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.