Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Milk: the global market works as it should - but we don't like the results

I think most readers are aware of that the there is a "milk crisis" going on. It is not a crisis of milk shortage, rather the opposite; it is a crisis of oversupply and falling prices. It is described in terms of catastrophe, of being exceptional (sometimes it is blamed on Putin, but the Russian ban on imports from the EU plays a role, but a very small role). It is indeed severe, but overall the situation is just a peak of a development that started more than hundred years ago, an increasingly global market for food, fueled by cheap transportation, efficient logistics and de-regulation.

New Zealand accounts for about one-third of global cross-border trade in dairy products, but only account for a little over 2% of total world milk production. This means that the so called world market price is determined at the fortnightly auctions of Fonterra, one single actor. Considering that only seven percent of the dairy products produced are actually sold outside of the country of production and that the volume traded by Fonterra is in the range of two percent of the global production it is a remarkable achievement – or a scary expression of globalization – that dairy farmers all over the world will sleeplessly await the results of Fonterras auctions. And not even the farmers in New Zealand, the "market leaders" earn any money from milk at the moment. Milk is so important for the economy that the milk crisis throws the whole economy in a slump.

The EU Council and the member states grapple with the crisis and make one after the other proposals. One suggestion is to increase the exports of milk from the EU (the EU is already a big net exporter) to other countries, but then European farmers will just prey on their colleagues in other countries, which is noted by the European Milk Board (the EMB), the European Milk producers lobby. The EMB suggests a compulsory milk Market Responsibility Programme, which they describe as "an extremely market-oriented instrument". It seems to me that it is a call for re-regulation of the market, but with new instruments.

By and large, the milk crisis is a reflection of how global markets should work (after all, increased competition is the main function of free trade) and why farmers are stuck in a treadmill. This is how I explain the treadmill in Global Eating Disorder. By and large farmers are stuck on a treadmill. They are forced by competition to increase productivity, and the increased productivity leads to lower prices. The fact that ’people will always need food’ is a small comfort for the farmer who cannot compete. Vanguard farmers will constantly develop and improve and mostly increase in size, at the expense of their less successful col­leagues. They will establish a new level of costs and prices each time racking up the notch for the minimum efficiency needed to stay in business. For farmers who cannot participate in this stiff competition there is no way out except to get out! Some production disappears all together. 

In some parts of the world the available natural resources clearly limit the possibilities for large-scale farming. Compare for instance the conditions for a farmer growing grain in a traditional agriculture area of Europe. The landscape is varied and roads, rivulets, hills, settlements and cultural and archeological remains mean that fields cannot be expanded. Because of land scarcity, land prices are also high and not primarily determined by agricultural productivity. The farmer will end up with a small farm and the size of machinery he or she uses can never be the same as on the Great Plains. Those farmers cannot produce grain at the same price as their competitors in United States, Russia or Argentina, even if they can intensify production and get higher yields per hectare.

The same obviously applies to the relationship between huge farms in rich countries and small holders in developing countries. The use of fossil fuel by big farms has increased their productivity tremendously, i.e. it lowered the costs and thus the product price. The same cheap energy also radically increased the level of competition, as transport costs today are a small part of the final product price. Farmers all over the world compete in the same market. Even if small farmers' labor cost are set at zero, they can not compete as their costs of production (seeds, transport, soil preparation, credits, and fertilizers) are mostly higher per unit. Under those circumstances low labor cost is no competitive advantage. Millions of smallholders operate far below their ability to renew or invest in their farms. That is the reason why more than 80% of the farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and around half of the farmers in Asia and Latin America still farm manually.[i] Agriculture historians Marcel Mazoyer and Laurence Roudart conclude that such farmers would have to devote all their monetary income over a whole life to upgrade to ox-plowing.[ii] However, they are still, mostly, (just) above the threshold of survival, which mean that they will continue to farm as long as there are no more promising alternatives beyond agricul­ture.[iii] But it also means that, apart from producing their own food, they will prefer other income-generating activities to agriculture.

The treadmill is driven by specialization and – in turn – it drives further specialization, filling each area with just one or two crops or huge livestock operations. The economic and social implications are huge, but the environmental implications are even bigger. Large-scale landscapes are stripped of variation and biodiversity. They no longer produce the required ecosystem services which have to be produced elsewhere at high costs. In, addition these forms of production also cause direct and indirect damage to nature which have to be compen­sated for. This specialized, industrial, model of agriculture is replacing more and more local and varied regenerative systems. It is a key reason why agriculture produces cheap food but is also the chain that ties farmers onto the agriculture treadmill. Unlimited competition in agriculture will never be sustainable, ecologically, economically or socially. It only leads us further away from sustainability.

Order Global Eating Disorder for a 10% discount at: using the code: GWDZZD8D. 

The remedies against the milk crisis will largely be in vain unless this underlying problem is addressed. 

[i]            Mazoyer, M. and L. Roudart 2006 A History of World Agriculture: From the Neolithic Age to the Current Crisis Monthly Review Press.
[ii]           Ibid.
[iii]           Ibid.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Green Growth Myth

"The climate is changing much faster than the international efforts to address it and the political rhetoric does not match the scale and the seriousness of the problem."

Many economists and policy makers, also many from the environmental movement advocate a fundamental shift towards “green growth” based on enhanced  material/resource/energy efficiency,  changes towards a service-dominated economy and a switch in the energy mix favouring renewable forms of energy. Market mechanisms are mostly the main vehicle to reach there, even if government interventions are part of the proposal - after all there was never and nowhere a "free market". 

According to the report "Can Green Growth Really Work?" from the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, "green growth" may work well in creating growth with reduced environmental load per GDP unit. But the paper, by Ulrich Hoffmann, argues that growth, technological, population-expansion and governance constraints cast a very long shadow on the “green growth” hopes.

Hoffmann cuations that we should not deceive ourselves into believing that such an  approach will be sufficient to cope with the complexities of climate change. It may rather give much false hope and excuses to do nothing really fundamental that should bring about a U-turn of global GHG emissions. The proponents of a resource efficiency revolution, re-structuring of economies and a drastic change in the energy mix need to scrutinize the historical evidence, in particular the arithmetic of economic and population growth.

For example, energy-related carbon emissions increased much stronger in the first decade of this century than in the 1980s and 1990s, mostly caused by higher carbon intensity of energy generation (notably related to the renaissance of coal in the fuel mix) and strong GDP per-capita growth. In Europe, savings through more fuel efficient cars were outweighed by the strong increase in the car population and the total mileage traveled. New innovations, such as ICT or renewable energy often don't replace older technologies, but are added to the existing technosphere meaning that there potential resource saving is not materialized. Hoffmann also refers to the many aspects of rebound and how efficiency gains may not lead to the savings one expect (see also my blog post Jevons paradox - why efficiency is a liar word). 

He points to the inherent growth mania of capitalism and that is is needed to keep the wheels spinning and people content and concludes that the required transformation goes far beyond innovation and structural changes including better distribution of income and wealth, as well as limitation of market power.  Climate change calls into question the global equality of opportunity for prosperity (i.e. ecological justice and development space) and is thus a huge developmental challenge for all countries, but particularly for the global South and a question of life and death for some developing countries.

Ulrich Hoffmann was until the end of 2014 the Senior Trade Policy Advisor to the Director of the International Trade Division of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Local Food Strategies

There is a great interest in local food and there are many initiatives, private and public. They are, however, not coordinated or linked to each other. I am now working with a project to, on a national (Swedish) level, develop concepts and strategies for how to further develop these initiatives.

The project will 1) disseminate knowledge and experiences; 2) analyze opportunities and challenges and; 3) identify needs for further developments. 

The project can increase the opportunities for enterprises to develop new market channels and a more diversified and viable business. New forms of economic development, new kinds of enterprises and market solutions can be identified. It can also contribute to an environment where the stakeholders move together and to a more coherent policy conducive for rural development.

The project will work with the public sector, the agriculture and food industries and civil society.

Are you working with anything of relevance for this, please share it with me and my readers! 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The illusion of cheap food under commodified agriculture

EVEN as hundreds of millions go hungry, food has a low price tag attached to it in the global market. This is because we have externalised many of the costs of producing and consuming it. We let someone else - nature, other people, future generations, taxpayers - foot the bill for climate change, for loss of biodiversity, for eutrophication, for nitrates and pesticides in our groundwater or even for losing the water or the soil altogether. It has become painfully clear that we can no longer afford cheap food. 

An unsustainable system
Cheap food allows a growing proportion of the global population to eat meat, fresh vegetables and fruits all year round, something most people could only dream of a few generations back - and something many people in the world can still only dream of. People live longer, are taller and are generally healthier than in the agrarian societies of the 18th and 19th centuries. But the current food system has also produced obesity, allergies and other diseases, and destroyed the environment and devastated farming communities.
Our whole food system contributes at least a third of manmade total greenhouse gas emissions. The extraction of water for irrigation exceeds the regeneration of water sources in many parts of the world. Pesticides cause a major loss of biodiversity and hundreds of thousands of direct deaths among farmers and farm workers. Nobody really knows how they affect other aspects of our health. The European Nitrogen Assessment concluded that farmers using nitrogen fertilisers create costs for society at large that are on par with the economic benefits for them.1 European chickens or Chinese pigs are, to a very large extent, fed soy protein from Latin America, much of it from the Cerrado, the Amazon or the Pampa, landscapes which are razed and raped by agribusiness. The extinction of species and the greenhouse gas emissions caused by this are also not included in the price of chicken breast or pulled pork. 

That almost a billion people don't have enough to eat, while even more eat too much and huge quantities of food are simply wasted, also shows that the food and farming system is socially unsustainable. For most farmers in the world, farming is not economically viable. Global competition causes the abandonment of farms even in large parts of Europe where almost a hundred million hectares of farmland has been abandoned in the last 50 years.2 Rich countries such as Sweden which could be almost self-sufficient in food import increasing quantities of foods, but even more troubling is that many of the least developed countries have become net importers of food. Sub-Saharan Africa went from a 14% surplus of calories to a 13% deficit in the last 50 years.3

Farming has become one of the most capital-intensive businesses. The very successful Danish farms have an average debt of $1.6 million per farm.4 In the United States the total farm assets in 2014 amounted to $3 trillion,5 corresponding to $1.2 million per full-time job. Low labour cost is no longer a comparative advantage in crops where production is easily mechanised, such as the main staples. On the contrary, low prices for staple crops make it impossible for small farms to mechanise production, which is why more than 80% of the farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and around half of the farmers in Asia and Latin America still farm manually. Such farmers would have to devote all their monetary income over a whole lifetime to upgrade to ox-ploughing. However, they are still, mostly, (just) above the threshold of survival, which means that they will continue to farm as long as there are no more promising alternatives beyond agriculture.6

By and large farmers are stuck on a treadmill. They are forced by competition to increase productivity, and the increased productivity leads to lower prices. Vanguard farms will constantly develop and improve and mostly increase in size, at the expense of their less successful counterparts. Larger farms are not normally more productive per area unit, but they do have lower costs of production. They will establish a new level of costs and prices, each time racking up the notch for the minimum efficiency needed to stay in business. For farmers who cannot participate in this stiff competition, there is no option except to get out. The fact that 'people will always need food' is small comfort for the farmer who cannot compete.

Chickens and commodification
A closer look at the major agricultural commodities helps us understand why things are as they are. Chicken consumption increased tenfold from 1961 to 2009 globally. The past practice of chicken rearing saw small numbers of chickens raised on waste products or seeking their own feed in the farmer's yard, the thicket or the manure heap - a very popular place for the animals. Chicken meat was relatively scarce and thus expensive in many cultures. Today chicken from broilers in the shape of nuggets, wings or strips are munched 24/7. There is hardly any other food that has increased its market share at such speed in such a short period. Why is that?

A trend analyst would explain that consumer choice is driving this, that consumers prefer white meat to red for health reasons, that chicken is low in fat, that chicken is an international food or that chicken is better for the climate than eating beef. Well, I'm no trend analyst and venture that the main explanation is that chicken has become much cheaper compared to other foodstuffs.

But we can go one step further and ask why chicken has become so much cheaper. In my book Global Eating Disorder, I examine why our food and farming system has developed the way it has and explore the underlying causes. There are three megatrends that have shaped our food system over the last couple of centuries: 1) the commercialisation of the entire food system; 2) the use of energy and applied technology (e.g., in the form of machinery or nitrogen fertilisers) to replace animate labour and processes; and 3) demographic changes, such as population growth and urbanisation, and the related lifestyle changes.7
These three megatrends are mutually reinforcing. For example, the application of energy and mechanisation in farming, in particular the use of fossil fuels, has increased productivity per agriculture worker by between 50-200 times, which meant that the share of population engaged in farming dropped tremendously. Without fossil fuels, globalisation and massive urbanisation could not have happened. And without urbanisation, there would be little development of markets for agricultural products. Similarly, without commercialisation of farming, there would be little incentive to mechanise and use chemical fertilisers, as both presuppose market-driven farming.

With these mega-drivers as a background, we can discern some factors which have played a major role in the transformation of the luxury that was Sunday chicken into a very cheap food. Earlier, most farms with animals also produced their own feed. With the large-scale introduction of chemical fertilisers after World War II and improvements in transportation technologies, farms no longer had to integrate animals and crops. With increasing mechanisation, crop farmers could produce much cheaper grain, and later on also soybeans - increasingly grown in monocultures. The grains were sold to specialised livestock farmers, including chicken producers.

Chickens, just like humans, depend on sunlight to produce vitamin D. Therefore chickens would feed on worms and other insects in the yard and would be fed maize when they went back into the chicken house. Once farmers realised they could simply add vitamin D and other vitamins and medications to the chicken feed, they no longer had to let the chickens outdoors. Meanwhile, technology for automatic feeding had been invented. Now, the industrialisation of both broilers and laying hens could proceed apace. Mechanisation of the whole slaughtering process helped to reduce prices and increase volumes. In just over 50 years, the number of chickens produced in the United States increased 14-fold, while the number of farms having chickens dropped from 1.6 million to just 27,000.8 Half of all American broilers now come from farms producing more than 700,000 chicks per year.9 Big food industries came in and contracted producers for their brands and provided them with technologies and markets. At the beginning of this century three-quarters of global chicken production were in the hands of agribusiness companies.10

The development of broiler production was paralleled by developments in the processing, marketing and consumer side. The birds themselves are torn into pieces and reconfigured in a multitude of products such as nuggets and strips. In 1930 the then 40-year-old KFC founder Harland Sanders (who never was a real Colonel) was operating a service station in Corbin, Kentucky, and it was there that he began cooking for hungry travellers who stopped in for gas. He called it 'Sunday Dinner, Seven Days a Week'. Today, KFC, together with Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, is part of Yum! Brands, Inc., the world's leading restaurant company with over 40,000 restaurants and 1.5 million people employed in more than 125 countries and territories.11

Chicken breeding is extremely concentrated as a result of high research expenditure and the capital-intensive nature of the chicken business. By the late 2000s only three sizeable breeding groups remained for broilers: Cobb-Vantress, Aviagen and Groupe Grimaud.12 Two breeders control 94% of the supply of laying hens.13 All these developments have had profound impact on the main character of the story, Gallus gallus. In just half a century, the breeders created two different specialist chickens, each one incredibly efficient for its specific purpose. A typical laying hen of today needs 1.99 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of eggs, while a broiler hen will need 5.22 kg of feed for the same quantity. But the broiler chicken is far superior in converting feed to meat. To produce 1 kg of live weight the broiler needs only 1.7 kg of feed, while the chicken of a laying hen needs 3.8 kg.14 Unfortunately, both the broiler and the laying hen are less efficient than their common ancestor in being a chicken.
Today 300 million male chicks of egg-laying hens are killed in the European Union each year as soon as they hatch, because it is uneconomical to raise them for meat15 since meat from chickens especially bred for meat production is cheaper. Many of them, and their American siblings, are consigned to 'Instantaneous Mechanical Destruction', which is a technical way of saying they are ground up alive.16 Hens that no longer lay eggs also pose a disposal problem and are burnt or thrown into wood-chipping machines, sometimes alive.17
The chicken industry provided a blueprint for the industrialisation of livestock. The capital-intensive model cuts out small farmers and pastoralists and is built on the use of bought-in inputs: feeds, medicines, technologies and breeding stock as well as external knowledge. The production model bears a close resemblance to assembly industries, and producers all over the world use the same breeds, feed and technology. The notion of landscape, place or culture in our foods has totally lost any meaning under these conditions. What is particularly disturbing with the commercialisation of animal production is that it doesn't take into account that animals are living, sentient beings. Through the commodification of animals, their welfare and their ability to exercise their natural behaviours have become externalities - side factors of production - just as the landscape has in plant production.

The myth of choice
We might believe that we chose to eat a certain food, that it is the consumer who is the conductor of the whole food system, but that is an erroneous starting point for a conversation about which foods we eat and which we should eat. Our palates have been shaped over centuries to like some things and dislike others. Differences in local foods and food preferences are proof not of how different from each other we are, but of how well we adapt to what is available. Swedes liked herring and cheese, Bantu people liked cassava and goat stew, and people in South East Asia preferred rice. Fermentation, drying, freezing and curing have all played different roles in different countries. If you lived in the humid tropics, your culture would never develop cured ham, as the conditions for making the ham do not exist in such a climate. The availability of fats and fuels determined your favourite style of frying or roasting or if you mostly ate food boiled in water.  Our food preferences were thus by and large dictated by the local ecological context we lived in.

With fossil fuel and capitalism, this all changed. Today, our food choices are by and large determined by the economy instead of ecology. In most parts of the industrial and urbanised world, people hardly eat anything that comes from close by. Consumption has no direct link to local agriculture, which is organised in the same way as modern assembly lines, with parts being delivered from all over the globe to be assembled as a Gorby's pizza, a McDonald's hamburger or a Ben and Jerry's ice cream. Indonesians consumed a stunning 14 billion packages of instant wheat noodles in 2012.18 What is strange about that? Indonesia produces no wheat at all - what has become a national dish is based on a raw material that is completely imported. The history of wheat in Indonesia began in 1969 when the United States extended food aid in the form of wheat flour and wheat to Indonesia. Indonesia's wheat imports outweigh the total agriculture development budget in this nation of 250 million people.19

Does this mean that people have almost unlimited choice from the global supermarket? Not quite. To be sure, when one stands in front of a supermarket shelf or sits at a table reading a restaurant menu, there are many choices. But before we face all those choices, a number of people have already made the selection for us to choose from. Governments and agribusiness are choice architects and they shape what consumers can and cannot buy.
The modern food system is simultaneously moving towards uniformity and diversity. Globalisation gives many people access to many more kinds of foods than before, but at the same time the differences between regional cuisines are diminishing. We are easily duped by the bright colours of marketing messages and packaging. A supermarket may carry some 50,000 food items, but a very large part of them are variations made out of the 'Big Five' - wheat, maize, palm oil, sugar and soybeans - spiced, coloured, preserved and texturised with additives.

Globally our farming system is still based on a few grains, root crops and oil crops supplemented with animals. Most meat is also produced from the same staples. Almost no new plants or animals have been domesticated in the last centuries, so in that regard our food system is still determined by the choices of generations of ancient farmers. The balance between the staples has changed and instead of being bound to one or two staples, we can now eat rice, pasta, potatoes, cornflakes, meat, milk, cheese etc.

Armies provided a development field for logistics, food processing and, not least, mass catering, which also served the masses in the rapidly growing cities. World War II reshaped the food preferences of American citizens, both those who were drafted into the armed forces and civilians at home. This transformation of diet was influenced by the food industry and government alike. It also helped American food industries to conquer new markets. The President of Coca-Cola, Robert Woodruff, ordered that every man in uniform should be able to get a bottle of the beverage for 5 cents wherever he was and whatever it cost the company. In 1943, General Dwight D Eisenhower sent an urgent cablegram to Coca-Cola requesting shipment of materials for 10 bottling plants. 'During the war, many people enjoyed their first taste of the beverage, and when peace finally came, the foundations were laid for Coca-Cola to do business overseas,' is how the Coca-Cola Company describes the effect on its website.20

In the United States, four companies control 80% of the meat market, three companies control 80% of maize exports and 65% of soy exports, and four companies control 60% of the domestic grain market. The top 10 food and beverage firms (the three largest are Nestl‚, Pepsico and Kraft) control an estimated 28% of the global market. The top five breweries have around 50% of the market while the top 10 wine marketers have around 16% of the market.21 And if you cannot beat your competition, you can just buy them out. Increasingly, huge multinationals have bought up pioneer organic companies or other premium brands. Many companies integrate 'upstream' production (i.e., farmers and other suppliers) and 'downstream' sales (outlets, agents), which allows them to extend their control of the chain. Most of the transnational companies in the food sector are from the United States or Western Europe, but times are changing. Brazil-based JBS SA is now bigger than Unilever, Cargill and Danone, and slaughters 85,000 heads of cattle, 70,000 pigs and 12 million birds. Each day. In September 2013, China's Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. bought US-based Smithfield, the world's biggest pork producer.22

The production and supply of inputs to farms is also highly concentrated. The global commercial seed market in 2009 was worth $27 billion, with the top 10 companies having three-quarters of the market. Three of them controlled more than half of the market and one, Monsanto, now controls more than one-quarter of the commercial seed market. The concentration in the agrochemical market is even higher, with the top 10 having 90% of the global market.23 Five of the top six agrochemical companies are also on the list of the world's biggest seed companies. Monsanto is the world's largest seed company and fourth-largest pesticide company. Monsanto's seeds that are genetically modified to work together with the company's flagship herbicide, Roundup, constitute a clear example of a successful strategy.

The most spectacular development in the food chain in recent decades, however, is not the might of Coca-Cola or Nestl‚, but the increased influence of retailers. In 2008, Walmart recorded sales of $436 billion from 7,657 stores (this corresponded to the GDP of Sweden), Carrefour $161 billion, Metro Group $116 billion and Tesco $109 billion. In 1992, the top five supermarket chains in the United States had a market share of less than 20%; by 1999, that share had increased to one-third and in 2012 the four largest retailers sold more than half of the groceries. In Australia, the two giants Coles and Woolworths now control about 80% of grocery sales, and in Sweden, ICA alone has half the retail market.24

The power of the supermarkets is also strengthened by the spread of retailer-owned brands and private labels. The retail share of private labels among food products has reached almost 60% in Switzerland and between 20% and 40% in most other Western European countries.25 The retailers try to uphold the idea that we have choices by introducing many different private brands. The biggest retailer in Britain, Tesco, has many own brands: Value, Standard, Finest, Discount, Light Choices, Organic, Free From, Whole Foods and finally Disney Kids, which was introduced in 2007 'to help parents by providing a range of nutritionally balanced food that children will engage with and enjoy'. This range includes a Mickey Mouse-shaped pizza.26

Cooking and eating were for a long time social and cultural activities done within the household or in the community, with the work being done without pay and for no costs. Gradually, cooking and eating have become commercialised and acquired a totally different meaning and role in society. In the supermarkets we find a large supply of fully prepared meals, including ready meals of all types and takeaway food for consumption at home. In any week, 45% of Europeans and Americans consume such meals.27 The habit is also spreading rapidly to emerging economies where the consumption of convenience foods is increasing, partly due to increasing urbanisation: retail sales of ready meals in India and China grew by 26.9% and 11.8% respectively from 2003 to 2008.28

We have seen how food processing and retail follow an industrial logic. The same is true of the production of convenience foods. The web of suppliers to these operations is soÿcomplex that it proved very difficult to pin down the point at which horsemeat became beef in the European horsemeat scandal in early 2013. The factory that supplied Tesco with its 'horseburgers' was using 'multiple ingredients from some 40 suppliers in production batches, and the mixture could vary every half hour', according to the Irish department of agriculture.29

The tragedy of the market
Earlier, trade in foods was very limited and determined by needs or ecological adaptation. For example, farmers in plains traded grain for meat or yoghurt from pastoralists in mountains or deserts. In most cultures there existed 'markets' for exchange, but there were few cases where farmers oriented their production fully to sales in the market, and when they did so the market was mostly the town close by.

With the total integration of farms in national and global markets, the market, initially just a tool for distributing surpluses, has become the conductor of the whole food system, from farm to fork, determining how we farm, the whole social fabric and how, where and what we eat.

As farmers become integrated into the market economy, they no longer reproduce and regenerate their production system. The commercialisation of farming also leads us to view land, water and nature as private property and the life of the land, our symbionts, as commodities. It is this process that is the real tragedy for food. It also makes a large contribution to obesity because when food becomes a commodity its main purpose is to be consumed.

The challenge of feeding a growing population is formidable, but managing the planet's ecosystem is an even bigger challenge. Considering that farmed landscapes dominate more than half of the terrestrial area of the Earth,30 it is clear that the way we farm has an enormous impact on the planet's ecosystems; that human agricultural ecosystems must be seen as planetary ecosystems. Yet, the food and farming system is increasingly managed by signals from 'the market', which do not include the signals from these ecosystems: of the species threatened by extinction and the loss of biodiversity, of pollution and of greenhouse gas emissions. The market signals also don't include the feelings of the animals brutalised in our service. The system is simply not geared towards stewardship of the planet and living beings but to the maximisation of marketable output and profit.

The straight rows of endless monocultures in Mato Grosso are reflected in the aisles of the supermarket and the lanes of the highways full of lorries bringing goods into them and cars transporting food to people's homes. But the food system is a life support system and should be based on the principles of living systems, not on the perceived efficiency of the industrial model. Linear thinking and linear processes are fundamentally at odds with the cycles of nature, and, ultimately, nature still rules. The food system is not a smorgasbord where we can pick out the bits we like and keep those we don't like.  What we eat, how we eat and how we farm are all interdependent. There is no way to produce good foods and biologically diverse landscapes in a containerised, standardised and monopolistic food system. We can't combine animal welfare with the view of animals as commodities. And we can't produce healthy foods with the use of chemicals.

It is no longer very controversial to question the direction our food system has taken. Today, expert bodies, such as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, clarify that 'business as usual is not an option'.31 We simply have to find new ways, whether we want to or not. But we will only be able to find new ways if we understand the factors that determine how we farm, what we grow and what we eat. Most commentaries focus on the technical aspects of food production and farming, such as use of genetically modified organisms and chemical fertilisers, their benefits and drawbacks. But these technical aspects of farming are only parts of the problem or the solution. The food system is a social, ecological and economic system and needs to be viewed as such.

Towards a regenerative food system
Food and farming remain, together with energy, labour and housing, one of the most regulated parts of the economy, even before we consider all the cultural norms surrounding them. This is a recognition that the free market doesn't work. Or rather, that it does indeed work according to the textbooks, but we don't like the result of its workings.
Access to food should be an inalienable right. An equitable world will have the potential to feed everybody. It will certainly ensure that the food is distributed more fairly among the world's population. But distribution by the market is the antithesis of equitable sharing. We can still see in times of disaster, war or disturbance that societies rapidly shun the market as the main mechanism for distribution and public or community control over food are the preferred ways of ensuring proper sharing.

Instead of trying to squeeze more of the commons, such as land, water and seeds, into the market, we should rebalance food towards public goods. In this way ecosystem services and food production can be balanced within the same framework. The rethinking of food as a right, of farming as a management system of the planet and the food system as a commons will lead us to develop new institutions that complement the roles of the market and the state.

There are ample opportunities to produce more foods with regenerative methods, such as organic farming and agroecology. Regenerative methods need nature and humans to be productive, but can't use the shortcuts introduced by linear methods, externalisation of costs and massive external energy use. For example, global plant production can be sustained on a high level with a combination of biological nitrogen fixation by leguminous plants in the fields, reduced losses, integration of animals and plants, and recycling of waste and human sewage (which has to be source separated). We can still feed as many persons as with chemical fertilisers, but under current economic conditions the cost will be higher as we need to use some of the resources to regenerate and reproduce the means of production. With regenerative food systems we will also need a higher share of the population engaged in food production. This in turn affects how many people can be engaged in producing iPhones and cars or serving us coffee. By and large, I think such a shift will only be good for society, culture and nature. 

We need to build new relationships in the food system, new relationships that can gradually take over most of the food system. Those relationships should be based on food and farming as joint common activities. There should not be 'producers' and 'consumers', but co-production. Initiatives such as community-supported agriculture have the seeds for this. Consumption as a separate category should wither and we would cook and eat in harmony with production. There will most likely be markets in the future, but not 'the market' that we know today, the globalised market with unlimited competition.

Political actions of many kinds are needed. Some should be oriented to limiting the harm produced by the current system, such as bans on pesticides and harmful practices. We also need to throw sand or gravel in the machinery of unfettered global trade, as unlimited competition forces farmers and food industries into  externalising costs. This includes opposition to privatisation of common resources, including fighting intellectual property rights; we need to expand the commons again. Other political actions should promote the development of alternatives. This can range from reallocating research funds from industrial farming models to regenerative farming, to revising tax codes to stimulate the numbers of people engaged in farming and facilitating emerging new economic relations. 
Ultimately, it is about us as human beings. Are we ready for the great leap into an unknown future, based on new insights? Do we prefer the sterile and cheap ready-to-eat meal wrapped in plastic from the supermarket to the earthy smells and tastes of nature, combined with more sweat and toil? In the long term I don't think we have much choice. An increasing scarcity of key resources will make the choice for us. But the ride will be easier if we halt the depletion of resources and of nature and build a regenerative food system now, before we are faced with the possibility of worrying whether we will get any food at all before going to bed.      

1     European Science Foundation. 2013. 'Nitrogen in Europe: Current problems and future solutions', part of The European Nitrogen Assessment.
2     FAOStat.
3     FAO. 2012. Statistical Yearbook 2012. FAO Statistics Division.
4     Statistics Denmark 2014.
5     Schnepf, R. 2014. US Farm Incomes. United States Congressional Research Service.
6     Mazoyer, M. and L. Roudart. 2006. A History of World Agriculture: From the Neolithic Age to the Current Crisis. Monthly Review Press.
7     Rundgren, G. 2014. Global Eating Disorder. Regeneration.
8     PEW Environment Group. 2011. 'Big Chicken'. PEW Environment Group.
9     USDA Economic Research Service. 2013. 'Farm Size and the Organization of US Crop Farming'. Economic Research Report 152. United States Department of Agriculture.
10   Ostendorff, F. 2013. 'Excessive industrialization of livestock production: the need for a new agricultural paradigm'. Trade and Environment Review 2013. UNCTAD.
11   Yum! 2014. 'About Yum! Brands'. 10 May 2014.
12   Elfick, D. 2013. 'A brief history of broiler selection: How chicken became a global food phenomenon in 50 years'.
13   Heinrich Boll Foundation. 2014. Meat Atlas.
14   Leenstra, F. 2013. 'Raising cockerels as part of free range egg production'. Low Input Breeds Technical Note 4.6.
15   Idel, A. 2013. 'Livestock production and food security in a context of climate change and environmental and health challenges'. Trade and Environment Review 2013. UNCTAD.
16   Mail Online. 2010. 'The disturbing conveyor belt of death where male chicks are picked off and killed so you can have fresh eggs'. 4 November 2010.
17   Chong, J-R. 2003. 'Wood-chipped chickens fuel outrage'. Los Angeles Times. 22 November 2003.
18   World Instant Noodles Association. 2014. 'Expanding Markets'.
19   Jakarta Post. 2013. 'Indonesia caught in wheat trap'. 11 July 2013.
20   Coca-Cola. 2014. 'History of Coca-Cola: 1941-1959'.
21   Inglis, D. and D. Gimlin (editors). 2009. The Globalization of Food. Berg.
22   Heinrich Boll Foundation. 2014. Meat Atlas.
23   ETC. 2011. 'Who will control the Green Economy?' ETC Communique No. 107.
24   Rundgren, G. 2014. Global Eating Disorder. Regeneration.
25   Regmi, A. and M. Gehlhar (editors). 2005. New Directions in Global Food Markets. USDA Agriculture Information Bulletin Number 794.
26   Tesco. 2014. 'Our Brands'.
27   Government of Canada. 2010. 'Consumer Trend Report - Convenience'. Market Analysis Report. June 2010.
28   IMAP. 2010. Food and Beverage Industry Global Report 2010.
29   Lawrence, F., P. Allen and P. Scruton. 2013. 'The complex food supply chain that led to the horsemeat scandal'. The Guardian. 22 October 2013.
30   Ellis, E.C. and N. Ramankutty. 2008. 'Putting people in the map: Anthropogenic biomes of the world'. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6(8): 439-447.
31   IAASTD. 2009. Agriculture at a Crossroads: Global Report. Washington, DC: International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development.

Published in Third World Resurgence No. 295, March 2015, pp 7-13

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

AgTalk: we can't afford cheap food

I gave a talk in IFAD's AgTalk series in October last year. You can listen to it here.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Listen to Global Eating Disorder

In the book Global Eating Disorder, Gunnar Rundgren explains why we no longer can afford cheap food. He debunks the myth that consumer choice is shaping our food system and identifies the main drivers and choice architects. This speech from the launch of the book at the Swedish University of Agriculture 29 January contains some of the most pertinent perspectives of the book.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Conflicts in the food, energy, land and water nexus

There is growing concern over future food production and increas­ing competition for resources in the food, energy and water nexus are reflected in a new interest for investment in land and water. “I cannot farm myself out of this water problem,” says Mark Shannon, a farmer who in 2010 had to let his land in the San Joaquin valley be converted into a solar power field. This is a vivid illustration of the shortage of resources that will be a permanent feature in the future, and how land, water and energy interplay.

Eagle Ford in Texas is one of the fastest-growing shale oil and gas plays (a group of fields in the same geological zone) in the United States. It is also located in one of the driest parts of the country. Following the severe drought of 2011, concerns are mounting that oil and gas extraction is competing with irrigation for scarce water supplies. Drilling and fracturing rock formations to release oil and gas (fracking) uses enormous quantities of water: according to most estimates, each well in Eagle Ford consumes between fifteen to nineteen million liters of water. The economic returns from using groundwater for fracking are enormous and easily outstrip the returns of agriculture, so frackers can easily outbid farmers. If the groundwater owner can claim royalties on the output from oil and gas wells, using groundwater to frack wells could earn more than two thousand times more than growing maize.[i]

Not only oil and gas extraction needs a lot of water. Thermal power plants – fossil fuel-based and nuclear – require water, primarily for cooling. Per unit of energy produced, they are the energy sector’s most intensive users of water.[ii] In Europe, the repeated shut down of river-water cooled thermal power plants, in particular French nuclear reactors, during extended heat waves is a potent reminder of the water-energy nexus.[iii] Also, irrigation itself consumes a lot of electric­ity. Moving and treating water in California accounts for almost 20% of the state’s electricity.[iv]

In 2011, China had to make the tough choice between using water in the Three Gorges Dam to irrigate food crops or for energy. To safeguard food production the government released enough water to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools for irrigation by June 10. China’s oil demand increased by 300,000 barrels a day to make up for lost hydropower generation from the water used for crops.[v]

The International Energy Agency notes in its 2012 World Energy Outlook that energy production uses some 15% of the world’s water withdrawals and that access to water is an important criterion for assessing the viability of energy projects. The availability of and access to water could pose severe limitations for shale gas development and power generation in parts of China and the United States, India’s power plants, Canadian oil sands production and for reser­voir pressures to support oil output in Iraq.[vi]

Shortage of one resource (land) can partly be compen­sated with another (water), but what happens if all of them are scarce? We see today that the market does not distribute scarce re­sources to those who are poor: if resources become scarcer the poor will be further disenfran­chised. In more extreme cases the rich will drive their cars with fuels made from food crops that the poor cannot afford to buy and lack the resources to produce themselves.

(Extract from Global Eating Disorder)

[ii] IEA 2012 ‘Water for energy, Is energy becoming a thirstier resource?’ World Energy Outlook 2012 IEA.
[iii] Research Councils UK India 2013 ‘Report: Roundtable on Applying Energy Water Food Nexus Thinking’. Research Councils UK India.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Bloomberg 2011 ‘World’s Biggest Dam Opens Sluices to Refill China’s Parched Yangtze, Lake’ 24 May 2011
[vi] IEA 2012 ‘Water for energy, Is energy becoming a thirstier resource?’ World Energy Outlook 2012. IEA.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

"We can no longer afford cheap food"

“Global Eating Disorder is one of the most comprehensive and practical analyses of what will soon become dysfunctional in our global industrialized food system given the challenges ahead of us---end of cheap energy, depleting natural resources and impacts of climate change. This is a must read for anyone interested in getting a head start preparing for the changes ahead.”
–Frederick Kirschenmann, author of Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays From a Farmer Philosopher.

Order Global Eating Disorder  for a 20% discount at: using the code: C9RD3464

“The food in your fridge is just the tip of the iceberg. Gunnar Rundgren takes you behind the scene of global food production and shows you who pulls the strings in the agricultural system. He doesn’t mince his words but offers crystal clear argumentation why things are going wrong in the food chain.  After reading this book you will think twice how to fill your shopping basket. A must read for all who want to catch a glimpse of the future of our food!”
–Franz Fischler, President of the European Forum Alpbach and former EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Fisheries.

You can also buy the book from Amazon, and as an ebook from Kindle. More channels will follow.

"Rundgren's book has global reach and vision, and deserves a global audience."
–Frederick Kaufman, food journalist and author of Bet the Farm.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Animals - much more than meat

Young boys attending cattle (instead of going to school), Karamoja 2013
The role of animals in the life of humans and in our self-appointed job of taking care of the planet extend far beyond supplying us with meat and milk, wool and skins. Livestock is providing us and other species with a number of valuable "ecosystem services". But the industrial model of animal production is only concerned with the production of commodities, which is why it disregards animal welfare, why it destroys the environment, why it pose risk to human health and don't produce any of the much needed values that traditional livestock systems did.

This and many more interesting things can be gleaned from the report ECOSYSTEM SERVICES PROVIDED BY LIVESTOCK SPECIES AND BREEDS, WITH SPECIAL CONSIDERATION TO THE CONTRIBUTIONS OF SMALL-SCALE LIVESTOCK KEEPERS AND PASTORALISTS by Irene Hoffmann, Tatiana From and David Boerma  written for the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The report gives several interesting perspectives on livestock production and a much more nuanced picture than the dominating "cows are climate hooligans", "meat consumption is bad for health" or "eating meat destroys the rainforest" discourses.

The report is built around the concept of ecosystem services, a terminology which I have some issues with (see for instance here) but still use now and then (and will use here when discussing the report). Ecosystem services can be divided into those that can be converted into and marketed as private goods (e.g. provisioning services such as food) and those that are of a non-market public good nature (e.g. regulating, supporting and most cultural services).

Livestock provide approximately 26 percent of human global protein consumption and 13 percent of total calories. Foods of animal origin, such as meat, eggs, milk and dairy products, supply essential,  nutrients, such as protein, iron, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and zinc. They provide a critical supplement and diversity to staple plant-based diets, and are particularly appropriate for combating malnutrition and a range of nutritional deficiencies. Livestock products, such as milk, can be very useful for children.

Important other "provisioning services" include draught power, manure and urine for fertilizer, manure for methane and energy, skins, hides, fiber, as a genetic resource itself, including for biotechnical and/or medicinal purposes.

Less well understood is the tremendous importance of livestock, and in particular of the grazing ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats etc.) for the many other critical ecosystem services such as:

  • waste recycling and weed control; 
  • biological control and animal/human disease regulation; 
  • maintenance of soil structure and fertility (nutrient cycling and distribution, organic matter, etc.);
  • prevention of land degradation and erosion; 
  • climate regulation; 
  • regulation of water flow and quality;
    moderation of extreme events (shrub control and maintenance of fuel breaks, prevention of landslides
    and avalanches); 
  • pollination and seed dispersal; 
In a wider sense livestock are land stewards and landscape managers facilitating the life cycles of animals and plants, preventing the succession to less valuable ecological states through encroachment of bush and/or invasive species, and the conserving wild-life and protected areas.  There is a close overlap of livestock grazing with nature conservation areas.

Many discuss "nature" and "agriculture" as if they are separate and even opposites. This has probably never been true, as agriculture developed within nature. And it is certainly not true today. The natural environment has co-evolved with agriculture practices. And in grassland management this is most apparent. Considering that grasslands cover up to a third of the terrestrial area, it is apparent that management of grasslands is a key for how we humans manage the planet at large. And tame livestock are the dominating managers of grasslands today.

There is a huge difference in resilience between traditional livestock systems and the industrial ones. The high productivity in modern systems is not only based on neglect or destruction of ecosystem services it is also a result of a meticulous management of inputs to reach the highest efficiency. But this efficiency makes the systems more and more vulnerable, and the modern breeds developed are dependent on this industrial model for their life and production. This is in stark contrast to the traditional systems, where maintaining the ecosystem and regenerating resources were part and parcel of the system. This is also reflected in the breeds, the report concludes:
Generally, the more complex, diverse and risk-prone peasant livelihood systems are, the more they will need animal genetic resources that are flexible, resistant and diverse in order to perform the required functions.
The report also make very clear that the discussion of feed versus food is far too simplistic and that there is a big difference between traditional livestock systems and the industrial model. The industrial model uses huge amounts of human edible crops as feed for livestock and therefore it consumes much more human edible protein than it provides. But traditional livestock systems have not been like that. Grazing ruminants provide much more human edible protein than they consume, and therefore such production don't compete with humans for food. On the contrary, if we also take into account the use of such animals for manure, fuel, draught power and transport it is apparent that it is a very efficient way of using resources. The same goes for animals that largely live on waste products.

Globally, however, industrial livestock systems are on the rise. And what many don't seem to understand is that this is also a main driver  for why traditional livestock systems are disappearing. The industrial model simply produce many more kgs for lower costs. This is assisted by low prices of grain and soybeans, produced with massive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides. Pastoralist using traditional methods have more or less the same production costs today as they had hundred years ago. But the relative price of meat is much, much lower today. This means that with all things equal, they have become poorer. Governments also lend a hand to agri-business with (perhaps well intended) regulations on compulsory slaughterhouses, meat inspection, traceability and prohibition of using food waste as animal feed.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Healthy diets comes from socially and environmentally sustainable food systems

"The effect of individual nutrients was increasingly proving to be an inadequate explanation of the relationship between diet and health. Several studies show, for example, that protection against heart disease and certain types of cancer gained by consumption of substantial amounts of fruits or vegetables is not repeated with interventions based on medicines or supplements that contain such individual nutrients found in those foods. These studies indicate that the beneficial effects are from the food itself, and from the combinations of nutrients and other chemical compounds that are part of the food’s matrix, more so than from individual nutrients."
This can be read in Brazil's new Dietary Guidelines (in English and in Portuguese) . The guidelines are a big rebuttal of the nutritionism that to a large extent is dominating discussions about food and diets. The Guidelines state that healthy diets comes from socially and environmentally sustainable food systems. The contain the following ten key recommendations.
The guidelines include ten steps to healthy diets: 
  1. Make natural or minimally processed foods the basis of your diet
  2. Use oils, fats, salt, and sugar in small amounts when seasoning and cooking natural or minimally processed foods and to create culinary preparations
  3. Limit consumption of processed foods
  4. Avoid consumption of ultra-processed products
  5. Eat regularly and carefully in appropriate environments and, whenever possible, in company
  6. Shop in places that offer a variety of natural or minimally processed foods
  7. Develop, exercise and share culinary skills
  8. Plan your time to make food and eating important in your life
  9. Out of home, prefer places that serve freshly made meals
  10. Be wary of food advertising and marketing
 In Global Eating Disorder I write
"The nutritional needs of the body can already be reduced to chemi­cally known substances that can be synthesized or extracted from natural products”, wrote Nevin S. Scrimshaw, a leading food scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was awarded the prestigious World Food Prize 1991. An important effect of the role that science and politics played in nutrition was that common people could no longer be entrusted to decide for themselves what they should eat. False needs expressed ignorance and should be cured by proper instructions from scientists. We have since been raised not to rely on taste or pleasure to determine what to eat, but to defer our selection of food to experts. I believe this view is mistaken.
and further:
Nutritionism has suited the food industry well. After all, the strength of the food industry is to mix standard components and create a constant flow of new products. ‘Now with omega-3’ or ‘more iron/antioxidants’, or whatever is temporarily in fashion are good marketing pitches. Vitamins, fiber, minerals and lately special proteins for body builders are all ingredients that can be mixed in never-ending combinations and marketed with nutritional arguments – and be marked up a notch compared to the same product without these extras. Dieting and nutritionism create their own industry, so the same companies that first earned money from making people fat, can earn even more from making them slim again. Americans spend between US$40 billion and US$100 billion on dieting. ‘Meal replacement’ shakes and protein bars are sold to those who have ingested too much Coke and too many French fries. In 2008 alone, Nestlé made changes to more than 6,000 products to cater for nutritional issues, real or per­ceived.
Brazil shows the way ahead. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Using development aid to support multinational fertilizer companies.

The African Fertiliser and Agribusiness Partnership (AFAP), under the guise of empowering smallholder farmers in Africa, is subsidising multinational fertiliser and financial corporations on African soil. AFAP, established in 2012, with a grant of US $25 million from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

According to a new report from the African Centre for Biosafety, AFAP's main focus is the provision of credit guarantees to importers and distributors of fertilisers in Ghana, Mozambique and Tanzania.
In essence, AFAP is using development funds, as well as money from the Ethiopian government-one of the least developed countries in the world-to subsidise multinational fertiliser companies such as Yara, which dominates the fertiliser trade in Africa. ...Far from enabling African smallholder farmers to grow food and profits, this scam will trap small- scale farmers into a never ending cycle of debt and increasing poverty," said Gareth Jones, a researcher with the ACB.

Recent ACB fieldwork in Malawi found that small-scale farmers are using extremely high levels of fertiliser, on soils that are technically infertile, at great additional expense, but with very little material benefits. ACB's research report shows that the adoption of Green Revolution inputs by small scale-farmers has resulted in net transfers away from farming families to multinational agribusiness. Read more;  Running to stand still: Small-scale farmers and the Green Revolution in Malawi.

The findings concur with my own findings from Zambia and Tanzania recounted for instance in:
Millennium Villages: the Great Experiment
Markets don't distribute food to those without money

I have also summarized other reports about Malawi: The Malawi Fertilizer Myth?