Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Does vegan farming work?

Koryama proudly shows his carrots. The leaves are not very impressive, but the roots are. He grows according to the Shizen Natural Farming concept, which essentially is about not applying any fertilizers, manures or composts. They claim that yields are somewhat lower than organic farming but that taste is superior. I can at least confirm that taste was very good.
Koryama pulls a very decent carrot!
Having grown vegetables myself for 32 years on rather poor soils, I am not particularly easy to convince that it is possible to do this without major soil building. This can be in the form of green manures and, at least on poor soils, some addition of e.g potash or phosphorus-rich minerals if not animal manure is admitted. Having promoting organic for 35 years I am also aware of how easily an alternative thought is dismissed, so I agree with myself to be open minded.

I ask Koryama if he applies the method for the Japanese staple food rice also, but no, this was only for fruits and vegetables. However, fruit and vegs are greedy and spoiled crops, so in my opinion, if it works for them, it should also work for other crops. The soils of Koryama, in Narita in Japan, are volcanic and I believe very rich, so it is of course possible that he is still “mining fertility”. But he has farmed with the method for more than 30 years, so one can’t easily say that he will soon run out of nutrients. His crops are sold by the Shizen Organic and Natural Food Ltd. They sell for the same price as organic and are also certified organic. His yield is lower but he says he can sell lower grades to the clients that want his produce and in addition he doesn’t have to buy any inputs, so it compares quite well with “normal” organic, for which he is also certified.

My starting point in thinking is that the various production systems that mankind developed over centuries have been rather well adapted to the ecological conditions where they developed. That is why the Mediterranean production system is quite different from the system in Western Europe or in the river valleys of India. But even if they were different, there were no systems without animals. And if all these systems had animals there were probably some quite good reasons for it. Even in India, where they supposedly are vegetarians (a truth with big modification) their system has been very much based on keeping cows and buffaloes – they are the worlds biggest milk producer and the biggest beef exporter!

Natural systems also have animals and plants mixed. We can’t easily integrate wild animals in our crop production systems, as they mostly will destroy the crops. Humans are not a replacement for the grazing animals, as we can’t break down cellulose. Animals also eat a lot of stuff that we don’t want to eat. Not only people, but also a lot of soil micro-organisms like animals, or at least their droppings. So for my simplistic mind, that prefers mimicking nature, an ecologically sound system is most likely to have animals.

I have seen other farms who have basically been independent from brought in compost, manure or other fertilizers, e,g. grain farms having rotations with a lot of legumes and green manures. But in most cases the same farm get a better yield – and far better economy – by introducing animals in the production system. This was essentially what happened in Europe some 150-200 years ago. Before that, most farms grew grain crops in almost monocultures, but the soils were exhausted and yields low and land was let fallow, every second, third or fourth year. With crop rotations including clover-grass and similar, farmers could suddenly both produce more grain and meat and milk from the same area.

It is possible that the same can be accomplished with a crop rotation where the legumes and grasses can be used for other purposes, e.g. for biogas production. But also here, it seems that it in almost all cases makes more sense to feed the animals and make biogas from the manure, in which case you can make better use of bio mass. If you think it is immoral for humans to keep domesticated animals this is irrelevant, and you would argue that there is no major difference between my argument and the arguments people use in favour of factory farming. Well, I do think there is a difference, because my discussion is about an appropriate way to produce food for 9-10 billion people with as small ecological footprint as possible, and keeping animals in a way that respect their animalness. This means that we need to use resources smartly.

Perhaps the vegan culture will develop such systems in the future. Perhaps I will then stop eating meat. Meanwhile, I hope we don’t have to hear the stories about that meat-eating, as a principle, takes away food from people. That is simply not true (and if you don’t believe that read some of the blog posts listed below).

Some reading:
Proponents of vegan farming:
even my mama grows vegan-organic

Some of my posts on meat production:
Producing meat (for export) or food for the people
The complicated story of meat


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Paying farmers for environmental services in Japan

An organic farm in the densly populated area close to the Narita airport
Japan is perhaps not a pioneer in paying farmers for environmental services, but it has some interesting schemes. The value of the eco system services of farming in Japan equals the value of production.

At the seminar linked to the launch of my book in Japan, Mashahito Enomoto,  Director of the Policy Division for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries held an interesting presentation about what the government is doing in support of more environmentally friendly farming in Japan. He stated that the estimated value of production from agriculture was 9.5 trillion Yen (some 120 billion dollars at today's rate) while the value of the ecosystem services were estimated to 8.2 trillion Yen, i.e. almost at par with the production value.

This shows clearly how important it is that we get in place mechanism that ensures that farmers take care of the management of the eco systems. (I have some very strong concerns about using market incentives for this. Read for example Ecosystems: Invaluable and worthless). 

Payment for ecosystem services has a long history in Japan. Already 1901, the Government of Tokyo implemented a scheme for forest management in the catchment area for its water supply (read more).For farms, Japan is partly using similar systems of support as in Europe. Organic farmers in Japan can get support in the same way, with a flat payment per area unit approximately of 64,000 Yen (800 dollar) per hectare (mind you, most Japanese farms are VERY small, outside of Hokkaido, average size is about 1 hectare). The uptake of organic farming in Japan is still rather slow (I will write more about this in a later post).

Some countries, such as the US pays farmers to take land out of production. The US Conservation Reserve Program has some 30 million acres that are taken out of production and the EU has during various periods have had set-aside programs. In Japan, an overarching concern is abandonment of land (see my previous post), and Japan has had a program for maintaining land under cultivation since 2000. Farmers could get anything between JPY3,000 up to JPY210,000 depending on site and kind of production.  By 2004, 660,000 farmers in 33,000 communities received in total JPY55 billion for active management of the farms.

Recipients of the support have to make an agreement with local communities that stipulates conservation activities to be conducted for the duration of no less than five years. This include management of fields and the maintenance of common resources such as irrigation canals, ponds and community roads. Local governments (both prefectural and municipal) play key roles in propagating, implementing and enforcing the program.

I find it very interesting that it is only through the local communities that farmers can get this kind of compensation. I believe this has a lot of additional values. First it means that the local communities, and the municipalities, get influence over how the systems develop, secondly, I believe the monitoring and control of the support must be quite easy, and to a large extent can be informal and finally it clearly must strengthen the local communities as such. This is very different from how the EU agri-environmental support works. I am quite convinced that this model in Japan is superior.You can read more about it in: Direct Payments for Environmental Services from Mountain Agriculture in Japan: Evaluating its Effectiveness and Drawing Lessons for Developing Countries, by Takumi Sakuyama. The evaluation points to some shortcomings of the program, which have a lot to do with the criteria for support, where to few indicators have been used to determine who should get support and at which level.

More about ecosystem services in my blogposts:
The Polluter Gets Paid Principle
Ecosystems: Invaluable and worthless
carbon projects drives land grabbing and GMOs?
Man: more dependent on nature than ever
The market is not a management system for the planet


Monday, October 29, 2012

Launching Garden Earth in Japan

I am in Japan for the launch of my book, Garden Earth in Japanese. It is published by Doyosha, a smaller publisher.

JONA, Japan Organic & Natural Foods Association is my host here and have made a very intensive visit program. The first day brought us two two organic farms, a cooperativa, a wholesaler, the Ministry of Agriculture and JICA, the Japan public development agency.

Ageing farmers is a very big problem in Japan (see my earlier post Will there be farmers? about this global problem). Only some 5% of the farms are operated by people below 45 years. Paradoxically enough there is quite some land agriculture land abandoned in Japan which seems strange in a country with so little agriculture land and the lowest food self-sufficiency in the world (of the bigger countries at least). This seems to have many reasons, among others, global specialization and competition, the small scale of Japanese farms combined with zoning and other regulations making it hard to consolidate farms into larger units, and the aging farmers that continue to own the land, but stopped managing it.

The government is now supporting young farmers with subsidies in the range of JPY1.5 million per farmer and year for five years. Many of these young farmers go for organic farming, and the Sanbu-Yasai Cooperative has a special program to find land and train young organic farms. A great initiative!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Burning food?

Small scale biofuel (Jatropha) production in Zambia

If the EU commission really cared about the poor and the hungry in developing countries, it should be concerned with the effects of its own agriculture and trade policies on these people, rather than engaging in fruitless discussions over biofuel competing with food.
“BRUSSELS, Oct 17 (Reuters) - New EU rules to limit how much food can be made into biofuels are "not perfect" and make it harder to achieve overall goals on switching to low carbon energy, European Commissioners said on Wednesday. But they insisted the proposals sent out the right signal to the biofuel industry, which would have to move on to new-generation fuels that do not compete with demand for food.”
If the EU commission really cared about the low carbon economy, it should be more concerned with the 95% of the fuel that is fossil than the 5% that is renewable. Or as a matter of fact, it should be concerned with a transportation system built around the private car. Cars and petrol are the culprits – not biofuel. Actions to reduce car traffic and total fuel use is much more important that the application of sustainability criteria on the 5% that should be biofuel. 

And if the EU commission really cared about the poor and the hungry in developing countries, it should be concerned with the effects of its own agriculture and trade policies on these people, rather than engaging in fruitless discussions over bio fuel competing with food. Why single out biofuel? What about the liquor, wine and tobacco cultivation? What about cotton? We can wear nylon instead. What about all land that is used of golf courses or hobby horses? In Sweden we use more than half a million hectare to feed our hobby horses. What about feed stuff? The EU commission seems to forget that most biofuel production also produces highly valuable animal feed stuff, so the net land use for biofuel is not as big as it looks like. 

The EU commission seems to have no understanding of how global food and agriculture markets work. From the perspective of farmers, the food sector has been a buyer’s market for most of the time. Increased food prices and more alternative uses for farmland is a boon for farmers. It is also in general positive for rural areas, and for those living in the rural areas. Most hungry people in the world live in rural areas and even those that are net buyers of food (e.g. agriculture workers and small farmers) will in most cases benefit from increased incomes in the area as it means more employment, more demand for services, better infrastructure. Admittedly, higher prices, are a problem for the poor in the slums of the mega cities. But there is not a very strong link between biofuel and higher food prices. The price hikes the last five years are more strongly linked to increased oil price than anything else. See more in Why oil price and grain price follow each other.
If the biofuel production of the US, the EU and Brazil would cease, there would be a massive fall in global agriculture prices. For a short while, poor people in the slums would get cheaper food. But within a few years, masses of farmers in both developed and developing countries would have been forced off the land and in developing countries, most would become dirt poor. They and the people working for them would be worse off than today, and more hungry.

Having said that, there are many issues to discuss around biofuel:
Like the rest of the agriculture sector, biofuels too are subject to large political interventions. Globally, biofuels received some US$ 11–12 billion in subsidies in 2006 (FAO 2008). During 2006/2007, one-fifth of the maize yield in the United States was used for biofuels, stimulated by heavy subsidies, and still the amount only corresponded to some 3% of petrol consumption (World Bank 2007). A report for Friends of the Earth states:
 [A] realistic bioenergy potential on cropland and grazing land in the year 2050 may be around 70–100 EJ/yr,[1] with the lower number being environmentally considerably more favourable than the higher one. For comparison, we note that the global technical use of primary energy is currently around 550 EJ/yr (fossil energy use around 450 EJ/yr). This means that the bioenergy potential from cropland and grazing land is in the order of magnitude of 15–22% of current fossil energy use. (Erb et al. 2009: 25)
 The results of the report Agriculture as Provider of Both Food and Fuel, Kersti Johansson, Karin Liljequist, Lars Ohlander, Kjell Aleklett are more or less the same. This shows that biofuels present a very limited possibility for reducing society’s dependency on oil. This doesn’t have to be an argument against biofuels by itself, rather an argument for the need to totally redesign transport systems. This also means that we have to address the growth in transportation as the main problem (for those saying that electric cars are the solution, read this).

One disturbing aspect is that a lot of biofuel production has a bad energy ratio; some examples even show ratios below 1, implying that the production of biofuel uses more energy than the energy content of the fuel itself, something that is obviously only possible to achieve with massive political distortion. For grain-based biofuels, the energy ratio in a number of cases studied ranged from 0.7 to 2.8.[2] The energy ratio of biofuels from lignocellulose is normally higher as is the energy efficiency of sugar cane ethanol.

The biggest problem with biofuel is the potential competition with other land use, as increased biofuel production is likely to either take place in now-low-on-production, but highly biodiverse, rangelands or expand into ‘virgin’[3] lands, such as wetlands and primary and secondary forests. Biofuel is also often grown in monoculture, uses a lot of agrochemicals and can be the reason for ”land-grabbing”. But none of these apply for all forms of biofuel, and can’t be used as an argument against biofuel as such. Small scale biogas made from manure and other waste fuels the cooking of many million of people around the globe. Several hundred million animals provide power to pull farm implements and transport goods all over the globe – their fuel is all from agriculture lands. 

Read More:
Biofuel in many shapes, about biofuel for the local market in Zambia
BBC had a very interesting article about biofuels in Germany
Energy and agriculture about the general questions about energy in agriculture
Financial times on the EU proposal
The Guardian

[1]            Here ‘EJ’ stands for Exa Joule; 1 EJ=1018 J.
[2]            This also means that if you want to replace 100 EJ of oil with biofuel, you might need 200 EJ of biofuel, because 100 EJ will be lost in the process of making biofuels if the ratio is 2. 
[3]            I put virgin in quotation marks to indicate that there is no such thing. All landscapes today, with the exception of land under the glaciers, are influenced by human activity.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Standards as tools for power

Standards are not innocent technical specifications, but tools of power and dominance. Standards and the conformity assessment linked to them are a vital components of the neo-liberal project. Review of Standards: Recipes for Reality by Lawrence Busch, The MIT Press, 408 pages.

We hear the news every day about the price of oil expressed in dollars per barrel. The standard barrel of crude oil is 42 US gallons (34.9723 imp gal; 158.9873 L). This measurement originated in the early Pennsylvania oil fields. Oil has not actually been shipped in barrels since the introduction of oil tankers, but the 42-US-gallon size is still used as a unit for measurement. Interestingly enough, the ”standard oil drum” that you see in use is a 55-US-gallon barrel! The two sizes of oil drums represent some of the millions of standards that shape the society we live in. Almost all products and services we are exposed to are subject to one or, mostly, many standards. A life without standards is almost incomprehensible today. Just think about how to conduct simple trade without standards. There would be no agreed measures (scales), no clear quality standards, no agreed value reference (currency), and there would be no standard terms of trade etc. We would be back to the situation of two unrelated civilizations have their first encounter. Standards, and their cousin norms, give us predictability in an otherwise rather chaotic world.

Within most professions, there are heated debates about the standards to apply, and people spend a lot of time arguing over them, write them and revise them. But very few actually think about standards as a social institution, their governance and how they can be used in the interest of some groups against others. In the excellent book Standards: Recipes for Reality, Lawrence Busch, Professor at Michigan State University, makes us aware of how standards shape our lives every day. More importantly, he puts standards in a wider economic, social and political context.

Busch questions many of the claims normally related to standards. For example, in the language of ISO and others, standards are developed based on consensus. Busch argue that consensus is not at all a salient feature of standards. It is rather that they are taken for granted or forced upon people that ensure that people conform to them. The organic sectors shows ample evidence of this. Even more striking is how certain proprietary technical standards can dominate markets, e.g. Microsoft Windows and its associated programs. Even governments yields to their powers in many cases.

For a frequent traveler like me it is a normal hassle to carry adapters. For some reasons sockets developed differently in different countries, and today we sit with huge assets built with one type of socket in each country. It is an example of “path dependence”, i.e. that we follow a certain path, not because it is the best one, but it is the one we choose in an early stage, and the cost to go back and start all over is simply too big. On the larger scale, the automobile transportation system is a another example of path dependence, where all those within the system have an interest to continue developing it, despite the fact that neither the car itself nor the combustion engines use to propel them, are the best transport solution for cities of today. So while we have thousands of car models to chose from, and each model has hundreds of variations, many people can’t chose whether they want a car or not. This situation is what the priest and sociologist Ivan Illich called “radical monopolies”. Unfortunately, second-best solutions are likely to remain in the future as a result of path dependency, says Mr Busch. 

Busch calls the combination of standards, certification and accreditation for the tripartite standards regime (TSR) and sees the TSR emerging as an alternative mode of governance for most aspects of social life. He is rather critical towards the TSR and claim among others that audits often do violence to the subject of certification. This is particularly the case when the audits are weakly related to the real purpose of the standards; when audits take away attention from other important but difficult to measure aspects, when the audits follow an approach of ”mechanical objectivity” which relieves the certification body from responsibility or when audits intrude into the subjects pursuance of whatever goals they have. It seems to me that all those four points apply to how organic certification is mastered. The problem, and the violence done, is exacerbated when standards are written into law, says Busch. Busch concurs with the Michael Power in his book The Audit Society that one main requirement of the TRS is that organizations subject to certification are forced to reorganize their work to be more easily auditable, but that such a reorganization to satisfy the auditors may backfire, and risk to confuse predictability with trustworthiness.

He sees the standards movement of the last century as part of the industrialisation concept, linked to the division of labour, economies of scale and to the whole organization of the factories. The same standardization enables global markets and unlimited competition. Through standardization in transportation, such as containerization, improved communications etc., the competition is now also truly global in many markets. The container itself, once it was standardised in 1965, determined shapes of the ships but also of pallets, boxes and of goods to fit into the standardized boxes. This competition in turn drives the ”technological treadmill”. I can’t raise the price (as the quality is fixed) which means that I have to lower costs of production, e.g. by using chemical fertilizers or by using more efficient machinery.

As a counter-reaction to this development, there has been a drive last decade to use standards for differentiation. Organic standards and certification is one of the most prominent examples of such differentiation. Classic standardization leads producers down the path of ”commodity hell”. It has cleared the market from unique products, made to order or in a one-by-one production process and transformed it to ”same” products. With the new standards differentiation, we get a market where we can ”chose between hundreds of different, but equally standardized – varieties of ketchup, automobiles or airline tickets”. But Busch also notes that ”their (the differentiating standards) value as such is diminished as their numbers increase”. Busch explores how this contradiction came into being.

He sees the rapid increase in use of standards coinciding with the neo-liberal project, with less central planning and retreating states. He sees an inherent conflict in that managers of companies on the one hand want less regulation on the other hand are afraid of the vacuum created by the retreating state. The total free market situations favoured in most liberal economic theories have been abolished by the companies themselves through the development of closely knitted supply-chains which in turn are a pre-condition for lean management, outsourcing and other modern trends. To make all participants in a supply-chain subject to standards and certification means they are tied together and the market is less free, and therefore predictable. ”No large firm can afford to subject itself to the instabilities and risks associated with the free market”. In this way, the Tripartite Standards Regime becomes a new model for governance. The lead firm or lead firms in the supply-chains or value-chains will mostly impose their standards on others. The standards themselves often also distribute burden and costs unevenly in the value-chain. Busch mentions GlobalGAP as such an example, where small farmers are not able to carry the substantial direct and indirect costs involved . He also discusses how NGOs have turned to certifications and supply chains in attempts to advance their goals, instead of lobbying increasingly powerless governments.

Busch shows how standards are intimately connected to power–that they often serve to empower some and disempower others; ”in our modern world standards are arguably the most important manifestation of power relations”. He points to the dual character of the English word “ruler” as a manifestation of this, on the one hand, it is someone who rules, on the other hand a measuring device. Busch gives examples from colonial times of how schools in the British colonies taught medieval British history, but didn’t include the history of the countries where the books were used. The imposition of Western standards for private property in conflict with customary ownership systems is another example.

Also today, standards are tools of power and domination, but now in the hands of companies. By means of standard, conflicts are seemingly resolved or at least transferred from a political domain into a technical, technocratic domain. The claimed “voluntary” nature of standards also adds to the perception that the use of the standard is just an economic choice which is made in the market place. In this way, standards are stealthily becoming weapons for power and blurs power relationships. Because of the perceived technical nature of the standards, the standards governance model (the TPR) falls short of ethics, justice and democracy. In a recent article, Can Fairy Tales Come True Mr Busch writes: 
The TSR is a new and ubiquitous form of governance that, although supported by the state, is fundamentally responsible only to itself and not to any democratically elected legislative body. Hence, while it can do good, it can just as easily do harm, with little or no democratic oversight.
 That standards are power tools is shown by the many social movement that are formed around standards such as the women’s suffrage movement, anti-apartheid movement, labour movement and lately gay rights movement. Many of these movements want rights to be extended to their constituency, instead of being limited to just some group, e.g. the right of marriage to be limited to heterosexual couples.

The privatization of public services requires further standardization as services that before were just provided (say schools and electric utilities)  now have to be purchased in the market place, and therefore made comparable, i.e. standardized. This development transforms all sorts of habitual action into decisions where we are forced to make rational choices. To this can be added the stress of the market place where we are supposed to decide whether we want, for example, fair trade or organic products. The increase in choices by the differentiation in the market as well as by privatization of former public services may not be very democratic according to Busch, all the choices and decisions to be made are time consuming and require skill-”skills that the middle class might have, the upper class can buy, the lower class is rarely able to pursue and the ”underclass” cannot pursue at all.”
“Standards” is a book to read for those professionally engaged in the tripartite regime of standards, certification and accreditation. It will pose some hard questions, and give some ideas for improvements. While the tone is critical, Busch makes no attempt to trash standards as a whole:  "Thus, the challenge is not to eliminate standards, to return to some mythical past during which standards were of trivial importance, Instead [...] to ensure that seemingly benign standards do not lead to gross injustices." Before embarking on making a standard, we should ask the central question: Is standards the most appropriate form of governance in this particular situation? There are laws, regulations, statutes, customs, norms and habit that could perhaps be a better alternative. He makes a list of qualities –standards for standards if you so wish - that he believe standards should have such as subsidiarity; use of precaution; do minimal violence; make actionable standards; encourage participation in standard setting; and review standards frequently. 

Read and enjoy.  

Other reviews of this book: 
Wall street Journal
Galveston daily news