Boom and Bust: the future of our food producing ecosystems

ID-100219796A recent paper, No Dominion over Nature, authored by UK ecologists, Professors Mark Huxham, Sue Hartley, Jules Pretty and Paul Tett, describes how current approaches to food production are damaging the long term health of ecosystems, hampering their ability to provide ecosystem services and leaving them vulnerable to collapse. Focusing on continual (and unsustainable) increases in agricultural productivity, for example through intensive monocultures, will inevitably lead to a “boom and bust” cycle.

The “dominant narrative” in meeting the ever increasing demand for food (some estimate we need to increase food production by 100% by 2050 to meet this demand) is to intensify agricultural production, an approach, such as the Green Revolution, that has so far allowed food production to keep pace with population growth. Such a pathway, as authors argue, is causing ecosystem deterioration, eroding the ecosystem services we rely upon such as pollination, climate regulation and water purification. Intensification comes at an economic and ecological cost – ever increasing synthetic input amounts are costly, too costly for some, while they have serious impacts on the environment.

An alternative is low input agriculture such as organic farming, which may not produce the yields to meet future demand without expansion of farming area and similarly poses a threat to the environment with agricultural expansion being a major factor in the conversion of natural habitats, deforestation and biodiversity loss. In particular the report talks about the debate between those arguing for intensification and those for low-input farming, most often framed as an argument between economists and environmentalists, or ostriches and romantics as Paul Collier terms them. Ostriches in that proponents may have their head in the sand ignoring looming environmental and climate crises, romantics in that their advocacy of environmentally friendly approaches such as organic may seem appealing but could have negative impacts, for example increasing the cost of food to account for environmental externalities, which could exacerbate hunger.

The authors reject both approaches suggesting instead “a focus on maintaining ecosystem health through the management of terrestrial and aquatic environments as multifunctional mosaics”. In a sense combining intensive agriculture with neighbouring land that provides ecosystem services in a way that maximises ecosystem resilience. In particular the concepts of bioproductivity, “the ability of ecosystems to capture energy in organic form”, an ability which forms the basis of food production, and thresholds or planetary boundaries are discussed as key management guidelines. Ecosystems should be seen as “functional self-regulating systems” and should be managed to ensure a continual and adequate supply of ecosystem services. [Read more...]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Study: Earth can sustain more terrestrial plant growth than previously thought, News Bureau, Illinois

Seeds of Truth – A response to The New Yorker, Dr Vandana Shiva

New resource shows half of GMO research is independent, GENERA

UN Draft report lists unchecked emissions’ risks, The New York Times

Specter’s New Yorker GMO Labeling Essay Misses the Mark, Just Label It

Seeking Fertile Ground for a Green Revolution in Africa, PAEPARD

Is soil the new oil in Africa’s quest for sustainable development?, Thomson Reuters Foundation

How the private sector can catalyze innovations for feeding Africa, Devex

The good and bad of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), New Vision

Research is ‘no panacea’ for development, finds DFID, SciDev.Net [Read more...]

Regional free trade agreements: secrecy, safety and sovereignty

ID-100223935New global trade deals are currently being negotiated, in part arising from the failings of the World Trade Organisation’s Doha Round. Proposals include the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). There are, however, many questions on what these agreements will include and what they will mean for those excluded, particularly poorer, developing countries.

Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a proposed free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States that could be finalised by the end of 2014. On the one hand such an agreement could boost multilateral economic growth while on the other it could increase corporate power perhaps at the expense of public benefit.

Although the EU released a document in July entitled, State of Play of TTIP negotiations ahead of the 6th round of the negotiations, the content of negotiations has been criticised as being opaque and shrouded in secrecy. Governments involved have stated they will not publish draft text. A recent factsheet released by the Office of the US Trade Representative, laid out the US’s objectives with regard to the TTIP, largely revolving around increasing market access, mainstreaming regulations and standards and removing non-tariff trade barriers, for example:

“We seek to eliminate all tariffs and other duties and charges on trade in agricultural, industrial and consumer products between the United States and the EU, with substantial duty elimination on entry into force of the agreement, transition periods where necessary for sensitive products, and appropriate safeguard mechanisms to be applied if and where necessary.”

“We seek to ensure that U.S. investors receive treatment as favorable as that accorded to EU investors or other foreign investors in the EU, and seek to reduce or eliminate artificial or trade-distorting barriers to the establishment and operation of U.S. investment in the EU.”

The TTIP will have impacts across a range of sectors such as energy, agriculture and environment, as well as different rights relating to, for example intellectual property and labour. John Hilary, Executive Director of War on Want, explains what the TTIP is and why it is potentially damaging in this booklet. On the issue of food safety, in aiming to create a framework that allows freer trade, both the US and EU may have to reduce current restrictions. In the EU’s case this may be in relaxing standards on genetically modified organisms, on banned veterinary growth hormones or on other meat and poultry products. For the US, this may mean removing limits on European imported beef in response to Mad Cow Disease. Reluctances to lower food standards, in particular on hormone beef and GM, could in fact threaten the TTIP but if not, many fear countries and its citizens will lose control over what can be grown, how food is produced and how safe it is. Other areas of contention could include the EU’s desire to protect Geographical Indications, foods such as Parma ham or Roquefort cheese, to prevent usage by other producers and differing approaches to agri-environment schemes.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy also released a report documenting the “Promises and Perils of the TTIP”. Controversial criticisms of the TTIP include the threat it poses to the UK’s National Health Service and the so-called investor-state dispute settlement, which could allow corporations to sue governments outside of domestic courts. Such a mechanism in other trade agreements has allowed, for example, mining companies to sue governments trying to keep them out of protected areas and banks to fight against national financial regulations, as George Monbiot explains in The Guardian.

As more details of the TTIP are coming to light, many of the benefits of such a partnership are being questioned while the risks are seemingly very real. In particular the secrecy of negotiations and large role played by corporations in these negotiations is of concern. The potential risks most talked about are in the EU and US themselves with little said about the broader impacts. The German aid organisation Brot für die Welt, however, warns against an EU-US free trade agreement saying it “will undermine local support for smallholders in developing countries and exacerbate the global food crisis” while others believe the TTIP will do little for environmental sustainability and other global challenges.

Trans-Pacific Partnership

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is also a free trade agreement currently being negotiated and will cover twelve countries in the Asia-Pacific region: Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam. Negotiations for what could be the largest regional free trade agreement in history have been ongoing since 2005, and although expected to be concluded in 2012, disagreement around issues such as agriculture, intellectual property, and services and investments have delayed the process. [Read more...]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Can alternative economic indicators ever be any good if they are devised solely by experts?, From Poverty to Power

Misgivings About How a Weed Killer Affects the Soil, The New York Times

Seeds of Doubt, The New Yorker

Off the shelf: are people finally turning away from supermarkets?, The Guardian

Cultivating a Neglected Field, Stanford Social Innovation Review

Plants may use language to communicate with each other, Virginia Tech researcher finds, Virginia Tech News

Scraping the Seafloor for Fish Harms Biodiversity, Scientific American

Infographic: 9 plant diseases that threaten your favorite foods–and how GM can help, Genetic Literacy Project

Promoting Developmental Research: A Challenge for African Universities, Journal of Learning for Development

Uncovered, the mystery of exchanging genes with wild relatives, John Innes Centre [Read more...]

Africa: a continent of resilience and opportunity

ID-100224355Africa is often referred to as a continent of opportunity, economic or otherwise. In part because of the progress made – since 2000, rates of extreme poverty and hunger have dropped as have the number of new HIV infections, and access to education and health care is increasing. But also due to the predicted changes to take place over the next few decades – 6 of the 10 fastest-growing economies are in Africa, and a growing youth population means that the continent will have a working-age population bigger than that of China or India by 2035.

Indeed the theme of the first ever US-Africa Leaders Summit which recently drew to a close, was “Investing in the Next Generation.”. 40 or so heads of states and government from across Africa joined President Obama in Washington to discuss the opportunities for developing sustainable African economies. A key message from the summit is that to achieve future growth, economies must tackle the drivers and impacts of climate change, and John Kerry remarked at a Working Session on Resilience and Food Security in a Changing Climate that in order to “ensure that farmers, fishermen, and the billions who depend on the food that they produce are able to endure the climate impacts that are already being felt, let alone yet to come” is to focus our efforts “on the intersection of climate and food security, by adopting creative solutions that increase food production and build resilience to climate change”.

Some political progress on supporting climate change adaptation is happening. The African Union agreed in the 2014 Malabo Declaration to increase agricultural growth to cut poverty and hunger in half by 2025, to double agricultural productivity, halve post-harvest losses and reduce stunting to 10% across the continent as well as to reduce vulnerability to climate and weather risk, and mainstream resilience.

The Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, planned to launch at the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit on September 23, is an international alliance, aiming to drive momentum and interest on climate smart agriculture (CSA) and to become a platform to coordinate the adoption of CSA. The USAID and the Rockefeller Foundation have also recently announced a $100 million Global Resilience Partnership to “accelerate promising technologies and ideas and identify new opportunities that can better build the resilience of families, communities, countries and regions”, for example, improving drought cycle management and expanding climate-resilient agricultural practices.

Also recently launched in Nairobi, a UNEP report, Keeping Track of Adaptation Actions in Africa, presents practical examples of successful low-cost adaptation solutions from around sub-Saharan Africa. The report details several examples of adaptation projects that have helped people cope with the impacts of climate change and have also stimulated local economies and incentivised government investment and policy change. The report is in part responding to the 2013 Africa Adaptation Gap Report which recognised the potentially staggering costs of climate change for Africa. [Read more...]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Deep emissions cuts needed by 2050 to limit warming: U.N. draft, Reuters

Teaching a humongous foundation to listen to small farmers, Grist

New report links aquaculture and poverty reduction, WorldFish

The MDG Hunger Target and the Contested Visions of Food Security, Fukuda-Parr & Orr

The Power of Numbers: Why the MDGs were flawed (and post2015 goals look set to go the same way), From Poverty to Power

At last, some evidence on the national impact of the MDGs. In Zambia, rivalry with other governments and measurable indicators have made a difference, From Poverty to Power

The GMO Fight Ripples Down the Food Chain, The Wall Street Journal

How GMO crops conquered the United States, Vox

Coming soon: Genetically edited fruit?, EurekAlert

Let’s Use Organic and GMOs to Feed the World, Huffington Post [Read more...]

Hungry to learn: The rise of Home Grown School Feeding

By Sunit Bagree, Partnership for Child Development at Imperial College London

An innovative approach helps smallholder farmers and supports children’s education at the same time

What does it take to get a child to attend school regularly and then learn effectively when there?

Common responses to this question would probably include things like no school fees, well-trained teachers and high-quality textbooks. Others would likely argue the need to combat discrimination faced by certain marginalised groups (e.g. girls, orphans and children with disabilities) both inside and outside of the classroom. Indeed, all of these are essential for building strong education systems and ensuring that every child enjoys their right to education.

policy doc coverI doubt that many answers would highlight the role that smallholder farmers can play in educational participation and achievement. Yet a new policy paper from Imperial College London’s Partnership for Child Development shows how food grown by some of the world’s 500 million smallholder farmers is being used in school meals to feed children – with some impressive results.

These government-led interventions, known as Home Grown School Feeding (HGSF), may be described as a ‘win-win’ for children and smallholder farmers alike.

Nutritious snacks and meals can provide an incentive for the poorest children to attend school. Considering that 57 million children are still not going to primary school, school feeding can be a crucial form of encouragement. Moreover, it’s hard to concentrate if you’re hungry. Children also struggle to study – and develop cognitively – even if they’re getting enough food in terms of calorie intake but not satisfying their nutritional requirements.

The smallholder farmers benefit by having a ready-made market for their produce. School feeding programmes are predictable as they run for a fixed number of days per year and can elect a pre-determined food basket. Serving this school feeding market can reduce risks for vulnerable farmers as they seek to build their livelihoods and pull their families out of poverty.

HGSF works best when smallholder farmers, particularly women, are empowered through the provision of training, credit on reasonable terms and appropriate technology, and also when there is political commitment to protect farmers’ land rights. Complementary investments in physical infrastructure, education, health, and water, sanitation and hygiene are also necessary to maximise the impact of HGSF.

The paper stresses that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ HGSF model. Examples from Kenya, Nigeria and Mali illustrate how every country that implements HGSF programmes requires different approaches suitable to its specific context.

[Read more...]

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