a crop to sustainably fuel cars, trucks and power plants.

Sorghum, a millenia-old cereal grain, today feeds animals and people. It is turned into flour, syrups and beer, and used in gluten-free products. In Asia, sorghum is made into couscous, and across Africa, it’s consumed as a porridge.

Last year, though, NexSteppe introduced two new brands of sorghum seeds, dubbed Palo Alto and Malibu, that were bred expressly to be energy crops. They grow on marginal land and in a variety of climates, and they climb to a height of 20 feet after only four months of growth.

“Sorghum is naturally very heat and drought tolerant,” says Anna Rath, NexSteppe’s founder, president and CEO. “It originated in Africa. It’s a camel of a crop, if you will.”

Although NexSteppe has done almost no marketing outside of Brazil, its biggest market, the company’s sorghum is now being grown by farmers in 15 countries, including China, India, South Africa, Germany, Canada and the US.

Sorghum may not be the ideal feedstock for biofuels. It’s used for food, after all. But it appears to offer major advantages over corn.

More important is the idea behind NexSteppe–that we should breed crops for energy, just as we have very successfully bred crops for food since the invention of agriculture. Government and university scientists are trying to do just that, as the story goes on to say. You can read the rest here.

Feeding my grandson

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Meet my grandson, Hudson Scott, who is six months old and just started eating solid foods. This means that my daughter Rebecca and son-in-law Eric have to decide what to feed him–the baby food in jars from Gerber and Beech-Nut that have been around forever, it seems, the newer and hipper lines of organic baby food, which come in pouches from companies like Plum Organic, or do-it-yourself baby food that she makes at home.

As it happens, and perhaps not by coincidence, this is a question that has been explored lately in the pages of Guardian Sustainable Business US, where I am editor-at-large. This week, I profiled Plum, a B Corps which is nested inside the publicly-traded Campbell Soup Co. Here’s how my story begins:

Plum Organics, the leading brand of organic baby food and a unit of the Campbell Soup Company, has an impressive story to tell. As a certified B Corporation, Plum meets high standards for environmental and social performance. Its products are organic, its innovative packaging is lightweight (albeit not recyclable), its lowest-paid workers earn 50% above a so-called “living wage” and it gave away more than 1m pouches of food to needy children last year.

“Our mission is to get the very best food to kids,” says Neil Grimmer,Plum’s president and co-founder. “I have a goal of being in every lunchbox and high chair in America.” And more: Plum this fall plans to introduce its first product for adults, a collection of five-ounce snack pouches of blended fruits and vegetables branded as Plum VIDA. Sample flavors: cherry, berry, beet, and ginger.

So what’s not to like? To begin with, all that social and environmental goodness doesn’t come cheap. Plum’s products cost more than mainstream brands like Gerber, the No 1 seller of baby food. Then there’s the question of whether processed baby food is needed at all….Finally, Plum’s breakthrough innovation was the spouted pouch, which is convenient, but it enables babies to engage on-the-go eating, for better or worse.

You can read the rest here.

Meantime, just last month, my friend and Guardian contributor Erik Assadourian, who is a new father, assailed the baby-food industry in a column arguing that there’s no need to buy baby food at all. His column, Making our own baby food, begins like this:

Here’s the thing: the majority of Americans are fat. So much so that most people don’t even consider themselves fat, probably because everyone around them is also fat. Lots of kids are fat too – a trend I’ve really started to notice since becoming a father two years ago. Toddlers and babies are so fat that sometimes I worry that my own son, Ayhan, looks malnourished.

But my son isn’t malnourished. In fact he’s strong and lean, and acts like one of the healthy monkeys in the ongoing Wisconsin National Primate Research Center caloric restriction study: perky, energetic, and excited about eating proffered bits of fruit. So when I step back and get a bit of perspective, I’m not worried.

I’m more concerned about how children are being set upon an unhealthy dietary path that starts not just when they’re born, but when they’re conceived. Recent studies find that what mothers eat while pregnant shapes children’s palates in vitro. So if mama is regularly indulging in ice cream and salty snacks, baby may be predisposed to crave those too.

Then when they’re born, too many children are raised on baby formula, which is far less healthy than breast milk (a topic I already discussed, to much maternal anger). At around six months, when starting on solids, many parents lead their children down another wrong path – that of powdered cereals, premade baby foods, and junk foods disguised as baby-friendly snacks. No wonder childhood obesity is at 17.3% in the US.

One recommendation: make your own baby food.

Eric’s right that a lot of the foods given to American kids is unhealthy. His indictment is too sweeping, though. Plum and Beech-Nut offer early-stage baby food that consists of nothing more than apples, peas or sweet potatoes. Which, of course, raises the question: Why not make it yourself?

For now, that’s what Rebecca, who is a stay at home mom, and Eric have decided to do. It will take more time and effort that buying baby food at the store or online, but it will save them money and give Hudson a good start on what we hope will be a lifetime of healthy eating. Yams and carrots, so far. Next up? Avocados.

Is the sharing economy really green?

sharing1So many assumptions underly conventional wisdom about all things green. That biofuels are better for the planet than burning fossil fuels. That bans on plastic bags help the environment. That electric cars reduce CO2 emissions. That eating meat is bad for the climate.

All these things are true, I believe. But what I believe doesn’t matter. The question is, where’s the evidence? On biofuels, plastic bags and electric cars, the environmental impacts depend on where the crops to make biofuels are grown, what replaces plastic bags, the electricity mix that powers the electric car and how the cows that went into your burger were raised.

The point is, the “environment” is an extraordinarily complex system, as is the economy. That’s the underlying message of a story that I wrote last week for the environmental website Ensia headlined Is Sharing Really Green?

Here’s how it begins:

I’m a big fan of the sharing economy. On a recent trip to San Francisco, I stayed in a house I found onAirbnb and made my way around the city using uberX. I’ve written favorably about house sharingcar sharingbike sharingand getting rid of stuff you no longer want via yerdle. At environmental conferences, I’ve listened to evangelists for the sharing economy such as Lisa GanskyRobin Chase and Andy Ruben. Participating in the sharing economy can save money, open people up to new experiences and build a sense of community among strangers.

But I’m not convinced the sharing economy delivers the environmental benefits its proponents claim.

Because the sharing economy enables more efficient use of underutilized assets — a car that might otherwise sit in a driveway, an extra room in a home, an electric drill or even a wedding dress — conventional wisdom holds that the sharing economy is “green.” With a little help from Google, it’s easy to find headlines like “How Web Sharing Sites Can Save the Planet” and “The Sharing Economy for a Sustainable Future.” Graham Hill, the founder of Treehugger and LifeEdited, has said the sharing economy “makes a lot of sense financially and environmentally as well.” In her book, The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing, entrepreneur and investor Lisa Gansky writes: “Using sophisticated information systems, the Mesh [her term for the sharing economy] also deploys physical assets more efficiently. That boosts the bottom line, with the added advantage of lowering pressure on natural resources.” In an interview with Treehugger, Roo Rogers, co-author with Rachel Botsman of a book called What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, declared: “In my opinion — having been an environmentalist all my life — collaborative consumption has the potential to have the biggest environmental impact that we could ever have hoped for.”

But where’s the evidence? It’s hard to find.

I probably could have written that the evidence is non-existent, but the sharing economy is so new and so hard to measure that it’s no surprise that the case for its “green” benefits remains unproven.

I hasten to add that there are still good reasons to patronize Airbnb or Zipcar or Rent the Runway or the many other sharing sites that seem to be proliferating. There’s little harm done when we make personal choices based on our assumptions about what’s good for the planet.

But when big companies or, worse, governments set policy without questioning their assumptions, the consequences can be negative on a much broader scale. I’m afraid that happens a lot more often than it should.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Why animal welfare is a “green” issue

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Where bacon begins

Environmentalists love animals, the more exotic, the better. You can find environmental organizations dedicated to the protection of pandas, polar bears, sea turtles and birds. Elephants and whales, too.

Pigs, chickens and cows? Not so much.

But the way we treat animals in agriculture has profound environmental implications. And the group doing the most to change that is not a green group at all but the Humane Society of the United States. I recently interviewed Wayne Pacelle, the HSUS’s president and CEO, about the environmental impact of the animal welfare movement for the website Yale Environment 360.

In the interview, Pacelle makes the point that crowding pigs, chickens and cows into so-called factory farms inevitably creates environmental problems, particularly around waste disposal. So, of course, does the sheer number of animals we raise for meat–about 9 billion in the US alone–and the enormous amount of grain that most be raised to feed them.

Pacelle told me:

We cannot humanely and sustainably raised nine billion animals in the United States. And we’re asking consumers, if they care about animals and the environment, to eat a smaller amount of animal products. 

As regular readers of this blog know (see this or this), I agree with Pacelle that all of us should, at minimum, think about how we consume meat and, to a lesser degree, fish. There’s debate about the environmental impact of animal products but  a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that quantifies the land, water and greenhouse gas burdens of meat, eggs and dairy production points to “the uniquely high resource demands of beef.” So there are compelling environmental reasons to avoid steak and hamburgers from factory-farmed cows. Of course, there are health reasons as well to eat less meat, as well as strong moral reasons to avoid meat from factory farms or, for that matter, all animal products.

HSUS has had a big impact on how animals, especially pigs, are raised in the US. The organization’s savvy campaign against gestation crates has helped persuaded big brands like Costco and McDonald’s to eliminate the crates from its supply chains, bringing pressure of major pork producers like Smithfield and Cargill.

Pacelle, as it happens, is a vegan. But HSUS is not trying to abolish animal agriculture. In our interview, he said

We are an organization that embraces humane and sustainable farmers. The vast percentage of our members eat meat, drink milk and consume eggs.

Others see that as a betrayal of animals. I saw this tweet the other day from Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, himself a vegan, which led me to an interview with Phillip Wollen, a former Citibank executive who became a hard-line animal rights activist after visiting one of his bank’s client’s slaughterhouses.

An Australian, Wollen has this to say about the so-called humane slaughter of animals:

Anyone who tells me there is such a thing as “humane” slaughter should contact me. I see a wonderful business opportunity to sell them the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I seriously wonder how they define the word “humane”. It is a saccharine, feel-good word designed to provide convenient cover for an atrocious act of barbarism. And it gives consumers a smug sense of satisfaction that eating animals is ethical, after all. A ghastly con – a betrayal of the worst kind.

Fascinating, no? You can read more here from Wollen.

I’m not yet persuaded, as Wollen is, that eating animals is being complicit in murder.

But I don’t feel good about continuing to eat chicken and fish.

General Mills, Walmart, Target and compassion

compassion-wordThe other day, I went to a daylong meditation retreat about lovingkindness. One of the themes: how to find ways to bring an attitude of loving kindness not just to friends, but to strangers and even to the most difficult people in our lives. My rabbi, Fred Dobb, with whom I ordinarily spend my Saturdays, touches on a similar theme when he talks about widening our circles of compassion, to go beyond family and friends; the edict to  love thy neighbor extends not just to the folks next door but to the needy around the world. I don’t mean to go all Biblical on you here but it is written in Exodus 23:9: “And a stranger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

What does this have to do with corporate responsibility, and sustainability, the topics of this blog? A lot, actually, as I realized when a pair of stories that I wrote for Guardian Sustainable Business were published in quick succession this week. Both stories are about big, publicly-traded companies that seek to enhance shareholder value with considerable vigor. But both, at heart, are also about the idea that good companies increasingly take an expansive, as opposed to a constricted view, of their place in the world, and their obligations to the world.

Yesterday, I wrote a story about General Mills’ new climate policy. Here’s how it begins:

Two months after Oxfam launched a campaign urging food and beverage companies to take stronger action to curb climate change, General Mills has promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its agricultural supply chain and to advocate for government climate policy.

General Mills on Monday detailed its new policy on its website, saying: “The imperative is clear: Business, together with governments, NGOs and individuals, needs to act to reduce the human impact on climate change.”

In a news release, Oxfam praised General Mills as “the first major food and beverage company to promise to implement long-term science-based targets to cut emissions from across all of its operations and supply chains that are responsive to the goal of keeping global temperature rise below 2C.

“It’s a major leap,” said Heather Coleman, climate change manager for Oxfam America.

What’s noteworthy about the General Mills’ policy is that it dig deep into the company’s agriculture supply chain, where its environmental impact is greatest, and that it commits the company to be more politically active on climate issues. Put another way, this big food company is taking responsibility for trying to reduce the environmental impact of oats that go into Cheerios. You can read more here.

Today, the Guardian published my story about an unusual collaboration between Walmart and Target that aims to insure that beauty and personal care products are produced more sustainably. Here’s how that story begins:

In an unlikely partnership, rivals Walmart and Target have joined together, working with suppliers “to improve sustainability performance in the personal care and beauty industry”.

Their first event, the day-long Beauty and Personal Care Products Sustainability Summit, will be held on 4 September in Chicago. It’s being organized by Forum for the Future, a UK-based NGO with an outpost in New York.

Up until now, Walmart, the largest US retailer, and Target, the fourth-ranked retailer (according to the National Retail Federation), have taken divergent paths on sustainability. Why are the two companies now joining forces around the sustainability of soap, toothpaste, hair care products, shaving cream and cosmetics?

The story goes on to say:

It may be – and this definitely falls in the category of informed speculation – that Walmart and Target have come to realize that they are not as powerful as they want to be when dealing with big consumer brands and their suppliers in the chemical and fragrance industries.

The secrecy around ingredients in beauty and personal care products, along with the complexity of chemical formulations, creates information asymmetries. The brands and their suppliers know a lot more about product formulations than the buyers at Walmart and Target. They often tell critics that there’s no readily available substitute for a “chemical of concern.” And they are unwilling to share information about whether they are researching or developing safer chemicals.

An industry insider told me: “There’s so much that’s hidden in these supply chains that even Target and Walmart don’t know what goes into everything on their shelves.”

The point is, Walmart and Target are digging deeper than ever before into their supply chains, seeking to understand the chemicals that go into cosmetics or hair care products, or the impact of packaging.

You can see these shifts across the field of corporate responsibility. Look at the apparel and electronics industries which, over time, have agreed, at least in theory,accept responsibility for the working conditions and environmental practices deep in their supply chains, in places like China and Bangladesh.

Are companies becoming more compassionate? I don’t think so, at least not in the since that people can seek to become more caring. But are they recognizing that the long-term health of their business depends upon their reputations as corporate citizens, not to mention the health of the planet or the safety of the products they sell? Yes, they are. It’s a very slow and imperfect process, but it’s real.

Tax avoidance, and corporate responsibility

uncle-sam-pay-your-taxes1Would you consider Apple, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Google, Microsoft, Nike and PepsiCo good corporate citizens? Certainly they position themselves that way, and they deserve credit for their leadership around human rights (Apple, Nike), climate change (GE), water (Coca-Cola), renewable energy (Google, Microsoft) and sustainable agriculture (PepsiCo).

But when it comes to paying corporate income taxes, they have some explaining to do.

That, at least, is the conclusion that I came to after reading an excellent report on tax avoidance titled Offshore Shell Games, and published last month by Citizens for Tax Justice and US PIRG.

Corporate taxation is all over the news these days as US firms move their headquarters overseas for tax reasons, in a process known as inversion. But aggressive maneuvering to avoid taxes is nothing new, as I wrote today in a story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how the story begins:

America’s a great country. That’s why people from all over the world — including, lately and tragically, thousands of poor children from Central America — clamor to get in. So why are some of America’s wealthiest companies trying to get out?

It’s simple, really — they don’t want to pay US taxes.

You’ve probably heard about Walgreen’s, your neighborhood pharmacy that is contemplating moving its headquarters to Switzerland to reduce its tax bill. Medtronic, the big medical device company based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has plans to move to Ireland, for tax-avoidance purposes. Then there’s Mylan, a maker of generic drugs based near Pittsburgh, Pennsylavia, which intends to incorporate in the Netherlands, where the tax rate is lower. Mylan’s CEO, as it happens, is Heather Bresch — the daughter of US Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat — and she says she has no choice but to go.

Other companies aren’t going so far as to relocate their headquarters, a process known as inversion that often requires them to acquire a company based elsewhere. Instead, to avoid US taxes, they are parking their earnings offshore, often in tax havens like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands that levy no corporate income taxes. That tactic, which like the inversions is legal, is being employed by companies that position themselves as good corporate citizens — among them Apple, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Google, Microsoft, Nike and PepsiCo.

Exploiting loopholes in the tax laws may or may not be legal–the IRS is hopelessly outgunned by big corporate tax departments–but it’s unethical.

The report from Citizens for Tax Justice and US PIRG, which makes for surprisingly compelling reading, details a number of questionable tax avoidance strategies that allow companies to shift earnings, purely for tax purposes, from high-tax jurisdictions like the US to tax havens. Here are my favorite fun facts from the report:

The report found that subsidiaries of US companies reported earning $94bn in Bermuda, which has a gross domestic product of just $6bn. That doesn’t compute. US firms reported earning another $51bn in the Cayman Islands, where GDP is about $3bn.

This is outrageous, and please don’t tell me that the way to fix the problem is to reduce the admittedly high US corporate income tax rate. The US cannot compete with places where the tax rate is zero.

All of these companies, of course, benefit enormously from government services–public education, police, the rule of law, highways, etc. Those companies that don’t pay their fair share shift the burden to others–small businesses that can’t afford high-priced accountants, companies that don’t have overseas operations and therefore can’t take advantage of the opportunity engage in tax-avoiding shenanigans and, of course, the rest of us.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Paul Greenberg’s fish stories

AmericanCatchCoverMuch of what I know about seafood I’ve learned from Paul Greenberg. Paul is an acquaintance and a gifted writer whose new book, called American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, looks at three iconic American seafood species: New York oysters, Gulf shrimp and Alaska salmon. It’s a sequel of sorts to his previous book, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, which I blogged about in 2010.

In the introduction to the new book, Paul describes the impact of globalization on the seafood that we catch and eat in the US:

By all rights this most healthy of food should be an American mainstay. The United States controls more ocean than any other country on earth. Our seafood-producing territory covers 2.8bn acres, more than twice as much real estate as we have set aside for landfood.

But in spite of our billions of acres of ocean, our 94,000 miles of coast, our 3.5m miles of rivers, a full 91% of the seafood Americans eat comes from abroad.

..It gets fishier still. While 91% of the seafood Americans eat is foreign, a third of the seafood that Americans catch gets sold to foreigners. By and large the fish and shellfish we are sending abroad are wild while the seafood we are importing is very often farmed.

…American consumers suffer from a deficit of American fish, but someone out there somewhere is eating our lunch.

Last week, I interviewed Paul by email for Guardian Sustainable Business. I asked him why trade in seafood differs from the global exchange of other goods, the prospects for restoring oysters to New York harbor and a couple of intriguing experiments with community-supported fisheries. You can read his responses here.

There’s encouraging news in Paul’s fish stories. Alaska’s salmon fishermen are in the midst of what could be a successful effort to protect the world’s most productive salmon fishery from Pebble Mine a massive gold and copper mine near Bristol Bay. (The EPA moved to block the mine last week.) Meantime, nonprofit groups in New York are laboring to bring back the oysters that were once plentiful up and down the east coast.

A lifelong fisherman, Paul brings to these stories and obvious passion for his subject and a zest for adventure. (He uncovers and consumes a New York oyster from the muddy waters of the East River.) More than passion, though, goes into a book like American Catch. In the acknowledgements, I learned that Paul’s editor put him through seven drafts of the manuscript. The result, a rarity in this world of 24-7 news, instant analysis, and blogging on the run, is a work of journalism that delivers both insight and enormous pleasure.

When NGOs can’t be trusted

DonateNonprofitsLogos304I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reporting a story for the Guardian on NGOs and GMOs–specifically, the ways that some nonprofit groups have stirred up fears about genetically-modified organisms, by taking facts out of context, distorting mainstream science or, occasionally, saying things that simply are not true. I did the story in part because I believe that agricultural biotechnology could be–could be–a valuable tool as we try to feed people in a resource-constrained and warming world. I’m by no means an enthusiastic fan of biotech crops — the rollout of the technology has been managed poorly by the industry–but I’m fairly confident  that they have enormous potential. That potential will never be realized until we can have a rational fact-based debate about how the technology should be managed.

But my hope is that this story will make a bigger and more important point about the non-profit sector: That the claims of NGOs and advocacy groups should be received with the same skepticism and scrutiny that we apply to claims from business and government. That might seem like an obvious point, but my experience tells me that many people tend to take what NGOs say at face value. Public opinion surveys also find that NGOs are trusted, far more than corporations or the government.

On the GMO issue, this is a terrible  shame. But it helps to explain why, as I write

so many people – 48%, according to Gallup – believe that foods produced using genetic engineering pose a serious health hazard, despite assurances from corporations, government regulators and mainstream scientists that the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) now on the market are safe and, indeed, have been studied, tested and regulated more than any other food product in history.

More broadly, though, it’s too easy to forget that NGOs, like companies or the government or, indeed, all of us, are driven by a set of incentives. Again, from the story:

..non-profits and the people who lead them are subject to the same temptations, pressures and incentives that drive companies: They are self-interested. They seek attention in a noisy marketplace. And they rely on the financial support of donors, just as companies depend on customers.

As it happens, some of the groups opposed to the spread of GMOS are backed largely by corporate interests: Just Label It, a dot-org coalition that favors GMO labels is financed by organic and “natural” food companies that benefit from the anxiety around biotech food.

Follow the money, as Woodward & Bernstein used to say. A lot of money behind the anti-GMO movement comes from the organic food industry. Right now, the best way to avoid GMOs at the supermarket is to buy organic.

To take an example from another arena: When I talk to scientists or engineers about climate change, most do not believe we will be able to power the US economy anytime soon entirely with renewable energy. They believe that some form of zero-carbon baseload power will be needed — either nuclear energy or coal plants with carbon capture. (About which there was a bit of encouraging news this week.) In the US, depending entirely on solar and wind, along with the required energy storage and transmission lines, would be enormously expensive. In places like China and India, it’s unthinkable. So it makes sense for the US to find ways to make nuclear power or coal plants with carbon capture a lot cheaper, so we can export those technologies to the developing world. This is true for solar and wind as well, of course.

Yet environmental groups–the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, in particular–are implacably opposed to nuclear power and, as best as I can tell, they oppose coal with carbon capture. Fracking, too. I don’t doubt the sincerity or the intelligence of their leaders, but I have to believe that if they wavered in their opposition to nukes and coal with carbon capture, their customers, i.e., their members and donors, would revolt. So, at the very least, the deep green groups are less than transparent about the tradeoffs that will be required if we give up on nuclear or so-called clean coal, and put all of our investment into wind and solar.

Another example, from the story:

The issue of credibility goes well beyond GMOs, of course. What’s the most effective way to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people? It’s hard to know whether a comprehensive approach (the Millennium Villages), major health initiatives (the Gates Foundation), micro enterprise (Kiva) or disaster relief (Care) will work best. Each NGO understandably touts its own approach. Meanwhile, economists say trade has done more than aid to help the global poor.

A bigger and more important point, which I’ll save for another day, is the question of who is holding NGOs accountable. It’s an important question because, like it or not, as taxpayers we all help finance the nonprofit sector because donations to NGOs are frequently tax-deductible.

None of this is intended to diminish the enormous value delivered by the nonprofit sector. My next Guardian story will be built upon a terrific new report on corporate taxation put together by a couple of NGOs. The NGOs that I know best, those in the environmental sector, including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, for the most part do great work. My wife and older daughter work for NGOs, and I’m on the board of Net Impact, a nonprofit that I (obviously) believe in strongly.

None of which means you should automatically believe everything you hear from a so-called public interest group. You shouldn’t.

Fair Trade USA, growing and still controversial

fairtrade_6833958232_076a8a019b_bFair Trade is an elegant idea. It’s an attempt to make globalization work for the world’s poor. Those of us in rich countries agree to pay a bit more for whatever it is we are buying — coffee is by far the No. 1 Fair Trade commodity — and, in exchange, we are assured that the farmers and workers at the other end of the supply chain are treated fairly.

If only it were that simple.

Today, in the US, there are no fewer than seven Fair Trade and Fair Trade-like labels. You can find an analysis of them here, if you so choose. The trouble is, they are competing in what remains by any measure a niche market.

Paul Rice, the founder of Fair Trade USA, formerly Transfair, wants to change that. I went to see him last week in Oakland, CA., and wrote about his efforts the other day in a story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

Paul Rice, the hard-charging CEO of nonprofit Fair Trade USA, recently toured the Brooklyn headquarters of furniture company West Elm, along with former president Bill Clinton and West Elm’s president, Jim Brett. They were there to celebrate West Elm’s commitment to handcraft products, including the first Fairtrade rugs, which are made in India. “You can have a huge impact on the wage structure in India,” Clinton enthused. “Consumers will buy these. They’re beautiful, besides.”

Fairtrade rugs? What’s next? A lot more than coffee in church basements, it turns out. “We’re talking about furniture, we’re talking about linens, we’re talking about all kinds of things,” says Rice, when we met last week at Fair Trade USA’s offices in Oakland, California. “This move into the manufacturing sector puts us on the threshold of something really big.”

Fair Trade USA is in fast-growth mode. This fall, Patagonia and PACTwill begin selling Fairtrade apparel, made in factories that they say will meet strict environmental and social standards; a small company called Oliberté already sells Fairtrade shoes. Several years ago, Fair Trade USA formed a partnership with a nonprofit startup called Good World Solutions, which has developed mobile technology to connect big companies to the farmers and workers in their supply chains. Meantime, Fair Trade USA is working to certify a bell pepper farm in British Columbia, Canada, expanding the movement beyond its roots in the global south.

This flurry of activity has brought Rice lots of attention, some of it unwelcome. His supporters say that he works tirelessly to expand the impact of fair trade. Critics accuse him of abandoning its principles. As Jonathan Rosenthal, a co-founder of the co-op Equal Exchange, told The Nation: “Paul is not afraid to think and act on a big scale. That’s one of his great gifts. And he’s willing to cut any corners to get there. That, to me, is one of his great faults.”

The disagreements about what constitutes authentic Fair Trade can get pretty arcane pretty quickly. Some people, for example, argue that a chocolate bar should not be labeled Fair Trade unless the chocolate and the sugar were both procured from worker owned co-ops; others say the chocolate alone should do it. Small differences often matter, but in this arena, it seems to me that the priority ought to be growing the idea and practice of Fair Trade, even if compromises must be made along the way. As the movement grows, the bar can be lifted.

If you want to know more, see my 2012 blogpost, A schism over Fair Trade. You can read the rest of my Guardian story here.

The upside of outsourcing

To match Insight INDIA-OUTSOURCING/I heard an excellent, in-depth interview this week with William Easterly, the development economist and author of a new book called The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. Easterly, a controversial figure, is critical of top-down development experts — he names Jeffrey Sachs and Bill Gates, among others — who push technocratic, centralized approaches to alleviating poverty. Instead, he argues that the best way to promote economic development is for westerners to push for democracy, human rights and free markets in the world’s poorest countries.

Easterly cites, among others, the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who has said: “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” Others disagree, noting that parts of India came perilously close to famine just a decade ago. What’s more, China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty while suppressing human rights, but allowing economic freedom.

I’m in no position to try to adjudicate the debate about how poor countries become rich, but I was thinking about Easterly’s faith in markets and global trade as I wrote my story this week for Guardian Sustainable Business. The story looks at an idea called “socially-responsible outsourcing” or simple “impact sourcing,” and a nonprofit called DDD that tries to put that idea into practice. (DDD stands for Digital Divide Data.) DDD operates businesses in Cambodia, Kenya and Laos that employ young people, typically high school age, to provide information technology and web research, mostly to clients in the US. The goal of the enterprise is to provide economic opportunity to the poor, DDD’s founders told me.

Here’s how my story begins:

So much attention is paid to deplorable factory conditions in poor countries that it’s easy to forget that global supply chains for electronics, apparel and toys have helped lift masses of people out of poverty. Since 1980, 680 million people have risen out of poverty in China which has seen its extreme-poverty rate fall from 84% to about 10%, largely because of trade, reports The Economist.

Now, a small number of companies, nonprofits and foundations want to see if the rapidly growing global supply chains that process data and operate call centers — an industry usually described as business processing outsourcing, or BPO — can be deployed to help alleviate poverty in Africa and South Asia. Can outsourcing, a business driven by the search for cheap labor, reconfigure itself to do good?

“By responsibly and ethically employing hundreds of thousands of people, BPOs have a role to play in shifting the social landscape in emerging economies around the world,” says a report called Outsourcing for Social Good from Telus International, a Canadian outsourcing firm, and Impakt, a social responsibility consultancy.

Others agree. The Rockefeller Foundation has committed $100m to a project called Digital Jobs Africa that aims to improve one million lives in six African nations. A nonprofit called Samasource organizes poor women and youth in Africa and Asia to deliver data services to such businesses as Microsoft and Google. And a company called Cloud Factory that operates in Kenya and Nepal says digital outsourcing can “flatten the world, connect people into the global economy and raise up leaders to fight poverty and change their communities.”

The pioneer of what is called socially-responsible outsourcing or simply impact sourcing is DDD (Digital Divide Data), a New York-based nonprofit that operates for-profit data centers in Cambodia, Laos and Kenya. DDD and its impact-oriented peers set themselves apart from outsourcing giants such as Tata, Accenture and Infosys because, they says, they deliberately seeks out workers in the some of the world’s poorest places and provides them not just with jobs, but with the education, training and career counseling they need to rise into the middle class.

“Our ultimate mission is to alleviate poverty,” says Jeremy Hockenstein, 42, the founder and CEO of DDD. “We focus on students who are finishing high school, who are very motivated and very smart and who come from low-income homes.”

Having met Jeremy Hockenstein (via Skype) and his co-founder Michael Chertok (face to face), I have no doubt of their good intentions. Both gave up more lucrative careers to start the nonprofit. DDD is about helping its global employees, not exploiting them.

But their work raises an intriguing question about how much intentions matter when it comes to infotech outsourcing, or all of global trade, for that matter. Despite all the the abuses in the global manufacturing supply chain, it seems inarguable that the factory jobs created in China, Mexico, India and Bangladesh have benefited the poor in those countries. Is it possible the Walmart and Apple have done more to alleviate poverty than Bill Gates and Jeffrey Sachs?

You can read the rest of my story here.