Food prices to rise for years, biofuel firms say

LONDON – Staple food prices will rise for some years, but should eventually fall to historical averages as harvests increase, biofuel company executives said on Thursday.

Soaring demand for better quality food from rapidly industrializing emerging markets such as China, supply shortages, increased demand for biofuels, and a surging appetite for food commodities by investment funds, have combined to push prices of basic foods higher and higher in recent months.

Stephane Delodder, managing partner of Netherlands-based consultancy iFuel Corporate Advisory, told a conference the problem of rising food prices would persist for some years.

Market forces should eventually help rebalance supply and demand, especially in markets which are not highly regulated, but this could take some time.

“(It could be) a few years at most before the situation returns to normal,” Delodder said.

He said grains and oilseed futures markets, which have corrected down recently after meteoric rises, may already be signaling that supply will rise as farmers raise plantings.

Read more

Despite denials, military still studying clandestine use of blogs

It was revealed this week by Wired that a study written for the U.S. Special Operations Command in 2006 recommended “clandestinely recruiting or hiring prominent bloggers” in order to promote messages favorable to the military. It also raised the possibility of altering an “enemy blog” by hacking to destroy its credibility or use it to spread false information.

The military has downplayed this study as an “academic exercise,” but its conclusions appear to match closely with a strong and growing focus by the Pentagon on what it calls “information warfare.”

Underlining this interest, this past January former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld resurfaced for the first time in over a year to address a conference on “Network Centric Warfare.” He complained that Islamic radicals are winning the propaganda battle against the United States and proposed a “21st-century agency for global communications” that would tell the American side of the story, using resources ranging “from blogs to online social-networking sites to talk radio.”

During the question session afterward, Rumsfeld suggested again that “a new agency has to be something that would take advantage of the wonderful opportunities that exist today. There are multiple channels for information . . . The Internet is there, blogs are there, talk radio is there, e-mails are there. There are all kinds of opportunities.”

Until recently, the popular concept of information warfare primarily involved hacking or denial of service attacks deployed against blogs and websites in order to convey a political statement.

For example, at the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were reports of widespread hacking of both military and commercial websites. According to ZDNet, “most notably, the US Navy Web site was hacked by an activist called Apocalypse. The message posted on the site read: ‘No War, U.S.A think they can tell the world what to do.'” A few months later, several NASA sites were similarly hacked by Brazilian anti-war protesters.

Read more

Are the oceans giving up?

Studies seem to indicate that oceans, which are major carbon sinks, may have had enough. If so, the consequences are BAD, writes Jayalakshmi K.

Ocean deserts, which are non-productive areas, have increased by 15 per cent in the period 1998-2007, according to a study done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the US and the University of Hawaii. This translates into a total of 6.6 million sq km. On the whole, there are 51 million sq km of such desert zones. The data was collected by Nasa’s orbiting SeaStar craft.

Attributed mostly to warming surface waters, which is happening at a rate of 1 per cent every year, this creates many layers in the ocean waters, preventing deep ocean nutrients from rising to the surface and feeding plant life.

Read more

Lawmakers Heavily Invested in Defense

WASHINGTON (AP) – Members of Congress have as much as $196 million collectively invested in companies doing business with the Defense Department, earning millions since the onset of the Iraq war, according to a study by a nonpartisan research group.

Read more

We spied on 36,000 customers using the internet, admits BT

BT tested secret “spyware” on tens of thousands of its broadband customers without their knowledge, it admitted yesterday.

It carried out covert trials of a system which monitors every internet page a user visits.

Companies can exploit such data to target users with tailored online advertisements.

An investigation into the affair has been started by the Information Commissioner, the personal data watchdog.

Privacy campaigners reacted with horror, accusing BT of illegal interception on a huge scale. Yesterday, the company was forced to admit that it had monitored the web browsing habits of 36,000 customers.

The scandal came to light only after some customers stumbled across tell-tale signs of spying. At first, they were wrongly told a software virus was to blame.


BT carried out undercover trials of a system which records every website a customer visits (below)

Executives insisted they had not broken the law and said no “personally identifiable information” had been shared or divulged.

BT said it randomly chose 36,000 broadband users for a “small-scale technical trial” in 2006 and 2007.

The monitoring system, developed by U.S. software company Phorm, accesses information from a computer.

It then scans every website a customer visits, silently checking for keywords and building up a unique picture of their interests.

If a user searches online to buy a holiday or expensive TV, for example, or looks for internet dating services or advice on weight loss, the Phorm system will add all the information to their file.

One BT customer who spotted unexplained problems with his computer was told repeatedly by BT helpdesk staff that a virus was to blame.

Read more

Rush to restrict trade in basic foods

Governments across the developing world are scrambling to boost farm imports and restrict exports in an attempt to forestall rising food prices and social unrest.

Saudi Arabia cut import taxes across a range of food products on Tuesday, slashing its wheat tariff from 25 per cent to zero and reducing tariffs on poultry, dairy produce and vegetable oils.

On Monday, India scrapped tariffs on edible oil and maize and banned exports of all rice except the high-value basmati variety, while Vietnam, the world’s third biggest rice exporter, said it would cut rice exports by 11 per cent this year.

The moves mark a rapid shift away from protecting farmers, who are generally the beneficiaries of food import tariffs, towards cushioning consumers from food shortages and rising prices.

Read more

Neuromarketing could make mind reading the ad-man’s ultimate tool

Neuroscience and marketing had a love child a few years back. Its name – big surprise – is neuromarketing, and the ugly little fellow is growing up. Corporate pitchmen have always wanted to get inside our skulls. The more accurately they can predict how we’ll react to stimuli in the marketplace, from prices to packages to adverts, the more money they can pull from our pockets and transfer to their employers’ coffers.

But picking the brains of consumers hasn’t been easy. Marketers have had to rely on indirect methods to read our thoughts and feelings. They’ve watched what we do in stores or tracked how purchases rise or fall in response to promotional campaigns or changes in pricing. And they’ve carried out endless surveys and focus groups, asking us what we buy and why.

The results have been mixed at best. People, for one thing, don’t always know what they’re thinking, and even when they do, they’re not always honest in reporting it. Traditional market research is fraught with bias and imprecision, which forces companies to fall back on hunches and rules of thumb.

But thanks to recent breakthroughs in brain science, companies can now actually see what goes on inside our minds when we shop. Teams of academic and corporate neuromarketers have begun to hook people up to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines to map how their neurons respond to products and pitches.

Read more

Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear

Monsanto already dominates America’s food chain with its genetically modified seeds. Now it has targeted milk production. Just as frightening as the corporation’s tactics-ruthless legal battles against small farmers-is its decades-long history of toxic contamination.

No thanks: An anti-Monsanto crop circle made by farmers and volunteers in the Philippines.
By Melvyn Calderon/Greenpeace HO/A.P. Images.

Gary Rinehart clearly remembers the summer day in 2002 when the stranger walked in and issued his threat. Rinehart was behind the counter of the Square Deal, his “old-time country store,” as he calls it, on the fading town square of Eagleville, Missouri, a tiny farm community 100 miles north of Kansas City.

The Square Deal is a fixture in Eagleville, a place where farmers and townspeople can go for lightbulbs, greeting cards, hunting gear, ice cream, aspirin, and dozens of other small items without having to drive to a big-box store in Bethany, the county seat, 15 miles down Interstate 35.

Everyone knows Rinehart, who was born and raised in the area and runs one of Eagleville’s few surviving businesses. The stranger came up to the counter and asked for him by name.

“Well, that’s me,” said Rinehart.

As Rinehart would recall, the man began verbally attacking him, saying he had proof that Rinehart had planted Monsanto’s genetically modified (G.M.) soybeans in violation of the company’s patent. Better come clean and settle with Monsanto, Rinehart says the man told him-or face the consequences.

Rinehart was incredulous, listening to the words as puzzled customers and employees looked on. Like many others in rural America, Rinehart knew of Monsanto’s fierce reputation for enforcing its patents and suing anyone who allegedly violated them. But Rinehart wasn’t a farmer. He wasn’t a seed dealer. He hadn’t planted any seeds or sold any seeds. He owned a small-a really small-country store in a town of 350 people. He was angry that somebody could just barge into the store and embarrass him in front of everyone. “It made me and my business look bad,” he says. Rinehart says he told the intruder, “You got the wrong guy.”

When the stranger persisted, Rinehart showed him the door. On the way out the man kept making threats. Rinehart says he can’t remember the exact words, but they were to the effect of: “Monsanto is big. You can’t win. We will get you. You will pay.”

Read more

81% of Americans think country on ‘wrong track’

WASHINGTON – FOUR out of five Americans believe things are ‘on the wrong track’ in the United States, the gloomiest outlook in about 20 years, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.

The poll, released on Thursday, found that 81 per cent of respondents felt ‘things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track’. That was up from 69 per cent last year and 35 per cent in early 2003.

Only 4 per cent of survey respondents said the country was better off than it was five years ago, while 78 per cent said it was worse, the newspaper said.

Read more

Federal Reserve staff move into offices of investment banks to monitor activities

The US Federal Reserve has sent staff into some of Wall Street’s biggest firms and its New York branch is gathering evidence on key traders’ activities as America’s central bank raises its scrutiny of risk to an unprecedented level.

Fed staff have set up shop in Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Bear Stearns to monitor their financial condition just days after Henry Paulson, the US Treasury Secretary, proposed that the Fed become the financial industry’s “risk czar”.

This is the first time in more than a decade that the Fed has put staff in securities firms and is a response, in part, to its decision to extend to investment banks the “discount window” of cheap loans traditionally offered only to the commercial banks. The Fed argues that if it is to act as lender of last resort to the securities firms, it should keep a closer eye on their activities.

The move comes as the central bank’s New York branch separately compiles a list of names and numbers of key traders in specific, esoteric securities such as auction rate preferred securities. These obscure instruments can be traded only at auctions and demand for them has virtually evaporated in recent weeks.

A senior US mutual fund executive, whom the Fed has approached, said: “They are looking in every corner to understand every esoteric financial product – who its traders are, who holds the most, whether its market is liquid and how great the losses could be. They are approaching people like me to find the key players in particular securities and then contacting them to find out the details. I have never heard of that being done before.”

Read more

Individual bankruptcy filings up 27%

American Bankruptcy Institute says first-quarter filings rose as households creak under heavy debt load.

NEW YORK – The number of individuals filing for bankruptcy surged during the first-quarter as American households struggled to stay on top of debt, according to a report released Wednesday.

The American Bankruptcy Institute said that consumer bankruptcy filings increased 27% nationwide in the first three months of the year, compared with the same period last year. In March alone, 86,165 individuals filed for consumer bankruptcy – a 13% increase over the 76,120 cases filed in February.

“Bankruptcies are rising due to the heavy burden of household debt and growing mortgage problems,” said ABI Executive Director Samuel J. Gerdano. “We expect this trend to continue through 2008.”

The ABI found that nearly 32% of all consumer bankruptcy cases were Chapter 13 filings, which is available to individuals with regular income and calls for budgeting some of the debtor’s future earnings to pay off creditors.

April 2, 2008: 12:15 PM EDT

Source: CNN Money

Bush Administration Memo Says Fourth Amendment Does Not Apply

NEW YORK – A newly disclosed secret memo authored by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in March 2003 that asserts President Bush has unlimited power to order brutal interrogations of detainees also reveals a radical interpretation of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure. The memo, declassified yesterday as the result of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, cites a still-secret DOJ memo from 2001 that found that the “Fourth Amendment had no application to domestic military operations.”

The October 2001 memo was almost certainly meant to provide a legal basis for the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program, which President Bush launched the same month the memo was issued. As a component of the Department of Defense, the NSA is a military agency.

“The recent disclosures underscore the Bush administration’s extraordinarily sweeping conception of executive power,” said Jameel Jaffer, Director of the ACLU’s National Security Project. “The administration’s lawyers believe the president should be permitted to violate statutory law, to violate international treaties, and even to violate the Fourth Amendment inside the U.S. They believe that the president should be above the law.

Read more

Ecuador Bans Foreign Military Bases

Ecuador’s parliament has approved a law banning foreign military bases, a move which could prevent the US from using a key anti-drug smuggling base in the country.

Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president, whose party controls the assembly, had previously said he would not renew the agreement allowing US forces to operate from the city of Manta.

At present the US lease on the Pacific coast base expires in 2009.

US officials say that air surveillance missions from the base have led to more than half of all drug seizures in the region, where most of the world’s cocaine is produced.

Read more

DHS reckons US cops’ access to sat-surveillance is go

US Homeland Security overlord Michael Chertoff has told reporters that he believes plans for increased use of satellite surveillance by American law-enforcement agencies are ready to move forward. However, Democratic politicians remain unconvinced that adequate privacy and civil liberties safeguards are in place.

“I think the way is now clear to stand NAO up and go warm,” said Chertoff, briefing journalists about the proposed National Applications Office.

NAO would allow US police, immigration, drug-enforcement and other officials to have access to data from various US satellites passing above America. It is understood that the information would be supplied mostly by spacecraft which at the moment are used for meteorological and geological surveying, or other scientific tasks. Satellites of this type can often deliver high-resolution images which would also be useful to law enforcement.

Read more

Cheney Opposed Chemical Weapons Convention

Vice President Dick Cheney opposed the signing ratification of a treaty banning the use chemical weapons, a recently unearthed letter shows.

183 countries pledged never to “develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons, or transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyone” under the Chemical Weapons Convention, put into effect in 1997.

But in a letter dated April 8, 1997, then Halliburton-CEO Cheney told Sen. Jesse Helms, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that it would be a mistake for America to join the Convention.  “Those nations most likely to comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention are not likely to ever constitute a military threat to the United States.  The governments we should be concerned about are likely to cheat on the CWC, even if they do participate,” reads the letter, published by the Federation of American Scientists.

Read more