Thursday, October 28, 2010

Man giveth and he taketh away

Man’s activities sometimes lead to extinction of other species. Of 10,000 bird species, 90 have been extinct since year 1600, another 1,000 are considered to be threatened. Of the extinct species, most were endemic, i.e. existed only in one isolated environment, mostly an island. A third of the extinct birds were on Hawaii. Also so called indigenous people exterminated other species. Twelve of the ninety bird species were exterminated by the Maori on New Zeeland, before arrival of the Europeans (NRM 2008). The Maori were also newcomers in the environment. The role of humans in the great death of big mammals in North and South America is still disputed, but the mammoth, the mastodon, camels, horses, bears and big cats disappeared within some thousand years after the first appearance of humans in the Americas. And there is no other, better, explanation given than that humans were to blame1. And it is sad. As Rolf says: “our life becomes poorer, emptier, when one life form is lost and diversity reduced. Life forms lost can never be replaced. A lost instrument is a loss for the whole orchestra, and reduced the power of the symphony” (Edberg 1976, my translation).

Meanwhile, we should have a reasonable perspective. Some claim that 99 percent of all species have been extinct already over the billions of . And most people are likely to be happy for that the Tyrannosaurus Rex is not roaming around; if it did I am certain that there would be calls for their culling. One often hear that there are chain reactions; if one species vanish there will be chain reactions so that other species also disappear, or that the whole balance in the ecosystem is disturbed with unpredictable consequences. And, for sure, it can be like that; there are keystone species. Perhaps it is a small predator that prevents a particular herbivorous species from eliminating dominant plant species. Without the predators, the herbivorous prey would explode in numbers, wipe out the dominant plants, and dramatically alter the character of the ecosystem. The scenario varies, but the central idea remains that one species has a fundamental impact on ecosystem functions. On the other hand, nature is very multifaceted, and at least in the longer view new balance will come. Also, species that vanishes are, mostly, specialists with narrow niches, rather than generalists. If they are gone, a generalist will often take their place, at least for a . Humans, mice and house sparrows are generalists which adapt themselves to many different environments (the mice and the sparrows seem to follow in our footsteps). Humans have, accordingly, taken over the role of many of the predators they have exterminated.

One hundred species per million are currently estimated to be lost per year (Rockström and others 2009). But what does it really say us? We have no clue even how many species there are: "Right now we can only guess that the correct answer for the total number of species worldwide lies between 2 and 100 million," says the ecologists Michael Rosenzweig (Society For Conservation Biology 2003). According to the latest Red List, 17 291 species out of 47 677 assessed are under threat: 21 per cent of all known mammals, 30 per cent of all known amphibians, 12 per cent of all known birds, 28 per cent of reptiles, 37 per cent of freshwater fishes, 70 per cent of plants, and 35 per cent of invertebrates (UNEP 2010b). Coral species are deteriorating most rapidly in status. Nearly a quarter of plant species are estimated to be threatened with extinction. The abundance of vertebrate species, based on assessed populations, fell by nearly a third on average between 1970 and 2006, and continues to fall globally, with especially severe declines in the tropics and among freshwater species (CBD 2010). Mass extinctions have taken place earlier. But the belief5 is that in earlier mass extinctions the rate was some 15-30 species per year while we are now speaking about thousands. According the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is the rate some 50-1000 times higher than earlier. It estimates that the rate will increase further (MEA 2005).

We should be worried that so many species are disappearing in such a rapid pace. It can lead to a loss of potential raw materials e.g. for food, medicines or pest control agents. More than 50 percent of all medicines are produced by substances first detected in nature. More than 50,000 species are used for medical purposes of which 3,000 at a volume where they are traded internationally. Some 1,000 of them are grown commercially (Lehman 2009). But by and large it is not that one specie is lost that we shall see as a problem. If that would have been a disaster the world would already be gone as most species have been extinct. The problem is the large scale transformation of the whole planet to serve us humans, a process where we don’t only exterminate a few species, but landscapes, whole ecosystems and their essential life-upholding services. Measures to keep one species alive can command enormous resources, and ultimately, still be in vain because the habitat is simply not there any longer. Instead of straining the resources of society – and the support of the citizens – in order to save one species, it might be a better investment to put the resource into keeping some thirty other species, with better life expectancy so to say, abundant.

In the same way as we humans have created new ecosystems (farms, parks, rangelands) we have also created many new plants and animals. Just think about all dog races and the many cows and thousands of plants that don’t exist in nature. Many plants we grow can’t even multiply naturally (apples and roses just to mention a few). Of course, the plants we developed don’t replace the ones we exterminate. Now a lot of this agro-biodiversity is threatened. It might sound paradoxically that some of the most threatened plants, animals and ecosystems are those we created ourselves. But at a closer look it is quite apparent. We have created them and it is only our active care that keeps them alive. If we stop to use them and take care of them, their whole life space disappears. And we humans have constantly changed our use of nature as we have changed our own behaviours and our organization in society. As little as we can take care of every single species in nature, can we take care of every variety of cabbage or breed of sheep. Most of the things we created are not very competitive in nature and some of them are functionally defect, e.g. turkeys that can’t reproduce themselves or cows, like the Belgian blue, which can’t give birth naturally. And we have genetically modified crops which have the “evolutionary advantage” that the can survive a spray with a certain herbicide, glyphosate (better know under one of its trade names (Roundup ©). These crops are linked to an “ecosystem” where this herbicide is the main selective forces. There is certainly no value in keeping those genes alive!

Another peep view of Garden Earth

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Rich people are not starving – can markets help?

It is the World Hunger Day 16 October
Who is starving? It is perhaps quite obvious but is has to be said: Rich people don’t starve. Also, I believe most people have also understood that there is, globally, enough food in the world, it is just badly distributed, and also a lot of food is going to waste, in high-income countries mainly at the retail and consumption stages, in low income countries more often in the field and in immediate post harvesting. Many countries where people are hungry are also exporting food.

Far too often hunger and malnutrition are discussed as a problem to be solved by certain agricultural technologies, such as chemical fertilizers of GMOs. India is a poster child of the so called Green Revolution, a package of modern seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, which was introduced already 50 years ago. The Indian government is still subsidizing chemical fertilizers in the tune of US$ 20 billion annually. Nevertheless, India is the country in the world with most hungry people, 237 million people, that is almost as many hungry as in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa (239 million). In light of that, I can’t understand why some people are promoting more of the same recipe as a solution for the world’s hungry.

Despite a virtual population explosion, thanks to the impressive productivity gains by the world’s farmers food prices have decreased dramatically over the last sixty years. We are speaking about a fall in prices of about 60 percent for staple foods. But the number of hungry has been fairly constant. This shows two things. That increased total production of food is not a recipe for food security and that lower food prices is not the way out of hunger. Low food prices might be good for poor people in urban areas, and angry, hungry young men in cities are prone to rioting and uprising. But most of the hungry people are, perhaps paradoxically, in the country-side and many of them are small farmers.

For a Swede the idea that a farmer is starving may sound strange, but actually we don’t have to go more than 150 years back in our own history to find a similar situation. Small tenant farmers, torpare, were often not able to produce the food their, often large, families needed. In many cases, they (man and wife) had to work for a landlord or someone else to earn money for paying the rent of the farm, some clothes, tools etc. When they should have attended to their own crops at the peak of the year’s sowing and harvesting, that was also when their labor was in most demand. Their older children had to look for jobs instead of helping out on the farm. The farm itself was small and they lacked good tools to make their work more efficient. To pay what they owe they often had to sell of their meager crop at harvest when prices were low and buy in the lean period before next years crop. Because they lived in bad conditions they got more sick, but couldn’t afford proper medical care and in the end they couldn’t work so well.

This is a description of the situation of many of the poor today as well. In the very short term such household will benefit from lower food prices because they are net buyers. But this should not lead us into thinking that low food prices are good for them. By and large, low prices on agriculture products are bad news for agriculture. It means that farmers have to produce more to afford other necessities of life, pay their rent, their school fees, their medicines etc. And it is bad for the whole rural economy. Even for landless farm workers it is better that the farmers, their employers, make money than that they lose money. One can easily see in periods of high prices for a particular crop, e.g. coffee, how a whole area flourish.

But there are differences in effects. If the main money earner is a plantation kind of crop sold for export, wealth spreads less in rural areas. And even less if the main money earner is produced with the help of a lot of inputs that have to be bought from other areas, or other countries. That is one of many reasons for why proponents of sustainable agriculture are skeptical about increasing yields by the means of purchased inputs. Another reason is that it dramatically increases the risk of the farmer. If the crop fails, or if the world market price collapses the farmer sits with a hefty bill to be paid, but no income, which will throw him or her into absolute despair and poverty. The same increase of income gained by getting a higher price or by getting a good yield with use of local, free or low-cost inputs, is a lot safer and keeps money in rural economy. That is one of the reasons behind the promotion of organic agriculture for small-holders.

I had the pleasure to work with a Sida-financed project for organic farming in Uganda and Tanzania, the Export Promotion of Organic Products from Africa, EPOPA2, program. In the end of the project in 2008, it had 131,000 farms (corresponding to around 1 million people) engaged in 34 projects. The annual export sales value was around US$ 31 million, of which around half reached the farmers. We commissioned several studies that showed beyond doubt that the farm households in the project experienced improved food security. The main effect by which they improved their food security was by increased income. There are other schemes aiming at similar things, such as Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade etc., but organic is without competition the most important scheme with a global market of around US$ 55 billion and constantly growing, even through the recession.

There are some complications with large scale international trade in food. One is that there is a large scale movement of nutrients from the exporting country to the importing country. Soils are mined and depleted in exporting countries and importing countries get an excess of nutrients, causing environmental problem. This is not sustainable. Another troubling aspect of free international trade is the extreme tilted competition. Farmers in developing countries are supposed to compete with farmers in high income countries which are heavily subsidized, in the range of US$ 250 billion annually (OECD PSE rate). And even worse, the productivity per worker in OECD countries is in the range of US$ 25,000 dollars, while in low income countries it is just a few hundred dollars. Or expressed in other terms: a farmer in low income countries produce less than a ton of grain from one year of toil while a farmer or farm worker in OECD countries produce 500 up to 2000 tons. Is it really realistic for them to compete in a free global market? In my view trade from low income, tropical countries, shall focus on crops with high-energy, low-nutrient content, such as sugar, cotton and oil or crops, in this way what is exported is basically carbon, packaged solar energy, of which the tropics is abundant. The other option is high-value per kg crops such as spices, coffee and cocoa. Many of these crops are not easily produced in high income countries, which is the reason for why poor countries are still competitive. The day the GMO engineers of agri-business has made a coffee tasting corn that can be grown in the plains of the US, Ukraine or Argentina, millions of small holders in Ethiopia or Rwanda will be in for a very, very bad time.

That the confidence in the global market is rather weak was shown in a dramatic way during the last food price hike where countries introduced export bans and even more interestingly some net food importing countries, such as South Korea, Libya and Saudi-Arabia made bilateral agreements with food producing countries to safeguard food supply. With that in mind I think we need to be a bit cautious about promoting global food markets as a solution to problems of poverty and food security. Sweden has a very strong free trade tradition and it is popular here to blame all problems on trade restrictions and to believe that most problems can be solved by trade liberalization. Food is not just another commodity to be shipped and the relationship between humans, the food they eat and their local ecosystems needs to be strong to nurture a sustainable stewardship of the planet, locally and globally. So while it is clear that international markets represent a great opportunity for many, I believe they should not be oversold as a panacea.

I don’t have the Answer, and perhaps there is no such simple answer. Markets certainly can help, but they will not solve some underlying disparities. Hunger is mainly about poverty, and poverty is largely about power, it is power that has determined who has and who has not. To give poor people access to resources; land, capital and water in particular; and political influence are most important. Direct cash contributions to vulnerable households are probably an interesting solution, which also will stimulate local food production and local food markets.