Monday, February 28, 2011

False Choices: Cap and Trade Vs. Carbon Tax

I came across and interesting article by James Barnard Quiligan in Cosmos
In searching for answers, society is trapped in a false dichotomy: we believe that only markets and governments are capable of providing solutions for climate change, even though these institutions were never designed to internalize the costs of negative externalities like carbon emissions. There is another way to solve collective problems of this scale and jurisdiction. The emerging framework of the commons brings the monoculture of the Market State— the modern economic and governmental superstructure—into sharp focus and provides the analytical tools and predictive power to penetrate the deep dichotomies of its operations and policies. The commons illustrate, for example, how the major policy responses to global heating—cap and trade (via the private sector) and carbon taxes (via the public sector)— are more about the ideological debate on how much government regulation should be permitted in the market economy than about climate change itself.

This coincides well with my views expressed in Garden Earth:
There are others in the boat than the state and the capital

In politics, there is a traditional divide between those that think that a function shall be taken care of by the market and those that believe it should be by the state. Somewhat simplified the former are liberals and the latter socialists. One can look upon both markets and the state as social institutions to regulate relationship between people and distribution of property and products. Which institution one like the most depends perhaps on ones own situation, how it is organized and which context it is in. The same person that is very sceptical to market solutions is perhaps perfectly comfortable with her relationship to the organic farmer and found it deplorable that the government determined that organic chicken were not allowed to go out during the bird-flu scare in 2006. And the person who is against government control still applause government take-over of bankrupt banks or car-makers. One can also look at the roots of the capitalism and the state and see both of them as parasites from different epochs. The state is with this perspective a remnant of the war-lords and kings that established a Mafia style of protection. The market, as it has developed now, is an institution for capitalist exploitation. By forcing bigger and bigger parts of life into the market, capitalism can extract wealth from most parts of life and not only from the simple distribution of goods. Through political struggle, people have to some extent taken over control of the state, but that is not the case for the market. Despite all the hype about the market as a democratic institution, it is a place of very imbalanced relationships.
In form, they are very different. We, as citizens, have very little access to the state, our role is to pay taxes to finance it and regularly vote who shall rule it and therefore rule us. We sometimes interact with the state through civil action, direct contact with a politician, participation in a demonstration or writing a letter to the editor in a newspaper or a complaint (or more rarely praise) on a web site. In the markets, we on the other hand are constantly participating and in theory, we are equal with everybody else in the same market, as long as we have money to pay at least. The market can be seen as a giant social decentralized network. With this perspective, the difference between the state and the market is smaller, and it becomes even less when the state or the public sector has adopted the market terminology, management patterns and even acts as an “owner” or as a “client” to a lot of its own services which are actually taken care of by private companies. The problem with the market in this perspective is mainly that it that it favours those that are already rich and those that have better information and that those differences tend to increase over time rather than the opposite. The other problem with markets in their current shape is that they pitch people against each other through competition, something that in turn is bad for society.

State take-over of markets has in most cases been disastrous and market take-over of the state is almost as bad. Obviously, a certain balance is the best. But here we also need to look beyond markets and the state. The question is not only if a certain function shall be executed by the state or the market. By concentrating the debate around the market or the state, we tend to lose sight of the other possibilities. There are many other possibilities as we discussed earlier. There are completely voluntary associations formed to take care of a certain need, such as the need for youth to meet and dance or do sports; or to take care of a certain resource, such as cutting a meadow by scythe yearly or keeping an old foot path open. There are municipalities where the citizens in a very direct way organize most of their support needs. There are personal-cooperative day care centres, schools run by parents, homes for elderly owned and controlled by the elderly themselves; road cooperatives and irrigation communities. In Sweden there are 26,000 housing cooperatives owning in total 800,000 apartments (Bo Bättre 2009). Our voluntary organization to accomplish certain objective is very old, much older than both markets and state and is not at all limited to not for profit purposes. There is no indication that such arrangements would have been inefficient. Capitalism has, however, often worked against them simply because they limit the business opportunities and central governments have sometimes also made life difficult, or even prohibited them because they undermined the tax base and made people more independent from the state.

Did you pay Angeles Duran today?

After billions of years the sun finally has an owner - a woman from the Spanish region of Galicia said she has registered the star at a local notary public as her property. Angeles Duran, 49, told the online edition of El Mundo she took the step in September after reading about an American who had registered himself as the owner of the moon and several planets. Read more.

I simply love this kind of news. It says so much about our world, and I don't think I have to comment it further.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Green Economy a win-win-win?

Green agriculture is capable of nourishing a growing and more demanding world population
at higher nutritional levels out to 2050. An increase from today’s 2,800 Kcal availability per person per day to around 3,200 Kcal by 2050 is possible with the use of green agricultural practices and technologies. It is possible to gain significant nutritional improvements from increased quantity and diversity of food (especially non-cereal) products. During the transition to green agriculture, food production in high-input industrial farming may experience a modest decline while triggering positive responses in the more traditional systems, which account for nearly 70 per cent of global agricultural production. Public, private and civil initiatives for food security and social equity will be needed for an efficient transition at farm level and to assure the sufficient quality nutrition for all during this period.

This is written in the Chapter on agriculture in UNEP's report on "Green Economy" which was launched today (I had the opportunity to comment on the draft). UNEP says that the report challenges the myth of a trade off between environmental investments and economic growth and instead points to a current "gross misallocation of capital". The report sees a Green Economy as not only relevant to more developed economies but as a key catalyst for growth and poverty eradication in developing ones too, where in some cases close to 90 per cent of the GDP of the poor is linked to nature or natural capital such as forests and freshwaters.

Well, I wished UNEP is right. But I have my serious doubts. I don't have any doubts about the feasibility of Green Agriculture (Organic), renewable energy etc. but I do have doubts that this major conversion of society is doable without changing the underlying drivers and mechanisms. Those brought us here in the first place. The report partly acknowledge this and suggest extensive financial incentives:
Agriculture’s environmentally damaging externalities could be reduced by imposing taxes on fossil-fuel inputs and pesticide and herbicide use; and establishing penalties for air emissions and water pollution caused by harmful farming practices. Alternatively, tax exemptions for investments in bio-control integrated pest management products; and incentives that value
the multi-functional uses of agricultural land have proven effective in improving the after tax revenues for farmers that practice sustainable land management....Payments for environmental services (PES) can further incentivize efforts to green the agriculture sector.

It is theoretically possible. I have myself studied how such a transition would look like in Moldova, Ukraine and Armenia (for UNEP, report to be published soon). However, we have to realise that these massive interventions in agriculture will amount to very detailed regulations and a maze of taxes, incentives, regulations etc. Do we want that? And why do we need that? Mainly because the underlying economic drivers (essentially the capitalist market economy) have created the situation we have. I believe time is now ripe to question those drivers instead of tweaking with the incentive structure.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

What's in a name?

I posted my little piece on "call it non-organic" also on Linked-in, where it kicked off an intensive debate. Well, the reason for why we speak or write in general is to get some reaction, isn't it? So I am very happy for that.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Consumer labelling, the next trend?

Perhaps this is the new trend: Consumers label the products and not the producers....

This is an initiative of the Organic Consumer Association in the USA.
they describe it as follows:

Do-It-Yourself GMO Labels: Show Grocers How to Label Their GMO and Factory Farmed Foods!

This month, the Millions Against Monsanto Truth-in-Labeling Campaign will start taking matters into our own hands. We're sticking "Oh No! Is It GMO?" labels on non-organic foods likely to contain GMOs as well as non-organic meat, dairy, and eggs coming from animals raised in CAFOs, (Confined Animal Feeding Operations), where they are force-fed GM grains.

Read more

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

call it non-organic

Words are important. Language is important. What we call something tend to have more meanings than just the technical identification. If we call somebody a terrorist or a freedom fighter makes a difference. If we say someone was shot, killed or murdered also makes a difference. Why is nobody defending "capitalism" but we all love "the market economy" when, essentially people mean the same thing with the two words (the answer is that "capitalism" implies that someone is making a buck from this system and it ain't me!). But also for less dramatic things our language is full of values.

In farming we often speak about conventional and organic as opposed pairs. With this use of words organic comes out as a bit strange, perhaps appealing to the more radical people, but far from being normal. One step is to call conventional farming for "industrial" or "chemical" farming. That sounds decisively negative, but perhaps a bit provocative-which sometimes is good and sometimes is counterproductive. My latest take on it is to call it "non-organic". In that way, organic becomes the norm, the normal and non-organic becomes something strange. In addition, it has a negation, which is never good - people like positive things. I hope that the organic community will go for this in the future.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Nice ice

One thing I like with Sweden is that we have so many useful signs to find your way. Here they even put up signs for the skaters to find their way to Uppsala and Stockholm - and it is more than 70 km skating between the places...

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

John Stansfields Garden - I don't dig and I don't do weeds

I had the pleasure of touring the Pacific on an FAO job together with John and Hiva from Niue. We had a nice time.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

At last(?) Yuckmeat

"Synthetic food" has been in the pipe for many years, at least since the Apollo project (the moon landings). I heard a speach by agriculture scientist Jaochim von Braun last September where he predicted that it landless food production would be a big trend the coming 50 years.

Now there is a new product in the pipe: In a small laboratory on an upper floor of the basic science building at the Medical University of South Carolina, Vladimir Mironov, M.D., Ph.D., has been working for a decade to grow meat. read article. Since quite long there have been efforts to make animal feed in labs.
"Microbial biomass is produced commercially as single cell protein (SCP) for human food or animal feed and as viable yeast cells to be used in the baking industry. The industrial production of bakers’ yeast started in the early 1900s and yeast biomass was used as human food in Germany during the First World War. However, the development of large-scale processes for the production of microbial biomass as a source of commercial protein began in earnest in the late 1960s. Several of the processes investigated did not come to fruition owing to political and economic problems but the establishment of the ICI Pruteen process for the production of bacterial SCP for animal feed was a milestone in the development of the fermentation industry. This process utilized continuous culture on an enormous scale (1500 m3) and is an excellent example of the application of good engineering to the design of a microbiological process. However, the economics of the production of SCP as animal feed were marginal, which eventually led to the discontinuation of the Pruteen process." (Wikipedia)
The product "Quorn" has become quite successful as a vegetarian "meat". There are many issues around these synthetic foods. With genetic engineering we certainly will see more of it in the future. There are reasons to be caustios about the health effect of eating the stuff. Some of them will probably show to be harmful, some might be perfectly safe. we will realize this by the same crude process of trial and error that humans have used all along...and sometimes, "shit happens".

What I find a bit disturbing is that few people seem to realise that also so called lab-food needs a feedstock. Energy can't be created out of nothing, and even less can proteins etc. be that. All synthetic foods grown that I heard of are using biological materials as feed stock. It's not like you can take oil, nitrogen from the air, phosphorus from the soil crust and shake it and you have high quality food. I am sure that there are technical possibilities to do something like that, with massive investments (the guy in South Carolina wants a billion dollars to develop his process). But nature already does it. And there are few signs that our labs can make it better. To grow corn for feedstock for artificial food or for the production of chicken is in a way not a big difference. Chicken production, as it looks like in many parts of the world, is already landless production, a kind of feed converter factory. And it is obvious that you can do a similar things with fungi or bacteria. It is not obvious, however, that the process will be much more efficient. Perhaps more appealing for vegans. I would be ironical that vegans would lead the process for a further distance between the human and the food she eats.
In the end, I don't want to eat Quorn or any other lab-made foods.