Monday, December 30, 2013

Peak oil – reached. Peak water – reached. Next on the list? Peak soil

Soil is becoming endangered – this is the reality a meeting between experts in Reykjavik has reached. They explain that this has to receive public awareness if we want to feed 9 billion by 2050.

The main culprit is the one also responsible for global warming: Carbon.

“Keeping and putting carbon in its rightful place needs to be the mantra for humanity if we want to continue to eat, drink and combat global warming, concluded 200 researchers from more than 30 countries”.

Indeed, for all the attention the air and water gets, soil seems to be the forgotten child, just because we don’t eat or drink it. But everything we eat comes from it.

“While soil is invisible to most people it provides an estimated 1.5 to 13 trillion dollars in ecosystem services annually,” Glover said at the Soil Carbon Sequestration conference that ended this week.

It’s practically impossible to calculate the benefits that soil brings us – a mere cup of soil contains some 500.000 species, including worms, ants, fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms. 99% of our food comes from it, directly or indirectly, compared to the only 1% we get from oceans.

Soil cleans water, keeps contaminants out of streams and lakes, and prevents flooding; it can also absord massive quantities of carbon. But as hard as it may seem – it’s really fragile.

“It takes half a millennia to build two centimetres of living soil and only seconds to destroy it,” Glover said.

Plowing, removal of crop residues after harvest, and overgrazing all leave soil naked and vulnerable to wind and rain, resulting in gradual, often unnoticed erosion of soil. Erosion not only destroys crops, causes landslides and other catastrophes, but also releases carbon into the air.

“Soil can be a safe place where huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere could be sequestered,” said Rattan Lal of Ohio State University.

So we’ve pretty much screwed the atmosphere – unless practically all of science that we do now is wrong, that’s a fact. We’re well into doing the same to the water, as a massive, large scale water shortage seems like a matter of time. Are we going to do the same with soil? Are we going to try to milk the cow until it runs totally dry? We know what should be done, we have the technology, and we also have the money for it.

A Sad Example

About 1000 years ago, when the first settlers arrived there, Iceland was mostly covered by forests, lush meadows and wetlands. By the late 1800s, about 96 percent of all icelandic forrests were gone. Half of the grasslands were destroyed by overgrazing. Humans pushed the land way beyond the limit of sustainability, up to the point where it became barren.

Due to necessity, Iceland pioneered a number of groundbreaking techniques in terms of soil protection, but the results in the past 100 years are moving extremely slowly.

“We’re still fighting overgrazing here,” Halldórsson said.

But the public is living in the urban areas, has forgot these troubles, and is not supporting land restoration anymore.

“The public isn’t supporting land restoration. We’ve forgotten that land is the foundation of life,” Halldórsson said.



Thursday, December 12, 2013

Less Than 3 Percent of Oceans in Marine Parks Despite Recent Growth

In May 1975, rising concerns about overfishing and deteriorating ocean health prompted scientists and officials from 33 countries to meet in Tokyo for the first global conference on marine parks and reserves.

Noting the need for swift action to safeguard more of the sea, the delegates were unanimous in calling for the creation of a global system of marine protected areas (MPAs)—zones explicitly managed for the conservation of aquatic ecosystems.

Today, with oceanic resources more threatened than ever, the world is far from that envisioned MPA network. Although coverage has doubled since 2010, just 2.8 percent of the ocean surface—some 10 million square kilometers (4 million square miles), roughly the size of the United States—is now in designated MPAs. And the level of protection varies. Some MPAs allow seabed mining, for instance, and most MPAs allow at least some fishing. In others, fishing and other destructive activities are off-limits entirely. These “no-take” MPAs, also called marine reserves, are thought to provide the greatest conservation value, yet they account for less than half of the world’s marine protected area.

A wealth of experience and scientific research shows that by protecting all habitats and marine life within their borders, well-managed no-take zones effectively preserve biodiversity and can restore adjacent fisheries, greatly benefiting both ecosystems and the people dependent on them. In general, fish populations increase after a reserve is established, and individual fish grow larger. Heavily overfished species usually show the greatest gains, and the positive results can come quickly.

While there are often concerns that closing fishing grounds will negatively impact access to food and livelihoods, evidence suggests that reserves often have the opposite effect. Because there is no physical boundary, fish may venture out of the MPA to areas where anglers can catch them. Older, larger fish have more offspring, which also can leave the reserve as eggs or larvae, eventually replenishing depleted stocks. The potential to support fisheries has great implications for food security: worldwide some 3 billion people get at least 20 percent of their animal protein from fish, but close to 90 percent of fish stocks are being fished at or beyond sustainable levels. There are also non-fishery benefits. Protected areas can attract more tourist dollars, helping offset MPA management costs. (See Table.)

Surveys of people living near reserves in Fiji, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Solomon Islands, support this point. Summarized in a report by The Nature Conservancy called Nature’s Investment Bank, the surveys pointed to improved fish catches outside MPA boundaries, increased protein intake, and even poverty alleviation—especially from new jobs in tourism.

Thus marine reserves are widely seen as a crucial tool in the conservation toolkit—one that is sorely needed as pressures on the world’s oceans continue to mount. Take the highly productive coral reefs that provide nurseries for fish, protect shorelines, and support the livelihoods of millions of people. Some 75 percent of the world’s coral reefs are threatened by overfishing, pollution, warming waters, and a host of other hazards. A 2013 study in Belize showed that protection from fishing and industrial activity bolsters reef resilience: coral reefs in marine reserves there may be six times more likely than unprotected ones to regrow after major disturbances such as hurricanes.

The world’s largest coral reef system, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, is home to probably the best known MPA, which opened in 1979. Spanning some 340,000 square kilometers, this park boasts incredible biodiversity, including more than 1,600 fish species, and brings in some $4 billion a year from tourism. Zoning plans developed in the 1980s made a scant 4.5 percent of the MPA off-limits to fishing and provided very uneven habitat protection. But in 2004, it was rezoned to better protect all 70 of its distinct habitat types—30 of them reef habitats, and the rest non-reef types such as mangroves. Now at least 20 percent of each of these “bioregions” is no-take and, all told, fishing is banned in one third of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Nearly all no-take MPAs to date have been small and near to shore, but calls are growing for more set-asides of hundreds of thousands or even millions of square kilometers to create vast buffers around islands and to protect open ocean wilderness areas—and with them, conceivably, the entire life cycles of far-ranging marine species like sea turtles, sharks, and tunas. The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Global Ocean Legacy project has been a prominent champion of the idea, working with scientists and both national and local governments to establish “the first generation of great marine parks around the globe by 2022.” It was integral, for example, in the U.S. designation of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2006, which protects 362,000 square kilometers around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. At the time this was by far the largest no-take marine reserve in the world.

Then in 2010 it was surpassed by another Pew-backed park when the United Kingdom declared a 640,000-square-kilometer reserve—larger than the United Kingdom itself—in the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. In 2012, after an aggressive public outreach campaign led by Pew, Australia declared a 1-million-square-kilometer MPA adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef in the Coral Sea, half of it no-take. And Pew is also proposing a park around the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific, another U.K. territory, that would add 830,000 square kilometers to the global no-take area.

Not all recent attempts to create large reserves have succeeded. In early November 2013, Russia, Ukraine, and China—worried about possible harm to their fishing interests—scuttled international talks on two massive proposed reserves in the Southern Ocean. This was the third time in a year that countries reached an impasse on the proposals, which would have banned fishing in 2.8 million square kilometers in Antarctic waters. Although proponents will resubmit the reserves for consideration in 2014, prospects look grim after this latest setback.

In addition to expanding the number and area of MPAs worldwide, another marine conservation priority is improving the effectiveness of existing parks. Most MPAs to date lack the trained staff and funding needed to properly manage them, making monitoring and enforcement of restrictions difficult and leading many to be dubbed “paper parks” (that is, protected on paper only). One encouraging attempt to address this problem is the Caribbean Challenge Initiative. With the backing of a $42-million endowment—funded by The Nature Conservancy, the Global Environment Fund, and the German Development Bank—10 Caribbean nations are developing national trust funds to be used solely to improve management of existing parks (land and marine) and to establish new ones that are effective from the start. Funds are set to be disbursed beginning in early 2014, as the countries move ahead on their overall goal of having at least 20 percent of their near-shore marine and coastal area in well-managed MPAs by 2020.

What would it take to run a global network of MPAs? In 2004, a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined the potential costs of administering a worldwide network that would conserve 20 percent or more of the world’s oceans. Based on data for over 80 existing MPAs, the authors conservatively estimated that such a network might cost $12.5 billion annually. What they concluded nearly a decade ago is still true today: we could protect a large chunk of our marine ecosystems for much less than the estimated $20 billion that governments spend to subsidize overfishing each year.

Well-designed and managed MPAs are only part of the puzzle in restoring fisheries and ocean ecosystems. Other important steps include putting stricter catch limits on fisheries, removing harmful fishing subsidies, and dramatically reducing the pollution entering the sea from farms, cities, and industry. Cutting emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming, will also be essential to minimize the rise in temperatures and changing chemistry already undermining ocean ecosystems. Only by tackling all of these problems simultaneously will we have a decent chance at reversing marine decline. More


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Pakistan's food shortage alarms rights organizations

Pakistan's independent Human Rights Commission (HRCP) has urged the government to take up the issue of food scarcity and rising prices in the country. The organization said food insecurity in Pakistan was reaching alarming levels.

“Growing food scarcity in Pakistan and the subsequent rise in prices have gravely affected access to food and nutrition not just for the poor but also for the large middle-income segment of the population," HRCP said in a statement. "The lack of attention to this critical issue is no less dangerous and frightening than the food scarcity itself."

The NGO also pointed out that the food shortages were the result of bad governmental policy, blaming successive governments for neglecting the issue.

"World Food Day is an occasion for all to reflect on what has undermined people's access to adequately nutritious food and resulted in the geographic and demographic incidence of food scarcity. It should also be an occasion to make a meaningful commitment to helping those struggling with hunger and malnutrition,” HRCP said.

Ali Khan of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Islamabad told DW that the UN was working with the Pakistani government on various projects dealing with food shortages and rising food prices in Pakistan.

"At the moment, about 868 million people in the world have little access to food," he said. "One in eight people is either malnourished or is getting unhealthy food. Pakistan's situation is no different."

Access to food is a constitutional right

Meanwhile, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari vowed that his government would deal with the issue on an emergency basis. In a public message issued on World Food Day, he said he had directed the food and agriculture ministry to formulate a "comprehensive national policy" to improve the agricultural sector. He said that the Pakistani people had a constitutional right to access food.

However, HRCP Chairperson Zohra Yusuf said she doubted the government was sincere. She said "land reforms" were urgent and pointed out that Pakistani farmers were being exploited by the authorities. "They don't give them their rightful dues. This has resulted in apathy among farmers and subsequent food shortages. You need to give incentives to farmers and those associated with agriculture to motivate them."

She also said that Pakistan should learn from the experience and expertise of other countries in overcoming food shortages and reforming the agricultural sector. More


Thursday, October 10, 2013

ADB Releases Report on Managing the Water-Food-Energy Nexus

September 2013: The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has released a report, titled 'Thinking About Water Differently: Managing the Water-Food-Energy Nexus,' which argues for recognition of water as an economic and social good and the urgent assurance of regional water security to eliminate risk to food and energy security in Asia and the Pacific.

According to the ADB report, which offers high-level guidance on water issues affecting the region, governments need to think differently about water, taking a longer-term view of the limited resource. It highlights the importance of the following strategic approaches: reforming water governance through advocacy at global, regional, and national levels; generating reliable data and information on the availability and behavior of water resources; resource protection through effective reduction of wastewater and other waste discharging into freshwater supplies through regulation, investment, and innovation; water for food through stimulating research into improving the use of water in agriculture, increasing food production on the same area of land, and using less water; and increasing storage including via aquifer recharge, as a response to uncertainties in supply that are being aggravated by climate change. [Publication: Thinking About Water Differently: Managing the Water-Food-Energy Nexus] [ADB Press Release]



Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Namibia battles worst drought in decades

Opuwo, Namibia - The Tjikundi family sits around a small fire boiling a tin pot filled with water and maize - the only food that's available this day. A band of children crawl about, chewing on plastic tubing, and chase the visitors with animated curiosity.

The homestead is spectacular in its bareness. Soft, dry sand interrupted only by rocks and boulders fashion a molten envy for a lighter, brighter time. The livestock kraal is empty. So too are the granaries.

Scraggy roosters gawk and peck at the dust with fraught expectation while a domestic cat, at total odds with the environment, purrs and curls around people's ankles.

"This year is very bad because we have lost all our cattle," Mukaokondunga Tjikundi, in her early 20s, told Al Jazeera. "Sometimes the children go to bed with empty stomachs. Sometimes they just drink some water and go to sleep."

Hunger and hardship are recurring themes in Kunene, the northwest province in Namibia, considered the hardest-hit region by a drought many consider the worst in decades.

Almost one million people out of Namibia’s 2.3 million population face moderate to serious levels of food insecurity. The Namibian government in May estimated this year's harvest would yield 42 percent less than 2012.

In Kunene, two years of failed rains have devastated millet and maize plantations, dried up watering holes for livestock, and forced a population to search for precarious water supplies. Animals drink stagnant water in dry riverbeds, while some Namibians dig for water across the province and guard any source found with little wooden fences.


"If people can resort to [drinking] dirty water, more are likely to suffer from water-borne diseases and the health situation is likely to deteriorate for animals and humans," Jack Ndemena, water and sanitation officer with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), told Al Jazeera.

"There is nothing and if the rains don’t come, it is going to be a catastrophe."

In May, Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba was forced to declare a state of emergency and requested $33.7 million in international support to avert a crisis. Recognising the strain across the country, the IFRC and UNICEF launched appeals for $1.2m and $7.4m, respectively.

President Hifikepunye Pohamba has appealed for aid [EPA]

But little aid has arrived.

On September 2, Algeria donated $1m in food aid but the reaction from the rest of the international community has been poor.

Experts say Namibia’s status as a middle-income country hasn’t helped its appeals. Despite its wealth, the country suffers from high levels of income inequality. One-third of the population lives on less than $1 a day, and Namibia ranked 120 out of 187 countries on the 2012 UNDP Human Development Index.

Malnutrition is the second-most common cause of death recorded for children under five, even in non-drought years. And with the onset of this year’s drought, an estimated 109,000 children under five are at risk of acute malnutrition.

"Namibia still does not feed itself, and the middle-income classification comes from livestock, mining and fisheries industries - [this] does not provide an accurate situation on the ground," Cousins Gwanama, head of the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Namibia in Windhoek, told Al Jazeera.

And it is unlikely the situation is about to get better.


With little rainfall predicted for later this year, farmers have described the drought as among the harshest in a generation. Granaries are empty as few crops were planted last year. With plateaus unsuitable for grazing, many pastoralist farmers have been forced to leave their homes and families and herd their livestock to higher ground with more vegetation, often involving a few days’ walk.

Accustomed to little rainfall, farmers have survived in semi-arid regions of Namibia for decades. But the total absence of precipition has left many perplexed and concerned, their farms lurching towards economic ruin.

"I thought we understood the environment, nature, but we are almost confused and don’t know what to expect," farmer Toivo Ruhozu told Al Jazeera.

"If the government doesn’t help, we will just have to face death." More


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Uncertainty on figures hampering food security efforts

More than 600 scientists gathered in the Netherlands for a global food security conference, described as the first of its kind.

The combination of poor harvests
and rising demand has increased
price volatility in global grain markets

Organisers said science could help end uncertainty surrounding efforts to meet the food needs of future generations.

They added that, until now, there were many policy debates on food security but there was no scientific forum for researchers to share knowledge.

The next food security conference will be held in the US in 2015.

"A really key message from the conference for us is that we have got lots of estimates about needs of population growth etc, but at the moment we are so uncertain of the exact numbers - the uncertainty is really very high," said conference co-chairman Ken Giller, professor of plant production systems at Wageningen University.

"We talk about the current population being seven billion, moving to 9.2 billion in 2050 and the estimate is that we need to increase production 70% or more.

"But there are many different ways of addressing that. If we don't know what the problem is then we can't get started in addressing them."

Appetite for change

Prof Giller said there was "unprecedented interest" among the scientific community when details of the conference was first announced.

"We did anticipate about 250-300 people , but we actually ended up with more than 900 abstracts being submitted," he told BBC News.

"The conference was basically sold out - we had 600 people and that was all we could accommodate."

He explained that the conference was designed to create a forum where representatives from the different branches of science could come together and discuss and debate the issues of global food security.

"We pulled together a science committee with the real aim to make the conference broad and to include all the main disciplines," he said.

"We had people on the science committee from economics, nutrition and we had people dealing with food waste, which is a very important topical issue."

Prof Giller said that current estimates suggested that 30-40% of the food produced was wasted and not eaten.

Other themes that were discussed at the conference included:

  • Nutritional security,
  • Sustainable intensification of food production systems,
  • Novel ways of feeding nine billion,
  • Agricultural production as feedstock for renewables.

The organisers hope that the outcomes from the four-day event in Noordwijkerhout, South Holland, will help focus the scientific world's contribution to the UN global policy system.

One of the UN's eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was to "eradicate extreme poverty and hunger" by 2015, which included the target of halving - between 1990 and 2015 - the proportion of people suffering from hunger.

Assessments suggest the target is "within reach". However, a 2013 report on the progress of the MDGs warned that one in eight people remained chronically undernourished.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has announced that he wants to build on the MDGs, replacing them with a suite of Sustainable Development Goals that will run from 2015-2030.

He said one of his priorities was to "adopt globally agreed goals for food and nutrition security, mobilise all key stakeholders to provide support to smallholder farmers and food processors and bolster the resilience of communities and nations experiencing periodic food crises". More


Saturday, September 28, 2013

Italy Calls for Food Security to Be U.N. Priority

ROME--Italy wants to shepherd efforts to make food security a priority for global policy makers, Prime Minister Enrico Letta said in his debut speech at the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday.

"We should address the root causes of the ills afflicting our world rather than limit ourselves to the side effects," Mr. Letta said. "The time has come to launch a new global consensus on food," he said.

In 2008, Italy, with limited financial firepower due to chronic fiscal problems, tried to make food security a signature theme at the Group of Eight summit in L'Aquila, Italy, prodding the largest economies to pledge as much as $15 billion for the cause. The global financial crisis then commanded vast public resources and attention, even though the serious spike in basic food prices that helped trigger the so-called Arab Spring sparked fear that easy monetary policies in developed economies would trigger runaway inflation in basic staples.

Commodity prices have since stabilized, according to a price-monitoring index set up by the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome.

Mr. Letta said that the 2015 Expo, or world's fair, in Milan should be a springboard for global initiatives, floating the idea that a multilateral pact might be reached there.

The Milan Expo, whose slogan is "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life," aims to draw 20 million visitors interested in issues linked to sustainability. The event should be seized upon to create a Milan Protocol, modelled on the Kyoto Protocol of the late 1990s that covers environmental issues, with nutritional education, sustainable farming practices and food waste as its cardinal points, according to the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, a think tank backed by Barilla SpA, the pasta maker.

"Italy, with its rich food culture and heritage, is well-placed to show leadership in tackling the world's global food issues," said Danielle Nierenberg, an advisory board member at the Center.

Italy is also home to the U.N.'s main food-related agencies, the World Food Program, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the FAO, which after decades of advising farmers on how to boost yields is beginning to try to influence retail supply chains in an effort to reduce what it says is the waste of one-third of global food production. More


Thursday, September 26, 2013

September 25, 2013, 2:54 p.m. ET Italy Calls for Food Security to Be U.N. Priority

ROME--Italy wants to shepherd efforts to make food security a priority for global policy makers, Prime Minister Enrico Letta said in his debut speech at the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday.

"We should address the root causes of the ills afflicting our world rather than limit ourselves to the side effects," Mr. Letta said. "The time has come to launch a new global consensus on food," he said.

In 2008, Italy, with limited financial firepower due to chronic fiscal problems, tried to make food security a signature theme at the Group of Eight summit in L'Aquila, Italy, prodding the largest economies to pledge as much as $15 billion for the cause. The global financial crisis then commanded vast public resources and attention, even though the serious spike in basic food prices that helped trigger the so-called Arab Spring sparked fear that easy monetary policies in developed economies would trigger runaway inflation in basic staples.

Commodity prices have since stabilized, according to a price-monitoring index set up by the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome.

Mr. Letta said that the 2015 Expo, or world's fair, in Milan should be a springboard for global initiatives, floating the idea that a multilateral pact might be reached there.

The Milan Expo, whose slogan is "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life," aims to draw 20 million visitors interested in issues linked to sustainability. The event should be seized upon to create a Milan Protocol, modelled on the Kyoto Protocol of the late 1990s that covers environmental issues, with nutritional education, sustainable farming practices and food waste as its cardinal points, according to the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, a think tank backed by Barilla SpA, the pasta maker.

"Italy, with its rich food culture and heritage, is well-placed to show leadership in tackling the world's global food issues," said Danielle Nierenberg, an advisory board member at the Center.

Italy is also home to the U.N.'s main food-related agencies, the World Food Program, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the FAO, which after decades of advising farmers on how to boost yields is beginning to try to influence retail supply chains in an effort to reduce what it says is the waste of one-third of global food production. More


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The threat of agroterrorism and zoonotic diseases in Asia

The food and agricultural sector is one of the easiest sectors of any nation’s economy to disrupt and its disruption could have catastrophic consequences both nationally and regionally. Both developing and developed countries in Asia will be impacted by a disease outbreak or agroterrorism attack.

For countries with agriculture as a significant portion of their gross domestic product, disruptions anywhere along the food chain could lead to food insecurity and national instability in addition to the direct and indirect economic impacts. Yet in the context of CBRNe planning, preparations for a major biological emergency, whether naturally occurring or intentional, are often given less attention and allocated fewer resources than chemical or radiological events due to the reduced potential for a significant human death toll. However there are steps -some easily accomplished, others more difficult -that can be taken to mitigate the impact of disease outbreaks and agroterrorism activities.


The ongoing outbreak of H5N1 -and commonly called bird flu – and more recently H7N9 serve as a strong reminder that people, animals and the environment and inextricably linked. Many of the diseases causing death and suffering across the globe are diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans. The effective treatment, control and eradication of these diseases require an understanding of the interconnectedness of humans, animals and the environment. Approximately 15 million people die each year from infectious diseases. In children, infectious diseases are the main cause of death. Infectious diseases can also result in disability, diminished quality of life, and decreased productivity.

The cost of treatment and prevention of EIDs can be staggering and disproportionately impact developing countries. The impact of zoonotic epidemics from 1995 to 2008, many of them preventable, exceeded $120 billion globally (Marsh Inc. (2008) The Economic and Social Impact of Emerging Infectious Disease)

There are a number of factors linking human and animal health:

  • Population Growth – Crowding results in more opportunities for existing disease organisms to mutate, recombine, and reassort into more deadly strains.
  • Land Use – Contamination of water resources, deforestation and other land use changes result in more contact between humans, domestic animals, wildlife and vectors.
  • Agricultural Practices – Open agriculture, deforestation, intensive agriculture and the use of antibiotics in food animals all impact the potential for disease emergence.
  • International Trade and Commerce – An individual infected with an EID can be anywhere in the world within hours. Food is imported and exported around the world. Exotic pets are traded through legal and illegal markets.


The history of bioterrorism confirms that naturally occurring disease agents such as plague, smallpox and anthrax are often used as weapons. Occurrences of reportable animal diseases published by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) over the last 12-months include numerous disease events in the region including anthrax, low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI), highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), classical swine fever, foot and mouth disease (FMD), and Newcastle disease. The presence of

these diseases in the region increases the risk of an intentional introduction to an uninfected country or the unintentional introduction through a breach in biosecurity.

Additionally, exploitable vulnerabilities exist throughout the entire food production system which can be difficult to manage. The vast nature of the food production system provides many opportunities for the introduction of disease agents. Other factors which make agriculture an attractive target include:

  • Many highly contagious disease agents are endemic throughout the region
  • Severe economic consequences of an attack
  • Plant and animal pathogens are easier to acquire than human agents
  • Little or no physical security at production facilities
  • Farms are widely dispersed
  • Disseminating plant or livestock pathogens presents less risk for the perpetrator
  • The low cost and simplicity of delivery
  • Incubations periods provide the opportunity for the disease to spread undetected and for the perpetrator to escape


Just as vulnerabilities exist throughout the entire food supply chain, preparedness/mitigation measures are available to manage risk at each step. Many lessons have been learned from recent disease events such as FMD in South Korea and the United Kingdom and avian influenza around the globe. Through planning and implementation of effective mitigation strategies we can elevate our preparedness and effectively reduce the attractiveness of the use of these agents. More


Monday, September 23, 2013

International Experts Discuss Opportunities for Securing Local Community Land Rights

20 September 2013: The conference on 'Scaling-Up Strategies to Secure Community Land and Resource Rights: An International Conference to Take Stock of Current Efforts, Identify Promising Strategies, and Catalyze New Alliances and Action' concluded with participants from across 40 countries calling for a doubling of the amount of secured community land over the next five years.

The conference, which was took place from 19-20 September 2013, in Interlaken, Switzerland, brought together over 180 participants representing governments, local communities, Indigenous Peoples' organizations, private investors, food and resource companies, and conservation organizations, all of which have a common interest in clarifying and securing the ownership of community lands and resources.

The event aimed to raise the profile and prioritization of community land rights as a global concern, catalyze new ideas and alliances, and secure commitments to take these strategies forward in the coming months and years. Participants met in plenary and in strategy sessions to discuss themes related to: securing community land and resource rights; mapping and documenting; improving legal recognition and empowerment; expanding and leveraging private sector interests in securing community land rights; making community land rights a global priority; and deepening synergies between community land and resource rights and conservation efforts.

The main priorities that emerged from the sessions, as well as opportunities for scaling up existing opportunities and recommended next steps, included: starting the restitution of indigenous lands from conservation areas; striving to reach the target of doubling the amount of secured community lands; improving the effectiveness of existing instruments to secure rights; using maps effectively to secure rights; and improving internal community governance.

The meeting was co-organized by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the International Land Coalition (ILC), Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation and Oxfam. [Meeting Website] [IISD RS Meeting Coverage]



Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Seeing Food As A Commons Opens Up Creative New Possibilities

What would the world look like if we began to re-conceptualize food as a commons? Jose Luis Vivero Pol of the Centre for Philosophy of Law at Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium has done just that in a recent essay, “Food as a Commons: Reframing the Narrative of the Food System.”

The piece is impressive for daring to imagine how the world’s estimated 668 million hungry people might eat, and how all of us would become healthier, if we treated more elements of the food production and distribution system as commons. Instead of managing food as a private good that can only be produced and allocated through markets, re-conceptualizing food as a commons helps us imagine “a more sustainable, fairer and farmer-centered food system,” writes Vivero Pol.

One reason that the commons reframing is so useful is that it helps us see the ubiquity of enclosures in the food system. We can begin to see the galloping privatization of farmland, water, energy and seeds. We can see the concentration of various food sectors and the higher prices and loss of consumer sovereignty that comes from oligopoly control.

Enclosure is snatching shared resources from us and preventing us from managing them to maximize access and good nutrition. This is often known these days as “resource grabbing,” as companies and national governments race to seize as many abundant, cheap natural resources as they can on an international scale. This is one reason for the many pernicious enclosures of land commons in Africa and Latin America in recent years. There is a huge exodus from traditional and indigenous lands as China, Saudi Arabia, Korea, hedge funds and others buy up natural resources. These enclosures are moving us “from diversity to uniformity, from complexity to homoegeneity, and from richness to impoverishment,” writes Vivero Pol.

Strangely, “no one has really questioned the nature of food as a private good, produced by private inputs or privately harvested in enclosed areas of the world." Yet asking such a question helps us to see why massive hunger can persist with food abundance. The ethic of “no money, no food” means that only those with sufficient "consumer demand" are entitled to food. And even then, good health is no guarantee because the industrialized food model actively promotes expensive processed foods that are either non-nutritious or actively harmful to our health, but more lucrative to companies.

It helps to remember that many aspects of food are already considered commons, notes Vivero Pol. For example, fish stocks, unpatented genetic resources, wild fruits, recipes, agricultural knowledge and food safety regulations cannot be owned and can be harvested and used by anyone or by bounded commons.

Most cultivated food, however, is generally a private good, which means that food is vulnerable to being traded, hoarded and sold for competing uses (e.g., biofuels, animal feed) if it can fetch more money. In the classic economists’ formulation, food that is privatized and commoditized can be made “excludable” and “rival,” and this in practice tends to override any moral entitlements or human rights claims over food.

This means that private control has enormous public consequences. If people go hungry because they can’t afford food, they suffer diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. Their psychological health suffers. They may die of malnutrition. This of course has diverse economic, political and social effects that an economist would consider an unfortunate but inexorable “externality” for which buyers and sellers have no responsibility. But it is quite obvious that such are the predictable outcomes of the commoditization of food.

So how might we convert privately owned food production into more of a public good? (Vivero Pol uses “public good” and “commons” interchangeably, while acknowledging that the former term is used in economic contexts and the latter in sociological contexts. But I would suggest that the two terms should be emphatically separated to make clear that the commons has generative capacities and social grounding that a "public good" does not.)

First, we should apply the commons template to our food production system and enumerate the harms caused by enclosures. As Vivero Pol writes, these harms include: “excessive commodification of food, with high pricing, laws and private enclosure as main barriers to fully enjoying those vital resources”; irregular private land titling, land grabbing and land evictions…”; “excessive patents of life, biopiracy and patented GMOs”; “the concentration in agri-food chains in a few transnationals”; and enclosure schemes such as “the Carbon Sequestration Initiative,” the REDD+ and the Payment for Environmental Services.”

Once we regard food as a commons, we can begin to see that everybody ought to have a human right to food. “Another implication would be that food should be kept out of trade agreements dealing with pure private goods,” writes Vivero Pol. We would also need to develop an international legal framework to regulate food as a global level, and guarantee everyone a minimum amount of food as a “universal Basic Food Entitlement.” More


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The New Politics of Food Security by Lester Brown

Chapter 10. The Global Land Rush

Between 2007 and mid-2008, world grain and soybean prices more than doubled. As food prices climbed everywhere, some exporting countries began to restrict grain shipments in an effort to limit food price inflation at home. Importing countries panicked. Some tried to negotiate long-term grain supply agreements with exporting countries, but in a seller’s market, few were successful. Seemingly overnight, importing countries realized that one of their few options was to find land in other countries on which to produce food for themselves. 1

Looking for land abroad is not entirely new. Empires expanded through territorial acquisitions, colonial powers set up plantations, and agribusiness firms try to expand their reach. Agricultural analyst Derek Byerlee tracks market-driven investments in foreign land back to the mid-nineteenth century. During the last 150 years, large-scale agricultural investments from industrial countries concentrated primarily on tropical products such as sugarcane, tea, rubber, and bananas. 2

What is new now is the scramble to secure land abroad for more basic food and feed crops—including wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans—and for biofuels. These land acquisitions of the last several years, or “land grabs” as they are sometimes called, represent a new stage in the emerging geopolitics of food scarcity. They are occurring on a scale and at a pace not seen before.

Among the countries that are leading the charge to buy or lease land abroad, either directly through government entities or through domestically based agribusiness firms, are Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China, and India. Saudi Arabia’s population has simply outrun its land and water resources. The country is fast losing its irrigation water and will soon be totally dependent on imports from the world market or overseas farming projects for its grain. 3

South Korea, which imports over 70 percent of its grain, is a major land investor in several countries. In an attempt to acquire 940,000 acres of farmland abroad by 2018 for corn, wheat, and soybean production, the Korean government will reportedly help domestic companies lease farmland or buy stakes in agribusiness firms in countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, and Ukraine. 4

China, faced with aquifer depletion and the heavy loss of cropland to urbanization and industrial development, is also nervous about its future food supply. Although it was essentially self-sufficient in grain from 1995 onward, within the last few years China has become a leading grain importer. It is by far the top importer of soybeans, bringing in more than all other countries combined. 5

India, with a huge and growing population to feed, has also become a major player in land acquisitions. With irrigation wells starting to go dry, with the projected addition of 450 million people by mid-century, and with the prospect of growing climate instability, India too is worried about future food security. 6

Among the other countries jumping in to secure land abroad are Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). For example, in early 2012 Al Ghurair Foods, a company based in the UAE, announced it would lease 250,000 acres in Sudan for 99 years on which to grow wheat, other grains, and soybeans. The plan is that the resulting harvests will go to the UAE and other Gulf countries. 7

In tracking this worldwide land grab surge, accurate information has been difficult to find. Perhaps because of the politically sensitive nature of land grabs, separating rumor from reality remains a challenge. At the outset, the increasing frequency of news reports mentioning deals seemed to indicate that the phenomenon was growing, but no one was systematically aggregating and verifying data on this major agricultural development. Many groups have relied on GRAIN, a small nongovernmental organization (NGO) with a shoestring budget, and its compilations of media reports on land grabs. A much-anticipated World Bank report, first released in September 2010 and updated in January 2011, used GRAIN’s online collection to aggregate land grab information, noting that GRAIN’s was the only tracking effort that was global in scope. 8

In its report, the World Bank identified 464 land acquisitions that were in various stages of development between October 2008 and August 2009. It reported that production had begun on only one fifth of the announced projects, partly because many deals were made by land speculators. The report offered several other reasons for the slow start, including “unrealistic objectives, price changes, and inadequate infrastructure, technology, and institutions.” 9

The amount of land involved was known for only 203 of the 464 projects, yet it still came to some 140 million acres—more than is planted in corn and wheat combined in the United States. Particularly noteworthy is that of the 405 projects for which commodity information was available, 21 percent were slated to produce biofuels and another 21 percent were for industrial or cash crops, such as rubber and timber. Only 37 percent of the projects involved food crops. 10

Nearly half of these land deals, and some two thirds of the land area, were in sub-Saharan Africa—partly because land is so cheap there compared with land in Asia. In a careful evidence-based analysis of land grabs in sub-Saharan Africa between 2005 and 2011, George Schoneveld from the Center for International Forestry Research reported that two thirds of the area acquired there was in just seven countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Madagascar, Mozambique, South Sudan, and Zambia. In Ethiopia, for example, an acre of land can be leased for less than $1 a year, whereas in land-scarce Asia it can easily cost $100 or more. 11

Nevertheless, the second-ranking region in land area involved was Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Countries have also sought land in Latin America, especially in Brazil and Argentina. The state-owned Chinese firm Chongqing Grain Group, for example, has reportedly begun harvesting soybeans on some 500,000 acres in Brazil's Bahia state for export to China. The company announced in early 2011 that as part of a multibillion-dollar investment package in Bahia, it would develop a soybean industrial park with facilities capable of crushing 1.5 million tons of soybeans a year. 12

Unfortunately, the countries selling or leasing their land for the production of agricultural commodities to be shipped abroad are typically poor and, more often than not, those where hunger is chronic, such as Ethiopia and South Sudan. Both of these countries are leading recipients of food from the U.N. World Food Programme. Some of these land acquisitions are outright purchases of land, but the overwhelming majority are long-term leases, typically 25 to 99 years. 13

In response to rising oil prices and a growing sense of oil insecurity, energy policies encouraging the production and use of biofuels are also driving land acquisitions. This results in either clearing new cropland or making existing cropland unavailable for food production. The European Union’s renewable energy law requiring 10 percent of its transport energy to come from renewable sources by 2020, for instance, is encouraging agribusiness firms to invest in land to produce biofuels for the European market. In sub-Saharan Africa, many investors have planted jatropha (an oilseed-bearing shrub) and oil palm trees, both sources for biodiesel. 14

One company, U.K.-based GEM BioFuels, has leased 1.1 million acres in 18 communities in Madagascar on which to grow jatropha. At the end of 2010 it had planted 140,000 acres with this shrub. But by April 2012 it was reevaluating its Madagascar operations due to poor project performance. Numerous other firms planning to produce biodiesel from jatropha have not fared much better. The initial enthusiasm for jatropha is fading as yields are lower than projected and the economics just do not work out. 15

Sime Darby, a Malaysia-based company that is a big player in the world palm oil economy, has leased 540,000 acres in Liberia to develop oil palm and rubber plantations. It planted its first oil palm seedling on the acquired land in May 2011, and the company plans to have it all in production by 2030. 16

Thus we are witnessing an unprecedented scramble for land that crosses national boundaries. Driven by both food and energy insecurity, land acquisitions are now also seen as a lucrative investment opportunity. Fatou Mbaye of ActionAid in Senegal observes, “Land is quickly becoming the new gold and right now the rush is on.” 17

Investment capital is coming from many sources, including investment banks, pension funds, university endowments, and wealthy individuals. Many large investment funds are incorporating farmland into their portfolios. In addition, there are now many funds dedicated exclusively to farm investments. These farmland funds generated a rate of return from 1991 to 2010 that was roughly double that from investing in gold or the S&P 500 stock index and seven times that from investing in housing. Most of the rise in farmland earnings has come since 2003. 18

Many investors are planning to use the land acquired, but there is also a large group of investors speculating in land who have neither the intention nor the capacity to produce crops. They sense that the recent rises in food prices will likely continue, making land even more valuable over the longer term. Indeed, land prices are on the rise almost everywhere. 19

Land acquisitions are also water acquisitions. Whether the land is irrigated or rainfed, a claim on the land represents a claim on the water resources in the host country. This means land acquisition agreements are a particularly sensitive issue in water-stressed countries.

In an article in Water Alternatives, Deborah Bossio and colleagues analyze the effect of land acquisition in Ethiopia on the demand for irrigation water and, in turn, its effect on the flow of the Nile River. Compiling data on 12 confirmed projects with a combined area of 343,000 acres, they calculate that if this land is all irrigated, as seems likely, the irrigated area in the region would increase sevenfold. This would reduce the average annual flow of the Blue Nile by approximately 4 percent. 20

Acquisitions in Ethiopia, where most of the Nile’s headwaters begin, or in the Sudans, which also tap water from the Nile, mean that Egypt will get less water, thus shrinking its wheat harvest and pushing its already heavy dependence on imported wheat even higher. 21

Massive land acquisitions raise many questions. Since productive land is not often idle in the countries where the land is being acquired, the agreements mean that many local farmers and herders will simply be displaced. Their land may be confiscated or it may be bought from them at a price over which they have little say, leading to the public hostility that often arises in host countries.

In addition, the agreements are almost always negotiated in secret. Typically only a few high-ranking officials are involved, and the terms are often kept confidential. Not only are key stakeholders such as local farmers not at the negotiating table, they often do not even learn about the agreements until after the papers are signed and they are being evicted. Unfortunately, it is often the case in developing countries that the state, not the farmer, has formal ownership of the land. Against this backdrop, the poor can easily be forced off the land by the government. 22

The displaced villagers will be left without land or livelihoods in a situation where agriculture has become highly mechanized, employing few people. The principal social effect of these massive land acquisitions may well be an increase in the ranks of the world’s hungry.

The Oakland Institute, a California-based think tank, reports that Ethiopia’s huge land leases to foreign firms have led to “human rights violations and the forced relocation of over a million Ethiopians.” Unfortunately, since the Ethiopian government is pressing ahead with its land lease program, many more villagers are likely to be forcibly displaced. 23

In a landmark article on African land grabs in the Observer, John Vidal quotes an Ethiopian, Nyikaw Ochalla, from the Gambella region: “The foreign companies are arriving in large numbers, depriving people of land they have used for centuries. There is no consultation with the indigenous population. The deals are done secretly. The only thing the local people see is people coming with lots of tractors to invade their lands.” Referring to his own village, where an Indian corporation is taking over, Ochalla says, “Their land has been compulsorily taken and they have been given no compensation. People cannot believe what is happening.” 24

Hostility of local people to land grabs is the rule, not the exception. China, for example, signed an agreement with the Philippine government in 2007 to lease 2.5 million acres of land on which to produce crops that would be shipped home. Once word leaked out, the public outcry—much of it from Filipino farmers—forced the government to suspend the agreement. A similar situation developed in Madagascar, where a South Korean firm, Daewoo Logistics, had pursued rights to more than 3 million acres of land, an area half the size of Belgium. This helped stoke a political furor that led to a change in government and cancellation of the agreement. 25 More


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Into the Fire: Food in the Age of Climate Change

Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, points out that earlier civilizations often collapsed because of food shortages brought on by unsound agricultural practices.

The Sumerian civilization sank because their soil was ruined by rising salt levels, the result of a design flaw in their irrigation system. The Mayan empire fell due to soil erosion, caused by excessive land clearance to feed their population. We now stand in a similar position, facing an acute threat to our own food system, and the immediate danger comes from a changing climate. But there is a major difference between our civilization and earlier ones: we have a clear scientific understanding of the roots of the crisis and are thus in a better position to respond to it. Collapse is not inevitable. The big question we face is not a “why” but a “whether”: whether we will act effectively before it’s too late.

Brown also says, in the same context, that economic and social collapse was almost always preceded by a period of environmental decline. This indicates that there is generally a margin of time in which we can pull back from the brink. We’re now in that phase of decline, and the need to act promptly and decisively to preserve the world’s food system cannot be overemphasized. We’ve already delayed too long. At present close to a billion people suffer from chronic hunger and malnutrition. If the food system fails to produce enough food to feed the planet, millions more, mostly children, will be consigned to a life of perpetual want, even to death by starvation. In countries stricken with food shortages, social chaos will erupt and food riots will break out. Migration will increase from poor countries to more affluent ones, triggering a backlash of resentment. States in the poorest regions will totter and fail, perhaps unleashing more waves of violent terrorism.

Avoiding such a fate requires rapid changes to our energy system, a transition from an economy driven by fossil fuels to a leaner economy powered by benign sources of energy. At the same time, we must promote greater equity between the global North and South in a collaborative effort to end hunger everywhere. Such changes, however, could not be easily implemented on the basis of our present scale of values, which exalts profits and economic expansion even by ripping apart the natural systems on which the economy depends. Our culture will have to change in its fundamentals: from one that celebrates luxury, power, and consumption to one that honors sufficiency, generosity, social justice, and the integrity of the biosphere.

The problem of food security is exacerbated by the projected rise in global population from 7 billion to 9.3 billion people by 2050. A growing population exerts more pressure on the world’s food supply not only because there will be many more mouths to feed, but also because more of those mouths will be eating higher on the food chain. As people in developing economies rise in social status they choose a diet rich in meat and dairy over one based primarily on plants. Since it takes several pounds of grain to produce a pound of meat, grain stocks that would otherwise go to feed hungry people would instead be used to feed livestock in order to provide meat and dairy for the affluent. According to a recent report from the World Resources Institute, unless the affluent restrain their demand for animal products, worldwide food calories will need to increase by about 60 percent from 2006 levels if we’re to feed everyone adequately.

But while agriculture must be empowered to feed a larger population, it will have to employ methods of cultivation that minimize its negative impact on the environment. Modern industrial agriculture harms the environment in at least three ways: (1) by the degradation of ecosystems, particularly through deforestation and loss of biodiversity; (2) by its demands on the world’s sources of fresh water, 80 to 90% of which is used by agriculture; and (3) by emitting massive amounts of greenhouse gases, which aggravate climate change. At present, agriculture accounts for about 25% of greenhouse gas emissions. These include methane from livestock, nitrous oxide from fertilizer use, and carbon dioxide from machinery, transport, and land use change. Meat and dairy production emits far higher amounts of greenhouse gases than crop cultivation, ranging from 16 times more for beef to 4.6 times more for chicken. This provides another strong argument for reducing consumption of meat. More