Monday, July 23, 2012

Where does the buck stop?

‘Passing the buck’ is an English expression. It means letting someone else take care of a problem or take on the responsibility. The former US President Truman famously had a sign on his desk saying that ”the buck stops here”. Clarifying that he was ultimately in charge.

Who is really in charge? Who is to blame? These are questions that come into mind when reading the European Court of Auditor’s report on the EU organic system. Some of their conclusions could have been drawn directly from earlier leaders of The Organic Standard...

The EU system is built on competing national certification bodies – in some countries up to thirty certification bodies – with oversight by a plethora of national and sometimes regional authorities, accreditation by national accreditors ( only one per country because they have been granted monopoly by the European Union) and oversight by the European Commission. The system has developed not based on the needs of the sector but on the needs and habits of the governments. That is the only reason why authority for approval of certification bodies follows the divisions of the governments. And it is why in some countries regional authorities are in charge and in most countries several authorities are in charge.

Because of an, unfortunate, reference to the EN 45011 (ISO 65) in the EU Regulation back in 1997, national accreditation bodies came into the game, bringing little added value, but increasing cost and increasing focus on rather unimportant procedures. As they were given a monopoly of accreditation, they also swayed the EU that they should have the monopoly of interpreting the EN 45011, a rather outrageous claim.

All of the actors in the system have resource constraints, and will only do what they are forced to do. Most of them also lack competency. Some of the authorities are even hostile to the organic sector despite it being within their mandate to supervise and approve the certification bodies. How does that make the certification bodies and producers feel? The EU has rarely conducted any supervision of what the Member States do. And the ‘transaction costs’ of keeping all in the systems up to date and informed are astronomical. But the biggest problem is that nobody takes responsibility. A concerned consumer in an EU country or a food processor that suspects you’re a competitor is cheating, has nowhere to go with a query because nobody is in charge.

This mess is likely to lead to calls for more controls and more supervision, probably by strengthening the Commissions oversight, and increased reporting upwards by all concerned. But that is the wrong way to go.

What the system needs is rationalisation and fewer actors. There are several options for this. By integrating organic controls into the normal food control system, like in Denmark, both certification and accreditation can be eliminated, and accountability is clear. The same can be accomplished by having a national monopoly for certification, like in the Netherlands. By recognising one international accreditation system for all certification bodies, such as the IOAS, certification bodies could operate freely within all the European territories. In any case, the national approvals of certification bodies are antiquated and could be abolished; a certification body is approved in one country it should be allowed to operate freely in the other countries.

This is not the place to make the blueprint for a new system, but any new system should be built on fewer actors and fewer layers and clearer lines of responsibility, and as much as possible responsibility should be at the ‘lower’ levels, i.e. with the producers and the certification bodies.

Are we consumers or citizens?

The video Story of Change is a nice attempt to make clear why Green consumerism falls short of inducing the radical shift needed. More than 20 years of the business model of "sustainable development" show how little can be accomplished by just relying on consumers and businesses to make the "right choices". For sure, to make the right individual choices are important - but not enough. And it is a dangerous illusion that we will select a good future by how we consume (i.e. shop). Gradually, the consumerist paradigm takes over also the political sphere and patients are treated as customers in hospitals instead of patients or citizens.

The video is perhaps a bit naive, but less naive than the idea that we will change the world by consumer choice.....

In the end I also wonder if "citizen" is the right term for what we ought to be. It has a connotation of nationalism (as citizenship is linked to a nation), and its link to the "city" as an organism is dubious, but that might be the subject of a later blog post.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The greatest single experiment in global geoengineering

Without knowing it, if you are a European, you might bear costs of over €500 per year for farmers’ use of Nitrogen fertilizers. According to the European Nitrogen Assessment, synthetic N fertilizer has been estimated to sustain nearly 50% of the world’s population, but its use comes with a very big prize tag. The report states that the increased level of reactive Nitrogen in the biosphere might represent the greatest single experiment in global geoengineering ever made. Similar concerns were already expressed by the Millenium Ecosystems Assessment and later echoed by the by now famous article about Planetary Boundaries.

And while this Nitrogen drives yields, a lot of the nitrogen ends up where it isn’t supposed to.The nitrogen recovery (kg N taken up by a crop per kg applied N) for cereals varies between 30% and 0% across Europe, indicating that 40%–70% of the fertilizer N applied is lost to the atmosphere or the hydrosphere.

From the perspective of the individual farmer the use of Nitrogen fertilizer is profitable. The return of one euro invested in nitrogen fertilizer is estimated to between two and five euro. But someone else pays a bigger bill. “Environmental damage related to Nitrogen effects from agriculture in the EU-27 was estimated at €20–€150 billion per year. This can be compared with a benefit of N-fertilizer for farmers of €10–€100 billion per year, with considerable uncertainty about long-term N-benefits for crop yield”  says the report.

This is no European speciality, it is likely the same or worse in many places. In the US the Mississippi, the Columbia, and the Susquehanna rivers together discharge approximately 1 million tons of nitrogen in the form of nitrate per year to coastal waters according to a report from H. John Heinz III Center. In Rwanda, erosion causes loss of almost 1 million tons of organic matter, some 40,000 tons of nitrogen, 280 tons of phosphorus and 3000 tons of potassium—more than the total use of chemical fertilizers according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development assesses that the fertilizer uptake efficiency is less than 30 percent for rice production in South and South East Asia. Globally the nitrogen efficiency in grain production has deteriorated drastically and rapidly. Around 1960, each ton of chemical fertilizer resulted in an increase of grain yield of 75 ton, while in the end of 1990 resulted in just 25 ton, a glaring example of decreasing marginal utility, as nitrogen fertilizer use increased tremendously in the same period.

What comes in - will go out....
In the end there is nothing really surprising in the report. It has always been clear that not only 40%-70% of the nitrogen is lost to the atmosphere or the hydrosphere. It is rather 100% that is lost, as also what is captured in the grain or the grass, ultimately also will leak away, as long as nitrogen is not accumulating in soils. But it isn’t doing that, on the contrary.

Read more:
Overloaded with Nitrogen and approaching peak phosphorus
Scarcity starts to bite
Nitrogen in the biosphere - a cliffhanger
Nitrogen fertilizers destroy soil organic carbon
Plows into Swords and Swords into Plows

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The road to food security: What works and what doesn’t?

Considering that donors spend some US$ 150 billion per year in development aid, and that much of this is oriented to poverty alleviation and food security it is perhaps surprising to know how few thorough international reviews that have been made to assess  what works and what doesn’t work. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has now reviewed existing evaluations in the field and make a summary in the study A systematic review of the impact of interventions in agricultural production, value chains, market regulation.  One conclusion is that most evaluations and impact assessments are not solid enough to allow for any far-reaching conclusions. Of 365 evaluations screened only 38 fulfilled the quality criteria the reviewers had developed.

The review assessed four pathways to food security: increasing production; development of value chains; market reform and land security. Interventions based on access to credit; development of non-farm sector; social safety nets; stabilized prices, hygiene and sanitation were thus not part of the review.

Overall conclusions
Interventions improving land tenure security scored mostly positive, especially when combined with other interventions.
Interventions increasing agricultural production scored generally positive, except for sustainability.
Value chain development scored well on increasing trade, but the most vulnerable people did not benefit.
Market regulation reform interventions score lowest, due to the combination with reduced support to the agricultural sector in several African countries.
Success was most likely where different interventions were combined in a favourable national climate.

As I have been working a lot with value chain development I took a particular interest in that: Intervention in value chain comes out as one of the better strategies for improving food security. The report highlights that there is a big potential in the development of domestic value chains. For example, in Kenya approximately 500,000 smallholders produce vegetables and fruits for the domestic markets while only 11,500 smallholders were engaged in the export market. The export market involves many more large plantations with employees. They employ in total also around half a million people, who are food secure through their income. The evaluation also studied value chains built around GlobalGAP, Organic and Fairtrade.

Number of farmers producing certified products for export markets          
Developing countries
GlobalGAP (2007)

Organic (2009)

source: IOB study 363, 2012

Clearly donors are disappointed with the very limited impact of all the efforts spent to train smallholders in GlobalGAP systems. There have been many donor financed projects for linking smallholder farmers in developing countries to organic markets in developing countries. For example the Export Promotion of Organic Products from Africa. In that programme, more than 120 thousand smallholders in Uganda and Tanzania were linked to organic markets in Europe, USA and Japan. The estimated earnings reached some US$ 30 million per year.  The review assess the impact of organic value chains as successful, but can’t conclude if the efforts have reached the most vulnerable or not. Successfactors have been linking of farmers to commercial exporters (as opposed tp supporting farmer to export themselves), group certification and efforts to improve quality. Also for Fairtrade it was unclear if the most food insecure people were reached and perhaps surprising the report states that, Fairtrade seems to have reinforced men’s role in household an cooperative decision making around cash crops; in one case women’s income had even declined. For the total household income, in four of six cases in Latin America, there had been no increase of household income with Fair trade: ”The low income for Fairtrade farmers is due to the competition between the Fairtrade crop and other farm and non-farm activities, the additional costs for inputs and (hired) labour, and the limited Fairtrade market - only part of the produce is sold as Fairtrade.”

On the opposing side to organic stands a strong drive to increase use of chemical fertilizers, and sometimes GMOs and pesticides. The reports says that the subsidised fertilizer schemes in Zambia and Malawi have been successful. However, another recent special review of such schemes, Agricultural input subsidies in Sub-Saharan Africa from DANIDA comes to a much less positive conclusion after studying such schemes in Malawi, Zambia, Ghana and Tanzania:
Significant increases in agricultural productivity and food production is possible, and the potential for improving agricultural productivity by subsidising agricultural inputs exists. However the estimates are somewhat uncertain. Costs are very high, and given uncertainties it is unclear whether the programmes provide value for money.
There is very little convincing evidence to suggest that outcomes are likely to persist after termination of the programmes. However, the subsidy programmes are designed to address the distortions created by market imperfections rather than the market imperfections themselves. When (if) the programmes are phased out, input use is likely to decline again.
It also concludes that none of the programmes managed to reach the poorest households

On the, rather controversial, effects of market deregulation, the Dutch review shows how market de-regulation in China and Vietnam, in combination with land reform, has contributed tremendously to growth and reduction of poverty. ”The impact of domestic trade reform alone was not evaluated, but together with the other pathways in Vietnam’s agricultural development, it contributed to the production increase, from a deficit of 27% in 1980 to a surplus of 40% in 1999. And for China:
In China, during the so-called household responsibility system reform between 1978 and 1984, national grain production increased from 305 to 407 million tonnes. Increases in efficiency increased labour productivity and reduced production costs and food prices. [... ] As a result, per capita grain consumption increased from 195 to 250 kg per year, and household income increased by 15% per year between 1978 and 1984. The efficiency gains in agriculture made labour available for the rural industry sector that absorbed about one third of the rural labour force by 1996. Poverty declined from 53% in 1981 to 8% in 2001.

On the other hand the report also points to that during the period of big de-regulation
In most African countries, the increase in food import was larger than the increase in agricultural export. The ratio of food import to agricultural export has worsened for all African countries plus Guatemala and Peru, remained the same for Guyana, and had improved for China, India and Chile (1970-2002). In the period 1995-2002, the situation was worst for Senegal which imported food worth more than three times their total  agricultural export. Farmer income from export crops increased in all countries. In contrast, farmer income from liberalised food crops decreased in all countries, except in Chile. Farmer income from food crops that were still protected increased in Cameroon, Nigeria, Morocco, China, India, Chile, Guyana and Peru.

That land reform the report highlights that land titling and solutions based on individual, private ownership may not be the best. As a matter of fact they are likely to benefit more those that are already better off, and exclude women and disadvantaged groups.

As the report points out, there is no silver bullet that by itself can guarantee food security. It stands clear to me that food security – poverty and equality are intrinsically linked, and that the reason for food insecurity is found in an unjust society and unequal access to resources, and therefore,  that the path to food security is to correct those injustices.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Trash Sustainability indicators

I was in a rather bad mood the other night and wrote something to a group of people, of which I am a member, about "A best practice reference document that addresses organic principles and practices in the broader context of global human society and its sustainability" Read more on

In the work to develop the document there is the idea to develop indicators for sustainability. I wrote the following:

The more I think about it the more I question the need for indicators in that SOAAN document.

As a project manager I work a lot with indicators. I think they work reasonably well as a tool for simple projects (like organise a conference in Lusaka, set up an information centre). Already in more complex project settings they are of much less value for project management. For reporting on development they are ok, but not for GUIDING development.

In general, I don't think most farmer are interested in complex set of indicators, They might be it in a benchmarking exercise with farmers in their own area, but benchmarking against a global standard is not so interesting - and also not really relevant. I have worked in all continents of the world in almost 100 countries and while some things are strikingly similar allover the place - many things are very different, and what is relevant in one place is of little relevance in another.

For me it is hard to understand all this energy that is put into indicators, indexes, metrics. The producers don't care. The market place doesn't care. LCA is a prime example of this. It is all interesting for researchers, but it is totally irrelevant in real life. No consumer base their shopping decision on LCA, no companies design their products based on LCA (well perhaps some have tried but they are probably bankrupt by now). And in the end the selection and weighing of indicators is purely subjective. What they do is to transform subjective values into seemingly objective measures....

NO successful entrepreneurs or innovator works based on systematic indicators (they do mostly have their own homespun indicators/rules of the thumb) or things like that. They hardly make business plans or have a budget. WHY are we so obsessed with this?


I know that some of the reason is that people feel some kind of need to PROVE that organic is BEST or MORE SUSTAINABLE than other things. But why are we so obsessed with that? Industrial farming or GMO don't spread because they argue that they are more sustainable, alternatives also don't succeed or fail depending on how they score in idealistic measurements, and governments CERTAINLY don't chose sides based on a set of indicators. It is a very small group of people that keep this discussion alive.

In society in general, we have accepted that even if we respect science and scientists they are not necessarily the best managers of development. Instead we let incompetent democratically elected politicians decide. A technocratic world of social engineering is not what people WANT.

And as much as I am critical of laissez-faire liberalism, it certainly has a point in objecting to too much central control and planning. In the same way I object to the idea that our clever group should sit and develop all those nice indicators.

Make a good document, let indicators be developed site specific, for different purposes, with different sets, by those who think they need them - don't try to enforce them globally. A guidance document for how to make indicators could also be an output - and when I think about it, that should be the starting point even if you want the document should have it....


One of the members of the group sent the link to this very interesting presentation by Frederick Kaufman.