Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The danger of predictable procedures

Days go by. Years go by. A new procedure is added to an old one, the system expands and it becomes more and more difficult to manage. Special systems are developed to manage the more and more complex system, and others are put there to monitor that the system to manage the system is systematically and consistently applied.

We all know the story. We have seen it. Some even claim that this increasing complexity
brought down empires. When the purpose is to protect citizens from ills it is even easier to accept that there is no end to what can be done and, therefore, has to be done. Airport security is a very clear example in point. However, now after a decade of ever increasing scrutiny and more procedures, not only passengers, but also security officials, question the wisdom of this. In a poll reported by The Economist, 87% of the respondents thought that changes implemented since 2001 had done more harm than good.

Kip Hawley, the former head of the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA), says in an article in the Wall Street Journal that the system needs reform. Two of the issues he singled out are also of particular relevance to the organic inspection and certification system. By checking a multitude of minute details, focus is easily lost
from the really important issues. Tests conducted by the TSA itself show that when officers are busy hunting cigarette lighters and pocket knives they may very well overlook
the dummy bomb parts placed next to them. And by making the system predictable and rigid, terrorists are helped more than deterred.

Organic operators are not airline passengers and the odd fraudster in the organic sector is not a terrorist; it is likely there are many more organic fraudsters in my plane than terrorists. Nevertheless, these observations may well hold for the organic inspection
and certification system. I have come across certification bodies, and regulatory authorities for which ‘annual inspection’ meant literally every 12 months, making it completely predictable when the next inspector will come. The minute detail that is recorded and made an issue of – largely a result of standards and certification requirements growing exponentially – substantially reduces the attention that is given to
more important things, and in particular to any kind of qualitative evaluation. The word ‘evaluation’ is probably missing from most audit forms.

Instead of helping, quality management systems used by certification bodies, aggravate the problem. The main tool for quality management is a standard operating procedure, which essentially means actions are predictable – for fraudsters as well as all other operators. Creativity and acting on a hunch or intuition are largely banned from such a system. But making imaginative, unprecedented effort can yield a lot more than following a prescribed course. For instance, in most cropping systems, there is a specific period when fertilisrs are applied. However, a few weeks after an application it is basically impossible to determine whether a fertiliser has been used or not. Despite this, most farms are never visited at those times. Certification bodies could redirect their effort one year to visit most or all farms at the critical time – or the time of sowing to detect treated seeds, or the time of insect attacks to determine use of a pesticide. But it would not be possible to conduct full inspection visits because that would be too resource demanding. Likewise,
to make a full, comprehensive (on site and crosschecking information) audit of a whole supply chain of products randomly selected (or based on a suspicion) in shops could disclose fraud in a way that routine audits hardly ever do.

There are many good and creative measures that can be taken to improve the organic certification system, and there are many good ideas among the talented people working within the system. But the attention of certifiers, accreditors and regulators is far too
often directed at the management of a system of ever increasing complexity. Unfortunately, when systems are too rigid they also drive away creative people, as they can’t flourish. In this way, the system produces people who believe there is only one right way of doing the job. And that is not a good starting point – neither for disclosing organic fraud nor for detecting terrorists in the making.

Published as Leader in The Organic Standard issue 133

Monday, May 28, 2012

Organic agriculture: the Swiss army knife

The strength of organic farming is that it is multifunctional, that is, it performs many different services at the same time, like a Swiss army knife – a popular multifunctional tool. But that also means for any particular issue seen in isolation, there will be a better tool.

Organic standards developed mainly within the organic community, and largely by organic farmers and gardeners and small groups of activist ‘consumers’. Gradually other groups became engaged in the standard-setting process, for example, processors and special interest groups, such as animal welfare groups, social activist groups or environmental groups. Through regulation, governments also became active, getting engaged in several different roles. The government has the role of balancing the interests of different groups, to ensure that they are all fairly represented and considered. This can be a very useful role if performed correctly, especially in regard to ensuring marginalised groups are included in deliberations. The government, which has access to considerable expertise from within, can also provide technical expertise in matters of standards.

Governments, often, use their regulations to manifest their power over the sector. This is achieved in many ways, for instance by making certification bodies accountable to the government and by setting standards that are not grounded in organic traditions. It is unfortunate when regulations are driven by this desire to assert power. The organic sector has little to gain from this kind of regulatory approach. Ultimately, it has little value for the government as well. The kind of very heavy-handed regulation that the Chinese government has introduced is likely to drive many stakeholders out of the organic market place, in a similar way that the Japanese regulation did some ten years ago. Clearly, governments have both the right and obligation to take action if blatant fraud is prevalent in the organic market place, which seems to have been the case in China, but this can be done in many ways. Preferably it is carried out in a partnership with the sector rather than as a dictate from the government.

Governments are also stakeholders in the standards process, influencing organic (and other) standards in pursuing public interest goals, goals that are normally not pushed by any of the key parties. Such goals could be the development for the public good, such as improved biodiversity. It could also be about avoiding public ills, such as pollution from the handling of animal manure. Increasingly, organic agriculture is promoted as an option for mitigating climate change. And there are some reasons for this. Organic agriculture uses less energy than its non-organic counterpart, mainly because of the avoidance of nitrogen fertilisers, thus causing less carbon emissions. Organic agriculture also maintains or improves soil organic matter compared to non-organic systems, thus causing less carbon emissions and it can even work as a substantial carbon sink.

But these broad statements are expressions of average performance; they don’t mean that all organic farms are good for the climate. Not all of them use little energy; some use fossil fuel for heating greenhouses and some use massive amounts of energy for pumping water or simply for intensive mechanical cultivation. Some organic farms do not work as carbon sinks, for example, intensive row crop cultivation is likely to be harmful for soil organic matter.

The strength of organic farming is that it is multifunctional, that is, it performs many different services at the same time, like a Swiss army knife – a popular multifunctional tool. But that also means for any particular issue seen in isolation, there will be a better tool. And here there is an inherent danger or challenge. For the market place it is, perhaps, enough to make average statements, but when talk turns to economic compensation for a certain service, e.g. carbon sequestration or biodiversity conservation, it is not satisfactory to talk about average performance. By emphasising one aspect of the many sides of organic systems we may lose sight of its other valuable traits. This is a predictable risk when public compensation is introduced with the specific purpose of providing a particular ‘environmental service’ and if standards are tailored to provide that particular service. This effect can already be seen in the various private sector initiatives to make climate standards.

The future for the organic sector is more in making the tools mutually supportive rather than increasing the size of the individual tools. This requires systems thinking rather than a narrow focus on one parameter. But the standards, with their increasing level of detail, don’t foster systems thinking at all. And the work of government administrations rarely does as well, as each department has its own very limited responsibility. What to do?

Leader of The Organic Standard, April 2012

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Very useful resource for agriculture

The Foundation on Future Farming and Biovision have recently launched the new website www.globalagriculture.org. The site makes the IAASTD’s findings available by topics and offers updated figures, background information, further reading and news and includes material on current topics such as land-grabbing and food speculation. Users can also browse and search the original reports. A special page reflects the discussion on food and agriculture on the road to Rio+20.

Thanks for this initiative! 

Monday, May 21, 2012

The dictatorship of intellectual property rights

"At the heart of the defense of modern day capitalism is the view that it is an innovation machine powered by competition and rivalry. In its ambit, the fittest survive and the leanest grow, goes the argument. In practice, however, it is precisely in the area of innovation that capitalism today affords private firms legal monopolies in the form of patents. And such protection is proving increasingly difficult to justify in the context of the huge investments being made by firms in acquiring and hoarding patents (not inventions) and financing litigation costs incurred to defend themselves against patent violation suits." writes C. P. Chandrasekhar in http://triplecrisis.com/patent-truths/

In Garden Earth: I write the following:

Shortly after a large-scale clinical trial in 1955, the first inactivated polio vaccine was being injected into tens of millions of people around the world—possibly the most successful pharmaceutical product launch in history. Asked why he had not obtained a patent on the phenomenally successful vaccine, Jonas Salk reportedly replied, ‘That would be like patenting the sun.’ A few decades later, this view seemed laughably quaint. (Alan Dove, quoted in Science Commons 2010)
Some problems are associated with the fact that nobody owns a certain resource, but certainly greater problems are associated with privatization of common resources such as knowledge, natural resources, innovations and technology. While there might have been secrets of the trade or knowledge that was monopolized also earlier, in no society this was done from the perspective of ownership. At a certain stage society started to protect intellectual property in order to motivate investments by assigning monopoly to certain people who, falsely or rightly, were seen as innovators or originators.
In England, patents in the modern sense originated in section 6 of the 1623 Statute on Monopolies, which described patents as ‘monopolies’ and exempted them from the general ban on royal grants of such rights. Mostly intellectual property rights have been established not on the basis of any idea of the ‘rights’ of the originator but rather on the basis of a utilitarian perspective that it is beneficial for society to assign such rights (compare with the discussion on privatization of nature’s resources).[1] It is by protection of the interest of the originator that they will be stimulated to be more creative, innovate and bring to the market new products. Gradually, over the course of history, this perspective was replaced by the notion that rights to control the use and dissemination of information are forms of ‘property’ rights[2] (Fisher 1999). 

The 1790 Copyright Act of the United States established a copyright term of 14 years. Copyrights acquired today will last for the life of the author plus 50 years. A less straightforward but equally important issue is the definition of a copyrighted ‘work’. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, a copyright owner enjoyed little more than protection against verbatim copying of his or her language. So, for example, in 1853 a federal Circuit Court rejected the claim of Harriet Beecher Stowe that a German translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin infringed upon her copyright. Today the story is quite different and the kinds of works to which copyright laws may apply have also grown enormously: in 1884, the Supreme Court concluded that photographs could be copyrighted; in 1971, Congress decided that musical recordings should be shielded from copying. In 1979, computer software was added to the list of protectable works. Like copyright, patent laws were gradually extended. In 1842, hoping to provide ‘encouragement to the decorative arts’, Congress extended the reach of the patent statute to cover ‘new and original designs for articles of manufacture’. Until the early twentieth century, plants were considered products of nature and hence unpatentable. The Plant Patent Act of 1930 overrode this principle, extending a modified form of patent protection to new varieties of asexually reproducing plants. In 1970, Congress went further, reaching new and ‘distinct’ sexually reproducing plant varieties (Fisher 1999).

Half the costs are licensing fees

As the world is getting more and more complex, the tangling web of patents and copyrights is getting more and more impenetrable and it is reasonable to ask which of the original motives for these rights are still valid, if any. Innovation, art and culture all existed before intellectual property rights, and the empirical evidence for the value of them for society is largely missing. If the manufacturing of a product needs a number of components or technologies patented by others, it is a complicated process just to negotiate with all patent holders. Additionally, all the licensing fees have to be paid. One single microchip can ‘contain’ more than 5000 patents; for a cheap DVD player patent costs are as high as manufacturing costs (Wikipedia 2009). In practice, this could mean that good products never reach the market despite both demands from consumers and interest from manufacturers. In the words of economists, a clear ‘market failure’.

The use of the neem tree as a fungicide was patented by an American company, despite that neem has been used as a pesticide for 2000 years. A coalition of the Greens in the European Parliament, the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements sued the company to the European Patent Office. After a 10-year-long process, the patent was declared void (IFOAM 2005). At a certain time there were concerns over this kind of bio-piracy, that is, that companies would capitalize on indigenous knowledge. This led to the possibility of patenting that kind of knowledge. Even if the intention was good, it seems as if, ironically, these measures paved the way for exactly what should have been prevented, a privatization of these resources. 

Patent rights can mean that fewer medicines are produced and that they are produced for a higher price, because patent rights limit competition (remember the origin in England in the Statute on Monopolies). A special case is the antiretroviral drugs used for HIV/AIDS. For long the ‘giant pharma’ refused to let generic copies be produced and sold cheaply in low-income countries, which meant that millions didn’t get access to them, again a typical ‘market failure’. In this case, public relations of the pharmaceutical companies ultimately became nightmarish and they backed considerably. It is indisputably the case that a lot of pharmaceutical research would not happen unless there was some protection for the innovation. On the other hand, the research is not necessarily geared towards what is best for the patient or society. There is, for instance, much less interest in drugs that, once and for all, cure an ailment than in those that need to be administered for the rest of your life.

 As can be seen with malaria treatments, there is little private investment in it because the clientele is so poor—which is also the case for why so much public and charity money is spent on this. As well as being an argument for patent rights, the situation with medicinal drugs seems to provide at least equally strong arguments for publicly funded research and common access to the result. For example, the effects of antibiotics are threatened by resistant bacteria. To be able to still treat the growing number of infections with such bacteria, we need to develop antibiotics that are only used as a last resort (so that no bacteria develop resistance against them too). But there is clearly little commercial interest to develop a new antibiotic and then not use it actively. Only governments or other public interest organizations will do that.

(extract from Garden Earth) 

an article in New York Times  writes: 
Another huge barrier to independent inventors is, paradoxically, the system set up to protect them. “The patent system has become rather costly for a small inventor,” says James Bessen, a lecturer at the Boston University School of Law. “Go back 100 years, and patents were very inexpensive to get. You didn’t have to have a lawyer to get one. The system is working in a very different way than it did years ago, and that favors large corporations.”  

[1]            Notably, in continental Europe, the perspective of a ‘natural right’ to the originator was more prevalent.
[2]            In a way, the same process has taken place with ownership of land, which was also a common resource that was gradually privatized.

local: the icing of the cake

" Until recently, local production provided the cake (the bulk of our needs) and what was imported was the ‘icing’ and cherry on top, nice to have but we didn’t depend on it. What cheap energy and globalisation has created is a situation where now the cake is imported from wherever in the world it can be found cheapest, and local production is just the icing."
Writes Rob Hoskins in a recent blog post about construction, but the analogy is about food and it certainly applies well to food!
Earlier, it was the faraway spices and tea that marked luxury, and was largely reserved for the privileged. Today local, organic and artisanal foods are luxury, things just some people can "afford" - because other products are comparatively cheaper. The of free-range chicken, which was the only way to keep chicken 100 years ago, and still the normal way among rural poor - is now a luxury product.

It is also illuminating that the rich, who largely became rich from the profits from the globalised markets, are the ones that to the largest extent are buying the stuff from those producers who work in ways that are less compatible with a global market with endless competition.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Markets don't distribute food to those without money

Seb's maize. Photo Richard Mulonga
The maize is towering over a sea of vigorous weeds. In some cases the greenery has pulled down the stalks and it is almost hard to believe there will be any harvest out of that field. Seb Scott, however, assures me that his maize will yield some 7 tons per hectare. The weeds are actually intentionally planted Lablab beans (Dolichos lablab). Seb is growing maize without machinery; i.e. he and his partner hand-hoe the fields, or just sow by hand in the mulch with an ingenious piece of tube. They also grow organically; instead of using government subsidized fertilizers he use green manure crops to supply nitrogen to his plants.

Some of the Mkandawire children eating their breakfast
Seb is not the only farmer I visit this day in Zambia in the end of April 2012. My first visit went to Fred and Susan Mkandawire. They grow maize on a hectare of land and they harvest a ton, just enough to keep the family alive. Maize is what they eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They don’t starve, but their margins are very small. It seems that they can sell a surplus of 250 kg, worth around 50 dollars this year, which is far from enough for the school fees for the five children. The Mkanadawires are using chemical fertilizers and work totally manually on their farm.

Godfrey Boma and his sunflower, Photo: Richard Mulonga
When he stands next to his great organic sunflowers, it is hard to believe that Godfrey Boma is 81 year old. After all, life expectancy in Zambia is below 40 years. Godfrey is a former miner and small business man who became a farmer at an age where the normal Swede stops working altogether. His and his wife Katherine’s farm is 9 hectares of which 4 hectares are farm land. He uses own oxen for plowing. A better – and more timely - land preparation, better weeding and higher use of chemical fertilizers are all contributing to that he harvest around 5 tons per hectare of maize - more than double the national average. That is five times as much as Fred and Susan, but still less than Seb. 

Godfrey also has a plot of organic production, Instead of the monoculture of maize which is typical for conventional maize production (such as Mkandawire’s and his own) the organic plot has ten different crops in smaller plots or grown together (so called companion cropping). When I asked how organic and non-organic compares, he says: ”It is 50-50. Organic is nice, there are no problems with disease, I don’t use any chemicals and have less cost. But it is more work”.

The visits show that it is possible to increase yields a lot. It is possible to do it with conventional methods and it is possible to do it with organic methods. It is possible to do it in a small scale farm or in a large scale farm. It also shows that poverty, in the sense of limited resources, as for the Mkandawires, is most likely a cause of low productivity in farming, rather than low productivity being the cause of poverty.

Zambia has been used as an example of successful agriculture policy, a proof that with more fertilizers one can produce ”more food”. Perhaps there is limited success on that count, even if the Ministry of agriculture’s own research shows that most of last years high yields crops can be explained by good rains.

Zambia’s agriculture budget is to a very large extent orientated to subsidies of chemical fertilizer and government procurement of maize, to a price considerably above world market prices. And clearly it works in the sense that it results in increased maize production. Anything else would be highly surprising.  Higher prices will lead to higher production, as it pays to use more resources for the same piece of land. As we can see above productivity per hectare can increase with different production methods. Fertilizer probably plays a marginal role for the increase of maize production in Zambia. In 2010/11 Zambia had a bumper crop of maize, and the result is that Zambia has a stock pile of more than 1 million ton, when the new season starts. The minister of agriculture, Emannuel Chenda tells the Post (May 1) that the huge surplus is a challenge, but continues by saying ”I am aware of that potential markets exist beyond our region in places such as the Horn of Africa. He doesn’t seem to understand that there is no shortage of food in the world; the people of the Horn of Africa simply can’t buy it, as little as the poor in Zambia.  The Zambian Farmer reports in their April issue that a very big proportion of the maize stock pile is simply rottening. Approximately a third of the maize in stock has gone to waste in bad storages. The authorities are now burning the rotten maize to make space for the new crop!

Many are critical to the fertilzer support:
”A ‘one size fit all’ approach to fertilizer and seed regardless of differences in agro-ecological zones and soil types has been responsible for poor yields per hectare experienced each year. All farmers are made to plant the same variety or range of seeds (short maturing or medium maturing or long maturing) using same type of fertilizers (D-compound and Urea) despite agriculturists knowing that differences in soil fertility require adjustments in input applications. This has resulted in significant drop in yield against yield potentials to as low as 10 bags per hectare against the potential 50-70 bags.”
says Action Aid in a report.

Daniel Kalala from the Kasisi Agriculture Training Center says that ”fertilizer subsidies is the number 1 election campaign strategy”. Others point to the rampant corruption involved in the program. The Farmer Input Support program costs Zambia 700bn Kwacha per year (some 133 million dollars).  This is enough to buy more than 500,000 ton maize – enough to feed some 2-3 million Zambians. By only supporting maize production with fertilizers and seeds, the government induces bad management practices (mono-culture) as well as bad nutrition of rural families, as they will grow more maize  and less of other crops.

All those issues aside, the story of food and who gets it and who doesn’t has very little to do with agronomic issues or with the use of more GMOs, or more fertilizers. The farms I visited show that it is access to resources (including know how) as well as markets that is most important for the productivity of the land and not if the farm is organic or not. How we farm is still a very important issue for how we maintain and enhance our social and natural capital, When it comes to food, distribution is a much bigger challenge. And distribution, in turn, has a lot to do with markets. And markets don’t distribute food to those that have no money to buy for.  

Friday, May 4, 2012

The monuments of the city are built on the backs of poor rural people

When going from Lusaka towards the farm of Susan Mkandawire we meet a constant stream of guys on bicycles on their way to Lusaka with heavy loads of charcoal. One of them is Christoffer Finsoni on this picture. He is a farmer but earns most of his cash from charcoal making and marketing. He carries 4 bags of 30 kg charcoal on his bicycle some 30 km to the market in Lusaka.

We often here the story about ignorant rural population that destroys their environment by cutting down the trees for cooking. But the reality is a lot more complex. Christoffer and his likes are mainly living in the "organic economy" based on biological and renewable resources. Wood (charcoal) and human power (as in bicycle) are the main energy sources. When I meet him in my car I represent the fossil fuel economy and the global industrial system. What strikes me is the direction of the stream of resources.

Many believe that the stream is from the rich global fossil-fuel economy to the poor, but is it?

Andrews family doesn't use char coal for their cooking, they use fire wood. Char coaling for the market in the city is a bigger threat to their forest land. And who is buying the char coal? Well it is certainly not the poor, they use twigs, corn cobs, stalks and other waste for their cooking. It is rather rich people in the city that drives deforestation. A similar case is the cutting of forests for conversion to grazing land. Most of that meat is destined for rich people. A similar thing is the idea to make bio char from bio mass. Again, poor peoples resources are used to enable the rich to continue a life style that is not sustainable. 

In the same way, the notion that urban living is more environmentally friendly as claimed by many, is just a delusion. The city has always been a parasite on the rural areas and most of the destruction in rural areas are caused by "city life and industrialism". This is based on inequality, privilege and violence.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Keep your ear to the ground!

Photo: Richard Mulonga
Susan Mkandawire in Kasisi, Zambia prepares food for her family of seven. Today’s lunch is Nsima. She uses own maize, a bit of cooking oil from the shop, pumkin leaves from her own farm and salt. This is the typical lunch and dinner most days. Breakfast: maize porridge.
This is the first job in the project
Keep your ear to the ground!

Which is the title of a book being written by journalist Ann Helen Meyer von Bremenand agriculture consultant and writer Gunnar Rundgren. It is commissioned by the largest environmental NGO in Sweden, the Swedish Society ofNature Conservation (www.snf.se) and will be their yearbook for 2013. 
Breakfast for some of the Mkandawire kids, Photo: Richard Mulonga
The main theme of the book is if it is possible to provide food for a growing population in a sustainable way. The book will look at agriculture development in a global and historical perspective to inform the reader of the forces that shape agriculture – and relate it to our diets and the landscape.  It will describe main challenges for agriculture such as water, erosion, nutrient supply and oversupply, biodiversity and competition between food production with other land-uses, such as bio-energy, conservation and built infrastructure. 
81 year old Godfrey Boma shows me his organic plots. Photo: Richard Mulongo

How agriculture is shaped by forces of technology, markets, policy and demography will be described. Special features will show this in the practice based on visits to countries such as Brazil, the US, India, the Netherlands and Sweden. Not only problems will be highlighted; from each country examples showing a path for a truly sustainable agriculture will be showcased.  

The book will discuss some of the prevalent perceptions or myths about farming and diets such as the need for GMOs and chemical fertilizers, the effect of increasing meat consumption, the effect of the farm frontier expansion. It will also present one or more scenarios for a truly sustainable agriculture.

The work with the book will be done in the period April to November 2012, with the research phase in April to August 2012. It will be published, in Swedish, in December 2012. 

Susan does the heavy hoeing, preparing the land. Fred, the husband cuts the grass with a panga. Photo: Gunnar