Sunday, July 29, 2012

Yemen's multiple proxy wars a recipe for famine

Crikey has a look at the famine in Yemen, exacerbated by high prices for diesel - Yemen’s multiple proxy wars a recipe for a famine.

For decades throughout the 20th century, the idea of famine had two dominant uses in the West.

The first was proof of the Christian ideal that “the poor you will always have with you”, thus re-affirming the eternal need for charity, and the limited usefulness of political struggle — the second was to reaffirm a vaguely or explicitly racialist and Malthusian notion that the dusky-skinned two thirds of the world really couldn’t manage themselves that well, and were doomed to over-breeding and starvation. Before the Second World War, China was the locus for this concern/panic — in various famines until the 1949 revolution, children would be exchanged between families to be eaten, or sold in the marketplace.

After the war, attention switched to India, and then in the 1970s and ’80s, to Ethiopia and the rest of Africa. The story was static, and endlessly repeated — skeletal children, milk powder, guilt, appeals, etc. The global extravaganza of Live Aid in 1985 was probably the acme of this well-meant but bone-headed view of starvation — appropriately enough celebrated by a song in which a phalanx of stars wondered if animist and Muslim peoples even knew it was Christmas time at all.

But by this time another view of famine was beginning to permeate the liberal West, with the 1981 publication of Amartya Sen’s Poverty and Famines, which deployed an array of theories to argue that famines almost always occurred in regions where there was plenty of food — and that even when there was a will to alleviate the famine, the absence of democratic and open political structures made such alleviation impossible.

Sen’s example was the Bengal Famine of 1943 — something that Commonwealth readers rarely hear of in tales of WW2, because 3 million Indians died due to the incompetence, indecision and outright racism of the British authorities. Sen’s argument made an impact where more radical left-wing accounts of the political nature of famine had been dismissed — but many were still unwilling to concede one of his core points, that one of the great barriers to alleviating famine was the market itself.

Sen’s argument has made it impossible for Western news to report famine in the way it once did, but it’s a close run thing. Fragments of reasons a region might suddenly descend into desperate starvation are aired, but there remains a basic inability to tell a connected story. The default position remains the Pieta, the starving child in arms. More


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Why is Yemen's food crisis off the world's humanitarian radar?

Media coverage associates Yemen with al-Qaida and insecurity. Is this, combined with donor fatigue, why we're not sending aid?

When the revolutionary tide of the Arab spring swept Ali Abdullah Saleh from power in Yemen last year, optimism abounded. The conclusion of Saleh's 33-year presidency – a reign more notable for the suppression of dissent and a descent into economic turmoil than any inroads on poverty, inequality and corruption – was meant to herald a fresh start for the Arab world's poorest country. But, despite the appointment of a transitional government led by the former vice-president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the promised end has failed to materialise.

Instead, Yemen's continued economic and political turmoil has been exacerbated by an escalating food crisis. According to the World Food Programme, hunger in Yemen has doubled over the past two years. In May, aid agencies warned that almost half the country's population of 25 million do not have enough food to eat and a third of children in some areas are severely malnourished. Then, last week, Oxfam – whichcautioned last September that Yemen was at breaking point – issued a joint appeal with Islamic Relief for $38m, claiming that 5 million people are in need of emergency aid. The UN – which estimates that 267,000 children face life-threatening levels of malnutrition – has increased the total sought for its humanitarian appeal from $447m to $586m.

However, funds have so far been difficult to raise. At the Friends of Yemen conference held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in May, international donors pledged $4bn in aid. But if and when this money will arrive – and how it will be deployed if it does – remain unclear. More

They are also facing a water crisis. Edtor


The world is closer to a food crisis than most people realise

Unless we move quickly to adopt new population, energy, and water policies, the goal of eradicating hunger will remain just that.

Food riots in Algeria in 2008. Photograph: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images
In the early spring this year, US farmers were on their way to planting some 96m acres in corn, the most in 75 years. A warm early spring got the crop off to a great start. Analysts were predicting the largest corn harvest on record.

The United States is the leading producer and exporter of corn, the world's feedgrain. At home, corn accounts for four-fifths of the US grain harvest. Internationally, the US corn crop exceeds China's rice and wheat harvests combined. Among the big three grains – corn, wheat, and rice – corn is now the leader, with production well above that of wheat and nearly double that of rice.

The corn plant is as sensitive as it is productive. Thirsty and fast-growing, it is vulnerable to both extreme heat and drought. At elevated temperatures, the corn plant, which is normally so productive, goes into thermal shock.

Time is running out. The world may be much closer to an unmanageable food shortage – replete with soaring food prices, spreading food unrest, and ultimately political instability– than most people realise.

As spring turned into summer, the thermometer began to rise across the corn belt. In St Louis, Missouri, in the southern corn belt, the temperature in late June and early July climbed to 100F or higher 10 days in a row. For the past several weeks, the corn belt has been blanketed with dehydrating heat.

Weekly drought maps published by the University of Nebraska show the drought-stricken area spreading across more and more of the country until, by mid-July, it engulfed virtually the entire corn belt. Soil moisture readings in the corn belt are now among the lowest ever recorded.

While temperature, rainfall, and drought serve as indirect indicators of crop growing conditions, each week the US Department of Agriculture releases a report on the actual state of the corn crop. This year the early reports were promising. On 21 May, 77% of the US corn crop was rated as good to excellent. The following week the share of the crop in this category dropped to 72%. Over the next eight weeks, it dropped to 26%, one of the lowest ratings on record. The other 74% is rated very poor to fair. And the crop is still deteriorating.

Over a span of weeks, we have seen how the more extreme weather events that come with climate change can affect food security. Since the beginning of June, corn prices have increased by nearly one half, reaching an all-time high on 19 July. More


Monday, July 23, 2012

Food security needs systemic change

I don’t know about you, but the closest I ever got to a Rubik’s Cube, shortly after it was first launched in 1974, was to handle one in a toy store. For me, it seemed insoluble – and many assumed it was, until persistent cubers discovered not just one way to crack the puzzle, but many. And the cube came to mind as I thought recently about the astonishingly complex global security challenge we now face.

Back in the seventies we were challenged by a series of energy (or at least oil) crises, but now we see the energy security issue linking ever more tightly to food security, water security, climate security and so on. Indeed, when I sat down with Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington DC recently, he argued that the biggest mistake the founders of the sustainability movement made was framing the agenda as one for future generations. That was true enough then, he suggested, but today we are living through the early stages of the potential system crash theBrundtland Commission warned us about.

And all of this came to mind as I trawled through Appetite for Change, a new report from SustainAbility, backed by NestlĂ©, IBM and Sodexo. Apart from suggesting the title some time back, I was not part of the project team, so came to the analysis as an outsider. But the conclusions generally resonated powerfully with Lester Brown’s – and indeed my own – in terms of the growing need for system change.

By way of an aperitif, SustainAbility notes that “in just the past couple of weeks, one of the worst E coli outbreaks in history has killed 37 people and made more than 2,600 ill, academics concluded that climate change will have more negative consequences for agriculture than expected, and the UN’s Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation released a guide warning world farming needs a major shift to more sustainable practices as intensive crop production since the 1960s has degraded soils, depleted ground water and caused pest outbreaks.”

Industry and food system experts interviewed for the report conclude that the food industry is failing to address the true scale of the problem, warning that there is “a startling lack of consensus on the path forward.” The sector may be at an inflection point, but it isn’t at all clear that it knows what to do next.

One thing I found surprising is just how unprofitable much of the food industry can be. Sector executives often settle for lower margins than those in other sectors, while most producers “literally find farming a ticket to poverty – half of the world’s malnourished are themselves farmers.”

Growing unease about food futures is driving some dramatic trends. Until 2008, for example, investment in farmland globally had been running at around 4 million hectares a year, whereas by the end of 2009 it had soared to over 56 million hectares. Seventy per cent of those land acquisitions took place in Africa, generally with little or no links to local markets or interests.

By contrast, SustainAbility concludes, a sustainable food system would be “reliable, resilient and transparent,” producing food within ecological limits, empowering food producers, and ensuring accessible, nutritious food for all. On the evidence presented, however, this looks like pie in the sky for most people on this small planet of ours.

One of the most striking aspects of the global food market is that while almost one billion people are undernourished, another billion are what the industry likes to call over-nourished – or obese. I recently heard the Mayor of Arlington, Texas, a city of some 400,000 people, explain that 20 years ago 20 per cent of young people there were obese, a proportion that has now grown to 40 per cent, with no solutions obvious – except, though he didn’t say this, getting Arlingtonians out of their cars, away from their TVs and back to more traditional, healthier diets. More


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Seeds of Greed. And Global Domination

Scientist and philosopher Vandana Shiva has made a name for herself as a thinker and fighter in the global battle over genetically modified seeds. Her prime target:

Dr. Vandana Shiva

Monsanto is privatizing the seed. They control 95 percent of the cotton in India, 90 percent of the soy in this country. They’ve taken over most of the seed companies of the world [and] everything begins a seed. The food on our plate. You and me were seed at one point. The little calf that becomes the cow. Seed is the source of life. And seed is the source of renewal of life. …

I sat at meetings where the corporations said, “The reason we’ve got to do genetically modified organisms is because it’s the only way we can claim a patent. A patent is a claim to invention, a claim to creation. And it brings with it an exclusive right to exclude anyone else from using, having, distributing the patented product.” … they’re claiming intellectual property. And they changed the language. They say the seed is no more a seed. It’s an intellectual property. They make the society shift its thinking of what is at stake. Seed is the first link in the food chain. And therefore, when you control seed, you control food.

Shiva notes, “I come from a country where there were no corporations in the food system until 20 years ago.”

Small is not just beautiful, it’s bountiful:

The rights of our farmers to be able to have seed, the most fundamental source of livelihood in a poor country. Eighty percent of the food of the world is even, today, produced by those small farmers of the kind that we have in India. Our small farmers are feeding 1.2 billion Indians. We forget the scale of what smallness means multiplied many times. Because we’ve got used to the dinosaur mentality. We only see the big. We forget that dinosaurs go extinct.

Broken promises:

In India, Monsanto came in with a claim of 1,500 kilograms of cotton per acre with their genetically engineered cotton. The average yields are 400 kilograms. Our studies show that. The government studies confirm this.

When you grow just genetically modified cotton, you destroy all the associate crops that were feeding the poor families. So it actually leads to less food. When you spray roundup and kill the greens that are necessary for women to have iron, for children to have vitamin A, you’re creating hunger. You’re creating disease. More


Seeds of Freedom


Friday, July 13, 2012

Serious Sustainability

Michael Pollan, Knight Professor of Journalism, UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism

Will Belize's fishing ban encourage other countries to take bolder steps towards protecting their marine environments?

Belize is proud to have the longest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere. But in 2010, the tiny country faced a huge problem – the potential loss of the reef's UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Already under threat from coastal development, pollution and climate change, the reef's species were being depleted by bottom-dragging fish trawlers. Local fishermen operating from small boats complained they were being prevented form making a living by what many critics call the maritime equivalent of strip mining or clear-cut logging.

With miles-long nets that scrape the ocean bottom, a trawling fleet can strip the ocean bare, making no distinction between food fish and any other species of plant and animal.

A report revealed that 60 per cent of the reef, which is vital habitat for fish, was in poor to critical condition - and only eight per cent was in good condition.

This highly destructive form of fishing also jeopardised a major source of revenue from tourism - the country’s number one foreign exchange earner. More than 200,000 tourists visit the Caribbean country each year, mainly to dive or fish.

In December 2010, Belize became one of the world’s first nations to ban trawling in its waters.

Forgoing the revenues from fees and taxes provided by trawling fleets, political and business leaders decided that long-term economic prospects were better served by protecting the barrier reef and other coastal waters by making sure that fish stocks remained healthy.

The ban had the support of local fishermen, who now practice a low-impact form of fish harvesting to supply markets.

Resort owners also hailed the move, recognising that the ban would protect local jobs. Since the ban was enforced an environmental organisation, Oceana, has helped to purchase two idled trawlers docked in Belize, which will be re-purposed.

For this segment of earthrise, Sharita Hutton travels to Belize to meet some of the people involved in campaigning for the ban, which, it is hoped, will encourage other countries to take bolder steps towards protecting their marine environments. More