Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Permaculture, Forever Sustainability

The guru of the permaculture movement came to Duke last week.

To hear him tell it, Toby Hemenway is an ordinary guy. To see him in person, you get the sense nothing could be further from the truth. The 300+ people that crowded into Love Auditorium underscored that with a standing ovation for his talk on "How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth but Not Civilization." The lecture was jam-packed with information ranging from human evolution to gardening -- and delivered by a far-from-ordinary guy.

Hemenway sketched in his background at dinner following the lecture. Starting out as a biologist working in genetics, he eventually found himself on a management track moving away from science. He wondered what he was doing with his life.

Then serendipity or inspiration or both hit. As he prepared to move to a rural setting, visions of tending a lush garden directed him to the library to learn how. There he stumbled upon the concept of permaculture and became hooked.

Today, fresh on the heels of publishing the second edition of Gaia's Garden, Hemenway is one of the world's leading proponents of permaculture -- a modern application of horticulture in which "edible landscaping meets wildlife gardening," as his book puts it, where the landscape "provides for people as well as the rest of nature."

Permaculture 101

So what's this movement all about? Here are some main points from his talk:

  • Regeneration: Hemenway rejects the notion of sustainable development, defined by the United Nations as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." His two problems with it:
    • The malleability of the definition of "need." One might say he needs a skim soy latte or a big car to tote around his children. But are those real needs?
    • Sustaining is simply too middle-of-the-road, blah; Hemenway prefers regeneration.
  • The oxymoron of sustainable agriculture: Agriculture, which Hemenway decribes as the "conversion of ecosystems to people," is destructive and unsustainable. It leads to overpopulation, replaces polycultures with monocultures, and inevitably converts arable land to wasteland, as evidenced by the fate of regions like Western Asia's Fertile Crescent, Greece, and America's Dust Bowl.
  • Green Revolution is food from oil: Energy from fossil fuels (which has allowed us, for one, to produce copious amounts of fertilizers) has kept agriculture alive, but that fuel supply will eventually run out.
  • Unhealthy by-products: Agriculture lowers life spans; leads to degenerative diseases, zoonosic epidemics, and cyclical famines.
  • Gardeners not farmers: Unlike agriculture, horticulture, a word from the Latin for garden, is regenerative. Hemenway cites Hopewell and Oaxaca as examples of horticultural societies that sustained themselves over millennia. (The Oaxaca eventually moved away from horticulture, becoming early developers of agricultural practices. See here and here.)
  • Horticulture`s advantages include the promotion of:
    • polyculture over monoculture,
    • succession instead of plowing and replanting,
    • ecosystem function,
    • a belief in "earth spirits instead of sky spirits" (replacing the notion of human "dominion over the earth"),
    • egalitarian as opposed to hierarchical societies,
    • time for leisure, human interaction, and cultural pursuits (resulting from less work).
  • Permaculture to the rescue: Defining permaculture as a post-industrial application of horticulture, Hemenway sees the movement as not about "going back" but "moving into." It's a design system based on observing and replicating nature. By intelligently tweaking wilderness -- much like a gardener tinkering with her garden -- one can catch and store energy in its myriad forms, making small changes for big effects. If properly applied and adapted to specific locations and conditions, it can provide an abundance of food.

Hemenway sees Gaia's Garden (and the principles of permaculture) as a manual or guide for living. Judging by the enthusiasm of the SRO audience who braved a North Carolina snowstorm to see Hemenway last Friday night, I'd say it's a guide that's provided both material and spiritual sustenance to many.

The Personal or Expansive Goal of Permaculture?

But is the guide primarily for a personal gardening experience or the survival of humanity? I suspect Hemenway and many other permaculturists believe it's the latter. I'm not so sure.

While Hemenway maintains that permaculture is about moving forward instead of going back, a world sustained by horticulture seems to me to be a lot like the Garden of Eden. Is such a way of life possible without biting into the metaphorical apple that makes us human?

During the Q&A following the talk, Hemenway was asked whether permaculture as a system of food production could provide an adequate food supply for all humanity.

Hemenway answered yes ... provided we shrink our population to about two billion. We haven't much choice in the matter, he argued, because two billion is the maximum number of people that earth can sustain. (A similar idea was advanced by Roderick Nash when he visited Duke last year.)


Monday, February 25, 2013

Corporations Grabbing Land and Water Overseas

As a growing population stresses the world's food and water supplies, corporations and investors in wealthy countries are buying up foreign farmland and the freshwater perks that come with it.

From Sudan to Indonesia, most of the land lies in poverty-stricken regions, so experts warn that this widespread purchasing could expand the gap between developed and developing countries.

The “water grabbing” by corporations amounts to 454 billion cubic meters per year globally, according to a new study by environmental scientists. That’s about 5 percent of the water the world uses annually.

Investors from seven countries – the United States, United Arab Emirates, India, United Kingdom, Egypt, China and Israel – accounted for 60 percent of the water acquired under these deals.

Most purchasers are agricultural, biofuel and timber investors. Some of the more active buyers in the United States, which leads the pack in number of deals, include multinational investors Nile Trading and Development, BHP Billiton, Unitech and media magnate Ted Turner, according to the study published last month.

Wendy Wolford, a professor at Cornell University who studies political and social impacts of international land deals, said while it is difficult to tease out investor motives, they “don’t grab land in places without access to water.” Some countries – including Indonesia, the Philippines and the Democratic Republic of Congo – had large amounts of water rights grabbed because they’re countries with a lot of rainfall.

Since 2000, 1,217 deals have taken place, which transferred over 205 million acres of land, according to the public database Land Matrix. About 62 percent of these deals were in Africa – totaling about 138 million acres, roughly the size of two Arizonas.

For countries reliant on farming and already suffering from poverty, the potential impacts are huge, said Paolo D’Odorico, a University of Virginia professor and co-author of the new report that estimates the water supplies at stake. About 66 percent of the total deals are in countries with high hunger rates.

“In many of these countries, the sum of the water being grabbed would be enough to eliminate malnourishment,” said D’Odorico, who collaborated with scientists from Italy’s Polytechnic University of Milan.

Wolford said there is danger that local people – especially in places like sub-Saharan Africa – are not aware of land purchases and how it could affect their way of life.

“That’s probably the biggest problem – people could have gathered timber from the woods or lived downstream of the land grabbed,” Wolford said. “These things could be taken away without them knowing what happened.”

Food crisis, biofuels spur “grabbing”

Such land deals are often derisively dubbed “land grabbing,” which D’Odorico defines as a deal for about 500 acres or more that converts an environmentally important area currently used by local people to commercial production. More



Saturday, February 23, 2013

Monsanto Conquest Attempt Meets Aztec Resistance

Monsanto has a map for conquering the world and Mexico is in the center of it.

For nearly two decades the transnational corporation that manufactures the pesticides used across the planet has been trying to take over the global seed market with genetically modified (GM) seed. If successful, most of the food we grow and eat would have to be purchased annually as seed from Monsanto. The mutant plants would grow up addicted to Monsanto herbicides. Local varieties would disappear, and in their place standardized, genetically modified food–doused with chemicals–would fill supermarket shelves and corner stores.

More than sixty thousand farmers and supporters from workers’ and environmental organizations marched through Mexico City on Jan. 31 to avoid this fate. It was one of the largest mobilizations to date to reject the Monsanto game plan, and it’s no coincidence that it took place in the heart of the Aztec Empire.

Olegario Carrillo, president of Mexican small farm organization UNORCA, addressed the crowd in the central plaza, “During the last 30 years, successive governments have tried to wipe us out. They’ve promoted measures to take away our lands, our water, our seeds, plant and animal varieties, traditional knowledge, markets. But we refuse to disappear.”

“For peasant farmers, GMOs represent looting and control,” he stated.

With tens of thousands of people shouting “No genetically modified corn in Mexico!” and “Monsanto get out!”, the march showed the muscle of an unusual grassroots movement to protect small farmers and consumers. It also revealed the remarkable success of decades of public education and organizing on an issue that Monsanto and other major biotech firms hoped would slide under the radar of the people most affected by it.

Monsanto–along with Pioneer, Dow and other chemical/biotech firms– has been pushing hard to take over production of the world’s third major staple crop: corn. Small farmers in the U.S. have long experienced the pressure exerted to move them out of the way. Monsanto predicts that its corn seed will be planted on 96 million acres in the United States this year. But the key to its plans to conquer the market lies south of the border.

The powerful corporation, the largest seed seller in the world, desperately wants permission for unrestricted planting of its GM corn in Mexico. If GM corn is planted in Mexico, it will accelerate the transfer of acreage and water rights from small farmers to corporate GM corn cultivation, thus transferring control of the national food supply as well. Widespread open planting of GM corn will lead to contamination of native varieties. This is a scientific fact. Mexico has already detected many native cornfields contaminated by GM corn during the period when open planting was prohibited—a strong indication of the impossibility of controlling open pollination between native and GM varieties.

This has huge implications. Mexico is the center of origin of corn, and the home of hundreds of varieties developed by indigenous communities over centuries. To lose in situ preservation of these varieties is to lose a wealth of agro-diversity that has major importance for sustainable food production, and to eventually become dependent on Monsanto and other large corporations to feed ourselves.

The Mexican government first legalized GM plantings through what has come to be known as the 2005 “Monsanto Law”, which the farmers are demanding be revoked. It then began issuing permits, first for experimental plantings. Having passed that phase, Monsanto has now requested permits to begin all-out commercial production. It has filed to sow some 700,000 hectares of genetically modified corn in the state of Sinaloa alone. More


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

'Land Grabbing': Foreign Investors Buy Up Third World Farmland

Foreign investors are buying or leasing vast amounts of farmland in Third World countries to profit from surging demand for food crops as a result of rapid population growth. "Land grabbing" amounts to a new form of colonialism that often runs counter to the interests of locals.

A number of developing nations have sold or leased much of their farmland to foreign investors. The list is led by Liberia, whose arable land is 100 percent under foreign ownership.

The process is known as "land grabbing," and it is affecting countries in Africa, South America, Asia and Eastern Europe. Around half of the farmland of the Philippines is owned by foreign investors. In Ukraine, American companies have secured over one-third of the country's farmland.

Population growth in countries like India and Brazil is driving up demand for cereal crops, and investments in farmlands offer the chance of solid returns.

In many cases, the population suffers from this new form of colonialism, and the planting of monocultures tends to sap the soil. More


Monday, February 18, 2013

Oil spill firm to pay $400 million to fix Gulf coast

The Deepwater Horizon spill has just provided a $400-million windfall for Louisiana's environment. Transocean, which worked with BP on the stricken Macondo well, pleaded guilty last week to a violation of the US Clean Water Act, and admitted that it was negligent in the 2010 spill.

The resultingmultimillion-dollar fine will be used to pay for a host of environmental projectsaround the Gulf of Mexico.

It is the second largest fine for environmental damage in history, after the $4.5-billion fine BP had to pay out for the same spill. Transocean has two years to pay up in full.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) will get $150 million, and another $150 million will go to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), a non-profit based in Washington DC. The NAS will use its portion to research oil-spill prevention and better ways to respond to spills. The NFWF's Timothy DiCintio says it will distribute its award between the affected Gulf Coast states, for ongoing remediation efforts such as marsh and wetland clean-up.

The remainder of the money will go directly to Louisiana's $50-billion Coastal Master Plan, which aims to restore the state's degraded coastline. The money will fund a host of projects, including restoring barrier island reefs and creating diversions on the Mississippi to repair eroded coasts.

"The way Louisiana looks at it, their coastal problems are so pervasive that the degradation from the spill was a final indignity," says DiCintio. The modifications should not only allow the state to rebuild after the lingering effects of the spill and hurricane Katrina, but also help the coast cope with future disasters. More


Saturday, February 16, 2013

Opposition crops up to GMO foods in Hawaii

Lihue, Hawaii - Famous the world over as a tropical vacation spot, the Hawaiian Islands are less well-known as ground zero in the debate over genetically modified organisms (GMO), the open-air testing of pesticide-resistant crops and the ethics of patenting genetically engineered (GE) plant life.

Hawaii is home to one of the world’s greatest concentrations of GMO research fields by five of the largest biotechnology and chemical companies: Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer and BASF.

These transnational corporations prefer Hawaii for growing and testing GE crops because of its abundant sunshine, rainfall and year-round growing climate. GMO opponents say the companies also enjoy Hawaii’s isolation, largely removed from the public eye.

Yet these companies, which have been in Hawaii for decades, are now facing increasing opposition from residents concerned about GMOs, the health and environmental impacts of pesticides and what they see as a lack of oversight and transparency.

When the Hawaii state legislature convened this January, on its schedule were a dozen bills seeking to regulate, limit or ban the sale and import of GMOs. This month, two of the bills were approved by committee, an important step towards becoming law.

Labelling dispute

Hawaii's House Bill 174 calls for labelling imported genetically engineered fresh produce. If passed, Hawaii would be the first US state to require labelling of GMO foods.

Unlike Japan, China, Russia, the European Union and dozens of other countries, the US does not require GMO foods to be labelled.

Opponents of labelling include Alicia Maluafiti, executive director of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, a trade association representing biotech companies. She says the burden of labelling should be on foods that do not include GMOs.

Scott McFarland, government and public affairs leader with Dow AgroSciences in Hawaii, says his company "actually has no position on food labelling”. He characterises Dow’s work in Hawaii as “parent seed expansion”, developing commercial seeds to be exported outside the US.

Shiva's visit

Hawaii's fight over GMO foods has garnered worldwide attention. Last month internationally renowned environmentalist and philosopher Dr Vandana Shiva travelled from New Delhi to Hawaii to speak to anti-GMO activists, community groups and lawmakers who are increasingly concerned about the role of GMOs in the US' 50th state. "I think your island is truth-speaking to the world that GMOs are an extension of pesticides, not a substitute or alternative to it,” she told an audience on the island of Kauai.

Shiva is best known for her opposition to GMO crops, globalisation, the privatisation of land and water and what she describes as a "war against the earth.”

The 1993 recipient of the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the "Alternative Nobel Prize") and founder of Navdanya, a programme dedicated to protecting traditional crops through seed banking, Shiva was invited to the islands by Hawaii SEED, a coalition of grassroots groups promoting alternatives to GE farming.

"[Hawaii] has become like a nerve centre for the expansion of destruction,” Shiva said. "GMOs are not a safe alternative to poisons, they are pushed by a poison industry to increase the sale of both the poisons and simultaneously monopolise the seed."

Evoking the 1984 Bhopal, India disaster when a chemical leak from a Union Carbide plant (now a subsidiary of Dow Chemical) killed and injured tens of thousands, Shiva - who was trained as a physicist - embarked on a connect-the-dots tour of how she says yesterday's war chemicals manufacturers reinvented themselves as the agrochemical industry, before mutating into the biotech industry.

"War and agriculture came together when the chemicals that were produced for warfare lost their market - and the industry organised itself to sell those chemicals as agrochemicals,” Shiva said. As gene splicing techniques advanced, she said corporations saw GE crops as a means to claim creative and inventive rights, patent seeds and collect royalties.

Joining Shiva were community activist Walter Ritte and public interest lawyer Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety in Washington.

In the 1970s Ritte was at the centre of direct action against the US military which, at the time, was using the Hawaiian island of Kahoolawe as a bombing range. Eventually the movement was successful in ending weapons testing on the island. Today Ritte focuses his activism on stopping GMO farming.

Kimbrell told the audience that genetic engineering at its essence violates nature's most fundamental codes. "They're treating animals and seed as though they're machines and using machine value on the life forms. That's why we call it genetic engineering.”

Citing a Union of Concerned Scientists 2009 report entitled Failure to Yield, Kimbrell spoke of what he called "GMO myths” and said that, at a minimum, GMOs should be labelled.

"It's not a matter of if we're going to have labelling, it's when. It would be great if Hawaii did it first,” Kimbrell said.

A 'war on earth'

Travelling from Hawaii's Big Island for Shiva's visit, Jerry Konanui, an eighth-generation taro farmer, rejects the notion that genetic engineering, monocropping and the use of chemical pesticides are in Hawaii's best interests. In Hawaii, taro is both a traditional staple crop and also revered as the first ancestor of the Hawaiian people. Currently the genetic engineering of Hawaiian varieties of taro is banned. More


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Land Is Life, and It’s Slipping Away

PHNOM PENH, Feb 14 2013 (IPS) - Nean Narin, a humble man and father of three children, says his family is going hungry. Narin lives in the village of Boeung Kak, situated on the edge of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. For years, he and other villagers relied on the Boeung Kak Lake for fish and plants, which they would eat and sell.

Displaced families in this relocation site outside Phnom Penh

But in mid-2008, construction workers began pumping sand into the lake “in preparation for the development of a 133-hectare commercial and housing project” sponsored by Shukaku, Inc. — a Cambodian firm owned by a Senator of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party – and leased to the Chinese-owned Erdos Hong Jun Investment Co., Ltd.

Over the next four years, the project would displace over 3,000 families.

Narin and his neighbour Tep Vanny, along with a many others, refused to leave and now live a hand-to-mouth existence, stripped of a steady livelihood.

Vanny’s parents left Boeung Kak and moved to the rural Kampong Speu province, located about 48 kilometres from Phnom Penh.

But a sugar plantation tycoon has since claimed that land, and the family now faces eviction for the second time, she told IPS. All the fruit trees Vanny’s parents relied on for food have been cut down, and no compensation offered.

What was once a modest life has now become a daily struggle for survival as a result of a land buying spree in this Southeast Asian country of 14 million people, which experts say began during the 2007-2008 financial and food crisis.

"Land is life; land is dignity and without land farmers become workers for life, working as slaves for plantation owners.”

In Cambodia, land is equivalent to life: according to Germany’s federal ministry for economic cooperation and development (GTZ) over 80 percent of the population are subsistence farmers.

One of the world’s least developed countries, Cambodia seems to have no place left to go but up: over 68 percent of its people live on less than two dollars a day and 26 percent suffer from hunger on a daily basis. But the wave of land acquisitions, experienced first-hand by thousands of people like Niren and Vanny, suggests that the situation could soon get much worse.

FDI feeds landlessness

For the last two decades a wave of foreign direct investment (FDI) has had lopsided results here.

The market-driven economy – launched in 1989 and opened to foreign investors in 1993 – fuelled a rapid increase in FDI, from practically nothing in 1990 to 800 million dollars in 2008, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

Asian countries were the largest investors from 2000 to 2010: China topped the list with 47.6 percent of FDI, making South Korea — with 18.8 percent — the second-largest investor.

While investments initially went straight into sectors like tourism (53 percent), infrastructure (21 percent) and the garments industry (20 percent), the past half-decade has seen a steady rise in land investments.

Various local and international experts attribute this spike to the global food and financial crisis of 2007 to 2008 when farmland became a valuable asset to wealthier countries outsourcing agricultural production to increase their food security, and financial speculators cashing in on land investments.

But this pattern could have catastrophic implications for millions of peasants here – already land tenure has been shrinking and 20 percent of agricultural families in Cambodia are landless. More


Improving Seeds to Meet Future Challenges

Improving Seeds or Improving Small Scale Agriculture?

Perennial rice seeds

Will there be enough food to feed the world in the future? The global population will likely hit 9 billion by 2050, climate change is bringing about extreme weather and altering agricultural conditions, and around the globe, 925 million people still go hungry.

Scientists and agronomists are racing to develop seeds that are higher yielding, more nutritious, and drought and climate resilient to meet these challenges. But while some experts believe genetically modified seeds are the only solution to the problem, others claim small-scale organic agriculture is more effective and sustainable. This is a look at some of the ways seeds are being improved.

First, a definition of the different types of seeds that exist.

Open pollinated seeds are those produced from natural, random pollination. Traditionally, farmers saved the best of these seeds for use from year to year.

Hybrid seeds result from cross-breeding two parent plants that have desirable traits. The resulting plants realize their potential in the first season, but lose effectiveness in subsequent generations so farmers must buy new seeds each year.

Genetically modified seeds are created when one or two genes with the desired traits from any living organism are transferred directly into the plant’s genome.

Higher Yields

Higher yields are achieved when seed heads produce more seeds per head or bigger seeds; but plants with tall stalks cannot always support the added weight. In the 1960s, as India was facing famine, the American agronomist Norman Borlaug developed dwarf wheat varieties with stalks that could support larger seeds and brought them to Punjab. By 1970, wheat yields in Punjab had tripled, provided the seeds were given sufficient water and synthetic fertilizer.

Since the mid-1990s, however, Punjab’s crop yields have stalled, due to increasing complications from Green Revolution techniques. Excessive irrigation has resulted in rapidly falling water tables. Soil health has been depleted. The adoption of high yield varieties has led to more monocultures and decreased biodiversity. And farmers are now dependent on expensive inputs that profit big companies, rather than traditional farming methods that draw on local resources and skills.
Between the mid-1950s and mid-1990s, Borlaug and other researchers succeeded in more than doubling the yields of wheat, rice and corn, averting a mass famine, and kickstarting the “Green Revolution.” Using hybrid seeds, fossil fuel-based fertilizer and pesticides, and intensified irrigation, the Green Revolution greatly increased agricultural output throughout the state.

Sub-Saharan Africa, where 239 million people go hungry, has not been able to recreate Asia’s Green Revolution. The reasons are many: poor infrastructure, political instability, little access to credit, minimal fertilizer use, and the limited availability of high-yielding seeds. Agricultural productivity here has been outstripped by the growing population.

Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, has 13 million people who depend on agriculture to survive. Many grow maize in depleted soil on small farms. For a time, however, Malawi experienced an agricultural “miracle.” During the 2004-2005 growing season, insufficient rainfall almost caused total crop failure. The Malawi government established a program to subsidize inputs, giving farmers coupons to buy improved open pollinated seeds or higher yielding hybrid seeds and fertilizer. With good rain, Malawi’s maize harvest doubled in 2006, and almost tripled in 2007. The government subsidy program transformed Malawi into a food exporter and became a model for other African countries. For a while, it seemed to herald a new African “green revolution.” But today Malawi is once again facing serious food shortages. Political corruption, economic mismanagement and severe flooding have derailed progress. Joyce Banda, Malawi’s new president, is now trying to establish a new food policy to get the country back on track.At the same time, The Millennium Villages Project, set up by the Earth Institute and the U.N. Development Programme to tackle extreme poverty through an integrated, sustainable approach, was established in the Malawi village of Mwandama. Here, households were given 10 kilograms of hybrid maize seed and the fertilizer needed to grow it; in return, they had to donate two bags of grain to the local grain bank for use by the schools.

Proponents of genetically modified seeds claim they can increase yield and are necessary to feed the growing global population. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given $9.8 million to British scientists researching ways to genetically modify corn, wheat and rice seeds so that they can extract nitrogen from the atmosphere, which would reduce or eliminate the need for expensive nitrogen fertilizer. Katherine Kahn, senior program officer of agricultural development at the Gates Foundation, said, “Improving access to nitrogen could dramatically boost the crop yields of farmers in Africa.”

A 2008 study undertaken by the World Bank, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization and others from around the world, concurs. It reports that “…better use of local resources in small scale agriculture can improve productivity and generate worthwhile innovations, and agroecological/organic farming can achieve high production efficiencies on a per area basis and high energy use efficiencies, and that on both these criteria, they may outperform conventional industrial farming.”Physicist/environmentalist Vandana Shiva argues that Bill Gates is “totally wrong on this assumption that genetically modified seeds produce more.” She contends that small-scale, biologically diverse farms can produce more food with fewer fossil fuel-based inputs.

Climate Resilience

In the last 30 years, global corn and wheat production has decreased 3 to 5 percent as a result of the warming climate. According to the Rockefeller Foundation, by 2030, maize production in Southern Africa could drop 30 percent due to climate change.

Biotech companies are racing to develop drought tolerant seeds that will fare better in hot, dry conditions. Dupont and Syngenta have developed drought-tolerant hybrid corn varieties that have not been genetically modified. Monsanto touts its DroughtGard Hybrid genetically modified corn as biotech’s first drought solution that is “designed to help farmers mitigate the risk of yield loss when experiencing drought stress.”

A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, found that DroughtGard produces only “modest results”— about 6 percent more drought protection than non-engineered varieties—and only under “moderate drought conditions”; it does not reduce the crop’s need for water. The genetically modified corn would boost the overall productivity of the U.S. corn crop by only about 1 percent.

Genetically modified seeds are controversial because few tests of genetically modified crops have measured their effects on humans. Seeds genetically modified to be herbicide-tolerant or carry a built-in pesticide have led to the development of new super pests and super weeds. Genetically modified crops also have significant socio-economic impacts. Because the seeds are proprietary, farmers must pay royalties to use them and purchase new seeds every season, facing rising costs, and often increasing debt.

The Gates Foundation also funds the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa project which is developing drought tolerant varieties using conventional breeding techniques. More than 100 drought-tolerant varieties have been distributed to small farmers.

Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya (which means nine seeds) Biodiversity Farm in India is developing climate-resilient crops by saving 1500 varieties of seeds and growing them out, using organic methods that enhance natural processes and cycles, and allowing plants to naturally adapt to changing climate conditions. Navdanya has also established 111 community seed banks across India, creating stores of climate-resistant crops. Shiva’s research has shown that using compost instead of fossil fuel-derived fertilizer increases organic matter in the soil, sequestering carbon and holding moisture, which helps mitigate the effects of climate change.

Most grains are annual crops from which farmers have traditionally saved the best seeds for the next season, gradually improving the seeds. Because perennial grains do not need to be replanted each year, they have not been improved as much over time. Perennial grains put most of their energy into roots and not into large seeds, but the deeper roots make better use of rainfall and deep soil water resources and lessen erosion. Since the seeds do not need to be replanted each season, they block weed growth and thus save on costs of pesticides and herbicides, as well as on energy and labor. Scientists are using new plant breeding techniques to develop perennial grain crops which can match annual grain crops in yield yet retain their environmental benefits. More


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Orchestrating Famine – a Must-Read Backgrounder on the Food Crisis

The era of cheap food is over — this means disaster for millions, and mega-profits for a few. How did we get into this mess?

Most objective observers of the current food crisis are understandably concerned. Around 45% of the world’s population live on two dollars per day or less. Skyrocketing food prices are now bringing stress to two billion people, and despair to millions — around one hundred million, actually. The situation is only expected to further deteriorate as: the price of oil continues to soar; climate change-related disasters increase in frequency and intensity, and as policy decisions such as mandated biofuel quotas in our fuel supply further strengthens the already strong price connection between fuel and food. It is a humanitarian disaster that’s well underway, and one which seriously threatens to destabilize international security. As I’m sure you can appreciate, a hungry man is an angry man.

Making a killing

And yet, this situation is playing into the arms of large corporations who are making windfall profits out of desperate demand for the most basic of needs, and who see even greater opportunities for a lot more of the same in the coming months and years.

Much of the news coverage of the world food crisis has focussed on riots in low-income countries, where workers and others cannot cope with skyrocketing costs of staple foods. But there is another side to the story: the big profits that are being made by huge food corporations and investors. Cargill, the world’s biggest grain trader, achieved an 86% increase in profits from commodity trading in the first quarter of this year. Bunge, another huge food trader, had a 77% increase in profits during the last quarter of last year. ADM, the second largest grain trader in the world, registered a 67% per cent increase in profits in 2007.

Nor are retail giants taking the strain: profits at Tesco, the UK supermarket giant, rose by a record 11.8% last year. Other major retailers, such as France’s Carrefour and Wal-Mart of the US, say that food sales are the main sector sustaining their profit increases. Investment funds, running away from sliding stock markets and the credit crunch, are having a heyday on the commodity markets, driving prices out of reach for food importers like Bangladesh and the Philippines.

These profits are no freak windfalls. Over the last 30 years, the IMF and the World Bank have pushed so-called developing countries to dismantle all forms of protection for their local farmers and to open up their markets to global agribusiness, speculators and subsidised food from rich countries. This has transformed most developing countries from being exporters of food into importers. Today about 70 per cent of developing countries are net importers of food. On top of this, finance liberalisation has made it easier for investors to take control of markets for their own private benefit. — ENN(also see this and this)

Orchestrating famine

The ability of developing nations to feed themselves has been progressively undermined by trade policies and Structural Adjustment Programs (see also) forced upon them by theWorld Trade Organisation (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. This ‘unholy trinity’, as these partner institutions are often described, has brought our current food crisis upon us through their neoliberal ‘free’ trade agenda, tailoring markets in developing countries to suit Northern corporations. Recipients of IMF and World Bank loans must open their borders to the influx of highly subsidised agricultural produce from countries like the U.S. of A., who sell their food at below the cost of production (a practice called ‘dumping‘), undercutting local producers and putting them out of business — causing mass urbanisation as millions leave their fields to work or beg in cities, as well as swelling numbers of illegal immigrants into the North.

Whilst called ‘free trade’, the reality is that these Structural Adjustment Programs are inherently unfair. Wealthy states like the U.S. and the E.U. continue to subsidise their production, and refuse to consider any kind of program to ensure their farmers do not over-produce, whilst developing nations are forced to remove subsidies for their production. This imbalance makes it impossible for small scale farmers to compete with Big Agribusiness — so they simply stop growing food. As it happens, the same thing occurs within rich countries too — small scale American farmers are giving up at a rate of about 330 per week — but, while some of these farmers commit suicide (“Suicide is now the leading cause of death among US farmers, occurring at a rate three times higher than in the general population.” — CounterCurrents), most manage to find a way to continue getting food onto the table. It is not so in the developing world. More


Thursday, February 7, 2013

New Era of Food Scarcity Echoes Collapsed Civilizations by Lester Brown

The world is in transition from an era of food abundance to one of scarcity. Over the last decade, world grain reserves have fallen by one third. World food prices have more than doubled, triggering a worldwide land rush and ushering in a new geopolitics of food. Food is the new oil. Land is the new gold.

This new era is one of rising food prices and spreading hunger. On the demand side of the food equation, population growth, rising affluence, and the conversion of food into fuel for cars are combining to raise consumption by record amounts. On the supply side, extreme soil erosion, growing water shortages, and the earth’s rising temperature are making it more difficult to expand production. Unless we can reverse such trends, food prices will continue to rise and hunger will continue to spread, eventually bringing down our social system. Can we reverse these trends in time? Or is food the weak link in our early twenty-first-century civilization, much as it was in so many of the earlier civilizations whose archeological sites we now study?

This tightening of world food supplies contrasts sharply with the last half of the twentieth century, when the dominant issues in agriculture were overproduction, huge grain surpluses, and access to markets by grain exporters. During that time, the world in effect had two reserves: large carryover stocks of grain (the amount in the bin when the new harvest begins) and a large area of cropland idled under U.S. farm programs to avoid overproduction. When the world harvest was good, the United States would idle more land. When the harvest was subpar, it would return land to production. The excess production capacity was used to maintain stability in world grain markets. The large stocks of grain cushioned world crop shortfalls. When India’s monsoon failed in 1965, for example, the United States shipped a fifth of its wheat harvest to India to avert a potentially massive famine. And because of abundant stocks, this had little effect on the world grain price.

When this period of food abundance began, the world had 2.5 billion people. Today it has 7 billion. From 1950 to 2000 there were occasional grain price spikes as a result of weather-induced events, such as a severe drought in Russia or an intense heat wave in the U.S. Midwest. But their effects on price were short-lived. Within a year or so things were back to normal. The combination of abundant stocks and idled cropland made this period one of the most food-secure in world history. But it was not to last. By 1986, steadily rising world demand for grain and unacceptably high budgetary costs led to a phasing out of the U.S. cropland set-aside program.

Today the United States has some land idled in its Conservation Reserve Program, but it targets land that is highly susceptible to erosion. The days of productive land ready to be quickly brought into production when needed are over.

Ever since agriculture began, carryover stocks of grain have been the most basic indicator of food security. The goal of farmers everywhere is to produce enough grain not just to make it to the next harvest but to do so with a comfortable margin. From 1986, when we lost the idled cropland buffer, through 2001, the annual world carryover stocks of grain averaged a comfortable 107 days of consumption.

This safety cushion was not to last either. After 2001, the carryover stocks of grain dropped sharply as world consumption exceeded production. From 2002 through 2011, they averaged only 74 days of consumption, a drop of one third. An unprecedented period of world food security has come to an end. Within two decades, the world had lost both of its safety cushions.

In recent years, world carryover stocks of grain have been only slightly above the 70 days that was considered a desirable minimum during the late twentieth century. Now stock levels must take into account the effect on harvests of higher temperatures, more extensive drought, and more intense heat waves. Although there is no easy way to precisely quantify the harvest effects of any of these climate-related threats, it is clear that any of them can shrink harvests, potentially creating chaos in the world grain market. To mitigate this risk, a stock reserve equal to 110 days of consumption would produce a much safer level of food security.

The world is now living from one year to the next, hoping always to produce enough to cover the growth in demand. Farmers everywhere are making an all-out effort to keep pace with the accelerated growth in demand, but they are having difficulty doing so. More


Friday, February 1, 2013

EU says pesticides linked to bee decline should be restricted

The European Commission has proposed that member states restrict the use of certain classes of pesticide that are believed to be harmful to bees.

Sprays that use neonicotinoid chemicals should only be used on crops that are not attractive to the insects they said.

The sale of seeds treated with these chemicals should also be prohibited.

Bayer, one of the companies who make the pesticides, says they are convinced they can be used without harm to bees.

Earlier this month, the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) issued guidance on the use of neonicotinoids, in which they recognised "high acute risks" to bees who encountered residue from these sprays in pollen and nectar in crops like oilseed rape and sunflowers.

They also said there were risks to bees from dust in crops like maize that had been sprayed with these pesticides.

"The evidence linking neonicotinoid chemicals to declining bee populations is growing.”

Now the European Commissioner for health and consumer policy Tonio Borg has adopted the same line saying it was time for "swift and decisive action."
However they stopped short of recommending a complete ban.

Significant step

He has tabled a discussion paper that asks EU member states to restrict the use of neonicotinoids to crops not attractive to bees and to prohibit the sale and use of seeds treated with products that contain the active substances.

Three pesticides would be affected -clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam. Farmers would be banned from using them with sunflowers, oilseed rape, cotton and maize.

Commission spokesman Frederic Vincent told BBC News the measure was based on the latest scientific advice.

"We have requested a proper scientific assessment of neonicotinoids from Efsa. They came up with some concerns, some kind of worrying assessment. So now we are saying to members we have some scientific evidence that there are some concerns from those pesticides and the effects they might have on bees," he said.

The Commission wants restrictions in place by July and the measures will be reviewed after two years. There are already bans in place in France, Germany and Slovenia.

Campaigners were delighted with the EU stance - Friends of the Earth's Andrew Pendleton said it was a timely move.

"This hugely significant EU proposal promises a first, important step on the road to turning around the decline on our bees. The UK Government must throw its weight behind it," he said.

"The evidence linking neonicotinoid chemicals to declining bee populations is growing. We can't afford to ignore the threat they pose to these crucial pollinators. More