Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Study: Global crop production shows some signs of stagnating

After decades of rapidly growing global agricultural output, production of four of the world’s most important crops could be stagnating or even slowing in some regions, according to a new study published in Nature, a top scientific journal.

The study, by the University of Minnesota’s Deepak Ray and four others, examined millions of census reports from the last half century to gather their data.

The authors are careful to point out that crop production is still increasing in parts of the world; it is by no means a categorical decline. The report’s abstract reads summarizes, “Although yields continue to increase in many areas, we find that across 24–39% of maize-, rice-, wheat- and soybean-growing areas, yields either never improve, stagnate or collapse.” That’s about a quarter to a third of global production of four of our most important crops.

This is potentially a very big deal. World populations are still growing. So is the global middle class, members of which tend to consume more meat and dairy per person, which means more crops per person. That’s been happening for a while, and it’s been fine as long as food production has kept pace. But the pace of crop production growth appears to be slowing in some really important regions, particularly in parts of India and China – and, yes, the U.S.

How did this happen? Study co-author Jonathan Foley, talking to Science Daily, suggests one possible explanation. “This finding is particularly troubling because it suggests that we have preferentially focused our crop improvement efforts on feeding animals and cars, as we have largely ignored investments in wheat and rice, crops that feed people and are the basis of food security in much of the world,” he said. Yikes. More


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Curbing Tanzania’s “Land Grabbing Race”

DAR ES SALAAM, Dec 19 2012 (IPS) – From January 2013, Tanzania will start restricting the size of land that single large-scale foreign and local investors can “lease” for agricultural use. The decision follows both local and international criticism that major investors are grabbing large chunks of land here, often displacing small-scale farmers and local communities.

The Permanent Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office Peniel Lyimo confirmed that the government would limit the amount of land leased to investors in this East African nation. Previously, there were no limits.

“For a large-scale investor who wants to invest in sugar, the ceiling has been put at 10,000 hectares. (The limit for) rice is 5,000 hectares. The ceiling for sugar is significantly higher due to the fact that it may also produce electric power,” Lyimo told IPS. Sugarcane fibre is used in the generation of electricity.

According to official documents, seen by IPS, from the Tanzania Investment Centre, a government agency set up to promote and facilitate investment: “Even within a seven-year period, an investor would not be able to use more than 10,000 hectares…”

The move will come as a relief to land rights organisations that have continually called for the government to curb the land grabs here. [related_articles]

In 2008 the Tanzanian government launched the Kilimo Kwanza (Agriculture First) initiative in order to increase private sector investments in agriculture.

And when the World Economic Forum took place in Dar es Salaam in 2010, the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT), a multi-stakeholder partnership to rapidly develop the country’s agricultural potential, was formed and the government began to invite foreign companies to invest in crops like sugarcane, maize, rice and cassava.

However, civil society organisations like the Tanzanian NGO Land Rights Research and Resources Institute (LARRRI) and the Oakland Institute, an independent policy think tank in the United States, called on the government to review its investment policy to limit the amount of land given to foreign investors.

“Giving tens of thousands of hectares to large-scale investors was hurting small-scale farmers,” said LARRRI executive director Yefred Myenzi.

To date, he told IPS, the government has given 80,000 hectares of land to large-scale investors.

“Land conflicts pitting poor villagers against powerful investors now number more than 1,000 reported incidents. On average, there are five land disputes daily in the country and three of these involve powerful investors,” said Myenzi.

In Tanzania’s northern Loliondo district, which is known for its wildlife, much of the land has been leased out to international hunting concessions, which has resulted in the large-scale eviction of the local population – although the government refutes this. A major U.S. energy company, AgriSol Energy, has also been accused of engaging in land grabs in Tanzania that would displace more than 160,000 Burundian refugees, according to a report by the Oakland Institute. The report states that AgriSol is benefiting from the forcible eviction of the refugees, many of whom are subsistence farmers, and leasing the land — as much as 800,000 acres — from the Tanzanian government for 25 cents per acre.

Myenzi said that of the 1,825 general land disputes reported in 2011, 1,095 involved powerful investors. More


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Grabbing at Solutions: Water for the Hungry First

This piece is part of Water Grabbers: A Global Rush on Freshwater, a special National Geographic News series on how grabbing land—and water—from poor people, desperate governments, and future generations threatens global food security, environmental sustainability, and local cultures

A spontaneous, largely under-the-radar blue revolution is gaining steam in sub-Saharan Africa and has the potential to boost food security and incomes for tens of millions of the region’s poorest inhabitants.

Small-scale irrigation techniques with simple buckets, affordable pumps, drip lines, and other equipment are enabling farm families to weather dry seasons, raise yields, diversify their crops, and lift themselves out of poverty.

But unless African governments and foreign interests lend support to these farmer-driven initiatives, rather than undermine them through land and water deals that benefit large-scale, commercial schemes, the best opportunity in decades for societal advancement in the region will be squandered.

Worldwide, as the limits of available water become ever more apparent, the rush is on to acquire more of the precious liquid before there’s none to be had. Government and business interests from China, India, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and other countries that have depleted many of their own water sources are now acquiring access to the land and water of other nations – especially poor ones – to rake in profits and secure food supplies.

The 2008 spike in global food prices unleashed a frenzy of land and water deals that threaten not only the livelihoods of millions but also the geopolitical security of nations.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Africa, especially poor countries south of the Sahara. Business and government interests are targeting Ethiopia, Mali, Sudan, and other underdeveloped nations to capitalize on their “underutilized” farmlands and waters.

Although pitched as investments to advance economic development, many of these deals are not only failing to deliver promised benefits, they are destroying the livelihoods of traditional farmers, herders, and fisherfolk.

Today, hunger is endemic in sub-Saharan Africa. The 2012 Global Hunger Index ranks forty-two of the forty-five countries in the region for which data are available at “serious” or “alarming” levels. Nearly one in four children are underweight. More


Friday, November 30, 2012

How will climate change impact on fresh water security?

Fresh water is crucial to human society – not just for drinking, but also for farming, washing and many other activities. It is expected to become increasingly scarce in the future, and this is partly due to climate change.

Understanding the problem of fresh water scarcity begins by considering the distribution of water on the planet. Approximately 98% of our water is salty and only 2% is fresh. Of that 2%, almost 70% is snow and ice, 30% is groundwater, less than 0.5% is surface water (lakes, rivers, etc) and less than 0.05% is in the atmosphere. Climate change has several effects on these proportions on a global scale. The main one is that warming causes polar ice to melt into the sea, which turns fresh water into sea water, although this has little direct effect on water supply.

Another effect of warming is to increase the amount of water that the atmosphere can hold, which in turn can lead to more and heavier rainfall when the air cools. Although more rainfall can add to fresh water resources, heavier rainfall leads to more rapid movement of water from the atmosphere back to the oceans, reducing our ability to store and use it. Warmer air also means that snowfall is replaced by rainfall and evaporation rates tend to increase. Yet another impact of higher temperatures is the melting of inland glaciers. This will increase water supply to rivers and lakes in the short to medium term, but this will cease once these glaciers have melted. In the sub-tropics, climate change is likely to lead to reduced rainfall in what are already dry regions. The overall effect is an intensification of the water cycle that causes more extreme floods and droughts globally.

When planning future water supplies, however, the global picture is less important than the effect of warming on fresh water availability in individual regions and in individual seasons. This is a much more complicated thing to predict than global trends. The IPCC technical report on climate change and water concludes that, despite global increases in rainfall, many dry regions including the Mediterranean and southern Africa will suffer badly from reduced rainfall and increased evaporation. As a result, the IPCC special report on climate change adaptation estimates that around one billion people in dry regions may face increasing water scarcity.

However, the degree to which this will happen cannot be predicted with confidence by current models. In many regions different models cannot even agree on whether the climate will become wetter or drier. For example, a recent study of future flows in the River Thames at Kingston shows a possible 11% increase over the next 80 years relative to the last 60 years. However, under an identical emissions scenario, the same report shows an alternative projection of a 7% decrease in flows.

Especially little is known about future declines in regional groundwater resources because of lack of research on this topic, even though around 50% of global domestic water supply comes from groundwater. Although scientists are making progress in reducing uncertainty about fresh water scarcity, these kinds of unknowns mean that water supply strategies must be adaptable so that they can be effective under different scenarios.

The direct impact of climate change is not the only reason to be concerned about future fresh water scarcity – a fact highlighted by a recent United Nations Environment Programme report. The increasing global population means more demand for agriculture, greater use of water for irrigation and more water pollution. In parallel, rising affluence in some countries means a larger number of people living water-intensive lifestyles, including watering of gardens, cleaning cars and using washing machines and dishwashers. Rapidly developing economies also result in more industry and in many cases this comes without modern technology for water saving and pollution control. Therefore concerns about climate change must be viewed alongside management of pollution and demand for water.

The most common solution to increasing demand, and a way of insuring against possible climate change impacts, is the engineered redistribution of freshwater over space and time: reservoirs to store it, pipelines to transfer it, and desalination to recover freshwater from the oceans. Efforts are also being made to increase water saving, reuse and recycling, and in the UK there is currently major investment into education and water-saving technology by the government and water industry. More


Thursday, November 29, 2012

DJIBOUTI: Rising food insecurity fuels migration

BALBALA, 27 November 2012 (IRIN) - Successive years of poor rains have eroded the coping mechanisms of pastoralists in Djibouti’s rural regions, even as high food prices and unemployment rates afflict the country’s urban areas. These factors are increasing the vulnerability to food insecurity and spurring migration.

Checking for malnutrition in Balbala
The area of Balbala, about 12km outside of Djibouti City, has become home to families fleeing both harsh conditions in the countryside and dwindling livelihood opportunities in the city.

“What we need most is food”

Awale Farah, 65, migrated with his family of seven from the rural Ali Sabieh area, near the southern town of Dikhil, to Balbala three months ago. Dikhil lies along the border with Ethiopia and has a large number of migrants, complicating access to scarce basic resources there.

Farah says that back in Ali Sabieh, residents are moving closer to the Ali Addeh refugee camp, hoping to obtain some of the assistance meant for the camp’s 16,778 refugees. “I don’t know how they are getting along. What we need most is food,” he said.

At present, about 70,000 people in rural Djibouti are food insecure. More than 60 percent of household food supply is being met by food assistance in the northwest pastoral zone, according to an October-to-March 2013 food security outlook by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET).

In the southeast pastoral border area, “households are marginally able to meet minimum food needs only through accelerated depletion of livelihood assets and adoption of unsustainable coping strategies such as charcoal sales,” the outlook says.

The areas most affected by hunger include Obock in the north, Dikhil and Balbala. According to 2010 figures, 42.9 percent of the children in Obock showed signs of wasting. In 2006, Djibouti ranked second in the world for prevalence of wasting in children under five, at 21 percent.

But life in Balbala is not easy, either. “The situation here is very hard. Sometimes we get money from family members in town,” Farah said. “In Dikhil, at least we had livestock that would always provide us with food.” Even so, many pastoralists have lost their livestock to the successive droughts.

''Today, I left at 4am to go and look for work and came back home with nothing. There are days when we eat nothing''
To cope, Farah has split up his family - two of his children are staying with relatives in Djibouti City.

Unemployment and high prices

Meanwhile, a lack of jobs is causing city residents to migrate to peri-urban areas such as Balbala.

Abdillahi Djama Abdiguedi’s family moved to Balbala from Gagada, an area closer to the city where rent cost them 5,000 Djibouti francs (about US$28.20) per month.

“Here, we pay nothing,” he said. “Most of the people around here moved from the city.”

Abdiguedi works as a casual labourer every morning, heading to town to search for work at construction sites. “Today, I left at 4am to go and look for work and came back home with nothing. There are days when we eat nothing,” he said. “The children have forgotten what milk is." More



Monday, November 19, 2012

Taking Stock: World Fish Catch Falls to 90 Million Tons in 2012

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) projects that the world’s wild fish harvest will fall to 90 million tons in 2012, down 2 percent from 2011. This is close to 4 percent below the all-time peak haul of nearly 94 million tons in 1996.

The wild fish catch per person has dropped even more dramatically, from 17 kilograms (37.5 pounds) per person at its height in 1988 to 13 kilograms in 2012—a 37-year low. While wild fish harvests have flattened out during this time, the output from fish farming has soared from 24 million tons in the mid-1990s to a projected 67 million tons in 2012.

Over the last several decades, as demand for fish and shellfish for food, feed, and other products rose dramatically, fishing operations have used increasingly sophisticated technologies—such as on-vessel refrigeration and processing facilities, spotter planes, and GPS satellites. Industrial fishing fleets initially targeted the northern hemisphere’s coastal fish stocks, then as stocks were depleted they expanded progressively southward on average close to one degree of latitude annually since 1950. The fastest expansion was during the 1980s and early 1990s. Thereafter, the only frontiers remaining were the high seas, the hard-to-reach waters near Antarctica and in the Arctic, and the depths of the oceans.

The escalating pursuit of fish—now with gross revenue exceeding $80 billion per year—has had heavy ecological consequences, including the alteration of marine food webs via a massive reduction in the populations of larger, longer-lived predatory fish such as tunas, cods, and marlins. Unselective fishing gear, including longlines and bottom-scraping trawls, kill large numbers of non-target animals like sea turtles, sharks, and corals.

As of 2009, some 57 percent of the oceanic fish stocks evaluated by FAO are “fully exploited,” with harvest levels at or near what fisheries scientists call maximum sustainable yield (MSY). If we think of a fish stock as a savings account, fishing at MSY is theoretically similar to withdrawing only the accrued interest, avoiding dipping into the principal.

Some 30 percent of stocks are “overexploited”—they have been fished beyond MSY and require strong management intervention in order to rebuild. The share of stocks in this category has tripled since the mid-1970s. A well-known example of this is the Newfoundland cod fishery that collapsed in the early 1990s and has yet to recover.

This leaves just 13 percent of oceanic fish stocks in the “non-fully exploited” category, down from 40 percent in 1974. Unfortunately, these remaining stocks tend to have very limited potential for safely increasing the catch.

These FAO figures describe 395 fisheries that account for some 70 percent of the global catch. Included are the small minority that have undergone the time-consuming and expensive process of formal scientific stock assessment, with the remainder being "unassessed" fisheries. There are thousands more unassessed fisheries, however, that are absent from the FAO analysis. In a 2012 Science article, Christopher Costello and colleagues published the first attempt to characterize all of the world’s unassessed fisheries. The authors report that 64 percent of them were overexploited as of 2009.

The top 10 fished species represent roughly one quarter of the world catch. Nearly all of the stocks of these species are considered fully exploited (most of these fish have more than one geographically distinct stock), including both of the major stocks of Peruvian anchovy, the world's leading wild-caught fish. Stocks that are overexploited and in need of rebuilding include largehead hairtail—a ribbon-like predator caught mainly by Chinese ships—in its main fishing grounds in the Northwest Pacific. (See data.)

Despite the unsustainable nature of current harvest levels, countries continue to subsidize fishing fleets in ways that encourage even higher catches. Governments around the world spend an estimated $16 billion annually on increasing fleet size and fish-catching ability, including $4 billion for fuel subsidies. Industrial countries spend some $10 billion of that total. More than $2 billion is spent by China, whose 15-million-ton catch is nearly triple that of the next closest country, Indonesia. More


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Full Planet, Empty Plates: Quick Facts

With falling water tables, eroding soils, and rising temperatures making it difficult to feed growing populations, control of arable land and water resources is moving to center stage in the global struggle for food security. What will the geopolitics of food look like in a new era dominated by scarcity and food nationalism? Here are a few of the many facts from the book to consider:


  • There will be 219,000 people at the dinner table tonight who were not there last night—many of them with empty plates.
  • As a result of chronic hunger, 48 percent of all children in India are undersized, underweight, and likely to have IQs that are on average 10-15 points lower than those of well-nourished children.
  • Food prices are rising dramatically. The U.N. Food Price Index in June 2012 was twice the base level of 2002-04.
  • More than half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling as aquifers are being depleted.
  • A startling 80 percent of oceanic fisheries are being fished at or beyond their sustainable yield.
  • Between 2005 and 2011, the amount of grain used to produce fuel for cars in the United States climbed from 41 million to 127 million tons—nearly a third of the U.S. grain harvest.
  • In 2011, China consumed 70 million tons of soybeans, 56 million of which had to be imported. Almost all went into livestock feed.
  • Today, with incomes rising fast in emerging economies, there are at least 3 billion people moving up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock and poultry products.
  • Data for India indicate that 175 million people are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. For China, there are 130 million in the same boat.
  • In Ethiopia, a prime target for foreign land acquisitions yet also a major food aid recipient, an acre of land can be leased for less than $1 per year.
  • The 464 land acquisitions identified by the World Bank in 2010 totaled some 140 million acres—more than is planted in corn and wheat combined in the United States.
  • It’s not all bad news: 44 countries have reached population stability as a result of gradual fertility decline over the last several generations.
“In this era of tightening world food supplies, the ability to grow food is fast becoming a new form of geopolitical leverage. Food is the new oil. Land is the new gold.” – Lester R. Brown



Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity is available for purchase online. Get a sneak peek by checking out Chapter 1: Food the Weak Link or watch the five minute video below and hear from Lester Brown himself about the main issues raised in the book.




Sunday, November 4, 2012

Recalibrating Food Production in the Developing World: Global Warming Will Change More Than Just the Climate

Recalibrating Food Production in the Developing World: Global Warming Will Change More Than Just the Climate - Author: Thornton, P

Abstract: An analysis of the effects of climate change on 22 critical agricultural commodities and three important natural resources in the developing world reveals a number of cross-cutting themes: The world’s agricultural systems face an uphill struggle in feeding a projected nine to ten billion people by 2050. Climate change introduces a significant hurdle in this struggle.

- Securing and maintaining necessary levels of calories, protein and nutrients for populations around the world will be an exceptional challenge.

- Recalibrating agriculture in the face of climate change is more than planting crops that can tolerate warmer weather. Some commodities, for example, can grow in warm weather but cannot resist the insects and diseases whose prevalence will increase. Others can tolerate

a lack of water but not the sporadic flooding that occurs with more common weather extremes.

- Even as global deforestation continues, trees continue to be valued as a provider of agricultural commodities like nuts and fruit; as a mitigating resource that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; and also as a staple of adaptation—trees help stabilize soil erosion, better regulate water, as well as provide shade, firewood and fodder.

- Production of the most common commodity staples—wheat, maize and rice—will be challenged by new weather patterns. Adjustments in production, replacement with commodities that can tolerate the new conditions in different regions, and innovations in technology are key elements of adaptation.

- Raising livestock and catching fish and other aquatic products—two of the more common sources of protein—will also be challenged by a new climate. In some areas, different plants, breeds and species can provide substitutions, but in others, adaptation is critical.

- This recalibration of agriculture will eventually extend beyond what is grown and raised. The world’s many cultures must adapt to the changing dinner menu forced upon them due to climate change.

Download Report Here


SIWI Releases Outcomes of World Water Week on Water and Food Security

29 October 2012: The Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) has released a report of the overarching conclusions of the 2012 World Water Week, which convened 2500 participants to discuss the theme of water and food security.

The report, titled “Overarching Conclusions World Water Week in Stockholm 2012: Water and Food Security,” includes sections on: prizes and awards; overarching conclusions; convening organizations; 2013 World Water Week; and 2012 World Water Week supporters and sponsors. The report also contains reports on: achieving good water and food governance; human and environmental health; establishing water and food equity; building a water wise economy; and the young professional's vision.

Among key lessons from World Water Week, the report stresses that water and food security are inseparable, and underscores the importance of producing more with less in order to: minimize movement of pollutants; maintain downstream flows; provide habitat to support pollinators and biodiversity; prevent floods; and sequester carbon to help prevent climate change. It stresses investing in small-holder farmers to increase productivity and water efficiency.

The report calls for: closing leaks in the global food supply chain; improving early warning systems to respond to agricultural emergencies; safeguarding ecosystems while expanding agriculture; promoting fair and effective food trade; refining the nexus approach to address water, food and energy; and collaboration.

The 2012 World Water Week took place from 26-31 August 2012, in Stockholm, Sweden. The 2013 World Water Week will take place from 1-6 September 2013 on the theme “Water Cooperation - Building Partnerships.” [SIWI Press Release] [Publication:Overarching Conclusions World Water Week in Stockholm 2012: Water and Food Security]


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Land deals in Africa have led to a wild west – bring on the sheriff, says FAO

Food and Agriculture Organisation chief José Graziano da Silva demands high noon on land grabs that jeopardise food security.

José Graziano da Silva
Amid warnings that land deals are undermining food security, the head of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has compared "land grabs" in Africa to the "wild west", saying a "sheriff" is needed to restore the rule of law.

José Graziano da Silva, the FAO's director general, conceded it was not possible to stop large investors buying land, but said deals in poor countries needed to be brought under control.

"I don't see that it's possible to stop it. They are private investors," said Graziano da Silva in a telephone interview. "We do not have the tools and instruments to stop big companies buying land. Land acquisitions are a reality. We can't wish them away, but we have to find a proper way of limiting them. It appears to be like the wild west and we need a sheriff and law in place."

Large land deals have accelerated since the surge in food prices in 2007-08, prompting companies and sovereign wealth funds to take steps to guarantee food supplies. But, four to five years on, in Africa only 10-15% of land is actually being developed, claimed Graziano da Silva. Some of these investments have involved the loss of jobs, as labour intensive farming is replaced by mechanised farming or some degree of loss of tenure rights.

Oxfam said the global land rush is out of control and urged the World Bank to freeze its investments in large-scale land acquisitions to send a strong signal to global investors to stop.

Graziano da Silva, who was in charge of Brazil's widely praised "zerohunger" programme, expressed his frustration at the slow pace of creating a global governance structure to deal with land grabs, food security and similar problems. In 2008, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon,created a high-level task force on food security on which Graziano Da Silva serves as vice-chairman.

In May, the committee on world food security (CFS), a UN-led group that includes governments, business and civil society, laid the groundwork for a governance structure for food by endorsing voluntary guidelines on the responsible governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests.

Tenure has important implications for development, as it is difficult for poor and vulnerable people to overcome hunger and poverty when they have limited and insecure rights to land and other natural resources. But the guidelines took years to negotiate and lack an effective enforcement mechanism because they are voluntary. The CFS is an unwieldy group but has the virtue of inclusivity.

"It took two years to discuss the voluntary guidelines and now we face another two years of negotiations on the principles for responsible agricultural investments," said Graziano da Silva. "We need to speed up the decison-making process without losing the inclusivity model." More


Saturday, October 27, 2012

Rising Ocean Temperatures Threaten Ocean Food Chain

Of all the plants and animals facing a potentially dire future because of climate change, a study released Thursday in Science paints a potentially grim picture for one of the most important and underappreciated groups of living things on Earth.

The study reports that phytoplankton — water-dwelling, single-celled micro-organisms including algae and other species — may have trouble adjusting to rising ocean temperatures.

“Phytoplankton have evolved to do really well at current temperatures,” said lead author Mrudil Thomas, of Michigan State University, “but if they don’t evolve further, the warming this century is going to lead them to move their ranges, and their diversity in tropical oceans may drop considerably.”

That could be a very big deal. Phytoplankton are not only the very foundation of themarine food chain, but they also consume about half of the carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere, and take it to the bottom of the sea with them when they die.

Significant disruptions to the world’s phytoplankton could therefore have major repercussions for the world’s food supply, and at the same time allow more CO2 to remain in the air to trap heat, accelerating climate change.

All of this is highly speculative at the moment. What Thomas and his co-authors have actually shown is that phytoplankton — or at least, the more than 130 species they studied — are highly sensitive to water temperature. Their growth rate slows considerably when the temperature changes, and especially when it goes up. It’s possible that the tiny organisms will be able to evolve and adapt to rising ocean temperatures, but as Thomas said, “we don’t know how fast they can do that.”

They might also respond by shifting their range: tropical phytoplankton could, in principle, colonize more temperate waters as the tropics heat up. But they don’t just need comfortable temperatures: they also need a certain amount of sunlight to carry out photosynthesis, for example, and the sun is most powerful at the Equator.

They need a mix of nutrients as well, which might easily be less abundant in a new location. And even if the migration were largely successful, the tropics — currently home to the most diverse and productive phytoplankton communities on Earth — would be left significantly depopulated, removing a major food source for animals that feed on them. More


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Nature's matrix: Linking agriculture, conservation and food sovereignty

An important book argues that conservationists who focus on creating nature preserves are undermining their own cause.

To truly protect biodiversity, environmentalists must support the global struggle of peasant farmers for human rights, land, and sustainable agriculture.

Linking Agriculture, Conservation and Food Sovereignty by Ivette Perfecto, John Vandermeer and Angus Wright

In any discussion of biodiversity and species extinction, someone insists that overpopulation is the problem. More people equals more farms equals less wilderness equals more extinctions. Life is a zero-sum game: you can have people and farming OR wildlife and biodiversity, but not both.

For a convincing antidote to such views, I highly recommend Nature’s Matrix, an important book by ecologists Ivette Perfecto, John Vandermeer and Angus Wright. Drawing on their extensive practical experience with conservation and agriculture in Central America and the Amazon, combined with recent research in ecology and agronomy, they propose a radical “new paradigm” for conservation, a strategy based on powerful evidence that preserving biodiversity is inseparable from the growing struggle of peasant farmers for human rights, land, and sustainable agriculture.

The issue is not how many people there are, but what the people do: some forms of agriculture destroy life, others preserve and expand it. Only by strengthening the social forces that support biodiversity-friendly farming can we hope to slow or reverse what’s being called the Sixth Extinction, a global species annihilation comparable to the death of the dinosaurs.

A doomed strategy

The orthodox approach to protecting biodiversity was expressed recently by David Attenborough, the well-known broadcaster and naturalist who is also a patron of the UK-based World Land Trust. In a letterto WLT supporters, Attenborough wrote:

“On the reserves purchased through donations to the Trust, which are expertly managed by its overseas partners, permanent protection is in place. Buying land for conservation is the most direct and certain road to conservation and in doing so WLT is ensuring that at least some of our wilderness, and its biodiversity, survives.”

Most conservation groups follow that approach: they try to protect biodiversity and limit species extinctions by creating wilderness reserves where human activity is limited or banned. Often they literally erect fences and pay armed guards to prevent intrusions, even by people whose ancestors lived on the land for millennia. What happens outside the reserves is only relevant if it threatens to impinge on the pristine environment where nature is protected from people.

Nature’s Matrix argues convincingly that such a focus on creating protected areas is a doomed strategythat actually harms biodiversity, increasing the likelihood of extinctions.

This is so for three reasons.

First, most tropical landscapes are not exclusively untouched or exclusively farmed. The most common pattern is a complex matrix with fragments of forest separated by a variety of farms, as this aerial photograph illustrates. More



Saturday, October 13, 2012

Food scarcity: the timebomb setting nation against nation

As the UN and Oxfam warn of the dangers ahead, expert analyst Lester Brown says time to solve the problem is running out

Brandon Hunnicutt has had a year to remember. The young Nebraskan from Hamilton County farms 2,600 acres of the High Plains with his father and brother. What looked certain in an almost perfect May to be a "phenomenal" harvest of maize and soy beans has turned into a near disaster.

A three-month heatwave and drought with temperatures often well over 38C burned up his crops. He lost a third and was saved only by pumping irrigation water from the aquifer below his farm.

"From 1 July to 1 October we had 4ins of rain and long stretches when we didn't have any. Folk in the east had nothing at all. They've been significantly hurt. We are left wondering whether the same will happen again," he says.

On the other side of the world, Mary Banda, who lives in Mphaka village near Nambuma in Malawi, has had a year during which she has barely been able to feed her children, one of whom has just gone to hospital with malnutrition.

Government health worker Patrick Kamzitu says: "We are seeing more hunger among children. The price of maize has doubled in the last year. Families used to have one or two meals a day; now they are finding it hard to have one."

Hunnicutt and Banda are linked by food. What she must pay for her maize is determined largely by how much farmers such as Brandon grow and export. This year the US maize harvest is down 15% and nearly 40% of what is left has gone to make vehicle fuel. The result is less food than usual on to the international market, high prices and people around the world suffering.

"This situation is not going to go away," says Lester Brown, an environmental analyst and president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington. In a new book, Full Planet, Empty Plates, he predicts ever increasing food prices, leading to political instability, spreading hunger and, unless governments act, a catastrophic breakdown in food. "Food is the new oil and land is the new gold," he says. "We saw early signs of the food system unravelling in 2008 following an abrupt doubling of world grain prices. As they climbed, exporting countries [such as Russia] began restricting exports to keep their domestic prices down. In response, importing countries panicked and turned to buying or leasing land in other countries to produce food for themselves."

"The result is that a new geopolitics of food has emerged, where the competition for land and water is intensifying and each country is fending for itself."

Brown has been backed by an Oxfam report released last week. It calculated that the land sold or leased to richer countries and speculators in the last decade could have grown enough food to feed a billion people – almost exactly the number of malnourished people in the world today.Nearly 60% of global land deals in the last decade have been to grow crops that can be used for biofuels, says Oxfam. More


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

US corn ethanol fuels food crisis in developing countries

Record drought in the US farm belt this summer withered corn fields and parched hopes for a record US corn harvest, but US farmers may not be the ones most severely affected by the disaster. Most have insurance against crop failure. Not so the world's import-dependent developing countries, nor their poorest consumers. They are hurting.

This is the third food price spike in the last five years, and this time the finger is being pointed squarely at biofuels. More specifically, the loss of a quarter or more of the projected US corn harvest has prompted urgent calls for reform in that country's corn ethanol programme.

Domestically, livestock producers dependent on corn for feed have led demands for change in the US Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which mandates that a rising volume of fuel come from renewable sources. Up to now that has been overwhelmingly corn-based ethanol. In November, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will rule on a request for a waiver of the RFS mandate to reduce pressures on US corn supplies.

But US livestock producers aren't the only ones affected by shortages and high prices. The most devastating impact is on the poor in developing countries, who often use more than half their incomes to buy food. It also hurts low-income developing countries dependent on corn imports.

As I showed in my recent study, "The Costs to Developing Countries of US Ethanol Expansion", the US ethanol programme pushed up corn prices by up to 21 per cent as it expanded to consume 40 per cent of the US harvest. This price premium was passed on to corn importers, adding an estimated $11.6bn to the import bills of the world's corn-importing countries since 2005. More than half of that - $6.6bn - was paid by developing countries between 2005 and 2010. The highest cost was borne by the biggest corn importers. Mexico paid $1.1bnmore for its corn, Egypt $727m.

Besides Egypt, North African countries saw particularly high ethanol-related losses: Algeria ($329m), Morocco ($236m), Tunisia ($99m) and Libya ($68m). Impacts were also high in other strife-torn countries in the region - Syria ($242m), Iran ($492m) and Yemen ($58m). North Africa impacts totalled $1.4bn. Scaled to population size, these economic losses were at least as severe as those seen in Mexico. The link between high food prices and unrest in the region is by now well documented, and US ethanol is contributing to that instability.

Biofuel impacts on food prices

The debate over biofuels has grown urgent since food prices first spiked in 2007-2008, ushering in a food crisis characterised by repeated jumps in global food prices. Prices for most staple foods doubled, fell when the bubble burst in 2009, then jumped again to their previous high levels in 2010-2011.

After a brief respite in the first half of this year, the US drought triggered a new wave of price spikes, the third in just five years. Corn prices were particularly hard-hit, reaching record levels of more than $8.00/bushel, and more than $300 per metric tonne. Before the first spikes, prices had languished around $100/metric tonne. More


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Slow Death and Fast Profits: The Globalisation of Pesticides and Poison

The next time anyone in India serves up a good old ‘wholesome’ meal of rice and various vegetables, they will probably take in half a milligram of pesticide also, around a pin prick. That would be more than 40 times what an average North American person would consume.

India is one of the world’s largest users of pesticides and a highly profitable market for the corporations that manufacture them. Ladyfinger, cabbage, tomato and cauliflower in particular may contain dangerously high levels because farmers tend to harvest them almost immediately after spraying. Fruit and vegetables are sprayed and tampered with to make them more colourful, and harmful fungicides are sprayed on fruit to ripen them in order to rush them off to market.

Research by the School of Natural Sciences and Engineering at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore has indicated disturbing trends in the increased use of pesticide. In 2008, it reported that many crops for export had been rejected internationally due to high pesticide residues.

Kasargod in Kerala is notorious for the indiscriminate spraying of endosulfan. The government-owned Plantation Corporation of Kerala aerially sprayed the harmful pesticide on cashews for a period of over 20 years. Consequently, it got into rivers, streams and drinking water. Families and their children have been living with physical deformities, cancers and disorders of the central nervous system ever since.

Officials and the pesticide companies benefited from the spraying. At the time, cashew was grown without pesticides throughout Kerala, but the government run plantation invested millions of rupees of public money in spraying the deadly pesticide. Endosulfen poisoning cases also emerged elsewhere, including in Karnataka.

Monsanto’s controversial Round Up is now being used in place of endosulfan, which is in fact still being used in various parts of the country.

According to the writer Marie-Monique Robin, whoever controls the food (and pesticide) business controls the world. And Monsanto, backed by the US Government, is setting out to do this through its genetically manipulated (GM) seeds and its pesticides and weedicides.

This is the company has been responsible for manufacturing polychlorinated biphenols that cause cancer, dioxins that lead to chloracne, GM bovine growth hormone that produce mastitis in cattle and genetically modified organisms containing insect toxins, including GM corn, GM soya and Bt cotton, which are strongly associated with a range of health hazards. It also produced Agent Orange which the US dropped on Vietnam to destroy jungle and consequently led to mass death, disease and deformities. In June 2001, adding insult to injury, Monsanto was accused by farmers of Ninh Thuan province of pressuring them to use genetically modified seeds that resulted in corn and maize crop failures and economic ruin. In Indonesia, the corporation bribed more than 140 government officials to have its Bt cotton released without an environmental risk assessment.

Dr Meryl Hammond, founder of the Campaign for Alternatives to Pesticides, told a Canadian parliament committee in 2010 that a raft of studies published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals point to strong associations between chemical pesticides and serious health consequences, including endocrine disruption and fertility problems, birth defects, brain tumours and brain cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, childhood leukaemia, cancer clusters in communities, gastric or stomach cancer, learning disabilities, non-Hodgkin’s lymphomaand canine malignant lymphoma. More


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Pesticide Use Ramping Up As GMO Crop Technology Backfires

.S. farmers are using more hazardous pesticides to fight weeds and insects due largely to heavy adoption of genetically modified crop technologies that are sparking a rise of "superweeds" and hard-to-kill insects, according to a newly released study.

Genetically engineered crops have led to an increase in overall pesticide use, by 404 million pounds from the time they were introduced in 1996 through 2011, according to the report by Charles Benbrook, a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University.

Of that total, herbicide use increased over the 16-year period by 527 million pounds while insecticide use decreased by 123 million pounds.

Benbrook's paper -- published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Sciences Europe over the weekend and announced on Monday -- undermines the value of both herbicide-tolerant crops and insect-protected crops, which were aimed at making it easier for farmers to kill weeds in their fields and protect crops from harmful pests, said Benbrook.

Herbicide-tolerant crops were the first genetically modified crops introduced to world, rolled out by Monsanto Co. in 1996, first in "Roundup Ready" soybeans and then in corn, cotton and other crops. Roundup Ready crops are engineered through transgenic modification to tolerate dousings of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide.

The crops were a hit with farmers who found they could easily kill weed populations without damaging their crops. But in recent years, more than two dozen weed species have become resistant to Roundup's chief ingredient glyphosate, causing farmers to use increasing amounts both of glyphosate and other weedkilling chemicals to try to control the so-called "superweeds."

"Resistant weeds have become a major problem for many farmers reliant on GE crops, and are now driving up the volume of herbicide needed each year by about 25 percent," Benbrook said.

Monsanto officials had no immediate comment.

"We're looking at this. Our experts haven't been able to access the supporting data as yet," said Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher.

Benbrook said the annual increase in the herbicides required to deal with tougher-to-control weeds on cropland planted to genetically modified crops has grown from 1.5 million pounds in 1999 to about 90 million pounds in 2011.

Similarly, the introduction of "Bt" corn and cotton crops engineered to be toxic to certain insects is triggering the rise of insects resistant to the crop toxin, according to Benbrook.

Insecticide use did drop substantially - 28 percent from 1996 to 2011 - but is now on the rise, he said.

"The relatively recent emergence and spread of insect populations resistant to the Bt toxins expressed in Bt corn and cotton has started to increase insecticide use, and will continue to do so," he said. More


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

TEDxMasala - Dr Vandana Shiva - Solutions to the food and ecological crisis facing us today.

TEDxMasala - Dr Vandana Shiva - Solutions to the food and ecological crisis facing us today.

Published onSep 24,

In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized.* (*Subject to certain rules and regulations)

Dr Shiva Vandana is a philosopher, environmental activist, eco feminist and author of several books. Dr Shiva, currently based in Delhi, is author of over 300 papers in leading scientific and technical journals and participated in the non-violent Chipko movement during the 1970s. The movement, some of whose main participants were women, adopted the approach of forming human circles around trees to prevent their felling. She is one of the leaders of the International Forum on Globalization and a figure of the global solidarity movement known as the alter-globalization movement.

Dr Shiva has fought for changes in the practice and paradigms of agriculture and food. Intellectual property rights, biodiversity, biotechnology, bioethics, genetic engineering are among the fields where Dr Shiva has contributed intellectually and through activist campaigns. She has assisted grassroots organizations of the Green movement in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Ireland, Switzerland, and Austria including campaigns against genetic engineering. In 1982, she founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, which led to the creation of Navdanya. Her book, "Staying Alive" helped redefine perceptions of third world women.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Govt joins FAO, WFP to train food security experts

An Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) training and analysis workshop was organised jointly by the Government of Pakistan, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), to train a pool of Certified Food Security Analysts at national level and come up with the first IPC map reflecting the current food security situation in Pakistan.

Around 50 food security experts were trained on analysis using IPC approach. The training was be followed by an intensive workshop where the participants worked together in analysing the available information to develop a draft food security phase map of Pakistan.

Participants included the Ministry of National Food Security and Research (MNFS&R), National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), UN agencies, national and international NGOs, research organizations and academia.

National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) Director Dr. Baseer Achakzai in his remarks highlighted the role and importance of IPC in the Pakistani context. He expressed that outputs from IPC could provide important basis for the decision-makers to make evidence based policies and programmes.

Ministry of National Food Security and Research (MNFS&R) Secretary Ahmad Bux Lehri said the IPC platform is a key tool in identifying the grey areas including deforestation, malnutrition, emergencies and other prevailing issues in food security sector in the country. He also shared his experience from recently held IPC workshop in Nepal where IPC has been implemented successfully for providing reliable periodic food security updates during the past five years.

WFP Country Director Jean-Luc Siblot said that WFP is pleased to be a part of the IPC process and expressed his confidence that the IPC results based on consensus by different stakeholders could be important input to a national food security monitoring system and stressed the need to translate the findings from IPC and other food security analyses into appropriate policies and programmes to address food insecurity in the country.

FAO Senior Emergency and Rehabilitation Coordinator Rajendra Aryal termed this workshop as a great opportunity to have food security and nutrition experts from different parts of the country working together and coming to consensus under one roof.

Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) Executive Director Dr. Abid Suleri shared the indicators of the IPC analysis for Pakistan. He noted that the key purpose of IPC analysis is to prepare comparable, consistent, and verifiable data to provide actionable knowledge and information. He further said that these indicators focus on some key sectors such as availability of, access to and, utilization of food; nutrition, vulnerability, migration and coping strategies.

Krishna Pahari, Head of VAM Unit WFP, highlighted the fact that IPC provides a platform and process to analyse and present the food security situation in a country. The IPC does not replace the need of existing food security assessments conducted by various agencies but instead utilizes findings from such studies and comes up with consolidated food security phase maps. More