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Hewlett-Packard's innovation trend flatened long ago

Fri, 2014-05-23 13:01

Hewlett Packard helped create Silicon Valley. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard started the company out of a garage in Palo Alto in 1939, and innovated like crazy for decades. But the company hasn’t been in the innovation business for quite some time, and it’s had a rocky 15 years. CEO Meg Whitman announced up to 16,000 layoffs Friday— bringing the total for this round to 50,000. And this is the sixth or seventh round of cuts since 2002.

Tech writer George Anders wrote the book on HP—Perfect Enough, which looked at the company’s efforts to reinvent itself in the late 1990s— after its work in innovation was over.

Hewlett-Packard’s last great innovation came about 30 years ago, says Anders, when it introduced the inkjet printer and the laser printer. "And that started as a small, stumbling little business with low-quality products, and it just kept getting better and better and more competitive."

After that, the company was too focused on looking for monster hits to tinker around with the little innovations that had made the company great. "At the boardroom level," says Anders, "HP was always thinking, 'Where’s the next printing business?'”

A series of CEOs came and went. HP bought companies and cut workers. A 2008 layoff made at least one list of all-time biggest mass firings. This round of cuts, which started in 2012, is twice as big.

However, tech analysts say the company has a future. For one thing: It’s now the old dinosaur — HP’s major revenue comes from serving giant corporate clients — and that comes with advantages. "The case for legacy companies is that they have client relationships, they have client trust," says Jim Kelleher, a tech analyst with Argus Research. He says the core business HP is now in — managing data — is growing.

Even though that business is threatened by cloud computing, HP has time to make a transition, says Brent Bracelin from Pacific Crest Securities. "That $110 billion billion dollars of infrastructure that they sell annually doesn’t move to the cloud overnight," he says.

Biometric underwear helps monitor the sick

Fri, 2014-05-23 11:55

We’ve all heard about patients using various apps and devices to track their health.

Well a hospital in Greece has taken what sometimes is called telemonitoring to a whole new level.

Doctors gave patients with the lung disease COPD biometric underwear to keep tabs on their heart rate, breathing and activity levels.

Biometric underwear goes against the rule of thumb in the world of wearable technology that fashion matters.

Unless, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Steve Downs says you’re sick. 

“In the case of somebody who is discharged from the hospital for COPD they may have a very strong motivation for putting on something that may or may not be comfortable,” he says.

In the case of the biometric underwear whatever discomfort there was, may have been worth it.

Patients left the hospital sooner, were less likely to come back and had fewer follow-ups.

A path to lower costs and improved health.

“The promise of this technology is that it allows you to have the data about effective the treatment is so you can make the kind of adjustments to get the best outcome,” says Downs.

These tantalizing possibilities drive the rush into wearables.

IHS Electronics and Media projects in just three years, it could be a $60 million dollar industry.

But it’s a tricky business says Dr. Jesse Shantz, Chief Medical Officer for Montreal-based startup OMsignal which has just introduced a line of workout shirts to monitor heart and breathing levels.

“To be successful in this, you have to become commercially viable. To be commercially viable you have to pick a narrow consumer segment and give them what they need,” he says.

The difficult question for consumers is what do they need?

“I think there is going to be a lot of chaos and cacophony until they figure this out,” saysDr. Bob Wachter, a health professor at the University of California San Francisco.

“I’m just worried that your mom, who is 80 years old but fine is in Boca. And here you are the daughter who is sitting in Philadelphia and the sensor that she’s wearing in her underpants shows that her heart rate just went up by 10 or 15. What do you do?”

Wachter expects Madison Avenue to convince the worried that collecting real time data helps you and your loved ones.

But right now, it’s the truly sick who may benefit the most from wearables fashion be damned. 

Ukraine's industrial heartland is up for grabs

Fri, 2014-05-23 11:19

Ukrainians head to the polls on Sunday. Well, maybe. 

Mark Lowen says that, in chaotic eastern Ukraine, the election may not even happen.

“You do occasionally stumble upon armed groups in the city center,” says Lowen, a BBC correspondent in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. “But if you go out of Donetsk to [the outlying towns] they are totally in the hands of pro-Russia armed militias.  There is a siege-like atmosphere there, and that is where the election will not be held at all.”

Lowen says that losing eastern Ukraine to separatists would be a huge economic blow to the Ukrainian government.

‘This is the industrial heartland of the country," he says, "There is a massive mining, steel, iron industries... it is an extremely important area. If Kiev loses control of this area entirely it loses a massive chunk of its economy.”

The front runner in the presidential election is a candy making billionaire named Petro Poroshenko. He's reached out to the east -- if elected he says his first trip will be to Donetsk. But Lowen says he's still a controversial figure.

"His pro-European stance will go down well in Kiev and western Ukraine," Lowen says, "But less well here in the east, where there are many people who still feel Ukraine should have closer ties to Russia."

A grand tour of Marketplace(s) in London

Fri, 2014-05-23 09:59

While the Marketplace Morning Report team visited London to broadcast from the BBC this week, we've featured audio postcards in and around the city's many neighborhoods. 

We also enlisted our BBC colleague and producer Marie Keyworth to serve as our guide on the city's vast and popular markets, traveling to Smithfield Market, a popular meat market, to Portobello Road where antiques and other goods are sold. At each stop she helped us gather snippets of people selling foods and other goods.

We asked Marie to give us an overview of London markets, and her recommendations:

There are more markets than you can shake a stick at in London.  It’s impossible to suggest to a visitor which is ‘the’ market to go to. The conversation can quickly become a long exposition, listing the various, unique, and equally interesting options available. A London market is always a true sensory experience – it just depends which one you want.

If buying meat at 3:00 am from friendly foul-mouthed traders is your thing, then head to Smithfield Market in Farringdon.  It’s Europe’s largest meat market, and it’s been around since 1868. It’s the coal-face of the food industry in London, where restauranteurs and caterers of all shapes and sizes come to buy their meat each day. But members of the public are welcome to buy on a smaller scale, if you’re not put off by the odd trader in a bloody-splattered white suit, or rows of dead piglets lined up in a fridge as if they are just sleeping.

For those who want a more rarefied atmosphere, with a touch of Hollywood glamour, a twenty minute tube ride across town gets you to Notting Hill and the famous Portobello Road market. The area was brought into public consciousness with the help of the film ‘Notting Hill’ in which Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts fell in love in a house just a stone’s throw from the market itself. Head to Portobello Road on a Saturday and you won’t be able to move for antique dealers, jewelry makers, and general purveyors of bizarre curiosities you never knew you needed.

Glamour is in short supply in Brixton market, which is south of the river and well out of London’s centre. Here you shop with the locals – the ordinary people picking up groceries sourced from all over the world. I dare say you’ll never see so many yams in one place anywhere else in London. The area’s multicultural residents hailing from the likes of Portugal, Afghanistan, and the Caribbean, make this market a down-to-earth melting pot.  But the traders say the place is changing. Brixton market is getting quieter, as steady gentrification attracts more and more young professionals to the area. These people prefer to brunch and lunch in the champagne bars and gluten free cafes of the covered Brixton Village complex next door. This, too, is a hub of independent traders, but as the population of Brixton changes, the markets there evolve to suit their more ‘moneyed’ needs.

Check out Marketplace's full set of stories about London culture, life, and economics on the Mind the Gap series homepage

London's sewers overflow about once a week

Fri, 2014-05-23 09:47

While most of our focus this week while in the U.K. has been on our series, Mind the Gap: Exploring Income Inequality in London, there was just one story we couldn’t resist: The sewers of London!

London’s sewer system is perhaps the most notorious sewer system in the world. In the 1800’s, the sewer’s overflow into the (then) main source of drinking water for Londoners, the Thames River, resulted in tens of thousands of deaths from cholera and other diseases. A more advanced system was built as a result that boasted the best of Victorian engineering and craftsmanship. It’s the same system that is still being used today, more than 150 years later.

Last week in the U.S., President Obama called for an increase in the amount of investment in infrastructure.

Here in London, similar pushes for infrastructure enhancements are being made. The two most controversial are proposals to create a high speed rail that would extend from London to Birmingham, and a campaign for a super sewer system that would prevent the existing overburdened sewer system from overflowing into the Thames River.

Right now the sewer system overflows once a week, on average.

Imagine our luck when we learned that it just happens to be Sewer Week in London. This helped us gain rare access for a tour. We were told yesterday during our tour that in some cases, the public has to wait for up to five years for a tour like the one we experienced.

Marketplace's Nicole Childers wrote her take of the tour: 

We set off early in the morning and we were whisked off by Thames Water to Abbey Lane, home of the historic Abbey Mills Pumping station that was built in the 1800’s and served as the central transfer point of several of London’s sewers. We started our day learning about the history of the system before getting a tour of the Abbey Mills Pumping Station. Within Abbey Mills exists several stations. One of the most decorated is the B station, which has garnered quite a few media appearances throughout the years. The Arkham Asylum in the movie Batman Begins was filmed there as was part of Coldplay’s “Lovers in Japan” music video.

Marketplace's Nicole Childers (Marketplace)

We then made our way over to Wick Lane Depot for a tour of an operational sewer. After changing into protective gear that included rubber boots and gloves, a bright white full body protective suit reminiscent of a hazmat suit, and a hard hat to top it all off, our tour guide, Danny Brackley, led us through standard safety procedures. Then, one by one we were hooked up to a protective cable before climbing down a ladder into a hole that left us more than 30-feet below ground in a pool of raw sewage that included everything from fecal matter to cooking fat irresponsibly poured down many a London kitchen sink.

For someone like me who is terrified of heights, the last step off the ladder and into raw sewage was not as comforting as I’d anticipated. Before descending into the tunnels we had been warned that the water level could be as high as 2-3 feet in some parts. Instead of feeling solid ground beneath my feet, I was met with shaky gravel and cloudy brown water flowed through and around my legs. What was in the milk chocolate-y water that now surrounded me, you may ask?  The raw sewage included everything from what you flush down your toilet to the drainage from your shower, washing machine, and sink.

As we made our way through the sewers, the smell wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated. It was more of a musty moldy smell than the smell you generally associate with a sewer. Our guide explained that generally our experience with sewer smells is after a blockage when the raw sewage gets stuck and turns septic; emanating that recognizable but stomach turning odor. These sewers flow at a pretty steady rate, which prevents the waste from rotting before it reaches the water treatment plan.   

I thought I’d be most surprised to see fecal matter floating by, but the real surprise was the astounding number of spoons, yes, real spoons that made their way into the sewers. Our guide, Dan, explained his theory: In jail, prisoners often smuggle spoons into their cells from the canteen to transform them into sharp weapons, but they end up getting flushed down the toilet right before guards perform cell searches. Seeing cutlery cascading past me didn’t hold a candle to what we saw at the end of our time in the sewer.  As I made my way up the ladder at the end of the tour, someone still down in the sewers spotted a ring. The discovery led us all to ponder whether it was flushed down the toilet by an angry and disenchanted spouse seeking an incontrovertible end of matrimony, or whether it belonged to one half of a happy couple who removed the ring only to have it slip unwittingly into a kitchen or bathroom sink and down the drain. 

The aftertaste of bailouts

Fri, 2014-05-23 08:41

Four years ago, I accompanied then-Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to India.

He was there for the U.S.-India Economic Summit, and I was one of the few journalists along for the ride. I’d traveled with Geithner a few times before, and what struck me most was how relaxed he was on this trip. Geithner had grown up in India, in part. And he was, unmistakably, having fun there.

He blanched a bit when I suggested it then. But then considered the question. Part of his comfort level, he agreed, was his childhood. But another part, he suggested, was being in a part of the world familiar with economic crises. And unorthodox responses to them. Everyone was simply not as panicked.

I met with him again this week. His publisher invited a handful of journalists to an on-the-record coffee to discuss Geithner’s new memoir, Stress Test, much of which is spent defending his response to the financial crisis. It’s a philosophy very clearly shaped by his time at the Treasury Department during the Asian financial crises of the 1990s: act fast to prevent a panic, and then, he reiterated this week, “you go figure out how to bring a measure of justice.”

That approach is clearly controversial. It’s something economists and regular Americans will argue about for decades, especially as they see large banks continue to prosper. Geither is spending a heck of a press tour defending his view. Is he being disingenuous? I think it’s hard to say.

His contention is that punishment for malefactors is important, “but you need to make sure you’re not putting that ahead of what I think is the primary moral imperative: which is to prevent mass unemployment in the country.”

The book has come under criticism from many of the sharpest economic reporters around. From Felix Salmon, who was at this coffee, for overselling his role as a change agent at the New York Fed. And from Jesse Eisinger for many of the watered down solutions the Obama economic team was willing to accept.

Geithner has a strong preference for the art of the possible. Several of the reporters at this coffee asked him about the administration’s woeful record on housing. At one point, for example, the Obama team was behind a proposal that would have allowed some borrowers to reduce the principal of their mortgage if they filed for bankruptcy. The plan ran into trouble on Capitol Hill, and it was abandoned. “The president had a very talented legislative team,” Geithner said. “They tried. He told them to try, and they were not successful.”

He added: “You need a congress that can do stuff. And our system is set up so that it’s easier to block stuff than to do stuff.”

Perhaps the subject that resonates most for regular Americans is the hardest for Geithner, Hank Paulson, or anyone in either the Bush or Obama administrations to prove. That without TARP, or the subsequent lending programs, bailouts and what-have-you; we’d be worse off.  I don’t envy anyone who has to prove that negative.

Geithner himself agrees that he was terrible at explaining it. Reflecting on his opening policy speech in office, he writes: “It was a bad speech, badly delivered, rattling confidence at a bad time.” As someone who covered the crisis closely, I remember watching the markets plummet as he spoke, wondering what cataclysmic shoe would drop next.

And that brings us to the bitterest aftertaste of all the bailouts: the sense that those who gambled and were rescued with public money have never paid.  Geithner calls himself “a big believer in a powerful deterrent on the enforcement side.”

Yet when I asked him for an example of successful deterrence, he couldn’t name one. “You’ve gotta remind people, “ he said, “that I don’t get to make those judgments.” He added that the Justice Department’s prosecutors “were massively focused.”

Still, he said “its relative absence hurt us. Hurt the president a lot.” And perhaps that perception always will.

PODCAST: Can London always be a world finance capital?

Fri, 2014-05-23 08:28

U.S. and European Union officials wrap-up the latest round of talks today as they negotiate a free trade deal called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

London is heart of the global economy, according to a new survey out this week. But can the city hang on to its position?

London's complexity through an American eye

Fri, 2014-05-23 06:39

There are startling reasons why London’s wealth distribution caught our eye from the states: the five wealthiest families in the U.K. have more money than the poorest 20 percent of the population. By 2020, an estimated 800,000 children will be living below the poverty line. London was recently passed over by New York and Singapore to claim the top spot as the city in the world with the most economic clout. 

Marketplace explored the growing income inequality in the U.K. and London over a week’s time. As income inequality has become a primary economic concern in the U.S., especially in the aftermath of the Great Recession, Marketplace has focused reporting in recent months on what income inequality’s impact is on how we work and live. But we also wanted to see what our neighbors across the pond had to say about living in a society where unequal wealth distribution is the norm.

First, we learned that London’s real estate has skyrocketed in value, making realtors happy, and critics crying “bubble.” Sound familiar, Americans?

We saw, too, how poor Londoners are being priced out of neighborhoods they live in and were raised in, and even wealthy residents are concerned. We toured the bustling markets across the city in an everyday adventure filled with bright citrus and fresh fish.

We ended the week with a report from 30-feet below ground level in the notorious sewers of London. There’s a campaign underway to build a new super sewer system to replace the current one that frequently overflows into the Thames River.  We took a tour of London's sewers, which have a surprisingly excellent way of exposing what Londoners keep and discard in a shifting economy. 

Even though there are a lot of concerns about its economic progress, London still has some things going for it: the PwC Cities of Opportunity Index (PDF) noted the city still “finishes first in technology readiness, economic clout and city gateway – all measures of its stature as a thriving centre of the world economy.”

We leave you with musical inspiration from our trip: 

Why London wants Chinese and Muslim investment

Fri, 2014-05-23 06:17

London is heart of the global economy, according to a new survey out this week. But can the city hang on to its position? The BBC’s Andrew Walker joins Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio to discuss how U.K. politicians are working to attract business from the growing economies of China and the Muslim world. Click on the audio player above to hear more.

HP to layoff 16,000

Fri, 2014-05-23 05:04

Hewlett-Packard says it’s cutting up to 16,000 jobs. That’s on top of tens of thousands of layoffs already announced. These deeper jobs cuts signal that a company once famous for breakthroughs in the lab, hasn’t yet figured out how to reinvent itself.

H-P is a dominant player in making PC’s. But that’s a collapsing market, devastated by competition from tablets and smartphones. H-P also sells servers, but that area too is changing, with cloud computing currently fashionable.

CEO Meg Whitman took charge of the troubled company in 2011. She’s under pressure to show more results from her turnaround plan. 

H-P to layoff 16,000

Fri, 2014-05-23 05:04

Hewlett-Packard says it’s cutting up to 16,000 jobs. That’s on top of tens of thousands of layoffs already announced. These deeper jobs cuts signal that a company once famous for breakthroughs in the lab, hasn’t yet figured out how to reinvent itself.

H-P is a dominant player in making PC’s. But that’s a collapsing market, devastated by competition from tablets and smartphones. H-P also sells servers, but that area too is changing, with cloud computing currently fashionable.

CEO Meg Whitman took charge of the troubled company in 2011. She’s under pressure to show more results from her turnaround plan. 

The pros and cons of transatlantic free trade

Fri, 2014-05-23 04:55

U.S. and European Union officials wrap-up the latest round of talks today as they negotiate a free trade deal called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Boosters like Fran Burwell with the Atlantic Council see an economic upside for the U.S. economy.

“Every state gains in terms of its exports to the EU. There will be about 740,000 new jobs created in the United States over 10 years,” says Burwell.

Environmental activists like Michelle Chan with Friends of the Earth see a potential downside.

Chan says, “This transatlantic trade deal will really focus on deregulation. With the idea being that environmental and public health protections themselves can be construed as barriers to trade.”

Silicon Tally: Replacing Old Yeller with New Yeller

Fri, 2014-05-23 01:00

It's time for Silicon Tally. How well have you kept up with the week in tech news? This week we're joined by Marketplace's own Kai Ryssdal. var _polldaddy = [] || _polldaddy; _polldaddy.push( { type: "iframe", auto: "1", domain: "", id: "silicon-tally-replacing-old-yeller-with-new-yeller", placeholder: "pd_1400795642" } ); (function(d,c,j){if(!document.getElementById(j)){var pd=d.createElement(c),s;;pd.src=('https:'==document.location.protocol)?'':'';s=document.getElementsByTagName(c)[0];s.parentNode.insertBefore(pd,s);}}(document,'script','pd-embed'));

Why population growth isn't always an economic boon

Thu, 2014-05-22 13:39

Texas is leading the way in U.S. population growth. The Census Bureau said Thursday that seven of the top 15 fastest-growing cites are in Texas. They’re clustered around big oil and gas boomtowns like Dallas and Houston, or tech hubs like Austin.

Sometimes population equals prosperity.

“They go hand in hand,” says Luis Bettencourt, who studies cities at the Santa Fe Institute. “You add a person, and you get more money per capita.”

Income growth in the booming suburbs of Austin is high because of the types of jobs there. But Bettencourt says there are caveats. This past decade wrecked all the economic models; the housing bubble was making people move.

“There was cheap housing available, and the actual construction of that housing created jobs,” says Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, which monitors cities' economic growth. But some economists say even without the housing bubble, the theory that growth begets growth is off. Consider Las Vegas. People are moving there for jobs.

“Naturally if there’s a lot of hiring you would expect people to migrate in," says Paul Gottlieb, an economist at Rutgers. "But the jobs have not necessarily been very high paying.”

Gottlieb says, sure you have new people and new jobs, but they don’t have fat wallets. They don’t bring growth and prosperity. Gottlieb says, in some big, northeastern cities, income is rising much faster than population.

Don't wash your jeans, freeze them.

Thu, 2014-05-22 13:39

Two pearls of wisdom from big time corporate CEOs in the news:

Pearl number one comes from Chip Bergh. He runs Levi Strauss and Company, famous of course for its blue jeans. Mr. Bergh says that it's OK to not wash your denim garments.

He's trying to save the world. Levi's has been upfront about wanting to cut back on the water used in the making of its jeans. Bergh and Levi says you can freeze 'em, instead. Which will kill the bacteria... and the smell.

Pearl number two comes from Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne. He's a tad upset about American rules forcing car makers to build a certain quota of battery powered electric vehicles. Speaking about the Fiat 500e, Marchionne says, "I hope you don't buy it, because every time I sell one it costs me $14,000."

So, okay. I won't.

Ragu: the way many of us learned to love 'Italian' food

Thu, 2014-05-22 13:33

Back in 1937, if you wanted to buy Ragu pasta sauce, you would have had to buy it out of the trunk of a car from its creators -- a married couple named Giovanni and Assunta Cantisano. Back then pasta and red sauce was not a staple of the American diet like it is today.

“It didn’t happen overnight, but sometimes these things can," says Wharton marketing professor Leonard Lodish. As Americans’ attitudes about Italian immigrants changed, Italian food became popular, and Americans’ perception of Italian food was built on tomato sauce. Ragu was a big part of that.

Today, Ragu is the number one pasta sauce brand in the U.S., but sales are down 18 percent since 2009 as more shoppers turn to private label sauces.  This could be one reason Ragu’s parent company, Unilever, is selling the iconic brand to the Japanese company Mizkan for $2.15 billion.

Mizkahn is the largest producer of vinegar in the world, along with other food products that, according to the company’s website, are revered throughout the world for bringing flavor to life TM.

Overall, the food industry is a slow-growth market.

“So if you are looking for high growth, food is a tough place, it’s going be a market share bet,” says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst with the NPD Group.

If Mizkan wants to grow Ragu’s market share, says Balzer, it will have to take it away from a competing sauce.

Check out these other Ragu sauces from across the ages:

When you hear "Ragu," you might think of simple, old-fashioned red sauce. But like every other food product that's been around for a while, the brand has tried several other variations on its staple which did not stand the test of time. Here's a few memorable -- or unmemorable, as it were -- Ragu products:

1. Ragu Pizza Quick - For those who want something between the DIY of Boboli and the ready-made Bagel Bite

2. Ragu Chicken Tonight Simmer Sauce - Everyone of a certain age knows the accompanying dance to this ad

3. Ragu Beef Tonight Simmer Sauce - Because chicken wasn't enough

4. Ragu Fresh Italian Sauce - The selling point of this sauce was its inclusion of more comparison to other Ragu sauces

5. Ragu Chunky Garden Style - It was like the chunky peanut butter of pasta sauces

Oh Canada... the black hole for U.S. stores

Thu, 2014-05-22 13:29

Sears announced today that it lost more than $400 million in the first quarter and is planning to close more than 80 locations. One of the big losses for the company was in Canada, where Sears saw its biggest sales dive in five years. But Sears isn’t the only retailer that got a curveball from our neighbor to the north. This week, Target sacked the head of its Canadian operations after losing nearly $1.5 billion on its Canadian stores. Wal-Mart and Lowe’s have also had trouble finding their footing in the Canadian market. 

"We are different. People forget that we are different in terms of how we buy," says Debi Andrus, Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business. "We buy the same items and we’re still looking for value, but we have different purchasing behaviors."

Take Target, which charged into Canada last year, opening more than 100 stores. That might sound like over-reach, but Target was already popular with Canadians, who had been crossing the border to shop at its stores for years.

"I don't want to call it arrogance, I wouldn't want to say that," says Brian Yarbrough, an analyst with financial services firm Edward Jones. "There was too much complacency. They thought, 'We can go up to Canada and open these stores just like in the U.S. and people are just going to flock to stores. That didn't occur."

Yarbrough says part of the problem was Target tried to stock its Canadian stores the same way it stocked those in the U.S. "We have financial advisors up in Canada and we get these calls that are like, 'It’s the middle of October and it’s winter up here already and they don’t even have gloves in their stores."

Canadian retailers also upped their game in anticipation of Target coming to Canada, by lowering prices, stepping up marketing… with one notable exception. "Sears Canada wasn't changing as the other Canadian retailers were changing with the other American companies coming in," says Andrus. She says Canada is a competitive market. Although the country is huge, its population is relatively small. There are 35 million Canadians, compared with more than 300 million Americans. And there are only so many loonies to go around.

Superfood fads: Super distracting for global farmers?

Thu, 2014-05-22 12:12

You may be sick of hearing about the virtues of foods like kale and blueberries. Superfoods, they're called -- so nutritious they're life-changing. But often they end up as fads. In a sense, this is happening in the developing world, too. Organizations have been promoting certain crops as panaceas to alleviate hunger and poverty. But they don't always work out.

Rosie Cabantac's farm is in Pangasinan, a northwestern province. It's an area known for rice. A few years ago, she started adding a tree called moringa. She heard about its potential: nearly every part, from roots to flowers, is edible or thought to be medicinal.

"Good for your body," she says. "Also, good medicine. Also, good for money!"

Cabantac says her monthly income doubled since she added about two and a half acres of moringa trees to her farm.

Moringa is one of many of these so-called superfoods. There's the grain, amaranth. The smelly jackfruit. Trendy quinoa. Even mungbean. If only farmers planted more of these, proponents say, hunger and poverty could be eased around the world.

"One tree can change a family's life for generations," said Josh Schneider, managing partner at Global Breadfruit, a company trying to get farmers to replace some staple crops with breadfruit trees. The fruit is more like a potato and can be made into french fries and flour. Gluten-free, of course.

"Tropical farmers can dominate this market," he said, "and it can really help grow their economies and lift these countries up out of poverty."

This gets at one of the biggest debates in international agriculture. On one side are people like Schneider, who believe that the secret to reducing hunger is to promote new and niche crops. On the other side are skeptics like William Masters: "People need to find the bright new thing to chase after," he said. 

Masters is chairman of the Food and Nutrition Policy Department in the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts. He says more often than not, so-called miracle crops like moringa or breadfruit are distractions. "Why [is] it that it didn't get identified as a huge success previously?" 

In other words, it's not like farmers haven't tried many of these crops before. Farmers experiment. They'll plant something new, and see how it does. And, over the years, many of these so-called superfoods failed for the most mundane of reasons. They take too long to grow, require too much labor or are prone to pests. It's not as easy to spread breadfruit as wheat.

"That search across all the available biodiversity has been going on for thousands of years," Masters said, "and it's led to a system that has found a half dozen or dozen major species that feed the world. And that's because those major species have some pretty amazing characteristics."

You know these: wheat, corn, rice and the like. Governments, foundations, and colleges should spend their money and time improving what farmers are already growing, he said.

That's not to say a niche crop can't ever explode and become a big part of the world's diet. Soybeans used to be regional. But in the last century, changes in breeding made it possible to grow them all over.

All of this comes down to economics. Do these new crops have a market, both at home and for export? Will fads lead crops to rise and fall? Moringa may be about to have its moment, winding up in teas and even bath gels.

Moringa facial oil.

Sunisa Ito/Flickr

That's partly why Cabantac, the farmer in the Philippines, is so excited.

"Eat more moringa!" she said. "Plant more moringa! And, that's it!"

Even so, she isn't betting the farm on moringa. Most of her acres still grow a boring old staple: rice.

Cannes: A film festival for business deals

Thu, 2014-05-22 12:04
Thursday, May 22, 2014 - 15:01 Ian Gavan/French Select

Talented filmmakers flock to the Cannes Film Festival in the south of France each year, hoping their masterpiece wins the covered Palme d’Or prize. But elsewhere at the festival, movies are bought and sold and distribution deals made in the most un-artistic-like fashion.

“There are movies here and people need to see them and there has to be some sort of facility to get that to happen and get these movies in theaters all over the world. And this is the number one place to do that,” says Wesley Morris, film critic at Grantland.

Morris says the festival this year has felt tame compared to years past. More of his coverage and film reviews from the festival are posted online at Grantland.

Interview by Kai RyssdalPodcast Title Cannes: A film festival for business dealsSyndication SlackerSoundcloudStitcherSwellPMPApp Respond No

Cannes: A film festival for business deals

Thu, 2014-05-22 12:01

Talented filmmakers flock to the Cannes Film Festival in the south of France each year, hoping their masterpiece wins the covered Palme d’Or prize. But elsewhere at the festival, movies are bought and sold and distribution deals made in the most un-artistic-like fashion.

“There are movies here and people need to see them and there has to be some sort of facility to get that to happen and get these movies in theaters all over the world. And this is the number one place to do that,” says Wesley Morris, film critic at Grantland.

Morris says the festival this year has felt tame compared to years past. More of his coverage and film reviews from the festival are posted online at Grantland.

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