Posts filed under ‘Global Issues’

News Bounty

Here are some interesting articles on food- and farm-related issues that recently appeared in the papers:

From Hoof to Dinner Table, A New Bid to Cut Emissions:  Elisabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times reports on a project that a group of Dutch farmers have taken on:  they’re cooking pig manure and using the methane gas produced to make electricity.  While unpleasant, the project is a curtain-raiser on the issue of farm animals and carbon emissions they release into the atmosphere – more so than cars, buses and airplanes, according to the article.  The animals belch methane and nitrous oxide, gases that are many times worse for the environment than carbon dioxide because they trap heat more efficiently. The gases are also released through livestock manure. With global meat consumption expected to rise as China, India and other emerging countries prosper, this issue will only get worse. 

Obama’s ‘Secretary of Food’?:  In his op-ed in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof bemoans the ills of factory farming and calls upon President-elect Obama to pick a “bold reformer” as agriculture secretary or rather “Secretary of Food,” Kristof’s preferred name for the country’s top ag position.

Oops, I just read this in today’s New York Times.  It looks as though President-elect Obama has picked his agriculture secretary – former Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa.  The two-term governor, originally from Pittsburgh, is a strong advocate of ethanol and other biofuels.

How Green Can a Christmas Tree Be?: If you’re looking for a “green” Christmas tree this holiday season, read this article by Anne Raver.  Many trees are sprayed with pesticides, which may wind up in people’s homes.  Trees at city lots, big-box stores or large garden centers, she writes, are typically shipped in from large plantations where pesticides are applied.

December 18, 2008 at 1:59 am Leave a comment

Requited Love

Few things in life are more regrettable — or more criminal — than nixing a budding love affair. But that’s exactly what Paul Collier proposes in his article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.  In his attack on sustainable agriculture, Collier writes that “the middle- and upper-class love affair with” – and I quote – “peasant agriculture” must be slain.    

How nasty of him to refer to organic farming as “peasant agriculture” – something he takes to doing throughout the article.  Like the feuding families who insult each other’s name in Romeo and Juliet, Collier tries to give sustainable agriculture a bad name.  But call it what he will, sustainable agriculture will “smell as sweet” to its devotees, to borrow from Shakespeare’s famous play.    

It’s not too hard to understand people’s growing passion for organic farming.  It’s easier on the environment and achieves yields that rival those of industrial agriculture.   According to food writer Michael Pollan, organic agriculture achieves 80 to 100 percent of conventional yields and in drought years, frequently exceeds them.  And that, Pollan says, is without the benefit of public investment in scientific research on organic farming techniques.   

Collier argues that commercial agriculture and investment in technology — genetically engineered seeds and the like — are the only way to bump up farm yields and meet the needs of a growing world population.   He dismisses organic agriculture, in the same way that the Capulets dismiss the Montagues and vice versa.

Collier also dismisses and glosses something else:  the many drawbacks of large-scale farming – environmental degradation, reduced food variety and nutritional value, and threatened food safety and security, chief among them.

Collier advocates large-scale agriculture even in Africa, going so far as saying that land could be used more productively if managed by “large companies,” meaning foreign companies, specifically those in Brazil.  Why Africa would ever want that after years of colonialism is beyond me.  It seems to me that what Africa needs is small-scale agriculture on a massive scale. 

Collier puts down organic farming, but his put-downs don’t hold up very well. He portrays organic farming as a luxury lifestyle best suited for “burnt-out investment bankers” — an image inconsistent with “peasant” farming.  Perhaps Collier doesn’t know that many young people are eager to get into farming, with increasing numbers applying for farm apprenticeships, according to the Northeast Small Farm Institute, a non-profit that runs an apprenticeship and other programs for aspiring farmers.   

Despite the high price of land and the hard work, many novice farmers are starting small-scale farms that sell directly to consumers either through farmers markets or community supported agriculture.  Others are more imaginative with their farm businesses.  Some, for example, are targeting the suburbs, helping suburban home-owners plant gardens in their yards or morph lawns into gardens. 

The young farmers I met were looking for a meaningful livelihood and ways to make a difference in the world.  The new generation of agrarians welcomed the idea of having their own farm businesses, contrary to Collier’s sweeping generalization that most people would rather opt for “wage employment.”

He also makes the ludicrous claim that “entrepreneurship is a minority pursuit” in successful economies.  In the United States, small businesses far outnumber large ones.  In 2007, there were 27.2 million small businesses in the U.S., according the U.S. Small Business Administration.  The number of large business, in contrast, was slightly more than 17,000 in 2005.  On top of that, small companies employ about half of all private sector employees and create more than half of nonfarm private gross domestic product.  

Collier clearly has a big “big business” bias that bigger is better — that scale and mass production is the way to make businesses efficient.  Yet as the financial crisis is telling us, getting big carries big risks. 

Why not, I ask, give small-scale sustainable agriculture a chance?  Why not let the people’s love affair with organic farming be allowed to progress?  Let people continue their romance with small “peasant” agriculture, let them have their small farm businesses. Let love flourish where it may.  Hard as Collier might try, true love can’t be slain.

December 12, 2008 at 12:50 am 3 comments

A Blessing in Disguise

Is there a bright side to higher food prices? It’s a question I posed in an earlier post and which I answered in an embarrassingly Pollyannaish way – yes, I said, higher food prices make us more appreciative of the land and long-forgotten farms and farmers.   

It turns out that today’s high food prices come with a much stronger silver lining, particularly for small farmers in the world’s poorest countries.  According to Sandra Polaski, one of the speakers at the U.N. roundtable discussion I’ve been blogging about, the world’s poorest people can benefit from high food prices.  It’s counterintuitive, I know, but I’ll try to explain. 

First, let’s start with poor farmers who are net sellers of food.  It’s easy to understand how high food prices would benefit them:  the food they produce is in demand and will command top dollar.  But what if they’re farmers who buy more food than they sell?  What if they’re not farmers?  How can high food prices possibly benefit them? 

Polaski explained that according to an upcoming World Bank study, rising food prices tend to transfer income from richer to poorer households.  Huh?  How does that happen?  It happens because net food buying rural households derive half of their income either directly or indirectly from agriculture.  And they don’t spend a great deal of their money on food – less than 10 percent according to the study.  

Polaski also cited studies in India and China, where 54 percent of the world’s poor live.  A recent study by the Carnegie Endowment showed that an increase in the price of rice in India would benefit most poor households, with the poorest, most disadvantaged groups seeing the largest gains.  A decrease in rice prices, on the other hand, would lead to a loss of income for 78 percent of the households.

An increase in rice prices, said Polaski, was “poverty-improving,” while a decrease was “poverty-increasing.”

Several studies of Chinese households showed a similar pattern:  rising grain prices would reduce poverty in China, while falling prices would increase poverty.  Two other studies looked at groups of developing countries that did not include China and India.  One study found that higher food prices would reduce poverty in nine of the 15 countries.  Another – an obvious outlier – found that it would increase poverty in seven out of nine.

Polaski noted that the impact of higher food prices will differ among countries and among households within countries.  But for some of the world’s poorest countries and households, the curse of higher food prices could be a blessing in disguise.

September 11, 2008 at 12:13 am Leave a comment

Food Prices – Trending Upwards Forever?

While food prices have risen significantly over the last several years, they’re still well below levels that prevailed during the food crisis of 1975 and for most of the last century.  That was one of the key points that Sandra Polaski, a policy wonk at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, made at the U.N. roundtable discussion I described in my last post. 

Polaski noted that food prices historically have been volatile, falling and rising whenever supply and demand get out of whack.  For that reason, Polaski wasn’t ready to bet that food prices are on a permanent upward trend, reversing 100 years of generally falling food prices. 

Polaski was later challenged by a representative of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in the Q&A session.  The FAO representative – didn’t catch his name – noted that a growing middle class and rising global population would put enormous pressure on the world’s capacity to feed its inhabitants.  The speaker felt that demand for food would outpace the supply, leading to persistent increases in food prices. 

Polaski’s response?  Rising demand, she contended, is not outstripping our ability to increase supply, noting that demand for food has been rising 1.3 percent annually, while productivity has increased 46 percent. In the short- to medium-term, she felt confident, we could “easily increase supply to meet demand.”

It was comforting to hear those words, but who knows who’s right.  Most of what I’ve been reading seems to conclude otherwise.  In an editorial in the New York Times, Victor Davis Hanson, a fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford, notes that technology and machinery can “now only marginal improve on past serial leaps in production.”

Whatever happens, one thing seems certain: how and what we eat will become more and more important as we continue to strain the world’s finite resources. 

September 10, 2008 at 11:54 pm Leave a comment

UN Focuses on Small Farmers in Developing Countries

When food prices spiked earlier this summer, the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations held a roundtable discussion on how small-scale farmers in developing countries could take advantage of the boom in agricultural commodities.  The session attacked many complex agricultural issues, including whether today’s high food prices are here to stay or merely an anomaly.

The international panel – a good number of which spoke mellifluous accented English — included the Assistant Director-General of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization;  Malawi’s Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Food Security; and representatives of the World Bank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and chemical manufacturer Dupont, maker of fertilizers and genetically modified seeds. 

Here’s a simplified version of some of the key points covered during the intensive two-and-a-half-hour discussion on July 3: 

·  Everyone agreed that neglecting agriculture in developing countries was a big mistake.  For decades, development experts had discouraged poor struggling countries from developing their agriculture sectors, arguing that industrialized nations could supply them with the food they needed very cheaply.  They instead encouraged poor nations to develop tourism and other sectors, which they argued would be better for their economies.  As a result of that thinking, many developing countries that were once self-sufficient in producing key staples, like rice and corn, became dependent on other countries and now face severe food shortages and prices they can’t afford. 

·  Agriculture is now seen as a key driver of development in third world countries.  It is also viewed as an effective way to reduce poverty and ensure a nation’s food security.  In a much touted study, two World Bank economists write that “sound economic growth of the agricultural sector is at least twice as effective at reducing poverty as any other sector.”

·  Everyone agreed that the developed world needs to cut poor countries a little slack.  Emerging countries with budding agriculture sectors can’t compete in overseas markets that are highly subsidized by their governments, namely Europe and the U.S.

·  Ironically, high food prices present a good opportunity for developing countries, particularly if they sell more food than they buy.  One speaker refers to several studies that show that high food prices tend to reduce poverty for some of the poorest people in the world. 

These were some of the main ideas that were covered during the discussion.  Over the next two days, I’ll be writing about the impact of high food prices on developing countries, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  And I’ll be summarizing the views of some of the speakers on whether food prices, like oil prices, will rise, fall, or remain the same. Stay tuned. 

September 8, 2008 at 11:48 pm Leave a comment

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