Ecomodernism: creating more questions than it answers

ecomodernistIn April 2015 ahead of the 45th Earth Day, a group of 18 authors, including the founders of the Breakthrough Institute, released An Ecomodernist Manifesto, a report outlining how to “use humanity’s extraordinary powers in service of creating a good Anthropocene”. Released on the 26th September in the UK, the publication outlines the authors’ beliefs that human well-being must be decoupled from environmental destruction and that alongside reducing our impact on the environment we must refrain from trying to balance nature with development if we are to “avoid economic and ecological collapse” and “make more room for nature”. This decoupling is to be achieved through several ways such as intensification, demographic change and through the use of technological substitutes.

Intensification of agriculture, energy extraction, forestry and human settlement is believed to be key to separating the natural world from ongoing human development and to enhancing nature, alleviating poverty and mitigating climate change. Authors use as evidence of this effect the fact that since the mid-1960s the amount of land needed for growing crops and animal feed for the average person has decreased by about half. Net reforestation has also been made possible in some areas such as New England due to agricultural intensification and a reduction in the use of wood as fuel.

Technology has, over history, reduced our reliance on natural ecosystems (or at least their directly obtained goods) and increased our resource-use efficiency but it has also allowed the human population, and associated consumption, to expand exponentially as well as increase the reach of society’s impact on global ecosystems. Although our consumption patterns are changing (in developing countries diets are shifting to include more meat and processed foods, while in some developed countries more sustainable protein sources are growing in popularity) and human population is predicted to peak and decline this century, globalisation and the distance between societies and the resources they consume, continues to increase. The development of technological substitutes could lower the impact our lifestyles have on ecosystems far away. Technological development supported by the report include urbanisation, nuclear power, agricultural intensification, aquaculture and desalination. On the other hand suburbanisation, low-yield farming and some forms of renewable energy production are believed to increase human demands on the environment.

In reading the manifesto one is almost convinced by their optimism and wealth of experience but it also comes across as naïve. They acknowledge that intensification in the past has brought about wide environmental degradation yet give no solutions to overcoming this. Many technologies have had disastrous unintended consequences such as pesticides yet what are the alternatives if we are to increase productivity? They state that “increasing agricultural yields can reduce the conversion of forests and grasslands to farms” and yet provide very little evidence in support. Indeed they fail to address instances where intensification and higher agricultural yields have brought about increased conversion of natural lands to farming rather than so-called land sparing, for example as seen in South America.

They also claim their manifesto will reduce global poverty but provide little evidence this is a likely outcome. Indeed intensification may not be possible for many, particularly the poorest farmers and foresters who lack access to the inputs, finance and tools required for intensification. If only available to all but the poorest then intensification threatens to increase wealth inequality. These impacts are not discussed at all in the publication. In fact much of what is written is focused on the developed world yet much of the wilderness we seek to lose in the coming decades as well as habitats important for a vast array of biodiversity are in developing countries. Where more intact ecosystems exist there are often communities reliant upon them. [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

Africa’s agriculture needs young blood, says report, BBC

The SDGs will only succeed if they can succeed in Africa, Africa Progress Panel

UK’s £6bn climate finance pledge is welcome – but not its fair share, The Guardian

The Pope’s encyclical as a call for democratic social change, Nature Climate Change

African Agriculture Status Report, 2015, AGRA

Africa’s farmers ‘need urgent climate-proof investment’, BBC

Spelling out soil for the SDGs, Thrive

The media is doing a ‘better job’ at communicating climate change, BusinessGreen

Record El Niño set to cause hunger for 10 million poorest, Oxfam warns, The Guardian

Sustainable Intensification: moving beyond the technical aspects, Thrive [Read more…]

10 priorities for making African smallholder farming work under climate change

By Katrin Glatzel

With just over two months left till a new international climate change agreement is being finalised in Paris, the Montpellier Panel is launching a new report today, “The Farms of Change: African Smallholders Responding to an Uncertain Climate Future”, which addresses some of the key challenges to climate-proof Africa’s smallholder farmers.

FoC cover pageAs we all know, two of the greatest challenges of the 21st century are the increasing demands for food, water and energy from a growing population and – climate change. Agriculture and smallholders are central to both, perhaps nowhere more so than in Africa. Africa is already battling against the impacts of climate change and smallholder farmers are amongst the most vulnerable with the least capacity to adapt. Rising temperatures signal more extreme weather events that will put lives and livelihoods at greater risk, increasing smallholders’ vulnerability to drought, famine and disease. And whilst progress has been made during the last two decades to reduce hunger and to improve farmers’ livelihoods, climate change jeopardises these gains.

High levels of poverty and underdevelopment combined with insufficient infrastructure exacerbate the already severe impacts of global warming on resources, development and human security. In order to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change, international organisations and governments must help smallholders to reduce and off-set greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. [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

Growing Pains, The Economist

Global Food Security by the Numbers, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

New studies deepen concerns about a climate-change ‘wild card’, The Washington Post

EU to Release $558 Million to Help Struggling Farmers, The Wall Street Journal

Land degradation costs the world up to $10.6tn a year, report says, The Guardian

Farming flicks help teach ag skills where they’re really needed, Grist

Africa’s new institution to promote food security, SciDev.Net

Who Will Suffer Most From Climate Change? (Hint: Not You), Gates Notes

Kale or steak? Change in diet key to U.N. plan to end hunger by 2030, Reuters

Climate-smart cities could save the world $22tn, say economists, The Guardian

Two roads diverged in the food crisis: Global policy takes the one more travelled, Wise, 2015, Canadian Food Studies

Soil, not Dirt: A Digital Journey Connecting Soils, Plants and Climate, Thinking Country

Genetically Modified Plants Could Eliminate Food Poisoning, Popular Science

The coexistence of extreme deprivation and obesity is the real face of malnutrition, IFPRI

Marine population halved since 1970 – report, BBC

Pest-resistant maize variety opens way for technological advancement, Daily Nation

Three priorities for the future of climate science, SciDev.Net

The genetic innovation that kept the world from starving (no, it’s not GMOs), Genetic Literacy Project

Adding value to African vegetables, Daily Monitor

CropLife International lists top five tools for fighting food insecurity, AG Professional

EU panel rejects bid to stop Monsanto weedkiller, Politico

How much labour is done by women in African agriculture: telling fact from myth?

Image courtesy of [africa] at

Image courtesy of [africa] at

What if what we thought to be true about African agriculture was wrong? So often we turn to well used statistics and commonly-held beliefs when we describe the challenges African farmers face: low access to credit and inputs, high post-harvest losses and imperfect markets. We rely on conventional wisdom to characterise agriculture across the whole continent, in part to make up for the lack of sound evidence on which to base our characterisations.

Now a new project entitled “Agriculture in Africa– Telling Facts from Myths” aims to test the validity of common wisdom and update our understanding of farming in Africa. An update desperately needed due to our reliance on outdated knowledge and rapid socio-economic and physical changes happening in Africa. Initiated by the Chief Economist’s Office of the World Bank Africa Region, the project is a collaboration with the African Development Bank, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, Cornell University, the Food and Agriculture Organization, London School of Economics, Maastricht School of Management, University of Pretoria, University of Rome Tor Vergata, University of Trento, and Yale University.

The commonly accepted wisdoms the project aims to challenge are:

  1. Use of modern inputs remains dismally low
  2. Land, labour and capital markets remain largely incomplete
  3. Land is abundant and land markets are poorly developed
  4. Access to credit is limited
  5. Labour productivity in agriculture is low
  6. Women perform the bulk of Africa’s agricultural tasks
  7. Agroforestry is gaining traction
  8. African agriculture is intensifying
  9. Seasonality continues to permeate rural livelihoods
  10. The majority of rural households are net food buyers
  11. Post harvest losses are large
  12. Droughts dominate Africa’s risk environment
  13. African farmers are increasingly diversifying their incomes
  14. The young are leaving agriculture
  15. Household enterprises operate mainly in survival mode
  16. Agricultural commercialisation improves nutritional outcomes

The project uses data collected under the Living Standards Measurement Study-Integrated Surveys on Agriculture (LSMS-ISA) initiative. These surveys, on both agricultural and non-agricultural facets of people’s lives, have been conducted in Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda from 2008 onwards and participants will be visited four times in total by 2020, and represent 40% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa. Although still in the early phase of the project, initial findings can be found here, for instance post harvest losses are being reported at levels less than figures reported by the FAO on which many publications rely.

Looking to number 6 in the list, one belief is that women contribute a higher share of the labour on farms than men in Africa. It is commonly cited that women’s labour contribution in African farming is between 60 to 80% but is this true? The 2010-2011 State of Food and Agriculture report from the FAO, the theme of which was women in agriculture, was a key publication in shedding light on this gender gap and reported that women make up around 50% of the agricultural labour force in Africa. A paper by Palacios-Lopez et al (2015) calculated that women contribute some 40% of agricultural labour hours to crop production, lower than commonly used estimates. [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.

Building a Food-Secure World Helps America Prosper, Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Nutrition and Social Protection, FAO

Weak links hamper knowledge sharing in agriculture, SciDev.Net

Paying farmers to help the environment works, but ‘perverse’ subsidies must be balanced, EurekAlert

Creating an enabling environment for livestock development in Ethiopia, ILRI

SPECIAL SERIES -Wanted: data revolution to track new U.N. development goals, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Can open data prevent a global food shortage?, The Guardian

The challenge of fighting poverty through farming, The Daily Monitor

Food security: businesses want government intervention to avoid long term risk, WWF

Big Ideas and Emerging Innovations, Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Plant Doctor Game app was downloaded 1111 times!, Plantwise

As drought hits maize, Tanzania cooks up a sweet potato fix, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Understanding the SDGs: Tom Bigg, IIED

LUMENS is illuminating land-use planning for sustainable landscapes, Landscapes for People, Nature and Food

Farm to Table in Africa, Chicago Council on Global Affairs

FAO Food Price Index registers sharpest fall since December 2008, FAO

Climate Change Is Water Change

By Emily Alpert

In case you missed it, World Water Week took place in Stockholm, Sweden from August 23-28th. This year’s theme, ‘water for development,’ could not come at a more critical time for addressing climate change.  Even the Executive Director of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), Torgny Holmgren, was quoted as saying “water is what binds together all aspects of climate change. Climate change is water change.”

Children carry water in Mali.

Children carry water in Mali.

One of the greatest challenges of the 21st century is the increasing demands for food and the water needed to produce that food, especially under climate change. Mean temperatures in Africa will rise faster than the global average and are likely to exceed 2°C – the threshold for dangerous climate change. Amongst other impacts, higher temperatures will result in droughts, flooding and erratic rainfall patterns. This spells too much or too little water for most people, crops and animals. Whether drought or flood, it is a threat to food and nutrition security across the continent. [Read more…]


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