Gumming up the works

Researchers in Canada have developed an alternative to gum arabic by treating “soybean soluble polysaccharide” with some fancy enzyme. Bad news for gum arabic (an exudate of Acacia senegal) collectors and exporters in Sudan and Nigeria. Good news for soybean farmers around the world, I guess. But who’s in greater need of good news?

Coffee story drips on

Kathryn Garforth has an excellent post digging up some of the background to the explosion of interest in Starbucks’ efforts to block the attempt by Ethiopia to trademark the names of some of its coffee varieties. She teases apart who said what when, but more than that goes into some detail on the nuances behind some of the press releases on both sides, making it clear that Starbucks did not actually directly oppose Ethiopia’s tradmark application.

The whole question of getting a better return for the farmers who preserve some bits of agricultural biodiversity is vexed. Denomination of Origin certificates offer some protection, but not against copycats who simply go ahead and make, say, Greek cheese in Denmark, or Champagne-style wines just about anywhere. For something like Ethiopian coffee, I wonder whether any protection is needed. I mean, even if they could get the material to start a plantation, are any big coffee plantation people going to bother to start up a Sidano plantation in Vietnam? I somehow doubt it. It makes Oxfam look good, to anyone who doesn’t go deeper, but will it change anything for the coffee farmers of Ethiopia? I doubt it.

Building on the Indigenous

A friend alerted me to this great quote by Claude Ake from his 1988 paper “Building on the Indigenous” (in Recovery in Africa: a challenge for development cooperation in the 90s: Swedish International Development Authority):

…My thesis is that we cannot significantly advance the development of Africa unless we take African societies seriously as they are, not as they ought to be or even as they might be; that sustainable development is never going to occur unless we build on the indigenous […]

The indigenous is not the traditional, there is no fossilized existence of the African past available for us to fall back on, only new totalities, however hybrid, which change with each passing day[…]

The indigenous refers to whatever the people consider important in their lives, whatever they regard as an authentic expression of themselves. We build on the indigenous by making it determine the form and content of development strategy, by ensuring that developmental change accommodates itself to these things, be they values, interests, aspirations and or social institutions which are important in the life of the people. It is only when developmental change comes to terms with them that it can become sustainable.

I don’t suppose Ake had plant genetic resources in mind, but this could be applied verbatim to development in agriculture, couldn’t it?

Commodity chains

Another addition to the literature on the tyranny of global commodities: in Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet Carol Off “investigate(s) the unjust means by which the raw material has been, and continues to be, procured.” See it reviewed here. Haven’t read it, so will not pass judgement yet, but it doesn’t sound from the review (or indeed the title) like the book gives a very balanced assessment of the contribution of cacao to livelihoods in West Africa. But I am probably wrong – and I certainly hope I am.