Sunday, September 21, 2008

More on Food

Building on the previous posts about Michael Pollan's books, I seem to have come across a lot of food related things lately. I suppose when something is at the top of your mind, and you casually bring it up in conversation with anyone who cares to listen and look for information on the topic, this tends to happen.

A contributor to the Stanford Social Innovation Review wrote a piece entitled, Fast Food and the Family Farm. The writer talks about the small farm his family has in the northwestern portion of Illinois. The article is a little romantic in its recounting of the farm as a refuge from the hustle and bustle of Chicago for him and his siblings. Underneath this romanticism as the realization that these small farms are extremely important to our country and local communities. In fact, considering the problems we've experienced in our food infrastructure over the past few years, the movement back toward locally produced food is gaining more steam.

At a recent family gathering, I was happy to hear my cousins talk about the pressure they have been feeling from one of their daughters about recycling and using local resources. They mentioned the FoodRoutes website and the fact that they have planted their own garden and enjoyed the juicy and fresh tomatoes all summer.

from the good ol' NYTimes A Locally Grown Diet with Fuss no Muss informs us about a local farmer in San Francisco, Trevor Paque, serving the lazy locavores in the city. It's the classic case of business serving a need and providing value. The folks would like to eat locally, but they do not know how and are not inclined to pop into the garden center and learn how. Simply pick up the phone and dial-a-gardener and in a few weeks you're harvesting veggies out the back porch.

Again, with the Times, Russia's Collective Farms: Hot Capitalist Property. The power of societies lie in their ability to feed the masses, and gain from exporting to feed others. The development of agriculture underpinned the development of the first civilizations some 8000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. It is the bedrock of our current state of the world. There is a land rush happening to increase the efficiency and profitability of Russia's farmlands. I wonder where that will go?

It just so happens that one of my classmates recently posted this article about the challenges created by government regulations to increasing the sustainability of meat production. Slaughter, the part of the process no one wants to think about is the thing that requires the most attention. If you're familiar with Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, you may understand where the need for strict slaughter regulations arose from. Now, those regulations create barriers to the localization of meat production; something more sustainable environmentally, economically, and nutritionally.

I noticed the difficulty changing one's perception of food as well as the influence of environmental factors on one's actions. I stopped at Harrow's here in Massachusetts north of Boston. The place has been around for years and is famous in the region for chicken pies. I decided to get one and innocently asked the person behind the counter, "where does the chicken come from?" I was optimistic that a local company would have a local (or at least regional) source for poultry. The folks at the counter did not know...though they postulated that it was not local; note their assumption that it was NOT local. I wonder if I can find out where it does come from.

As for influences...I stopped at the farm stand next door. I was surrounded by fruits and veggies, plenty of healthy real food choices for a snack. Instead, I walked out of the store with a bag of "All Natural" Pita Chips and a bottle of Monadnock water. What?! After all I have read and know about food, I walked out with that! I thought about it as I walked back to the car and realized that part of the decision resided in the fact that the bag 'o chips would be much easier to eat as I drove. After all, fruits and vegetables can be so messy.


Maybe it was a bad idea to read two books about food in rapid succession for someone consumed with the negative externalities of industrialization. I did it anyway.

Both books are by Michael Pollan as mentioned briefly in an earlier post, the first was The Omnivore's Dilemma; A Natural History of Four Meals and the second is In Defense of Food; an Eater's Manifesto (see next post). Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle sits at the ready on the bedside table. I already read the first chapter and was nearly sucked in. I resisted its call to remain focused on finishing Guns, Germs, & Steel by Jared Diamond, which just so happens to spend a good deal of time reviewing the singular contribution of agriculture to the rise of human civilizations.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is divided into three parts tracking meals produced in three ways,
  1. Industrial - Corn (think feedlots, nitrogen-based fertilizers, massive farms, etc.)
  2. Pastoral - Grass (think local farm, cows, chickens, various vegetables, a familiar aroma)
  3. Personal - Forest (hunting for game and foraging for 'shrooms)
Part I traces food calories from the corn fields, through conversion to meat through CAFOs (cows being fed corn, though they are naturally designed to eat grass), through the slaughter houses and onto the serving tray of your local fast food restaurant (and the local supermarket). It is an interesting journey and one that I believe many of us have become artificially comfortable with. Petroleum's hand is heavily present in this chain, from the fertilizers (sprung from arms manufacturers post WWII) to the harvesting, to the transportation, and delivery to our plates. What happens to this chain as we continue to see uncertainty in our petroleum supply?

The rise of corn (Zea Mays) in the lexicon of US food production is detailed in this section; from corn itself to its industrial children to its use as feed for animals of all varieties. It is an interesting lesson in the scientific manipulation and industrialization of a naturally occurring grass from something marginally nutritious to something making up a large portion of our food calories and our economy.

It is interesting to note that bi-cultural farms in the United States raising soybeans & corn (think thousands of acres of corn as far as the eye can see in the Midwest) used to raise a variety of fruits and vegetables. As corn grew in importance, and as agribusinesses focused on it to increase yields, kernel size, nutritional value, and economic value as government subsidized the production of corn, businesses had to find places to put it. Welcome corn syrup and other industrial derivatives of corn. In a short passage of the book, we learn that Coca-Cola's switch from sugar to corn syrup was a very important win for the manufacturers of corn derived food additives. We also learn that a small change in the regulated use of the word "imitation" in the 1970's opened the door for more widely applied industrialized food products.

One main point I took from this section; we produce more calories per person than we did 40 years ago, and the job of food marketers is to get us to consume those extra calories. Interesting. Who's interests are they serving?

Part II tells the story of Joel Salatin and Polyface Farms from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. This is the story of what a small farm is supposed [my opinion] to be. I did not find the account of the farm to be romanticized; it was more real than I expected. The first thing I learned was that Mr. Salatin considers himself a grass farmer. The Sun's light is captured by the grass and with superb natural design, converted into cellular material and energy to help the grass grow. The numerous species and types of grass on the farm are consumed by the cows, sheep, goats, etc. and converted into meat, what we'll eat to supply our energy. The animals are grown here, and at the proper time are sent for "harvesting", called slaughter.

We are taken through the process of slaughtering chickens, done on site in a small open shack on the farm. Mr. Pollan, to his credit, takes part in the operation, manning the position in the line of cutting the chickens' neck. The story is told in a real and honorable way. These animals have been raised to help support our lives, and they are living creatures of this earth as we are; they are to be respected. Mr. Pollan describes the operation as a solemn activity, something to be present for. It is not a faceless slaughterhouse where thousands of chickens a day proceed from living creature to plastic wrapped and preseasoned cutlets. The people here know what is happening. There is a passage somewhere in the book, I cannot remember by whom it is said, that if we made slaughterhouses with transparent walls, we would drastically change the way we produce and eat food. Agreed.

Part III is perhaps the most basic and "animal" of who we are and our origins as humans. The author decides to hunt and gather as we continued to do up until the beginning of agriculture about 8500 BC in some areas of the world. He connects with people in the San Francisco Bay area that are familiar with the wild food and game available in the countryside and commences with the hunt. Again, I found the account of the entire experience interesting and honest. When Mr. Pollan does fell a wild boar, his description of the scene and his feelings seemed to shock him, as evidenced when he looks at a photograph taken of him kneeling behind the dead beast with a child-like grin on his face. His clearly displayed pride at performing as a worthy hunter as captured in the photo affected him deeply, as perhaps it should.

He also gathers wild mushrooms from the forest, Morels and Chanterelles. His description of what mushrooms are, the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus, typically produced above ground on soil or on its food source, is quite interesting. We learn about the secretive nature of the small community of mushroom foragers; their early morning hikes into places known to produce mushrooms and the "zone" one can get into when searching for the small fungi. His account brought back memories of my Italian grandfather's foraging in the woods behind his home in Westfield, MA. The memories are fuzzy, and involve a mushroom with a pale yellow spongy appearance on the underside of the cap that turned greenish-blue when pressed...I do not remember eating any of them.

Mr. Pollan spends a good deal of time describing the preparation of the meal from the items hunted and gathered, like a narrative of an episode of The French Chef. I found it a bit tedious, though I can appreciate the commitment he made to create a unique dining experience for the people that helped him obtain the ingredients

We are what we eat, and in the modern world what we eat carries with it not just the item but the item's inputs. These inputs are not necessarily natural and in some cases are contributing to environmental degradation and poor health. What I took from the book was that grass farming on a local scale is the way to go. How do we get there on a larger (smaller?) scale and can decentralization and decarbonization of food feed us all? I am hoping to determine that the answer is a resounding YES.

Given the state of the financial system, perhaps we should start learning to farm, or at least know where to get locally produced food.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Social Justice

Preparations for my second year at BGI are under way. I am reviewing some of the work I produced last year and decided to post a book review assignment from MGT 567: Social Justice and Business. This is something you may not expect to see coming from an MBA student's assignment archive, and perhaps this is the point. Please, if you forge through this, provide some [constructive] criticism (image from

The books I reviewed addressed the challenges facing women working in subcontracted and informal labor markets in Sri Lanka, India, The Philippines, Thailand, and Pakistan.
The Hidden Assembly Line by Radhika Balakrishnan is a book focused on “…subcontracted work as a method for capturing the links between changing labor dynamics in several industries and macroeconomic policy at the national and international levels.”[1] The book provides an overview of the common themes running through the five Asian economies in which studies took place, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and The Philippines. Singular studies within the book conducted in each of the five aforementioned countries dive into greater detail, often including in-person interviews with women working in subcontracted labor arrangements. This review focuses on two of the book’s studies, one by Swarna Jayweera addressing subcontracted women workers in Sri Lanka and the other by Jeemol Unni & Namrata Bali focusing on subcontracted women workers in the garment industry in India.
The second reading, highlighting international conventions and recommendations addressing labor, specifically gender related issues, is published by the International Labor Organization (ILO). This collection lists twenty-two internationally sanctioned conventions that have been agreed to. Given the role the ILO plays in international labor practices, a brief overview of the ILO is warranted.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) is devoted to advancing opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. Its main aims are to promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportunities, enhance social protection and strengthen dialogue in handling work-related issues.
In promoting social justice and internationally recognized human and labour rights, the organization continues to pursue its founding mission that labour peace is essential to prosperity. Today, the ILO helps advance the creation of decent jobs and the kinds of economic and working conditions that give working people and business people a stake in lasting peace, prosperity and progress.
The ILO was founded in 1919, in the wake of a destructive war, to pursue a vision based on the premise that universal, lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon decent treatment of working people. The ILO became the first specialized agency of the UN in 1946.
The ILO is the global body responsible for drawing up and overseeing international labour standards. Working with its Member States, the ILO seeks to ensure that labour standards are respected in practice as well as principle.[2]
The opening chapters of the Hidden Assembly Line take us through some of the enabling conditions for the creation of subcontracted and home-based work. What I found fascinating was that in all five countries studied, the liberalization of their economies allowing internal labor markets to be accessed by foreign entities helped lead to the creation of subcontracted labor markets. Oftentimes, the liberalization of these countries’ economies were assisted (or encouraged) by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank Structured Adjustment Programs (SAPs)[3]. This was strikingly similar to what was learned from watching “Life & Debt”, chronicling Jamaica’s struggles with international lending. The SAPs, in combination with the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998 and the liberalization (privatization) of the economies resulted in a increase in the price of utilities, increased competition with inexpensive imports, a reduction in subsidies, and an overall need to decrease the costs of production. The industries examined (textiles in many cases) experienced a move toward low-paid, low-skilled subcontracted work for women.[4]
The Sri Lankan study covers subcontracted women workers in five industries or specializations, women winding wire around a core as a component in an overseas electronic component, embroidery-knitting and smocking for a rural garment manufacturer, women weaving nets and mats for export, women in a farming community cultivating tobacco for domestic cigarette manufacturing, and women hired by subcontractors at construction sites in Colombo (former capital of Sri Lanka)[5]
The Indian study focused on the garment industry in India, an industry in which women account for approximately 25% of the total employment.[6] In this casa, as in the Sri Lankan study, materials produced were for both the international and domestic markets.
ILO conventions on home-based workers were mentioned explicitly in the Sri Lanka study performed by Swarna Jayaweera[7]. The convention, ILO # 177[8] is detailed in an excerpt below. Enforcement of the convention, by including subcontracted & home-based workers in national laws, is lax.

Convention No. 177
Convention concerning Home Work, 1996
1. The national policy on home work shall promote, as far as possible, equality of treatment between home workers and other wage earners, taking into account the special characteristics of home work and, where appropriate, conditions applicable to the same or a similar type of work carried out in an enterprise.
2. Equality of treatment shall be promoted, in particular, in relation to:
(a) The homeworkers’ right to establish or join organizations of their own choosing and to participate
in the activities of such organizations;
(b) Protection against discrimination in employment and occupation;
(c) Protection in the field of occupational safety and health;
(d) Remuneration;
(e) Statutory social security protection;
(f) Access to training;
(g) Minimum age for admission to employment or work; and
(h) Maternity protection.

There were a number of themes that were shared throughout the two studies. A few are highlighted here
  • Opening of economies under IMF SAPs lead to greater influx of export labor that were generally unskilled and did not promote the creation of industries based in the countries that would help them develop
  • Women generally held the lowest paying and lowest skilled jobs in outsourced arrangements
    • These jobs could lead to repetitive injuries
    • Did not generally offer the opportunity to build skills that would be transferable to the formal economy
  • Women were often forced to leave the formal economy when they were married or had children, reflecting a gender bias addressed in ILO conventions but rarely adhered to or enforced
  • ILO conventions have been in existence for many years, some dating to the 50’s, that address gender equality, yet there is very lax enforcement of these conventions
    • It is interesting to note that conventions on equal pay exist from the 1950s, they appear not to be followed here in the United States[9]
  • In interviews, women were at times grateful for the opportunity to work in flexible ways; they had more input into the family’s decision making as they contributed to the families economic well-being.[10]
  • Regardless of their work arrangements, women were still the main responsible party for the tasks associated with the homestead (another indicator of women’s role stereotyping) and child rearing.
  • Complaints revolved around of the sort addressing the “middle-men” the people that arranged for the home-work in the informal economy that often took their “share” of the overall earnings actually provided by the women working at home. In other words, the middle-men extracted too much value from the women’s labor. This reflects the hidden (shadow) nature of subcontracted women workers and the lack of formal rules around their engagement.[11]
  • While there are ILO conventions governing many of the problem areas presented in the book, it is unclear as to what level of enforcement exists.
  • Accurate data on the informal economy is hard to obtain and is many times unreliable; anecdotal evidence is often used, though can be equally as powerful, if difficult to quantify in ways deemed appropriate by funding organizations.
When thinking about the affects of globalization on women workers, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of assuming the worst. While the problems with subcontracted women workers are real, what was so surprising were the positive impacts associated with this subcontracted work. One could argue that the need for some of these informal networks of home-based women is rooted in their exclusion from the official rolls of eligible labor. When they marry or become pregnant, women are sometimes prevented from working. Given the poor economic positions experienced by many of the families profiled in The Hidden Assembly Line, the extra income earned by the women make a significant impact on their family’s well-being.
The networks of subcontracted women workers, whether home-based or operating in small factories, were subject to the whims of the global economy as well as the inconsistencies with their managers and the companies that contracted them. Payment was sometimes erratic, and the subcontracted arrangement could be terminated with very little notice. They were the part of the value chain that reaped the least amount from the stream of profit associated with the items they made; in the case of garment manufacturers in India, they made only 2% of the total value of the item.[12]
In summary, though there are some benefits associated with the informal employment of women in the subcontracted labor force, they remain subject to the vagaries of the “push” model of globalization, where international firms are searching for the lowest costs production of goods for competitive reasons.[13] These women are therefore in jobs that cannot be guaranteed with any level of comfort for the long-term, are generally in the lowest skilled vocations that have little chance of helping them develop advanced skills that lead to higher earnings potential, and remain subject to gender discrimination regarding work in general.
There is little evidence that globalization and the “push” for lower costs associated with production of consumer goods will abate any time soon. This is worrisome for women working in situations dependent upon lowest cost. What may be a strategy to avert the potential damage from a collapse in a local subcontracting networks will be the integration of the informal into the formal. Though there are existing ILO conventions addressing some of the issues raised in The Hidden Assembly Line, it appears that more rigorous enforcement strategies are lacking and must be better coordinated globally.

Balakrishnan, R. (2002). The hidden assembly line: Gender dynamics of subcontracted work in a global economy. Kumarian Press. ISBN: 9781565491397.

[1] Balakrishnan, R. “The Hidden Assembly Line”, Kumarian Press, p. 1
[3] Balakrishnan, “Hidden Assembly Line”, Kumarian Press, p.30
[4] Balakrishnan, p.30
[5] Balakrishnan, p.65
[6] Balakrishnan, p.115
[7] Balakrishnan p. 81
[8] International Labour Organization, “Gender Equality and Decent Work”, p. 131
[9] International Labour Organization, p. 3
[10] Balakrishnan, p. 31
[11] Balakrishnan, p. 80
[13] Balakrishnan, p. 18

Sunday, September 07, 2008

‘Green’ MBA Program News

Torn from the pages of Mass High Tech and are two articles about integrating environmental elements into MBA programs; Brandeis and The University of Arizona are mentioned below (image from
If I am not mistaken, Brandeis is well known for their social work programs as well as drawing a diverse and internationally flavored student body. Cheers to them for adding (or at least announcing) a 'green' [their quotation marks] element to the program.

Brandeis Launches 'Green' MBA Program

Brandeis University’s International Business School reports it has started a “Global Green MBA,” for socially responsible business.

The new concentration blends traditional business issues with economic and social development, corporate governance and environmental policy. The program boasts students from over 60 countries and a curriculum rooted in international economics, finance and business, the Waltham-based school said.

The program’s requirements include courses on corporations and communities, corporations and the environment, and a seminar exploring what “green” means in different contexts. Students will also complete a field project using financial and business principals learned in core MBA courses.

The program is being introduced this fall with a course called “Business and the Environment,” as well as through a series of related presentations and panels.

UA’s Eller College of Management to ride tailwind [coattails?] of green MBA trend

By Mae Lee Sun
Inside Tucson Business

The Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona will be adding "green" coursework to its MBA curriculum.
Paul Portney, dean of the Eller College, unofficially made that announcement at a presentation he gave recently to the Sunbelt World Trade Association.
MBA programs across the United States have been doing something similar for about the past five years to accommodate students who have an interest in integrating environmentally "green" principles into the way businesses are run.
The UA offering will only be one class - a three-unit elective - to be offered for the first time in the fall 2009 semester.
"It’s enough for now," Portney said in an interview. "Right now we’re in the process of raising money to support the development of the one class."
He said he is meeting with faculty to determine who is interested in pursuing the green coursework and how it will be developed.
"If it’s successful, it is conceivable that we’d also offer it at the undergraduate level as well," Portney said, adding that as long as he is dean, Eller won’t be offering a separate green MBA track as other schools have done although he admits the idea to add the course was driven by student interest.
Pioneering green schools, such as Bainbridge Graduate Institute, on Bainbridge Island across Puget Sound from Seattle, Wash., and Dominican University, in San Rafael, Calif., have pioneered full-on green MBA programs, offering such courses as eco-commerce, environmental accounting and social justice and business.
Portney envisions the one course in the Eller College to have a distinct focus - one which will help use existing projects and prospective projects at the UA as case studies for MBA students to help administrators make difficult financial decisions.
As examples, there may be environmental reasons for the UA to install photovoltaic panels on rooftops, or develop a water conservation plan, or green transportation. The MBA students will be given the opportunity to work in cross-disciplines with like-minded students in other UA programs, such as the school of engineering, Portney said.
Some would argue the one class isn’t much of a step.
Gifford Pinchot, president and co-founder of the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, says traditional MBA programs who offer one or two courses on sustainability will essentially contradict themselves because the core of the curriculum ignores social impact on community and the environment.
Pinchot, whose book "Intraprenuering" has been used in the curriculum of business schools across the country, feels students need to be shown how to integrate social and environmental issues into all of their decisions and make a profit while being applicable to the "real world." It’s not a matter of either/or, it’s innovation in all respects.
"Students from Bainbridge and places like Presidio are skyrocketing up the career ladder because there is a hunger out there for people who have a firm grasp on how to think clearly about business and sustainability at the same time," Pinchot said. "This is not solely about being a tree-hugger. It’s about what also makes a company a lot of money."
A good example he says is when Trillium, an asset management firm, hired three interns for the summer. Two were from Ivy League schools and one was from Bainbridge. The one from Bainbridge was the only one who was hired because Pinchot says "he got it."
Like the UA’s Portney, Eric Orts, professor and director of Initiative For Global Environmental Leadership at Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, remains a skeptic.
"I think it would be a mistake to say that it doesn’t matter where you go to school. I think you could make more of a difference by having a connection to a school like Harvard, Cornell or Michigan because some of the best people doing the research are at these schools," Orts said. "There might be a role for students who go in that direction but I am skeptical of the long-term benefit.
"Forget about the green side," he said. "First you need to understand how a business operates and what the real problems are. We don’t have things like an Ethics MBA even though that is an issue in business, so why a green MBA? I think these programs lack a tough-mindedness."
And while Pinchot agrees that traditional MBAs have their place if your orientation is "one ahead of all others and ignore social responsibility," he said green MBA programs will tend to be criticized because other schools haven’t figured out how to do it yet.
What he is finding is that faculty at MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Duke and others who come to teach business at his school are taking back the knowledge they are learning from both students and other faculty and beginning to teach differently at their own schools.
Graduates, Pinchot says, also seem to have little problem cashing in on their education and are finding themselves employed in top executive positions in places like mining, the oil industry, engineering and the public sector. And he asserts, "These typically aren’t students who would have applied to business school."
As of this year, there are a number of MBA programs across the United States offering coursework in sustainability. The Aspen Institute Guide to Socially Responsible MBA Programs 2008-2009 ranks 130 business schools. Among those at the top are Stanford, University of Colorado at Boulder and University of California at San Diego.