Friday, March 29, 2013

Monsanto's Questionable Relationship With The US Government

Abby Martin takes a closer look at the incestuous relationship between the White House and Monsanto, by calling out Romney and Obama's longstanding ties with the company.

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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Neonicotinoid pesticides 'damage brains of bees'

Commonly used pesticides are damaging honey bee brains, studies suggest.

Scientists have found that two types of chemicals called neonicotinoids and coumaphos are interfering with the insect's ability to learn and remember.

Experiments revealed that exposure was also lowering brain activity, especially when the two pesticides were used in combination.

The research is detailed in two papers in Nature Communications and the Journal of Experimental Biology.

But a company that makes the substances said laboratory-based studies did not always apply to bees in the wild.

And another report, published by the Defra's Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), concluded that there was no link between bee health and exposure to neonicotinoids.

The government agency carried out a study looking at bumblebees living on the edges of fields treated with the chemicals.

Falling numbers

Honey bees around the world are facing an uncertain future.

They have been hit with a host of diseases, losses of habitat, and in the US the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder has caused numbers to plummet.

Start Quote

It would imply that the bees are able to forage less effectively”

Dr Sally WilliamsonNewcastle University

Now researchers are asking whether pesticides are also playing a role in their decline.

To investigate, scientists looked at two common pesticides: neonicotinoids, which are used to control pests on oil seed rape and other crops, and a group of organophosphate chemicals called coumaphos, which are used to kill the Varroa mite, a parasite that attacks the honey bee.

Neonicotinoids are used more commonly in Europe, while coumaphos are more often employed in the United States.

Work carried out by the University of Dundee, in Scotland, revealed that if the pesticides were applied directly to the brains of the pollinators, they caused a loss of brain activity.

Dr Christopher Connolly said: "We found neonicotinoids cause an immediate hyper-activation - so an epileptic type activity - this was proceeded by neuronal inactivation, where the brain goes quiet and cannot communicate any more. The same effects occur when we used organophosphates.

"And if we used them together, the effect was additive, so they added to the toxicity: the effect was greater when both were present."

Another series of laboratory-based experiments, carried out at Newcastle University, examined the behaviour of the bees.

The researchers there found that bees exposed to both pesticides were unable to learn and then remember floral smells associated with a sweet nectar reward - a skill that is essential for bees in search of food.

Dr Sally Williamson said: "It would imply that the bees are able to forage less effectively, they are less able to find and learn and remember and then communicate to their hive mates what the good sources of pollen and nectar are."

'No threat'

She said that companies that are manufacturing the pesticides should take these findings into account when considering the safety of the chemicals.

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Decisions on the use of neonicotinoids must be based on sound scientific evidence”

Ian BoydDefra

She explained: "At the moment, the initial tests for bee toxicity are giving the bees an acute dose and then watching them to see if they die.

"But because bees do these complex learning tasks, they are very social animals and they have a complex behavioural repertoire, they don't need to be killed outright in order not to be affected."

The European Commission recently called for a temporary moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids after a report by the European Food Safety Authority concluded that they posed a high acute risk to pollinators.

But 14 out of the 27 EU nations - including the UK and Germany - opposed the ban, and the proposal has now been delayed.

Ian Boyd, chief scientist at Defra, said: "Decisions on the use of neonicotinoids must be based on sound scientific evidence." More


Monday, March 25, 2013

Decline of bees forces China's apple farmers to pollinate by hand

The decline of wild bees in China threatens more than just its apple and pear harvests, says pollination expert Dave Goulson.

In the last 50 years, the global human population has nearly doubled, while the average calories consumed per person has increased by about 30%.

To cope with the ever growing demand for food, more land has been brought into agricultural production, mainly by clearing forests, and farming has become much more intensive. Fertilisers, pesticides, and development of new plant varieties have allowed farmers to increase the average yield of food per hectare to increase by 130% in the same period.

It is obvious that this pattern cannot go on for ever; we will run out of forests to clear, and we cannot squeeze ever more food from the same area of land. There are cracks beginning to show; highly intensive farming may not be sustainable in the long term.

Globally, about 75 billion tons of soil is lost every year, washed away or blown out to sea after ploughing. Three hundred and twenty million hectares of land have been affected by a build up of salt due to irrigation practices. Roughly 40% of all agricultural land is now degraded in one way or another.

The role of bees and pollinators

Farming and human health depend upon the ecosystem services provided by wild organisms; worms, woodlice, millipedes and a host of other creatures which help with soil formation, forests to produce oxygen, prevent soil erosion and regulate water flow, birds to eat insect pests, flies and beetles to break down animal dung, bees and other pollinators to pollinate crops.

Modern farming threatens to eradicate these organism, and so undermine itself.

Pollination provides one of the clearest examples of how our disregard for the health of the environment threatens our own survival. About 75% of all crop species require pollination by animals of some sort, often by bees, but sometimes by flies, butterflies, birds or even bats.

Crop pollination by insects has been estimated to be worth $14.6 billion to the economy of the USA and £440 million a year to the UK. Some pollination is done by domesticated honeybees, but the bulk of pollination of most crops is done by wild insects, including many species of wild bee such as bumblebees.

In the UK, for example, recent studies suggest that about one-third of pollination is delivered by honeybees, the rest being carried out by a range of wild insects. These animals need undisturbed places to nest, and flowers to feed on when the crops are not flowering.

However, bee diversity has declined markedly in Europe, with many species disappearing from much of their former range, and some species going extinct. The UK alone has lost three species of native bumblebee, and six more are listed as endangered. Four bumblebee species have gone extinct from the whole of Europe, and there is good evidence for similar declines in North America and China.

Pollinating animals fly in to our fields to pollinate crops from surrounding wild areas, but if there are no wild areas, or if the crops are doused in insecticides, then pollination will suffer and yields will decline. More



Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Undercover sting exposes Malaysia land-grab

Allegations of corruption get louder following secret tapes showing plunder of resource-rich Sarawak province.

Mountains of Borneo Island

Long Napir, Malaysia - Plantations and logging are ravaging Malaysia's majestic Borneo region and indigenous people who have lived for centuries here say they are increasingly being uprooted from their once-pristine lands.

But as the timber and palm oil companies swarm over the rugged landscape of resplendent rivers and ancient rainforests, villagers in Long Napir in the country's biggest state Sarawak have vowed to thwart any further land-grabs.

The village is a settlement of longhouses, the traditional communal housing favoured by indigenous people in eastern Malaysia's Borneo island.

Under the Sarawak Land Law, indigenous people have rights over areas as long as they can prove they have lived in or used the lands prior to January 1, 1958.

"We have no land to farm, our rivers have become muddy, there's hardly any fish left anymore."

- Tamin Sepuluh Ribu, villager

But the surrounding ancient rainforests that are so essential to their traditional way of life is under threat because of logging and plantation companies. Over the past 30 years, Sarawak - one of the richest Malaysian states - has become one of the largest exporters of tropical timber.

Despite its wealth, profits have failed to trickle down, and the people here are some of the poorest in the country.

Long Napir villagers lay the blame for their plight squarely on one man: the state's powerful chief minister, Abdul Mahmud Taib, who is in charge of all land classification and the allocation of lucrative forestry and plantation licenses.

"He lives, the rest of us suffer," Tamin Sepuluh Ribu, a former village headman, told Al Jazeera. "We have no land to farm, our rivers have become muddy, there's hardly any fish left anymore."

'Coterie of cronies'

Global Witness, a non-governmental organisation working against environmental exploitation, has investigated and exposed the situation in remote eastern Malaysia.

An undercover Global Witness investigator posing as an investor was offered several opportunities to purchase land in Sarawak by company officials linked to Chief Minister Taib. In each instance, the land in question was occupied by indigenous communities, who have valid claims to ownership rights under Malaysian law.

Global Witness said the indigenous areas were being sold by companies with close personal or political ties to the chief minister.

Taib has held the post since 1981, and has been repeatedly accused of corruption during his nearly 32-year rule.

The US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur noted in one cable released by WikiLeaks: "Chief Minister Taib Mahmud … doles out timber-cutting permits while patrolling the underdeveloped state using 14 helicopters, and his family's companies control much of the economy."

The American cable added that, "All major contracts and a significant portion of land to be converted to palm oil plantations [including on indigenous 'customary land rights' that the state government has refused to recognize] are given to these three companies."

People in Sarawak are "fed up" with Taib's administration, "seen as only enriching his family and a small coterie of cronies", it said.

A Penan girl deep in the Borneo rainforests [EPA]

Under investigation

Global Witness released a November 2012 report titled, "In the future, there will be no forests."

"Taib's powerful executive position and personal responsibility for the issuance of lucrative logging and plantation licences has enabled him to systematically extract 'unofficial payments' from the state's timber tycoons for the enrichment of himself and his family," the report said.

Taib, meanwhile, denied the corruption allegations as "wholly untrue and malicious", said the report.

In 2011, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission launched an official investigation into Taib, which continues at present.

In secretly taped negotiations provided to Al Jazeera, the Global Witness investigator discussed buying land with company shareholders Fatimah Abdul Rahman and Norlia Abdul Rahman - Taib's first cousins. Fatimah admitted the parcel of land under discussion had been transferred to them by Chief Minister Taib.

"Yeah, he's the one who gave us the land. He's my cousin," Fatimah said, laughing.

In 2011, Taib gave his cousins 5,000 hectares of land for about $300,000 dollars, according to leaked land registry documents. Having secured agriculture and timber licences, they were trying to sell it a year later for more than $16mn.

Later, discussing the ease of receiving a forestry license, Fatimah told the Global Witness investigator: "The Land and Survey Department, they are the ones that issue this licence. Of course, this is from the CM's [Chief Minister's] directive, but I can speak to the CM very easily." More


Sunday, March 17, 2013

"The Consumer's Got to Change the System": Farmer Ben Burkett on Racism and Corporate Control of Agriculture

Ben Burkett is a family farmer and coordinator of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives for the state of Mississippi. He is also president of the board of the National Family Farm Coalition and a member of the food sovereignty commission of Via Campesina, the international network of small farmers and landless people. He gave the following interview one early morning in New Orleans, where he went to deliver a truckload of his cooperatives’ okra to Whole Foods:

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives grew out of the civil rights movement. We are probably 90 percent African American, but we have white, Native American, and Hispanic farmers. Racism is still here in the marketplace and in credit, but we have learned to deal with it and not give up on changing the system. We struggle every day to bring about a change.

We work with co-ops in 16 Southern states. Everything we’re about is food sovereignty, though I don’t think that many farmers in Mississippi really know the term. It’s the right of every individual on earth to wholesome food, clean water, clean air, clean land, and the self-determination of a local community to their rights of intellectual property to grow and to do what they want.


We just recognize the natural flow of life; it’s just what we’ve always done. Like myself, I’m a fourth-generation farmer on a farm that my great-grandfather homesteaded in 1889. That wasn’t but about 20 years after the end of slavery. He got 164 acres from the United States government. I still have the title – they called it a patent – signed by Grover Cleveland. And we’re still farming that same land.

Our view is local production for local consumption. The crops we grow, we sell them mostly within a 300-mile radius of this [Indian Springs Farmers Association-owned] packing facility.

We don’t want a change. We just want to go back to the way things were. It’s just supporting mankind as small farmers and family farmers. It’s not so much a matter of making money, it’s a matter of carrying on so your farm will continue on. But you have to make some profit off it in order to keep it going.


Some say the system is working. It appears to be working fine, but corporate agriculture is not sustainable. Our system of growing food is heavy, heavy, heavy dependent on petro-chemicals, on inorganic compounds, mostly petroleum-based. And then it takes too much control out of the local community. Now, it might last for several decades, but in the end it can’t last.

You’ve got a few companies that want to control all the seedstock of the world, and they’ve just about got a handle on marketing three of the main commodities: corn, soybean, and cotton. It’s hard to find seeds that aren’t treated with the Monsanto-manufactured Roundup Ready. I’ve tried to find cotton that wasn’t treated, but I couldn’t. Now they’re working on controlling wheat and rice.


And they make those seeds so most of them don’t regenerate the next year anyway. But if you do save any of the seeds, Monsanto and the other companies are going to prosecute you for saving their property. Those seeds are patented, the property of the seed company, so they reserve the right to keep them. They’ll take you to court and make you pay back their money. Basically you’re just sharecropping for them, you’re leasing their seeds.


I don’t think that’s fair. Once you’ve bought the seeds and planted them on your own land, it looks to me like they ought to be your own seeds. That’s the essence of life. Where did Monsanto and the other companies get their first seed from? Someone gave them to them. Those seeds didn’t fall out of the sky.

Through the National Family Farm Coalition, we signed onto the protest against the seeds Monsanto sent to Haiti. Developing countries such as Haiti have no need for Monsanto, for hybrid seeds or GMO seeds, no kind of way. Let them use their traditional seeds they’ve been saving for hundreds of years. Let them propagate and then continue to farm traditionally. Because if they get used to buying from America, they’ll lose the diversity of seed that they need in order to build new seed. Normally when those types of seeds and other products from America hit a country, local farmers lose. They get put out of business, they can’t compete.


We’ve been – I don’t want to use the word co-opted – trained by the institutions of agriculture, the companies, the university system, and technology, to give our rights over to the company, which I think is absolutely wrong. We have to be more proactive than reactive as small farmers, family farmers. We can’t wait for the government and large corporations to dictate to us what we can do in our region. More


Friday, March 15, 2013

How agroforestry schemes can improve food security in developing countries

Agroforestry has multiple benefits, it's important that they are raised in food security debates so that they can reach their potential.

Agroforestry – the integration of trees and shrubs with crops and livestock systems – has strong potential in addressing problems of food insecurity in developing countries. Done well, it allows producers to make the best use of their land, can boost field crop yields, diversify income, and increase resilience to climate change.

To date, the uptake of agroforestry has been constrained partly because it has lacked a natural 'home' in policy space, but that may be changing thanks to a growing body of evidence of what it can achieve, and how to make it work. The FAO last month published a guide to advancing agroforestry on the policy agenda with case studies of best practice, and is due to hold a conference on forests and food security and nutrition in May.

"In recent years we've seen increasing interest in agroforestry as an important component of sustainable land use and development," says Douglas McGuire, team leader on the FAO's Forest Resources Management team. "The many advantages it offers are being better understood."

Much of that new understanding has come from the FAO itself and from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), which has built up a body of research on issues such as the use of particular tree varieties and how they can improve soil quality, complement specific field crops, and generate new income streams for smallholders.

For example, one of the major potential benefits of on-farm trees is their ability to replenish nutrient-depleted soil, and the results of a 12-year study by ICRAF published in September 2012 showed how the planting of a particular tree variety – Gliricidia – as a fertiliser tree alongside maize improved the stability of harvests of this staple food crop in sub-Saharan Africa.

The study, based on farming systems in Malawi and Zambia, foundGliricidia to be particularly effective at drawing nitrogen from the air and fixing it in the soil, reducing the need for large doses of manufactured nitrogen fertilisers. The leaves shed by the trees also replenish the soil, increasing its structural stability and capacity to store water.

Another fertiliser tree – Faidherbia, an indigenous African acacia – has also been found to be useful in agroforestry systems thanks partly to its unusual phenology. Faidherbia goes dormant and sheds its nitrogen-rich leaves during the early rainy season, when crops are being planted, and resumes leaf growth in the dry season. That means it fertilises crops at a useful time, but doesn't compete with them for light, nutrients or water.Several studies have found Faidherbia-maize inter-cropping to increase maize yields, by as much as 400% in one area of Malawi.

This doesn't mean that particular tree varieties should necessarily be pushed as "good" for all farming systems; rather, it's important to use the right trees in the right place. "There are often trade-offs involved, and these need to be carefully assessed and balanced, according to the objectives one is trying to achieve," says McGuire. "Soil fertility enhancement, erosion control, food production, wood production, and shading are all factors. Systems where wood production may be a main objective might not be the most favourable to enhancing soil fertility, but that may be an acceptable trade-off under the given circumstances."

Even where certain trees can bring clear benefits, they are often a long-term investment. Resource-poor smallholders can be reluctant to allocate land to trees when it might take years to reap the rewards. But depending on the objectives, certain varieties or planting techniques can speed things up.

"Calliandra and leucaena are two leguminous trees which are known to deliver relatively quick pay offs for use as fodder for livestock," says Frank Place, impact assessment adviser at ICRAF and co-editor of the FAO guide. More


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Five Million Farmers Sue Monsanto For 7.7 Billion

Launching a lawsuit against the very company that is responsible for a farmer suicide every 30 minutes, 5 million farmers are now suing Monsanto for as much as 6.2 billion euros (around 7.7 billion US dollars).

The reason? As with many other cases, such as the ones that led certain farming regions to be known as the ‘suicide belt’, Monsanto has been reportedly taxing the farmers to financial shambles with ridiculous royalty charges.

The farmers state that Monsanto has been unfairly gathering exorbitant profits each year on a global scale from “renewal” seed harvests, which are crops planted using seed from the previous year’s harvest.

The practice of using renewal seeds dates back to ancient times, but Monsanto seeks to collect massive royalties and put an end to the practice. Why? Because Monsanto owns the very patent to the genetically modified seed, and is charging the farmers not only for the original crops, but the later harvests as well. Eventually, the royalties compound and many farmers begin to struggle with even keeping their farm afloat. It is for this reason that India slammed Monsanto with groundbreaking‘biopiracy’ charges in an effort to stop Monsanto from ‘patenting life’.

Jane Berwanger, a lawyer for the farmers who went on record regarding the case, told the Associted Press:

“Monsanto gets paid when it sell the seeds. The law gives producers the right to multiply the seeds they buy and nowhere in the world is there a requirement to pay (again). Producers are in effect paying a private tax on production.”
The findings echo what thousands of farmers have experienced in particularly poor nations, where many of the farmers are unable to stand up to Monsanto. Back in 2008, the Daily Mail covered what is known as the ‘GM Genocide’, which is responsible for taking the lives of over 17,683 Indian farmers in 2009 alone. After finding that their harvests were failing and they started to enter economic turmoil, the farmers began ending their own lives — oftentimes drinking the very same insecticide that Monsanto provided them with. More





Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Drought Hits Policies

GENEVA, Mar 13 2013 (IPS) - Drought has dramatically increased as a consequence of climate change. Most countries react to it only after it has occurred, but don’t have national policies to prevent it. The high-level meeting on national drought policies in Geneva this week is trying to match scientific knowledge with political awareness.

“Drought is a natural phenomenon, but over the last decades, as a consequence of climate change, it has been escalating in frequency and intensity, affecting millions of people across the world,” Loc Gnacadja, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCC), said at the meeting.

The meeting, jointly organised by UNCC, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), brings together scientists and government officials to “start a dialogue on national policies,” said Michel Jarraud, secretary general of the WMO. “We have to facilitate the transition from crisis management to catastrophes prevention, like it has been successfully done for tsunamis and other natural catastrophes.”

Drought affects more people than any other natural disaster: since 1900 more than 11 million people have died as a consequence of drought, and over two billion people have been affected. In Africa, a third of the people already live in drought-affected areas.

Half of the world population will live in areas of high water scarcity by 2020. And drought is the single most common cause of food shortages, severely affecting food security in developing countries and jeopardising the FAO’s effort to increase food production by 70 percent by 2050 in order to feed a world population of 9 billion.

“Last year, the U.S. was hit by a severe drought that cost 1 percent of GDP,” Ann Tutwiler, special representative of the FAO in Geneva told IPS in an interview. “It affected the livestock that had to be sent earlier to the slaughterhouse. Damages could be somehow limited since U.S. biofuel policies allow, in cases of emergency, to use the cereals to feed the cattle instead of fuelling the cars. But it did not have much impact of human beings, except for the increase in the prices of cereals.”

In the Horn of Africa, drought affected 13 million people in 2011. In the worst-affected regions of Somalia, cereal prices were up 260 percent and, in Kenya, wheat yields dropped 45 percent compared to the year before.

In the 2007-2008 drought in Syria, 75 percent of the country’s farmers suffered total crop failure. The drought in Northern Mexico between 2010 and 2011 destroyed 900,000 hectares of farmland, and 1.7 million head of livestock were lost.

“The only country in the world that has a full-fledged drought policy is Australia,” Mohamed Bazza, senior official at the land and water division at FAO told IPS. “Kiribati and Morocco have national policies on water that are first steps towards good drought policies, but they are still sectorial and not comprehensive. Water is not the only sector that needs to be well planned, but all sectors do, like agriculture. Or, the strategy exists, but it is not implemented.”

Tackling drought has been at the centre of the FAO’s mandate since its establishment. The Rome-based UN agency has implemented projects in emergency responses, but also in mitigation and preparedness, like establishment of regional drought management networks. More


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Freshwater Stores Shrink in Tigris-Euphrates Basin

Scientists using the twin gravity-measuring satellites of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) have found that a large portion of the Middle East lost freshwater reserves rapidly during the past decade. The research team observed the Tigris and Euphrates river basins—including parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran—and found that 117 million acre feet (144 cubic kilometers) of fresh water was lost from 2003 to 2009. That amount is roughly equivalent to the volume of the Dead Sea. About 60 percent of the loss was attributed to the pumping of groundwater from underground reservoirs.

The two natural-color images above were acquired by the Landsat 5 satellite and show the shrinking of the Qadisiyah Reservoir in Iraq between September 7, 2006 and September 15, 2009. The first graph shows the elevation of the water in that reservoir between January 2003 and December 2009. The elevation is a proxy measurement for the total volume of water stored there; labels show the water elevation at the time of the satellite images.

The second graph shows the water storage for the entire study area as measured by GRACE from January 2003 to December 2009. The gray line depicts total water storage in the region—groundwater, surface water bodies, and soil moisture—while the green line depicts changes in surface water. The difference between those two lines reflects the change in water stored in underground aquifers (ground water). The total water storage shows a seasonal fluctuation, but also an overall downward trend, suggesting that groundwater is being pumped and used faster than natural processes can replenish it.

“GRACE data show an alarming rate of decrease in total water storage in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, which currently have the second fastest rate of groundwater storage loss on Earth, after India,” said Jay Famiglietti, principal investigator of the study. “The rate was especially striking after the 2007 drought. Meanwhile, demand for freshwater continues to rise, and the region does not coordinate its water management because of different interpretations of international laws.”

Obtaining ground-based data in Middle East can be difficult, so data from satellites such as GRACE are essential to providing a global picture of water storage trends. Within any given region on Earth, rising or falling water reserves alter the planet’s mass, influencing the gravity field of the area. By periodically measuring gravity in each region, the GRACE satellites tells us how water storage changes over time. (To learn more about GRACE’s ability to study fresh water on Earth, read The Gravity of Water.)

The researchers calculated that about one-fifth of the water losses in their Tigris-Euphrates study region came from snowpack shrinking and soil drying up, partly in response to a 2007 drought. Loss of surface water from lakes and reservoirs accounted for another fifth of the losses. The majority of the loss—approximately 73 million acre feet (90 cubic kilometers)—was due to reductions in groundwater. “That's enough water to meet the needs of tens of millions to more than a hundred million people in the region each year, depending on regional water-use standards and availability,” Famiglietti said. More



Land Grabs Spread Throughout Developing World

Food Justice advocates have always argued that trade agreements need to respect and promote human rights, not drive a process of globalization that privileges commercial interests and tramples on public interests. In my new paper on land grabs from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, that position is affirmed.

“Land grabs” are large-scale purchases or leases of agricultural or forested land on terms that violate the rights of the people who live on or near that land. The problem has commanded enormous public policy and media attention for the last few years. In our paper, IATP sets some context for the land grabs phenomenon. We focus on two forces that have contributed significantly to the problem:

Globalization, or the deregulation of trade and foreign investment laws, which has greatly eased cross-border capital flows; relaxed the limits on foreign land ownership; and, opened markets to agricultural imports.

The food price crisis of 2007-08, which highlighted how fragile food systems in many parts of the world have become, and which shattered the confidence of net-food importing countries in international markets as a source of food security.

The situation is compounded by climate change and the resulting destabilization of weather patterns, which in turn has made agricultural production less predictable. Climate change has made domestic food supplies less certain and exports, too. In 2012, The United States, still a huge source of grains for international markets, lost 40 percent of a record large number of acres planted with corn to drought.

The sense of food insecurity has driven some of the richer net-food importers—countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait—to invest in growing food abroad for import to their domestic markets. That is one driver of land grabs.

The sense that our food systems are fragile and that supplies are scarce, where for decades they have been abundant, is another driver—companies such as South Korea’s Daewoo are looking to source raw materials directly, rather than buying them on the market.

It’s not that investment in agriculture is a bad thing. Indeed, it’s sorely needed. But unless we have the conversation about what kind of investment, in what kind of agriculture, and in whose interests, then the investment does more harm than good.

Land grabs, as the label implies, have been overwhelmingly negative. They are associated with weak institutional capacity (and sometimes corruption) in the recipient country governments, as well as authoritarian governments in the investors’ home countries, making it hard to bring pressure there for better practices. The communities whose land is leased or bought are not adequately protected.

IATP proposes four linked policy shifts to create a more stable and transparent international food system:

1) Reformed trade rules that ensure export restrictions in times of crisis are subject to transparency and predictability requirements and that allow all countries policy space for food security policies;

2) Publicly-managed grain reserves to dampen the effects of supply shocks;

3) Readily accessible funding for the poorest food importers, which would be triggered automatically when prices increase sharply in international markets; and

4) The development of strong national and international laws to govern investment in land, respecting the principles and guidelines set out in the Voluntary Guidelines on Land Tenure. Tanzania’s recently announced limits on how much land foreign and domestic investors can lease is a hopeful example of a national government taking the initiative to get serious about regulation. More


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Why food riots are likely to become the new normal

Just over two years since Egypt's dictator President Hosni Mubarak resigned , little has changed. Cairo's infamousTahrir Square has remained a continual site of clashes between demonstrators and security forces, despite a newly elected president.

It's the same story in Tunisia, and Libya where protests and civil unrest have persisted under now ostensibly democratic governments.

The problem is that the political changes brought about by the Arab spring were largely cosmetic. Scratch beneath the surface, and one finds the same deadly combination of environmental, energy and economic crises.

We now know that the fundamental triggers for the Arab spring were unprecedented food price rises. The first sign things were unravelling hit in 2008, when a global rice shortage coincided with dramatic increases in staple food prices, triggering food riots across the middle east, north Africa and south Asia. A month before the fall of the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported record high food pricesfor dairy, meat, sugar and cereals.

Since 2008, global food prices have been consistently higher than in preceding decades, despite wild fluctuations. This year, even with prices stabilising, the food price index remains at 210 – which some experts believe is the threshold beyond which civil unrest becomes probable. The FAO warns that 2013 could see prices increase later owing to tight grain stocks from last year's adverse crop weather.

Whether or not those prices materialise this year, food price volatility is only a symptom of deeper systemic problems – namely, that the global industrial food system is increasingly unsustainable. Last year, the world produced 2,241m tonnes of grain, down 75m tonnes or 3% from the 2011 record harvest.

The key issue, of course, is climate change. Droughts exacerbated by global warming in key food-basket regions have already led to a 10-20% drop in rice yields over the past decade. Last year, four-fifths of the US experienced a heatwave, there were prolonged droughts in Russia and Africa, a lighter monsoon in India and floods in Pakistan –extreme weather events that were likely linked to climate change afflicting the world's major food basket regions.

The US Department of Agriculture predicts a 3-4% food price rise this year – a warning that is seconded in the UK. Make no mistake: on a business-as-usual scenario, this is the new normal. Overall, global grain consumption has exceeded production in eight of the past 13 years. By mid-century, world crop yields could fall as much as 20-40%because of climate change alone.

But climate is not the only problem. Industrial farming methods are breaching the biophysical limits of the soil. World agricultural land productivity between 1990 and 2007 was 1.2% a year, nearly half compared with 1950-90 levels of 2.1%.

2008 also saw a shift to a new era of volatile, but consistently higher, oil prices. Regardless of where one stands onthe prospects for unconventional oil and gas for ameliorating "peak oil", the truth is that we will never return to the heyday of cheap petroleum.

High oil prices will continue to debilitate the global economy, particularly in Europe – but they will also continue to feed into the oil-dependent industrial food system. Currently, every major point in industrial food production is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. To make matters worse, predatory speculation on food and other commodities by banks drives prices higher, increasing profits at the expense of millions of the world's poor.

In the context of economies wracked by debt, this creates a perfect storm of problems which will guarantee high prices – eventually triggering civil unrest – for the foreseeable future.

It's only a matter of time before this fatal cocktail of climate, energy and economic challenges hits the Gulf kingdoms– where Saudi Arabia is struggling with an average total oil depletion rate of about 29%. If oil revenues reduce in coming years, this would lower subsidies for food and fuel. We've already seen how this can play out, for instance, in Egypt, whose domestic oil production peaked back in 1996, reducing government spending on services amid mounting debt. More