Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Back soon...

Hi, I have been quite busy lately with a consultancy in Mongolia, a job with the Sami in the North of Sweden, editing the Swedish version of Global Eating Disorder, spring work in our farm and last but not least a project to restore a pasture along the shore of the lake. First step of that is clearing the bush and forest that has encroached the land since it was grazed some fifty years ago.Two weeks ago we had thirty friends helping us,  but there is a lot more to do before we can start fencing. 
Burning shrubs for making pasture

Plants waiting for summer
I plan to continue blogging on the trade theme in a week or two, or three....

Monday, April 4, 2016

Food: Trading away our future? - Part I

We may not always think about it, but the origin of trade is found in ecology and not in economy. The merchant was an ecological plumber moving supplies from an area of surplus to one of shortage, greasing the cogs of ecology as well as human society. Trade made it possible for human beings to establish themselves even where some basic resource was absent. One tribe had access to a resource that the other was missing. In some places flint or obsidian was abundant, and in other places hunters had no access to those stones for making spears and arrows. In other areas there was no salt, which was important for preserving meat and curing skins. In some rare cases this situation might have led to war, but more often it led to peaceful exchange.

The role of trade in ecological adaptation has, in some cases, meant that communities have been able to specialize in forms of production that are very well adapted to their ecological context. Through trade with the plains, the peasants of the Alps could shift entirely to pasturing livestock thus avoiding the need to plow fragile mountain slopes while their Mediterranean colleagues occupied themselves with viticulture and olives. In this way, trade in agricultural produce, even staple food such as grain, promoted sustainability, long before the term was coined.[i]

But how is it today? I will explore the status and implications of global food trade in (I believe) four posts. This first one gives an overview of

the actual status of global trade in food. The second on its implications on diets, environment, water, land use, carbon emissions. Thirdly, I will discuss it from the perspective of the agriculture producer in exporting and importing countries, and finally, I will discuss the drivers, which changes are either caused by internal mechanisms or external conditions and what developments would be desirable.

Global food production increased with over 50% between 1986 and 2009. Meanwhile the trade in food for direct human consumption has increased from 15% of total production in 1986 to 23% in 2009, thus about one fourth of food production is traded. Half of the net exports 2010 were originating from just five countries, USA (17%), Brazil (9.9%), Argentina (8.5%), Indonesia (5.9%) and France (5.9%).[ii] At the global level, land for export production grew rapidly by about 100 million hectares between 1986 and 2009, while land supplying crops for direct domestic use remained virtually unchanged.[iii] Production of commercial agricultural commodities for domestic and foreign markets is increasingly driving land clearing in tropical regions. Henders et al (2015) show that in the period 2000–2011, the production of beef, soybeans, palm oil, and wood products in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea was responsible for 40% of total tropical deforestation.[iv] At the same time large tracts of land is left idle or used for development in the advanced economies.[v]

Rich countries are increasingly using land in other regions for their food production. The UK is currently importing over 50% of its food and feed, and 70% of the associated cropland is located abroad. Between 1986 and 2009 the global cropland footprint associated with the UK food and feed supply increased by 2022 kha (+23%).[vi] Of course, you have to afford food in order to buy it in international markets; the average per capita GDP in countries that achieve sufficient food supply by imports was approximately tenfold compared to countries with insufficient food supply and production.[vii]

Mostly, international trade flow from high-yield to low-yield regions: For that reason, one can argue that trade lowered global cropland demand by almost 90 million hectares according to a study by Thomas Kastner, Karl-Heinz Erb and Helmut Haberl (2014). However, area-efficiency gains through trade do not imply that international trade reduces total global land demand. For instance, if trade reduces price levels, consumption of agricultural products will increase, especially for products with elastic demand.[viii] Clearly this is what has happened with the rapid increase of trade in poultry meat, palm oil and soybean meal.

Trade fills an important role for moving produce from areas with excess to areas with deficit. In 1965 insufficient domestic production normally meant insufficient food supply, but in recent years the deficit has been increasingly compensated by rising food imports.[ix] There are, however, many meachnisms in trade which leads countries not to produce food even if they could do so. Europe has let almost 100 million hectares of farm land revert to forest or lying idle, while European farmers buy protein rich feedstuffs from developing countries and European food industries buy palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia. Europe could produce those within its own territory.[x]

Many assume that exports goes from countries with relatively more efficient production than importing nations, including land use, water use, and nutrient use. However, Macdonald et al (2015) suggest that higher resource endowments in some major exporting countries may facilitate land- or water-intensive exports despite lower efficiency. Research on embodied water trade demonstrates many examples in which trade occurs despite relative disadvantages.[xi]  In many countries agricultural production and trade patterns are driven by other factors than availability or water and land resources. In some cases scarcity of resources can even be intensified by the production of agricultural products for export. There are some countries which rely on food imports due to land and water constraints on domestic food production, but many countries import a lot without having particular resource constraints. For example, in Mexico, per capita freshwater and land resources are still quite abundant despite the rapid population growth. Yet, in recent years it has become a high net importer of food, with over 1800 kcal/capita/day imported in 2005. [xii] Partly this is because Mexico imports high calorie commodities such as maize, soybeans and wheat and export high-value vegetables. Despite this, Mexico is a net importer also calculated in values; see graph.
Three quarters of the global food trade is with crops which are grown both in the exporting and importing countries, i.e. only a quarter of the trade is with crops which could not be grown in the importing country, e.g. coffee imports to Europe and United States.[xiii] Sometimes very similar products are exchanged between countries, e.g. bottled lager beer can be both imported and exported from the same country. Sometimes there are some differences in quality between the imported and the exported goods. For example, the United States imports land-intensive pasture-grazed beef from Australia but simultaneously exports predominantly grain-fed beef to other countries.[xiv] Sweden both import and export wheat, normally it imports lower quality and imports higher quality. In many cases it is just the price which determines if a product will be traded or not.

[i]  This introduction is extracted from my book Global Eating Disorder, which discuss food trade extensively. The data in this post are however even more recent and was nbot part of the research for the book.    
[ii]  D’Odorico, P., J. A. Carr, F. Laio, L. Ridolfi, and S. Vandoni (2014), Feeding humanity through global food trade, Earth’s Future, 2, 458–469, doi:10.1002/2014EF000250.
[iii] Thomas Kastner, Karl-Heinz Erb nd Helmut Haberl 2014 Rapid growth in agricultural trade: effects on global area efficiency and the role of management, Environ. Res. Lett. 9 (2014) 034015 (10pp)
[iv] Sabine Henders et al 2015, Trading forests: land-use change and carbon emissions embodied in production and exports of forest-risk commodities, Environ. Res. Lett. 10 (2015)
[v] Rundgren, G 2014, Global Eating Disorder.
[vi] de Ruiter H, Macdiarmid JI, Matthews RB, Kastner T, Smith P. 2016 Global cropland and greenhouse gas impacts of UK food supply are increasingly located overseas. J. R. Soc.  Interface 13: 20151001. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2015.1001
[vii] Porkka M, Kummu M, Siebert S, Varis O (2013) From Food Insufficiency towards Trade Dependency: A Historical Analysis of Global Food Availability. PLoS ONE 8(12): e82714. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082714
[viii] Thomas Kastner, Karl-Heinz Erb nd Helmut Haberl 2014 Rapid growth in agricultural trade: effects on global area efficiency and the role of management, Environ. Res. Lett. 9 (2014) 034015 (10pp)
[ix] Porkka M, Kummu M, Siebert S, Varis O (2013) From Food Insufficiency towards Trade Dependency: A Historical Analysis of Global Food Availability. PLoS ONE 8(12): e82714. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082714
[x] Rundgren, G 2014, Global Eating Disorder.
[xi] Graham K. Macdonald et al 2015, Rethinking Agricultural Trade Relationships in an Era of Globalization http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org
[xii] Porkka M, Kummu M, Siebert S, Varis O (2013) From Food Insufficiency towards Trade Dependency: A Historical Analysis of Global Food Availability. PLoS ONE 8(12): e82714. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082714
[xiii] Thomas Kastner, Karl-Heinz Erb nd Helmut Haberl 2014 Rapid growth in agricultural trade: effects on global area efficiency and the role of management, Environ. Res. Lett. 9 (2014) 034015 (10pp)
[xiv] Graham K. Macdonald et al 2015, Rethinking Agricultural Trade Relationships in an Era of Globalization http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org

Friday, March 18, 2016

The global plate

How much food is actually produced and how much is consumed?
Below there is an extract from Global Eating Disorder, which explains it all.
From farm to table
kcal/per capita/day
Gross crop production per capita

Used as seed
Waste on farm & post-harvest
Used as feed
From livestock products
Other industrial uses
Waste in food processing
Food from other sources

Total food available

1. Calculated from FAOSTAT data for the main 20 crops + 10%for the rest of the corps.
2. Based on FAO (2001), Global Food Losses and Food Waste, probably an overestimate.
3. Calculated from FAOSTAT data for the main 20 crops + 20%of the rest of the crops.
4. FAOSTAT. Some of this is from grazing and some comes from cultivated feed.
5. Calculated from United States Energy Information Administration (EIA) data on amounts of biofuel produced and the raw materials used. No calories are counted for the feed value of residual products as they come into the food system via livestock products.
6. Guesstimate, bio-plastics, starch, medicines, cosmetics and fiber.
7. Based on FAO (2011), Global Food Losses and Food Waste.
8. Wild fish, game and other wild collection. Own estimate and FAOSTAT

This coincides more or less with FAO data on food availability 2009. The figure is an average for all individuals on the planet, including children and the elderly. Small children don’t eat much and old people also eat considerably less. By and large, even with a wastage rate of ten percent, there is more than enough food to feed the global population, if it was evenly distributed. Which it is not. But if food were evenly distributed, what would the global menu look like? The table below gives an idea. People consume some 1.8 kg of food per day (675kg per year). Looking at calories in our food, 46% came from cereals (with rice and wheat contributing 19% each), 18% from animal products, 10% from vegetable oils, 8% from sugar, 5% from root crops, 3% respec­tively from vegetables, fruits and alcoholic beverages and 5% from other (fish & sea food, algae and pulses). In terms of protein and fat, animal products play a much bigger role, contributing 45% of all dietary fat and 39% of all protein.

Global food supply per capita per day 2009

Cereals, other
Starchy roots (potatoes, cassava etc.)
Sugar and sweeteners
Beans and peas
Soybeans and groundnuts
Vegetable oils
Alcoholic beverages
Animal fats
Fish, seafood
Source: FAOSTAT,

To make this more vivid let’s try to make a day’s diet out of it. Perhaps it would look like this:
  • For breakfast you drink tea or coffee with sugar, eat three slices of bread (or cereal based porridge) upon which you use a vegetable oil based margarine and a sweet fruit-based condiment.
  • For lunch you eat tortillas, and two potatoes (or yams, cassava or sweet potatoes), with tomatoes and onions fried in vegetable oil. Once a week you also have a fish.
  • For dinner you eat boiled rice with a stew of beans, cabbage and a small piece of meat. You round off with a banana, an apple, an orange or half a mango.
  • In the evening you drink a very small soda or a beer and snack on roasted groundnuts or soybeans.
But the average food supply varies greatly geographically. The food supply per Indian is 2,321 kcal while it is 3,688 for the average Ameri­can. The average Indian gets almost two thirds of their calories from cereals, pulses and root crops while these crops only contribute a quarter of the calories of the American. Sugar and fats contribute almost 40% of the American’s calories but just 21% of the Indian’s. Animal products, including fish, make up 28% of the calorie supply of an American but only 9% for the average Indian. Clearly, the agriculture systems that produce those two diets are very different and the ecological footprints of the diets are also very different.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Food as a business is the second fall of man

There are three megatrends that have shaped our food system over the last centuries: 
1) the commercialization of the entire food system, 
2) the use of energy and applied technology (be it in the form of machinery or nitrogen fertilizers) to replace animate labor and processes, and 
3) demographic changes, such as population growth, demographic transition and urbanization, and the related lifestyle changes. 

These three megatrends are mutually reinforcing. Any of them alone would not produce the changes that can be observed today. For example, the application of energy and mechanization in farming, in particular the use of fossil fuels, has increased productivity per agriculture worker by between fifty and two hundred times, which meant that the share of population engaged in farming dropped tremen­dously. The use of nitrogen fertilizers (produced with huge energy investments) has been a major driver for the increase of crop yields per area unit. Without fossil fuels, globalization and massive urbanization could not have happened. And without urbanization there would be little development of markets for agriculture products. Similarly, without commercialization of farming there would be little incentive to mechanize and use chemical fertilizers, as both pre-suppose market driven farming. 

The existence of markets in most human societies for some thousand years or longer is not at all the same as the existence of a ‘market economy’ and even less a globalized capitalist market econ­omy. As farmers become integrated into the market economy, they no longer reproduce and regenerate their production system. They buy their seeds and breeds in the market; they feel that they don’t have to take care of the reproduction of the soil, because they can compensate for this by buying chemical fertilizers in sacks. They don’t have to take care of the balance between nature and what humans take away. Land, water and forests have been gradually transformed from commons to tradable commodities. 

The time perspective of farmers in my native Scandinavia has, until very recently, been intergenerational, some refer it to as ‘glacial time.’ The sustainable regeneration of productive forces, including labor and the knowledge needed, was engraved in the memes of those farming societies. This is in absolute contrast to the entrepreneurial approach farmers are encouraged to apply today. ‘Farming as a business’ is a code word for farming now from Narvik to Cape Town, from Alaska to the Tierra del Fuego and from Vladivostok to Tasmania. 

The market, initially just a tool for distributing surpluses, has become the conductor of the whole food system, from farm to fork. The commercialization of farming also leads us to view land, water, nature as private property and the life of the land, our sym­bionts, as commodities. The divide between society, culture, the economy and nature that we currently experience is a divide alien to farming, and can never be sustainable. If the transition from hunting to farming was the First Fall of Man, farming as a business is the Second Fall.