Monday, November 26, 2012

Mounting resistance to pesticide expansion

"PESTICIDES are like bombs being dropped in the food web creating enormous destruction," said Dr. K. L. Heong, an entomologist who once worked with the Laguna-based International Rice Research Institute.

In recent decades, there has been a steady increase in the amount of pesticides marketed for argicultural use. In the European Union alone, more than 200,000 tonnes of pesticides (active ingredients) are used annually. Between 2005 and 2010, the total volume of global sales rose from US$ 31 billion to US$ 38 billion. The amount of pesticides used internationally has risen fifty-fold since 1950. China is now the country that both uses and produces the largest amounts of pesticides (PAN Germany, Pesticides and health hazards, Facts and figures)

Luckily there is mounting resistance to the pesticide expansion. Pesticides are not as essential as many people think, according to the  International Rice Research Institute (Irri). An Irri study on the effects of pesticides on rice productivity and health shows that farmers’ earnings from chemically-treated crops are often greatly reduced by the cost of treating pesticide-related health problems. "The value of the crops lost to pests is invariably lower than the expense of treating pesticide-caused ailments," Irri said in a statement. "When health costs are factored, the use of correct rice varieties and reliance on natural control by predators and parasites is the least expensive pest control strategy." (Sunstar 25 November).

In the UK, The Environment Secretary Owen Paterson is examining the possibility of banning the controversial nerve-agent pesticides increasingly implicated in the decline of bees and other pollinating insects (Independent 22 November). And in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Gazette reports that the ministry of agriculture recently banned 30 different agricultural pesticides after research has pointed to the dangers that these harmful chemicals pose to public health. The Ministry of Agriculture has established a center with a total expenditure of SR70 million to promote organic agricultural methods throughout the Kingdom.  

Global chemical pollution impacts on both humanity and ecosystems, and includes adverse effects from long-term exposure to low or sub-lethal concentrations of single chemicals or to mixtures of chemicals. More than 90 per cent of water and fish samples from aquatic environments are contaminated by pesticides. (Global Chemicals Outlook: Towards Sound Management of Chemicals.)  

In most countries there is no systematic follow up of pesticides in nature and in no country there is monitoring of all active substances; what is found is still frightening enough. Eighty percent of all rivers in the USA contain pesticide residues. Sixty percent of all wells have residues. The proportion contaminated wells was almost as high in urbanized areas, due to use in home gardens, gravel or stone paths, golf courses etc. In France, pesticides are found in all rivers and half of all water sources had at least traces of them. Of the fifty substances that are checked in the Netherlands, two thirds were found in ground water (OECD 2001). 20 pesticides were found in groundwater used by 3.5 million people in the Santa Ana River watershed. On the great plains in the USA researchers detected two insecticides and 27 herbicides in reservoir water. Water treatment removed from 14 to 86% of individual herbicides. Drinking water contained 3–15 herbicides (average, 6.4).

Pesticide Suicides
Because of their availability, intake of these pesticides is a frequent suicide method. Many hospital records show that a high proportion of severe acute pesticide poisonings are in fact suicides, especially in Asia. The WHO estimates that there are about 2 million pesticide suicides and suicide attempts worldwide every year. The number of suicidal deaths through pesticides was estimated as being as many as 370,000 in 2007. In Asia alone, more than 300,000 people die this way each year. The numbers reported from Sri Lanka are especially alarming. In several rural areas there, pesticide suicides are the most frequent cause of death in hospitals. (PAN Germany, Pesticides and health hazards, Facts and figures).

In 1990, the WHO assumed that one million severe cases of unintentional pesticide poisoning occurred annually. What is remarkable is another, much higher WHO estimate from the same year that is rarely cited in the relevant literature. This figure refers to 25 million unintentional poisonings annually of farm workers in developing countries alone, with on average 3% of agricultural workers in developing countries suffering an episode of pesticide poisoning per year. A recent study by PAN International assumes that currently, of the total 1.3 billion farm workers worldwide, about 41 million suffer pesticide poisoning each year, with average poisoning rates at 32%. (PAN Germany, Pesticides and health hazards, Facts and figures)

Statistics on illnesses due to chronic poisoning as a result of pesticide use or pesticide contamination of food are very limited. But there is reliable evidence that the increasing incidence of cancer, hormonal effects, and neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease is linked to the use of certain pesticides in agricultural production. (PAN Germany, Pesticides and health hazards, Facts and figures)

The damage on nature and the suffering of humans also come with costs. UNEP Cost of Inaction Report (2012) reveals that the costs of injury (lost work days, outpatient medical treatment, and inpatient hospitalization) from pesticide poisonings, in Sub-saharan Africa alone, amounted to USD $4.4 billion in 2005. This is an underestimate as it does not include the costs of lost  livelihoods and lives, environmental health effects, and effects of other chemicals. Another study suggests that the major economic and environmental losses due to the use of pesticides in the United States amounted to USD $1.5 billion in pesticides resistance and USD $1.4 billion in crop losses, and USD $2.2 billion in bird losses. (Global Chemicals Outlook: Towards Sound Management of Chemicals)

Enough is enough, It is now high time to simply ban most pesticides. There are in almost all cases good alternatives available. They might be a bit more costly for the farmers, but for society it makes economic sense to ban pesticides.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The changing climate for cimate change....

"The global energy map is changing, with potentially far-reaching consequences for energy markets and trade. It is being redrawn by the resurgence in oil and gas production in the United States and could be further reshaped by a retreat from nuclear power in some countries, continued rapid growth in the use of wind and solar technologies and by the
global spread of unconventional gas production. "

This "rapid growth in renewables sound promising, BUT

"Coal has met nearly half of the rise in global energy demand over the last decade, growing faster even than total renewables."

"Natural gas is the only fossil fuel for which global demand grows in all scenarios, showing
that it fares well under different policy conditions"

"Growth in oil consumption in emerging economies, particularly for transport in China,
India and the Middle East, more than outweighs reduced demand in the OECD, pushing
oil use steadily higher."

"The transport sector already accounts for over half of global oil consumption, and this share increases as the number of passenger cars doubles to 1.7 billion and demand for road freight rises quickly. The latter is responsible for almost 40% of the increase in global oil demand"

Some of the conclusions in the latest World Energy Outlook

So oil increases slightly, coal increases a lot and natural gas increases.
It seems like climate change is forgotten...Or rather that actions against climate change are forgotten.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Quality management is a management fad elevated to divinity

Every second shipment was delayed and the invoices were never correct. Those were the experiences I had as a client of one freight-company in Sweden in the late 1980s. What was special with this company? They were pioneers in the implementation of an ISO 9000 certified quality management system. 

When I first implemented a quality management system some 23 years ago, it was new and fresh, and seemed like a good idea. I mean, who could possibly oppose a focus on quality, and approaching quality in a systematic way through a management system? The approach really suited my personality of an introvert system designer. Just write down how things should be done; do; check that it is working and revise if it isn’t; then repeat the cycle. However, over the years I have grown more and more cynical about the use of such systems, and in particular how the belief in them is like a dogma that can’t be questioned.

What is a QMS
There are many definitions of quality management systems (QMS). It can be ‘A set of coordinated activities to direct and control an organisation in order to continually improve the effectiveness and efficiency of its performance’. Alternatively, it can be “A system by which an organisation aims to reduce and eventually eliminate nonconformance to specifications, standards, and customer expectations in the most cost effective and efficient manner.’  The latter is at least a bit more modest about what a QMS can deliver, or should deliver.

In my view, the time is overdue to challenge this management idea, to expose it as just another fad, loaded with jargon and promoted by a hoard of consultants (including myself), certification bodies and accreditation bodies who earn their living from it. My objections to it are based on two different issues; on the one hand it is based on some erroneous principles or assumptions and on the other hand, even if it were useful, the positive effects are not big enough to justify the energy spent. What I am discussing here is quality management as a management principle. Clearly, I have no objections to quality, how could I? After all, quality is anything you define. I also have no objections to ‘management systems’, how could I? All organisations are managed according to one or the other system, documented or not, good or bad. But those who have spent weeks writing manuals and training staff etc know what I am talking about, the quality management system (QMS).     

Proudly certified!
The main standard for quality management is the ISO 9000 standards. ISO 9000 was first published in 1987.  It was based on the BS 5750 series of standards from the British Standards Institute. However, its history can be traced back some twenty years earlier to a US Department of Defense standard in 1959, which was aimed at ensuring bombs go off at the target and not in the hangars or in the factory – a laudable effort (not for the targets, though). The concept of the ISO 9000 has spread into a wide range of other standards, such as the ISO 14000 series for environmental management, the ISO 22000 for food quality management and the ISO 65 for certification bodies and ISO 17011 for accreditation bodies.

Despite its rapid uptake in various industries quality management is not a proven method. Agreed, there are many reports and statement from quality managers, and consultants and certification bodies about how good quality management is. However, very little peer-reviewed research has been conducted that evaluates whether the system delivers what it promises to do, that is, consistent quality. And there has been even less work done to prove that it delivers general management benefits, which proponents claim most often. One study in Australia and New Zealand did look at the effect of ISO 9000.1 The central finding of the project was that ‘on average ISO 9000 certification has little or no explanatory power of organisational performance.[1] Another study reports that ‘However, surprisingly no significant difference is found with respect to defective part production and manufacturing cost between the two groups [those who had a QMS and those that hadn’t].’[2]

We are told to put quality first, but what does that really mean? Is quality more important than following the law? How does it relate to workers’ safety, the environment or, the most obvious factor in organisations, profit? The quality management culture is based on the fact that there are special quality manuals and a special quality system. But organisations are not managed by these kinds of manuals, and controllers and financial departments work with a different logic. Where does that really leave quality management? Instead of acknowledging the contradictions and different interests in an organisation, QMS proponents spread the illusion that the QMS is the most important part of the management system, which is at best delusional.   

The starting point in the development of a quality system is, almost exclusively, the standard itself, and all the issues required by the standard. This is in itself a very bad starting point. ‘Planners of quality systems, guided by ISO 9000, start with a view of how the world should be as framed by the Standard. Understanding how an organisation works, rather than how someone thinks it should, is a far better place from which to start a change of any kind’ says British management consultant, John Seddon.

QMSs are based on a view that people perform better when told what to do, rather than when they are given freedom and motivation. They exaggerate the use of written instructions at the expense of social interaction and continuous problem solving. This degrades people to automata, a development that risks the quality in their work and ultimately the performance of the organisation.

Even good systems take considerable time and energy to implement. Consequently their implementation competes for resources and attention, resulting in less energy and attention orientated to other (real) problems within the organisation. In addition, QMSs discriminate against small firms as they are more costly to implement while the potential benefit is even less than in a big firm.

While a well functioning QMS might be good for operations, they are often badly designed and implemented, and thus are likely to do more harm than good. An organisation with shelves full of files telling people what to do and how to do it, with a workforce that disregards the policies, is worse off than a company with very few policies, which are vigorously enforced and promoted, and grounded in the organisation’s culture. Many organisations implement a QMS because they ‘have to’ – as a result of demands from the clients or from other outside parties – and not because they see the value of them. Again a very bad starting point for good implementation.

And finally, there are the audits of quality management systems. The actual quality of the product or service is not included in an audit or assessment. Auditors look into systems, procedures and organisational structures, and very little at implementation. Increasingly, audits look at ‘meta-systems’, that is the systems used to develop and maintain the system, for instance, internal audits. Here it follows the footsteps of financial audits, which also has gone from checking the actual books, stocks and assets to auditing the system. This has been well analysed, and criticised, by Michael Power in the book Rituals of Verification. Power says that most effort is actually spent on making the systems auditable, and not on making them reliable.

In the organic sector, where I have a lot of first hand experience all from farming to accreditation of certification bodies, conformity assessment has moved towards focusing on ‘auditable performance’. Quality management is enforced all along the food chain, from the accreditor to the farms; every level expects the next level to implement a QMS. QMS in accreditation demands QMS in certification, which in turn demands QMS on farms. On the farm level this is not as yet formulated in demands for fully fledged QMS, but the tendency to enforce QMS style demands on farms and even more on food processors is clear. Real control is rarely made – this was pointed out in a recent report by the European Court of audits of the EU control systems, and it was pointed out by the Swedish Food Authority some years ago. It is clear that audits don’t address, detect or prevent fraud to any larger extent. When blatant mistakes are made – if the mistake is even detected – the “corrective action” is mostly to insist on more quality management policies or written procedures, which are actually counterproductive.

In certain situations a QMS can be useful, even very useful, for organisations, but that does not imply a QMS is good for all organisations. Nor does it suggest that a functioning QMS contributes to the integrity of the system in general. Instead they should be seen as one of many tools organisations use to manage themselves and the service they offer; a tool that suits some much better than others because all organisations differ in size, culture, resources and stability.

1. The Business Value of Quality Management Systems Certification. Evidence from Australia and New Zealand,  Samson, D. Terziovski, M. Dow, D. Journal of Operations Management Vol. 15, No. 1, 1997, pp. 1-18
2. The impact of ISO 9000 quality management systems on manufacturing, Tufan Koc, Journal of Materials Processing Technology Volume 186, Issues 1–3, 7 May 2007, Pages 207–213

Swedish article about the quality management craze:
Update: 22 January, I have another article about quality management published in Svenska Dagbladet (Swedish).