Earth Overshoot Day

OvershootOn the 20th August 2013 (last Tuesday) the planet reached a yearly milestone. Unfortunately not a birthday or something else traditionally celebrated with cake but rather the day when we have used as much nature as our planet can regenerate this year. We are overdrawn, so to speak, when it comes to Earth’s natural resources and now we are living in ‘ecological overdraft’.

The Global Footprint Network calculates demand for the Earth’s ecological resources such as food provisions, raw materials and carbon dioxide absorption, also known as its Ecological Footprint, against the planet’s ability to replenish those resources and absorb waste.

The evidence of this overshoot is clear to see: the accumulation of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, biodiversity loss, fisheries collapse and the loss of tropical rainforests, to name a few. Our overconsumption of what should be renewable resources impacts human wellbeing and economic development. Two billion people lack access to resources to meet their basic needs.

Consumption is also increasing and will continue to increase with population growth unless an understanding of the limits to the world’s resources and the hardships competing for such resources will cause is at the heart of policy making.

While the planet as a whole is ‘overshooting’ the limits of resources, not all countries are. Here is an interactive map that shows which countries are ecological creditors such as Australia, Russia and Brazil, and which are ecological debtors, USA, UK and China.

In 1993, Earth Overshoot Day fell on 21st October. In 2003, it was on 22nd September. This year it is on 20th August. Earth Overshoot Day arrives a few days earlier each year. If each decade Earth overshoot day is one month earlier then by 2093 we will constantly be in overshoot, a pretty scary thought.



Assessing African Land Grabs

landgrabsLand grabbing is a hotly debated topic and nowhere is it more contentious than in Africa. On the one hand large-scale land investments are praised for their potential to bring job opportunities and boost economies while on the other, some deals have led to irresponsible and damaging use of natural resources and to the displacement of inhabitants without compensation.

Launched last year, the Land Matrix Global Observatory aims to analyse what appears to be a growing trend for private and national investors to acquire large tracts of land in developing countries. Early results show that over 46 million hectares of land have changed hands in 756 verified land deals. Approximately half of all these deals have taken place in Africa, many in Mozambique and Ethiopia.

Contrary to media reporting, the Observatory’s database finds China’s involvement and the impact of an increasing demand for biofuels to be less than estimated. But there are major concerns. While agriculture needs both private and public sector investment if it is to meet the needs of a growing population, this investment must be transparent.

Obtaining information regarding acquisitions can be very difficult, especially as private investors can act almost invisibly through such things as contract farming or by buying stakes in local agribusinesses. Instituting fair systems of land titling would at least ensure fair compensation is paid to those individuals whose land is appropriated.

In a new book, The Great African Land Grab?, Lorenzo Cotula, discusses the history of land acquisitions, the situation now and the impacts of land grabbing on African people. The book appraises the consequences of land deals, both good and bad, and provides a balanced account of what is a controversial and polarised issue in a bid to generate open and, in Cotula’s words, “a more constructive debate”.  As Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on the right to food, states, “Invest in small-scale farmers, not in the land on which they depend, and read this book, if you care at all about the future of agricultural development in poor countries.”

Food for fuel

ID-100136340 (2)A new report produced by ActionAid calls attention to the impacts that growing food for biofuels can have on poverty and hunger. The amount of food crops produced and used for fuel by G8 countries per year could have fed over 441 million people. This is around half the number of people, estimated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, to be chronically hungry in the world.

There are other implications of growing food for fuel beyond directly removing food sources.  Land availability and food prices, are affected which can further impact on poverty, particularly for those who are net buyers of food and who rely on local natural resources for their livelihoods.

In sub-Saharan Africa some 98 European biofuel projects covering 6 million hectares of land have begun since 2009, when the European Union introduced the Renewable Energy Directive, subsequently driving up biofuel demand in Europe. 30 of these are from the UK. Many of these investments are occurring in food insecure countries and pose the threat of displacing local communities.

A report by the World Bank in 2011 concluded that ‘Food prices are substantially higher than they would be if no biofuels were produced’. And future prices are expected to rise further under the EU’s biofuel targets: by 2020 vegetable oils could increase by 36%, cereals by 22% and oilseeds by 20%.

But biofuels are important for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector and for lowering fuel costs in the face of oil scarcity. Not true, says ActionAid. Biofuels currently being used in cars are worse for the climate than fossil fuels and, under projected levels of use to 2020, will add an additional 56 million tonnes of CO2  emissions by 2020 – the equivalent of over 26 million new cars on the roads. [Read more...]

Food prices volatility: watch this space

iatp.logoA recent article by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) outlines the food price situation and the actions that need to be taken to reduce price volatility. In 2012, as prices began to creep higher and a third food price spike since 2007 looked likely, governments should have been poised to act to curb food price volatility once and for all. As the IATP authors believe, governments did not take this opportunity and failed to address the root causes of food price volatility.

This recent article is an update to the authors’ 2012 report, Resolving the Food Crisis, and calls for action to be taken around a series of themes:

  • Donor funding for agricultural development
  • Reducing biofuels expansion
  • Curbing financial speculation on agricultural commodities
  • Building food reserves
  • Halting land grabs
  • Addressing climate change

These issues are neither original nor specific to solving the problem of food price spikes. Instead they are frequently raised by NGOs and other stakeholders across the world and, as the authors point out, these problems are not going away. Not enough is being done to address them. There are huge opportunities for progress in 2013 but whether governments will seize them is another matter, as history attests. Action to address food price volatility from the G20 has revolved to date primarily around the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) and, while G20 leaders plan to meet in Russia this year, no meeting of agricultural ministers is planned. Decisions over the future vision of the World Trade Organisation Doha Development Round could be an opportunity to ensure trade rules ‘protect and promote food security,’ but given the previous disarray of the Doha Round this may be too much to hope for. New farm legislation in the US and reform of the Common Agricultural Policy in the EU show little sign of being transformative. [Read more...]

Grabs for land include water

A paper on the impact of so called ‘land grabbing’ on freshwater resources has recently been published. Authored by researchers at the University of Virginia and the Polytechnic University of Milan, it is the first assessment of the amount of water appropriated within land investment deals.

Land is thought to be in short supply while at the same time demand for food, livestock and biofuels is growing, driven by population growth, changing diets and increasing food and oil prices. In an effort to ensure national food and energy security some countries over the past decade have been buying up land in other countries on which to grow crops and livestock. The World Bank has estimated that around 45 million hectares of land has been purchased since 2008 involving 62 countries doing the ‘grabbing’ in 41 countries across every continent except Antarctica.

Land grabs have hit the headlines and received strong criticism when large-scale land investments have proven to be inequitable and unsustainable. Problems include the reduction in natural resource access for local land users, displacement of local inhabitants without compensation and without the creation of job opportunities or consideration for the environment. Indeed in many places land that was a natural landscape or dominated by smallholder farming is transformed to large-scale commercial farming. In Ethiopia residents are thought to have been moved to new villages lacking adequate food and water resources to make way for the lease of land to foreign investors. Indeed where 100% rights over natural resources such as water are part of the deal both environmental sustainability and the livelihoods of local land users are negatively impacted. This has been seen in Sudan where land deals around the Blue Nile have affected local water users further downstream. [Read more...]

The State of Food and Agriculture 2012: Investing in agriculture for a better future

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) this week released its annual report, the State of Food and Agriculture, for 2012. This year’s focus is on “the accumulation of capital by farmers in agriculture and the investments made by governments to facilitate this accumulation.” Farmers are part of the private sector and their investments in developing their businesses can have large impacts on the wider rural economy. This, as the report asserts, is why farmers are crucial stakeholders in national plans to improve agricultural investment.

And developing agriculture is important. Improvements in the sector can have wide reaching benefits for reducing hunger and poverty. Given that 80% of the world’s chronically hungry are farmers, greater investment in agriculture, which has been stalling or declining for several decades, can significantly contribute to meeting the first Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger and poverty by 2015. Indeed the report finds that over the last 20 years, countries with the highest rates of on-farm investment have made the most progress in halving hunger.

But farmers are only part of the story; governments have an important role to play. In low- and middle-income countries, farmers’ own investments to farming outstrip investments made by governments or the private sector. This report shows that farmer investments can have greater social and economic benefits when undertaken in an inductive investment climate, an area controlled by markets and government. As the report states, “Governments are responsible for creating the legal, policy and institutional environment that enables private investors to respond to market opportunities in socially responsible ways”. Developing this enabling environment is a crucial function of the public sector, particularly in terms of levelling the playing field between smallholders and larger investors. Improving incentives for farmers to invest and reducing the barriers will aid agricultural development significantly. [Read more...]

FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines on the Governance of Tenure

Ownership of land, or the absence of, is often cited as being a major barrier to increasing food production and achieving sustainable livelihoods in developing countries. When farmers do not own their own land, particularly true in the case of female farmers, it can be difficult to access credit and invest in on-farm improvements. Beyond the practical benefits of owning your own land it also reduces conflict over land use and removes the threat of having your livelihood taken away. An estimated five million people worldwide suffer from forced evictions every year.

Large-scale land acquisitions have become a topic of debate and in 2009 hedge funds and other speculators bought or leased almost 60 million hectares of land in Africa. In a bid to safeguard the rights of local people and avoid mass displacement, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has created Voluntary Guidelines on the Governance of Tenure. Released in May 2012, the guidelines, seen as a landmark decision of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), set out principles and standards for responsible governance of tenure over natural resources. In the words of the FAO, “They provide a framework that States can use when developing their own strategies, policies, legislation, programmes and activities. They allow governments, civil society, the private sector and citizens to judge whether their proposed actions and the actions of others constitute acceptable practices’. [Read more...]

IFPRI’s 2011 Global Food Policy Report and the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2012-2021

The first in a new annual series, the International Food Policy Research Institute’s 2011 Global Food Policy Report  looks at food policy over the previous year focusing on major developments, challenges and opportunities, and future actions. In 2011, food policy was on the international agenda with the G20 meeting to discuss food price volatility for the first time. Agriculture remained high priority on this agenda with emerging economies, global institutions, developed and developing country governments and international foundations maintaining their pledges to focus on agriculture and in some cases developing new plans for progress, such as the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture, Feed the Future and the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program. The famine in the Horn of Africa, biofuel policy changes, the agriculture, health and nutrition nexus, land policy and climate change were key topics for policymakers and were evident in the media.

This report discusses these themes at length and most importantly asks ‘what can we do better?’ thus contributing not only to research agendas and information sharing but hopefully shaping preventative actions and transformational policy change. [Read more...]

Food Price Rises: The Role of Speculation

Scientists from the New England Complex Systems Institute, in a paper published in September 2011, identified investor speculation and ethanol conversion as the two key causes of changes in food prices over the period 2004 to 2011. The latter linked to a gradual upward trend in prices, the former to food price spikes. Global food prices since 2007 have seen two surges whereby prices have increased by over 50% in less than a year. Authors of the paper warn that policy action to curb speculation in global food markets is urgent if we are to avoid another surge at the end of 2012. This is also important for the long-term given that the UN predicts food prices will rise by at least 40% in the next decade.

Speculation in the food market in the past has been limited to actors within the food industry itself. By setting a price, agreed between farmer and trader, prior to the harvest, risks were minimised as the farmer received a good price even in a bad year and the trader received a better than  average price in good years. In general, speculation had a stabilizing effect on food prices. With the liberalisation of markets in the late 1990s, however, non-food industry actors have become involved and speculation in the food commodities market by financial institutions has grown rapidly. In 2003 the market was worth £3 billion but by 2008 its worth had risen to over £55 billion. [Read more...]

More Land to Feed our Changing Diets

Dietary change looks likely to be the most significant factor in increasing land requirements to feed a growing population in many regions of the world. In a paper published in early 2012, researchers from Austria and the Netherlands analysed changes in land requirements from 1961 to 2007 in order to determine the most significant drivers of changes in land use for food production and how they differ between global regions.

Overall increases in output per unit of land in the past were predominantly due to population growth and dietary change. The relationship between population change and dietary diversification was found to be inverse i.e. as a rule of thumb diets become more varied as populations decrease (most likely a symptom of globalization and demographic transition). Trends in increased meat and dairy production and intake have been well documented. A 2010 paper, authored by Tara Garnett, stated the importance of moderating our consumption of meat and dairy products because the livestock sector is responsible for a substantial proportion of greenhouse gas emissions and because technological climate change mitigation activities can only go so far. When land use change and agriculture are combined their contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is around 30%.

The 2012 paper concluded that dietary change is predicted to be more significant a factor in increasing land requirements for agriculture than population growth in the near future with developed countries and emerging economies the biggest drivers of this trend.


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