Friday, September 30, 2011

People, Planet and Prosperity-organic agriculture as a development concept

People, Planet and Prosperity-organic agriculture as a development concept[1]

Gunnar talking at the 17th organic world congress
We are in the stage of peak-oil; our wasteful farming system and the use of fossil fuels cause climate change; water resources are depleted; global population has exploded and our ecological footprint is considerably bigger than the planet - and growing by the day. And still, farming is shaped as if labour was the main limiting factor and nature is for free. People in high income countries consume up to 10 times more natural resources than those in the poorest countries. The richest 2 percent of adult individuals own more than half of all global wealth. One billion people are starving, they are all poor. Most of the poor are involved in farming. How can anyone claim that the prevailing development model is successful, when it fails on so many accounts?

At this moment, the UN system is rallying around the concept of the Green Economy to be showcased at the Rio +20 conference in 2012. It is largely a repackaging of Sustainable Development, which was the buzz word of the Rio conference 1992. As we all know, political slogans get old and what sounded cool at one time sounds increasingly dated ten years later. The essential tenet of both the Green Economy and Sustainable Development is that it is possible to combine economic growth and a capitalist market economy with social improvements and environmental stewardship. Well, not only that it is possible but that it is the only way. This is presented in many different ways to citizens. Increasingly, it is presented as a business venture with ideas like Corporate Responsibility and the Global Compact or slogans like People, Planet and Profit. Stop a second and think about it: People, Planet and Profit. This means that you put profit at the same level as People and Planet, which is absurd. In the Green Economy context, profits are not seen as part of the problem but as part of the solution.

Solar energy, recycling, biogas but also an increased use of information technology, nano technologies and GMOs are presented as part of the new technologies that will enable us to continue on the path of a growth economy. Investments are the key. Organic agriculture fits well into the Green Economy. It tries to get more money out of the land, increase farmers income, while at the same time produce in a more environmentally friendly way. So far so good, I will say. In the same way as recycling is a lot better than no recycling and solar energy is better than nuclear or fossil, organic is better than conventional. Undoubtedly, it delivers more, with less destruction of nature. As such is deserves its rather prominent position in the Green Economy campaign. And we should be grateful for that several UN agencies, in particular UNEP and UNCTAD, are featuring organic agriculture in this context. Also, in the European Union and in many countries of the world, governments see the potential of organic for environment, for climate change, for rural development and for food security, and support it in various ways. Last but not least, we have convinced a lot of consumers so that they willingly and voluntarily support the detoxification of farming and the (well at least partial) liberation of animals by buying organic product, mostly paying a higher price.

Organic agriculture is one of the real showcases of the Green Economy, a smashing success of which we should be proud. We may be impatient and think we have failed, but for us with some, or perhaps mainly, grey hair it is easy to see that we came a long way already, a very long way indeed.

However, it is easy to forget that organic is exposed to the same pressures of the market that all other farms are. And that this influences organic farms in similar ways as non-organic farms, i.e. to introduce labour saving technologies, to specialise, to externalise costs etc. Organic farms are now in many countries bigger than non-organic farms. Organic cows in Scandinavia are milked by robots to a larger extent than non-organic cows. Organic farms are highly mechanised and use considerable quantities of fossil fuel. Organic farms follow the same business model as non-organic farms. Organic farms are profitable. And this is a great success for the organic movement. Huge multinationals buy up organic companies. Wasn’t this what we always wanted? If we say we want it to be profitable to farm organically or market organically, we also say that it will pay better to invest in organic than in non-organic, leading investors to the organic sector, investors asking for dividends.

There is no coincidence that many low income countries have developed from being net food exporters to net food importers. There are two ways a rural population can cope with population growth. One is by migration to the cities and further and one is by intensification. By intensifying production much more food can be produced per area unit. Typical strategies for intensification are irrigation, terracing, integration of livestock and plant production, integration of aquaculture and plant production, production of root crops and vegetables as opposed to grains etc. The agricultural intensification that is the normal response to increase in population is labour demanding. But in many developing countries, this intensification is not happening, despite there being so many people unemployed, why? Let’s look at the main drivers in this: the competitive global markets and cheap (fossil) energy.

Through the ease of transportation and storage (mainly driven by the fossil fuel economy), there is more or less a global market for grains, pulses and oil crops, with similar prices all over the world. Those prices are determined by those producers that can combine large areas with mechanisation, i.e. those than can use a lot of resources and a lot of external energy. The only dramatic increase in labour productivity we see in the farm sector is linked to the increased use of external energy sources, be it for pumping water, driving tractors or making chemical fertilisers. In one barrel of oil for 100 dollars, there is embedded energy corresponding to the annual work and toil of some 14 healthy workers, let’s call them our energy slaves. A smallholder in a developing country doesn’t even use that quantity for her farming; if she uses no artificial fertilisers, the total energy consumption in the farming system is more or less negligible. Compare that to a mechanised broad acre farmer in France or America. He command energy resources corresponding to hundreds barrels of oil or more, i.e. he uses a thousand energy slaves for his production, and, as a result of this (there is no magic at all) he produces thousand times more food than his colleague in Africa. Each one of these energy slaves costs just some ten dollars per year, which forms a benchmark against which food prices and ultimately hourly wages of a farmer or farm labourer in a developing country have to compete. The mechanism of comparative advantage by low labour costs is totally out of play when labour is pressed down far below its level of sustenance not to speak about reproduction, that is, raising a family. That the farmer in rich countries, in addition, also get subsidies add harm to injury.

This result in that food crops are grown for self consumption in the country side and the local markets in cities is supplied by imports. For some labour intensive crops, the situation is different and cheap labour is still a strong competitive factor. For those, mainly export crops, investments, such as protected structure and irrigation can be profitable, which is why we see such investments in the export crop sector but not in food crops. But, by and large, a lot of people have no future in agriculture. Unfortunately, they also have no future in manufacturing or services in the least developed countries. This demonstrates quite clearly how limited development opportunities are for farmers in the poorest countries[2]. They are just too far below on the ladder for ever being able to climb. Well, they don’t have a ladder at all.    
I was asked by Markus Arbenz (IFOAM Executive Director) to reflect on if there are things we need to change in order to be a “realistic alternative”. “Realistic” often seems to mean something that is easy to “sell” to the existing power groups or the public opinion. But it is this kind of realism that got the whole planet into a mess. I believe it is time to be unreasonable and time to be unrealistic. For organic to be an interesting alternative it needs to de-couple from the obsession with standards as being the main tool for development. Big parts of the movement has a misconception of the role of organic standards, they believe that organic standards define what is organic, and therefore, they insist on loading all possible and impossible things into the standards. Sure, there are standards there that can maintain organic as a better proposition, but those can only work within the prevailing economic paradigm, which is, by and large, ruled by a competitive market and rent and profit-seeking. Within that framework, you can change technologies quite easily; e.g. there is no problem to use an organic fertiliser instead of a non-organic, you can use mechanical weeding instead of chemicals. But if you start to regulate the things that go beyond the conditions of the competitive market, you just drive organic operators out of business, because the truth is that the competitive market is not compatible with the organic principles. Therefore, some of the suggestions for increasingly stricter standards are counterproductive, and will neither change the world nor organic farms to the better.  

Don’t misunderstand me, there is a room for organic standards and for a premium organic market and we can improve organic standards, make them better and smarter, within those operating conditions. But, in parallel, we must also respond to those bigger challenges that are not solved by asking consumers to voluntarily pay a higher price for good products. We must engage much more with the operating conditions that shapes the farm sector at large. And there are many such conditions. Some of them are made by government policy, but by far the most powerful drivers of the farm sector are the market and the use of cheap energy. If you ask a farmer, why she uses a certain method or technology that is no good and not another one which is better for animal welfare, for the environment or for the workers, you will almost uniquely get the response that it is because of prices, because of competition, or “demands from the market”. I believe it is high time that the organic sector takes on these operating conditions, which are not only about the output market (the buyers and consumers), but also about the input market, the labour market, the land market, access to nature resources and also the market for knowledge or intellectual property as it is called today.

We also tend to forget that agriculture activities dominates more than 50% of the land area, and almost two thirds of the biological primary production (bio mass) takes place in the farmed landscapes. Because of this, farming is not only a way of producing food and fibre, it is also a management system for the planet. And I don’t think anybody believes that the management of the planet should be delegated to “the market”,

We need to change the game. The game changer is a new development paradigm, a paradigm that goes far beyond Sustainable Development or the Green Economy. In that new development paradigm, regenerating nature resources, regenerating communities with a regenerative economy and not an extractive economy. We will not speak about People, Planet and Profit; we will speak about People, Planet and Prosperity. It is only within a regenerative economy we will be able to farm fully according to the four principles oforganic as beautifully formulated by IFOAM; the principles of care, health, ecology and fairness

[1] Gunnar Rundgren, Key Note Speech, Organic World Congress in South Korea, September 2011
[2] The same competition factors have already driven most small farmer away from farming in developed countries, the difference is that, in  most cases, there was an industry there wanting their labour.

Gunnar Rundgren, Key Note Speech, Organic World Congress in South Korea, 30 September 2011

First posted 26 September

Organic farming as a strategy for a new economy

This paper explores the evolution of the modern agri-food system and in particular, how it has been shaped by the market economy, industrialisation and cheap fossil fuel. It concludes that some of the principles of organic farming are incompatible with the logic of the market economy and the industrial society. Therefore, the organic movement should look for strategies that challenge the prevailing paradigms, and build alternative economies.

Farming has been shaped by cheap fossil fuel and the market economy.
Farming systems are largely shaped by the ecological and social conditions under which they develop; they also influence these conditions. It was the shift from a hunter and gather society to an agrarian society that lead to the initial stratification of society in rulers and oppressed, to private property and to the city and the state. The simple agrarian equation was always that farmers must produce more energy as food than the energy they spent on it. They must produce energy for themselves, for young (reproducing the labour force), old and sick dependants, for some other tradesmen and for the rulers, who offered protection against taxes or forced work. For a long time this energy equation remained the same. Gradually, through technical innovations, productivity could increase and new lands could be tilled, thereby allowing a slow increase in population. All in all productivity per worker didn't increase so much; slash and burn farming, almost without tools, is mostly as productive as farming with oxen and a plough[1]. Three things, all linked to each other, changed this dramatically: the emergence of the (capitalist) market economy, industrialisation and fossil energy.

Industrialism caused a fundamental change in social relations where the family unit ceased to be a unit of organised production and becomes a unit of organised consumption. Industrialism was also a way to largely expand exploitation of labour and nature. Through the combination of the market economy and industrialism, externalisation of environmental and social costs in time and place was possible - and profitable. This lead to that producers which internalised costs, simply could not compete, be it peasant farmers, artisans or corner shops. This was further augmented by that industrialism also brought in fossil fuel and thereby, seemingly, broke the ecological limits of the economy. The power in society shifted from those that controlled solar collection on the ground (landlords) and human masses (the state and landlords together) to those that controlled the new energy sources (fossil fuel) and put them into work for trade or industrial production - the industrial capitalist. It lead to the emergence of the modern society where more and more aspects of life is regulated by markets; where "growth" is seen as something inherently good or essential; where world population has exploded, where nature is merely seen as a dumping ground and a store of raw materials; and where one's wealth is built on exploitation of fellow humans and nature.

Markets existed since a long time, but up to some hundred years ago, societies were not "market economies". Ancient elites didn't earn their money from markets but from conquest (robbery) rents and taxes. The role of markets for distribution of goods was not dominant, very little food was bought or sold, and there were no markets for land or labour. Farmers were largely shielded from competition in the modern sense. Grain didn’t become a fully tradable commodity until the end of the 19th century in Asia. The big shake up came with the introduction of fossil fuel and industrialisation. Improvements in transportation technology, in particular steamships and rail-roads were both a driver and prerequisite for increased trade. In 1870, a bushel of wheat cost 60 cents in Chicago and the double in London. By the end of the century transport costs, and thereby the price difference, had shrunk to 10 cents. Somewhat later, and in particular after WWII, fossil fuel was also applied in the farm sector itself by the introduction of threshers, pumps for irrigation, tractors and last but not least fertilizers, adapting to the ways of the factory.

The introduction of markets affected every aspect of the farm sector. Now, village life, culture and religion, which earlier both controlled and assisted in farming, became "obstacles to development", because they stood in the way of the market logic. Land, water and forests were gradually transformed from commons to tradable commodities. Farmers are no longer reproducing their production system. They buy seeds and breeds in the market; they don't have to take care of the reproduction of the soil, because they can compensate that with buying chemical fertilisers. They don't have to take care of the balance between nature and what humans take away. The total biological productivity per hectare remains much the same, but we take a higher and higher share of that production, e.g. by transforming grains to have less roots and straw and more kernel; by exterminating weeds and wildlife in the fields and by not allowing the soil to naturally regenerate.

The production per agriculture worker in the most advanced economies have reached 2,000 tons of grain per man year, while in historical times it was just a few tons; an increase in labour productivity by thousand times. But in many parts of the world, the labour productivity is largely the same as it was hundred years ago, while the price of food has decreased tremendously[2]. The average value produced by a farm worker is just above 100 dollars per year in the poorest countries and some 40,000 dollars per year in France. And the gap in productivity between the rich and the poor is widening
Table 1 Agricultural labour productivity, US dollar per man-year

Agriculture as share of GDP
Low income countries
Middle income countries
High income countries
Source: World Bank, World Development Report 2008

Labour productivity in modern farming can largely be explained with the command of energy resources. The modern farmer is de facto commanding a mass army of "energy slaves"; a barrel of oil represents the energy of 25,000 hours of human toil i.e. 14 persons working a year with normal Western labour standards. The energy efficiency in modern farming is considerably lower than in pre-industrial farming systems. Our ancestors would have starved to death if they had had as bad energy ratios as our food system; in industrial countries between 10 and 15 times more energy is used in the food system than what is contained in the food we end up eating.

With cheap global transports and a rather liberalised trade, farmers in developing countries, having access to almost no energy resources, are supposed to compete with colleagues in the developed countries that use energy resources corresponding to hundreds of labourers. Through perverse subsidies and various trade and food policies, economics and rules are bent in favour of the farmers in rich countries. Despite a few selected success stories with high value crops (horticulture) or other premium products, such as organic, most farmers in developing countries are losing out in the competition. Many of the least developed countries have gone from food exporters to food importers in a few decades as a result of these unfair relationships. The same development affects many small farms in developed countries, who can only survive by going into “niches” such as artisan food production or services such as educational farms. There are other troubling aspects of our food system after the farm gate, such as the dominance of a few supermarkets, enormous waste and the deterioration of food quality. These are also linked to the depicted development.

We are in the stage of peak-oil; our wasteful farming system and the use of fossil fuels cause climate change; water resources are depleted; global population has exploded and our ecological footprint is considerably bigger than the planet (and growing by the day). And still, farming is shaped as if labour was the main limiting factor and nature is for free. People in high income countries consume up to 10 times more natural resources than those in the poorest countries. 884 million people lack access to clean drinking water and 2.6 billion people do not have access to running water (UNEP 2010). The differences between rich and poor are increasing over the years;  the richest 2 percent of adult individuals own more than half of all global wealth, with the richest 1 percent alone accounting for 40 percent. Most of the poorest are involved in farming. 
How can anyone claim that our development model is successful, when it fails on so many accounts?

Discussion and Conclusions
There are several features of organic farming that is in contradiction to this development. Most importantly organic farming:
- is based on as closed cycles of nutrients as possible, something that is impossible to maintain with large scale international trade, and in general difficult in a commoditized food system
- builds on natural systems to regulate pests and weed and supply crops with nutrients and is therefore not in favour of system relying on the purchasing of inputs.
- is in principle against the use of finite resources, e.g. fossil fuel and mineral fertilizers
- is committed to fairness, while market imperatives such as competition, rent-seeking and economies of scale are everything but fair, instead they lead to ever increasing gaps between rich and poor.
Organic farming is essentially in opposition, not only to the use of agro-chemicals, but to the whole system that is based on exploitation of nature and of fellow humans. People like myself, have seen it as urgent to transform the farming system into a more benign system without necessarily challenging the prevailing paradigm. A vehicle for doing this has been the "mainstreaming" of organic into mainstream (global) markets and into government policies. That is still a praiseworthy effort, but it comes with a price. I have been a farmer myself and know how it works in the daily life. The power of the prevailing economic system and its ideology is overwhelming. Ultimately organic farmers have to survive, and to survive within the market economy requires submission to the logic of the market; it leads to increased use of inputs in production, externalisation of costs, corporate take-over and business-as-usual approaches. The farmers truest to organic principles are mainly small scale gardeners producing for themselves and lifestyle farmers. They can be true to the organic ideals not because of their moral superiority or higher skills, but because of their autonomy from the market forces.

In theory, full internalisation of costs (such as fees for nature resource use and waste) and compensation for ecosystem services (such as carbon credits or landscape payments) would allow organic farmers to compete "fairly" with non-organic. But the industrial model is based on externalisation of costs. This is also the reason for why there is such a resistance to internalisation of costs from those that profit from the system, be it internalisation of social costs or environmental costs. In a complex system such as farming, internalisation of all social and environmental costs and compensation for ecosystem services would only be possible with very extensive and detailed regulations. Just look at the EU agri-environmental programs which are just a very small step in that direction. Such a system would probably still be neither fair nor efficient, and would in many ways represent a control of farms more sever than under Soviet rule.

There are two strategies to follow: One is the strategy for individual autonomy in the same way as peasants have related to the market for centuries, by limiting their dependency of inputs for production and reproduction of the system, such as fertilizers, paid labour and credits. This "peasant strategy" is not only a feature in developing countries, but is also prominent in many farms in developed countries. It coincides with prominent aspects of organic farming, especially the idea that production shall be based on local resources. It is a strategy based on the understanding that a total integration in the market system will be devastating. While autonomy can be appealing, it also easily leads to isolation both mental and social. Therefore, pursuing individual autonomy has limited ability to change the bigger picture.

Another strategy is based on building new economic relations, which gradually can replace the capitalist market economy. I am proposing systems in the tradition of cooperatives, communities and villages; self-organised local and global societies. Models that break free from the dichotomy between state and the market, which represents a false choice we are supposed to make. It is about lifting autonomy to another level, from a personal strategy to a local and global community strategy. In the same way as the capitalist society developed parallel to, and sometimes in violent opposition to, the feudal society, another society will have to grow, stealthily, beside the market logic. It has to be combined with a change in values and paradigm and aim at an economy where man's wealth does not result in nature's poverty and the poverty of other people. It is incumbent on the organic movement to actively research and test business models that can contribute to such a new social economic order.

[1]            Which is the reason for why farmers only abandon it when there is a shortage of land.
[2]            At this very moment we experience higher food prices, but the long term trend has been ever declining prices. 

Paper presented to the Organic World Congress 30 September 2011.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Poverty, Property and Profit

The scam of the slogan People, Planet and Profit

I was writing an article about sustainability and the Green Economy, and then I wrote People, Planet, Profit a common way of explaining both the concept of sustainability and the so called Triple Bottom Line
Some examples of the use
People Planet Profit
Green & Sustainable Business News | Triple Pundit
People, Planet and Profit - Special Report - CNBC

BUT WAIT A SECOND!!!! Look at it once more, what are the three words,  
People, Planet and Profit
Doesn't Profit stick out on a totally different level than the two others. People and Planet are BIG things, it is about the World, the Meaning of Life, Eternity etc. Profit is just a little mechanism in our society. A mechanism that has almost no role in the history of mankind, only the last 200 years it has been lifted to some organisational principle for a lot of things. And still it is not at all what drives most of human enterprise. It is not want want us to rise in the morning, to take care of our children or to love. So frankly speaking it is absurd to put Profit as a word on the same level as People and Planet. If the word had been Love, I would buy it.  Or if the word had been Prosperity, I would see it as at least a lot better.

The use of formulas like People, Planet and Profit is really a very seductive way of spreading a vision of that profit is a noble thing, the ideology of capitalism.

No profit belongs to another triad, Poverty, Property and Profit

Having said that, I want to underline, again and again, that it is very good if companies shift their production from dirty and brown to green and clean. That is not what I take issue with. The issue here is that slogans like this makes us believe that we can solve most of our problems by applying the same principle that actually created the problems in the first place. Green Economy, Green production and Green Consumption are all good - I coincidentally earn my living from them as well. But it must be repeated again and again. They are hardly THE SOLUTION.

Some related posts
Which values do we support with our slogans?
Green Economy a win-win-win?
Beyond Sustainability

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A bit busy these days

Dear followers of my blog.
I am a bit busy these days travelling to the Organic World Congress in Korea, the slow way, i.e. the Transsiberian railroad. So sorry for no or few updates here....

Those interested can see some more pictures at:

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The market is not a management system for the planet

Even the most convinced proponents of a free market realise that there are things that can't be left to the market to sort out. Human rights, law and order, security, basic social security have, in almost all societies, been regulated by some other institution than the market, often by a state. Most of our social relations are within the context of family, kinship, communities, etc. and thus also are not regulated by markets. And even for those things that are, mostly, regulated by markets there are many government rules. Even in the market-oriented United States there are supposedly 130,000 regulations for how economic agents may, or may not, behave. And the more central an issue is to our society, the more regulations there are. For example, all countries have labour regulations. They are there because we realize that the workers are a weaker party in an alleged "free" labour market: they need some kind of protection. There is no doubt, in my view, that some market regulations go too far, and that governments should refrain from micro-managing economic activity. A bigger threat, however, is when governments want markets to regulate things that are not at all suitable for market regulation.

Agriculture is a very complex activity. It provides us with our most essential need, food.  Throughout history, food supply has always been subject to political intervention. The Romans tried to regulate prices, although they failed, like most other subsequent efforts; the record of government interventions in food markets is rather poor. Faced with the prospect of food shortages, we now see country after country making bilateral food deals. They no longer trust the global trading system to safeguard their food supplies. The fact that we have major famine, e.g. in the Horn of Africa, while lots of food is wasted in other parts of the world is also an indication that markets in food don't work very well in safeguarding the survival of fellow humans. Agriculture is also largely the foundation of society. Human relations in the farming system shaped social structures over millennia. Even modern industrial societies have grown out of a context where agriculture played a pivotal role. The preservation of farming is not only about food production but also about culture, society and heritage.

Scientists now speak about the Anthropcene, the era in which planet Earth's big systems, hydrological, biological, climatic and even geological, are mainly shaped by humans. Farming already occupies around forty percent of the planet's terrestrial surface and with the urban and peri-urban areas, human activity covers perhaps sixty percent. We also know that farming and land-use accounts for around one third of the greenhouse gas emissions, the second largest source after fossil fuels. This means that farming is the most significant human management system of the planet; that the future of humans on the planet largely rests upon how we manage the farmscape. And markets are not the right tool for managing the planet. 
published as a column in Ecology and Farming  #4 2011. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Creativity: not in my town and not in my time...

 It seems like people admire creativity that happened before, but mostly believe that people that are creative today are nuts. "we cannot assume that organizations, institutions or even scientific endeavors will desire and recognize creative ideas even when they explicitly state they want them" say Jennifer S. Mueller, Shimul Melwani, and Jack A. Goncalo in the paper "The bias against creativity: Why people desire but reject creative ideas" recently published by Cornell Universty. The also say that:  
"Our results show that regardless of how open minded people are, when they feel motivated to reduce uncertainty either because they have an immediate goal of reducing uncertainty, or feel uncertain generally, this may bring negative associations with creativity to mind which result in lower evaluations of a creative idea. Our findings imply a deep irony. Prior research shows that uncertainty spurs the search for and generation of creative ideas, yet our findings reveal that uncertainty also makes us less able to recognize creativity, perhaps when we need it most."
Well, I am not surprised.  Jesus supposedly said: "A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his relatives and his own family." I would add also "in his own time", a statement Jesus himself is a proof of. He wasn't particularly popular during his lifetime...Whether you believe in him as God or not is beside the point here, he certainly was a most creative person.

It is a bit depressing though...
We need creativity more then ever, and here I speak about great creativity, not innovation of a new electric household appliance or yet another media for playing music (the number of music platforms my generation has had to endure are mindboggling, in such a short time we gone from live music all the, er, ------back to live music!). We need paradigm shifting creativity. But as Donella Meadows* says in the excellent paper Leverage Points Places to intervene in a System, people who question paradigm often end up being locked up -either as lunatics or as rebels. 

A later update: I came across this story in another blog post
An amusing story about Thomas Edison.  Apparently, early on in his career, Edison was trying to raise money for his light bulb project from late Nineteenth Century versions of what we now call venture capitalists. After one dog-and-pony show, a VC came over to Edison, put his arm around him and said something like: “Tom, that light bulb is an amazing piece of technology.  But for it to be successful, wires would have to be run to every house in the country, and that is clearly never going to happen.”

*Donella H. Meadows (1941 - 2001), American environmental scientist, teacher and writer. Lead author of groundbreaking, and criticized, book of the Club of Rome The Limits to Growth

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The hunger, the people and the land

Into mid-2011, the world’s worst food crisis is being felt in East Africa, in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. Some quotes below might give an idea of what it is about.
“There has been a catastrophic breakdown of the world's collective responsibility to act. 3,500 people a day are fleeing Somalia and arriving in parts of Ethiopia and Kenya that are suffering one of the driest years in six decades. Food, water and emergency aid are desperately needed. By the time the U.N. calls it a famine it is already a signal of large scale loss of life,”
Isaiah Esipisu, Horn Of Africa: Poor Attention to Forecasts to Blame for Famine in Somalia, Inter Press Service, July 21, 2011
 The overall humanitarian requirements for the region this year, according to the UN appeals, are $1.87 billion. These are so far 45 percent funded, leaving a gap of over $1 billion still remaining: gaps of $332m and $296m for the Kenya and Somalia UN appeals respectively, and $398m for the government-run appeal in Ethiopia In the last two weeks there have been new pledges of $205m, leaving a gap of $800m still remaining. The UK has pledged an estimated $145m in the past two weeks - almost 15 percent of what is needed. The EU has pledged around $8m so far, with more expected in the coming days. Spain has pledged nearly $10m, Germany around $8.5m. France has so far not pledged any new money, and Denmark and Italy have said no significant new sums are available.— Donors and governments fail to deliver on East Africa aid effort, Oxfam, July 20, 2011
But of course the idea you get from these is very far from the feeling you would have if you saw the reality on the ground.

Of course, we must act on the immediate humanitarian crisis. But equally we must try to understand what causes this kind of crisis. "Drought" is just a bit to simple, because we are speaking about arid areas, where droughts are normal.

Conflict, for sure plays a major role in this drama. And probably overpopulation and global warming can take some blame. It is possible, that drought has become more severe because of global warming, but even if I do believe in the predictions for global warming, I believe we are a bit too quick to declare all sorts of weather changes as caused by global warming. The reality is that droughts are normal in areas where pastoralism dominates, which is the case in the Horn of Africa. Everywhere, where rainfall has been too little and too erratic for farming, livestock is the "natural", and most resilient, way of farming. Crop production is simply not an option. I was recently in Namibia, one of the driest countries on the planet. As can be seen on the map (from Atlas of Namibia) the "risk" of failure in farming is very high in huge parts and it is only in the north that farming has low risk. Therefore, livestock dominates in Namibia. "200 million people live on pastoralism. This kind of animal production uses ecological niches that would not be suitable for arable farming. Ruminants graze pastures that are no good for arable farming, e.g. too steep, too dry, too cold." (Garden Earth).    

Wealthy people don't starve, not even in Mogadishu.
Most of the starvation is caused  by bad policy and poverty. Amartya Sen showed this convincingly already decades ago, and there is no difference today. In 1981, Sen published Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981), a book in which he demonstrated that famine occurs mainly from inequalities built into mechanisms for distributing food.

"Famine is not a natural disaster - it's our fault" says Simon Levine, research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute in an article in New Agriculturist. He doesn't only call for more efficient humanitarian assistance but even more for pro-pastoralist policies based on a greater understanding of nomadic livestock rearing systems and their value, and seeing pastoralism as a solution, not as a problem.
"Pro-pastoralist policies should recognise that nothing else works as well as pastoralism in dryland areas. Policymakers and donors need to understand how pastoralists move, why and when, and how we can intervene to make that better. Ensuring mobility of pastoralists within the country is paramount; cross-border mobility is highly desirable, but much more difficult to achieve."
 Nomads and pastoralist have been squeezed for centuries:
Fights between agrarian societies and hunter and gatherers as well as nomadic pastoralist have been an ever ending story, with prominent examples the conflicts between farmers in the American prairies and first Indians and then ranchers; between Swedish settlers and the reindeer keeping Sami or between the expanding Bantu people in Africa and Batwa (pygmies). Even the story of Cain and Abel is about this same conflict. And everywhere the hunter and gatherers and nomads lost in the long run, even if the nomadic herders, such as the Mongols, for a period could rule. [...] People living on hunting, gathering, fishing and pastoralism have since long seen their customary right being gradually undermined; their land taken and their kids forced into schools. (from Garden Earth
Clearly a blog post like this can't sort out all the complex relations that together throw people into starvation. But most of the problems are caused by bad policies, conflict and poverty, and therefore, the solution are to be found by addressing those. And certainly we should reject the agribusiness lobby's promotion of the African Green Revolution as a solution to the starvation, that is just a pie in the sky or an UFO, or an Unusually Fiendish Opinion.

Some sources with information about the humanitarian crisis