Wednesday, November 16, 2005

This Corn Not For Eating

Some of you may know that in the past I've written about gardening as the Incompetent Gardener and thinking up posts for Bazungu Bucks doesn't seem much different. It's difficult to have a coherent thought when thoughts seem to circle rather wildly. I'm just good that way: the incompentent blogger.

Today's post was inspired by a Letter to the Editor in yesterday's Post-Gazette by The Honorable Maurice B. Cohill of the U.S. District Court, Africans starve, while Iowa cornfields overflow. In the letter Judge Cohill remarks that he's been to Malawi because of an affiliation between his local church and a church in Malawi. He expresses his distress and sympathy for the people suffering there, a result of drought and the failure of the corn crop.

Judge Cohill references this article dateline Chikwawa, Malawi and presents the cognitive dissonace he felt in seeing a picture of "a mountain of corn stored outdoors in an empty lot in Manchester, Iowa."

Rather off the subject of corn, that last link is to The New York Times. Times articles are not available on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Online Editon. The Times conviently makes the picture of the "mountain" of corn an easy to copy JPEG. But copying it would be wrong! Well, at least that's an issue that blogging is bringing to my attention. The picture I'm using is just as illegal, I suppose. It's a USDA photo and the caption on the Web page was "This corn not for eating."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation
is running a campaign now to protect bloggers rights. MyDD has a good post about some of the issues at stake and how too many Democrats are on the wrong side of the issue. My ideas about intellectual property rights are being changed by blogging, and I'm afraid my thinking about them isn't up to date. Clearly my preference is for a liberal interpretation of fair use.

Judge Cohill asks: "Why can't we get that corn to Malawi and elsewhere in southern Africa?" At least part of the answer is right in the article he references: the corn is stacking up because the shipping routes along the Mississippi River are disrupted by Hurricane Katrina. In a larger view famine is often the result of inadequate distribution rather than food shortages per se.

Rodale's Save Three Lives looks critically at Africa's dependence on corn. He observes that most parts of Africa so dependant on corn are too dry for the crop. But it's not easy to stop doing what you're accustomed to doing, as the newspaper article from Malawi notes:
In a recent episode of the radio soap opera "Zima Chitika," which translates as "So it Happens," a character asks his wife to cook dinner. Although their village home is stocked with sweet potatoes and vegetable gravy, she issues a testy rebuke. "We won't eat tonight. We have no nsima."

Then a wise village grandmother intercedes. "We can eat whatever is available, there is no need to have just maize!"
This dependence on doing what we're used to doing is not just a problem for Africans.

That "mountain" of corn maybe destined to be made into ethanol. Many people here imagine that alcohol will take the place of gasoline as our primary transportation fuel. It's not so simple, because it takes an awful lot of petroleum to raise a bushel of corn. But it's quite comforting to imagine that technology will find a way for us to keep doing what we're accustomed to doing; although most widely adopted new technologies are praised as "disruptive."

Wes Jackson has spent his career trying to envision and implement a vision of sustainable agriculture. The Mission of The Land Institute takes a view of agriculture that is unfamiliar to our ususal way of thinking:
Mission Statement

When people, land, and community are as one,
all three members prosper;
when they relate not as members
but as competing interests,
all three are exploited.
By consulting Nature as the source
and measure of that membership,
The Land Institute seeks to develop an agriculture
that will save soil from being lost or poisoned
while promoting a community life at once
prosperous and enduring.

A few posts back I listed some of the blogs that I read. It was a short list, probably a little embarassed to acknowlege the full scope of my blog addiction. One of the blogs I didn't mention is Ed Kilgore's New Donkey. He's of the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization that left-leaning Democrats love to hate. I don't really have an opinion about the DLC, but I like Kilgore. A lot of liking him has to do with loving southern liberals, and Kilgore is a good example of that species. Earlier in the week he did a post reviewing two recent books on Africa, Africa: Politics and Despair. Kilgore links to a recent review in The Nation that references Martin Meredith's The Fate of Africa: From The Hopes of Freedom to The Heart of Despair. Thank goodness for reviews.

I've been reading George Ayittey's Africa In Chaos and although I'm very recpetive to the ideas in it, it's hard going. My shorter Ayittey--admittedly incomplete as I'm only a third into it--is that traditional African values correspond with classical western liberalism and the roots for a functional civil society in African countries can be planted in African soil. Rather less despair than Meredith and rather more African-centric than Jeffery Sach's The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Ourtime also reviewed in The Nation piece.

Politics is very important, but it's not the viewpoint I generally begin with. I was happy to see Judge Cohill's letter in the P-G. But even with compassion his approach seems very much in the vein: "we're a great country and should help lesser countries." Ed Kilgore writes about American politics; his blog piece resulted from research for an article he's working on for Blueprint Magazine. Kilgore knows that U.S. involvement in Africa is often motivated by reasons far from altruism. Politics is his beat and politics is important.

Wes Jackson is native to his Kansas plain, but the wisdom in becoming native to our place has much to say about the dire situation across much of the African continent. The wisdom of the village grandmother, "We can eat whatever is available, there is no need to have just maize!" is profound. Mountains of corn in Iowa aren't a permanent solution for African famine. Distribution problems make them an unlikely short-term solution as well. An African solution may mean less dependence on the corn they're so used to eating.

We in the West also face the prospect of learning ways we're not used to in order to survive and prosper. The specifics of our predicaments differ, but it seems in recognizing we face a predicament too, that we may make our exchanges with African people more honest, more human, more productive.

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