Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Chaotic collapse or long descent?

In the peak-oil/end of growth community there is a general agreement that we have seen the end of “this civilization”, and my post here is about the scenario ahead if you have already accepted the premise that the current growth and expansion can’t possibly continue. I am aware of that there is another camp among environmentalists that believe we can still steer clear with a mix of good policies and good innovation and that the “progress” can continue, perhaps not with a rapid economic growth, but with maintained material wealth and a society largely built on the same fundaments as this one. I think of people like Amory and Hunter Lovins, Paul Hawken, Jonathon Porrit and Tim Jackson. Anyway this post is not about their vision and whether it is plausible or not.

This is about what will happen when energy get more scarce and expensive and growth ends. Period. A situation which may not be very far ahead, or perhaps we are already there.  

Jason Heppenstall summarizes the debate as:
"In the fast-collapse camp are the likes of Dmitry Orlov (who bases his assessment on his experience of seeing the USSR implode) and Ugo Bardi, who expects a ‘Seneca’s Cliff’ dropoff... By comparison, the likes of John Michael Greer reckon we are in for a drawn-out era of terminal decline punctuated by serious crises which, at the time, will seem rather severe to all involved but which will give way to plateaux of relative stability, albeit at a lower level of energy throughput."

As a matter of fact the difference can to some extent be semantic. What is “rapid” and what is “slow” in the perspective of civilizations? As Ugo Bardi writes:
“Actually, the two camps may not be in such a radical disagreement with each other as they are described. The idea of the fast (or Seneca-like) collapse does not necessarily mean that collapse will be continuous or smooth.“

I agree with Ugo Bardi in that. I just finished reading John Michael Greer’s book Wealth of Nature (a review will soon be forthcoming) and I note that despite him being a champion for a long descent view (he even wrote the book with that title), he writes ”a decade from now, let’s say, when half the American workforce has no steady work, decaying suburbs have mutated into squalid shantytowns and domestic insurgencies flare across the south and the mountain west...” For me that is hardly an example of a ”long descent”, but rather a rather rapid collapse.

I think it is an interesting discussion, but it is also rather one-dimensional.

The question is also collapse of what? from whose perspective? How “deep” will the collapse be? Can we actually manage the descent or collapse as most of the authors still think? Bill McKibben says in Eearth: that we might choose instead to manage our descent. That we might aim for a “relatively graceful decline”. And of course, what will come after? I will leave that last one for this time, but clearly. “what comes after” is also influenced a lot by the answers of the other questions, in the same way as our analysis of how the collapse will unfold is dependent on our view of which are the drivers of the collapse and how do they work.

Most collapse theories or scenarios (reasonably) take their starting point in other known collapses, such as the Mayan or Roman civilizations and for Orlov, even the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Roman case is the most widely use. I don’t think I have anything in particular to add to the scenarios I read as such.

But the question I find mostly unanswered is how were normal people affected by the collapse in Rome but even more in the outskirts of the Empire? Despite the grandness of the city Rome, only a few percent of the Empire’s population was in Rome proper. What happened with the slaves? How was it for the people who were never conquered by the Romans? Did the relative development of my “ancestors” the Vikings benefit from the decline of the Roman Empire (I know they are often seen as thugs...)? Did the decline of Rome make way for the Arab Golden Age?

Population is a rather good proxy for the general situation. Population statistics for Europe indicate that the dip was really very big, with populations declining from some 67 million in year 200 to only 27 million year 700. Some attribute most of this to the Justianic Plague (AD 541–542, one of the worst plagues of history) though. But how do we know that the plague was not an offshoot of societal collapse one way or the other?

Angus Maddison’s long datasets of GDP shows that Europe’s GDP year 1000 was more or less the same as year 0, meaning that there would have been no economic growth in thousand years. But actually, as the population still hadn’t recovered, per capita GDP in Europe was considerably higher year 1000 than year 0. Also, neither India nor China had any economic growth during the same period.

Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t question that there was a collapse, or as explained by the Belgien historian Pirenne (1939)
“If we consider that in the Carolingian epoch, the minting of gold had ceased, the lending of money at interest was prohibited, there was no longer a class of professional merchants, that Oriental products (papyrus, spices and silk) were no longer imported, that the circulation of money was reduced to a minimum, that laymen could neither read or write, that taxes were no longer organised, and that the towns were merely fortresses, we can say without hesitation that we are confronted by a civilisation that had retrogressed to the purely agricultural stage; which no longer needed commerce, credit and regular exchange for the maintenance of the social fabric.”
But even if this was true, was it worse for the 80%-90% of the population active in farming? Was their life more miserable? It is reasonable to assume that inequality was less in the societies coming after the Roman society, for no other reason than that the remaining powers were small and certainly not able to extract a lot of wealth from the peasants. And if we believe Maddison’s GDP figures there must be something more then Pirenne’s story.

And who will be hurt by a collapse today?
After all, a credit meltdown could seem like Armageddon to a Hong Kong banker, but would barely even register as news to someone living a sustainable life on an island in Greece. Conversely freaky weather caused by climate change could destroy the Greek islander’s livelihood, but the banker, unaware of the natural elements outside his air-conditioned trading floor, would not even notice.
writes Jason Heppenstal. Will a collapse of global trade mean that African farmers will starve as nobody will buy their coffee, or will they actually be better off (and shift crops) as a result of increasing crop prices when cheap grain from the US – produced with fossil fuel – is no longer flooding the world market?

How deep will the collapse/descent be? And can we chose what we want to keep? Bill McKibben writes in Eearth: “we’ll need to figure out what parts of our lives and our ideologies that we have to abandon so that we can protect the core of our societies and civilizations”. And Richard Heinberg asks in End of Growth: “Can we surrender cars, highways, and supermarkets, but still keep cultural exchange, tolerance, and diversity, healthcare, and instant access to information? 

Many see mostly good things with the transition that will come, the transition that has to come regardless of whether we want it or not. But Bill McKibben is not immune to the advances of contemporary society and its value.
”... our national and global project has been about more than accumulation and expansion, more than cars and factories. It’s also been about liberation – the slow but reasonably steady progress of valuing more and more people....The process that made us anonymous to our neighbors carried real benefits not just costs”.
The Internet is the savior here; it is both a global project that knits us together and something that allows restless globetrotters such as McKibben and myself keep in contact with the rest of the world without necessarily accruing air miles. Greer doesn’t believe, however, in that we can chose to keep the internet. It is too energy demanding and requires too many support services to be efficient in the descent.
”Very few people realize just how extravagant a supply of resources goes to maintain the information economy.... each one of the big server farms that keep today’s social websites up and running use as much electricity as a midsized city.”

The collapse will be deep according to Greer, and human population is bound to shrink ”as malnutrition becomes common and public health collapses”. Food production and energy production are two themes occupying most. A common scenario is that as energy supply declines, the trend toward specialization will be reversed and so will urbanization. Urbanization depends on surplus agricultural production from agriculture, which in turn depends on cheap oil. Whether we like or hate globalization and specialization, we will have to rely more on local resources and production capacity. “How far we will go towards being local generalists depends on how we handle the energy transition of the 21st century,” says Heinberg.

Unfortunately most of the collapse/descent scenarios are focussed on technologies (can we keep this or that) and less on institutions and relations. Orlov made a taxonomy of the collapse, not according to which technologies that are in place but which institutions and relations that are affected.
Stage 1: Financial collapse. Faith in “business as usual” is lost.
Stage 2: Commercial collapse. Faith that “the market shall provide” is lost.
Stage 3: Political collapse. Faith that “the government will take care of you” is lost.
Stage 4: Social collapse. Faith that “your people will take care of you” is lost.
Stage 5: Cultural collapse. Faith in “the goodness of humanity” is lost.
(Admittedly I have not read Orlov’s books, only his blog, will read and review it though).

I find this an interesting approach. Whether they have to collapse in this particular order is another question. Our institutions and relationships are much more interesting for us humans, and mean a lot more for our well-being than most technologies. After all according to the Global Progress Indicator 1978 was the year of global Peak-Wellbeing and the Internet wasn’t up and running then and only James Bond had a mobile telephone.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Brown: Full Planet & Empy Plates

writes Lester R. Brown in Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity (Earth Policy Institute).

The world food situation is deteriorating. Grain stocks have dropped to a dangerously low level. The World Food Price Index has doubled in a decade. The ranks of the hungry are expanding. Political unrest is spreading. On the demand side of the food equation we have a rapidly increasing population and people moving up the food chain, consuming grain-intensive livestock and poultry products. In addition, in some countries, notably the USA, huge quantities of grain is used for bio fuels. 

At the same time, water shortages, soil erosion and heat waves are making it more difficult for farmers to keep pace with demand. New technology can’t compensate for the increasing gap between supply and demand. In the worst case scenario, the whole civilization is threatened.

The book contains a lot of facts, some particularly noteworthy:
-In India and China more than 300 million people live on grain which is produced with unsustainable irrigation practices that pump water at a rate surpassing recharge
-A person in India consumes in average 170 kilograms grain while an American utilizes 640 kilogram. The difference is caused by the American using eighty percent of the grain for meat, milk and egg. 
-The grain used for ethanol in the USA 2011 equals the quantity that could support 400 million people on a global average consumption level.
-For sixty years, increase in grain yields has been impressive, but yield increases have slowed down. Between 1950 and 1990 yields per hectare increased in average 2.2 percent per year, while the last 20 years yields increased only 1.3 percent per year. In some countries with highly developed farming, e.g. in Western Europe, yields don’t increase at all.
Use of US corn crop.
Brown is clearly no supporter of bio fuel. He worries that cars will literally take food from the poor. The fusion of food and fuel trade and production means we there will be competition for grain between the owners of 1 billion vehicles and the poor. And as the average owner of an automobile earns 30,000 dollars per year and the poor just a few hundred dollars per year, it is not hard to know who will have the upper hand. While I share some of his concerns about the effects of increased bio fuels, I do think that Brown simplifies the discussion a bit too much. He claims that other sustainable technologies are available to feed our transport sector, e.g. electrical cars. But not even in the USA which is blessed with abundant natural resources there is any chance to run the transport sector in a sustainable. The question should not be “what shall fuel our cars?”  but rather, how can we redesign our whole transport sector.  

In the last chapter, Brown talks about the solutions. They are largely to stabilise population (a constant theme of Brown’s), eradicate poverty, reduce meat consumption and trash those policies that push bio fuel expansion, notably the mandatory requirements to blend petrol with ethanol in the USA and the EU.
While not being anti-GMO, Brown doesn’t see any great potential for genetic modification to further increase grain yields. This is largely because seed breeders have already tapped most of the potential for increased yields. Similarly he doesn’t see many other technological advances as we are approaching limits set by the climate and the photosynthesis itself. Therefore, on the side of production, we have to stabilize the climate, use water more efficiently and protect the top soil.

By and large, most of the discourse is convincing, but Brown does underestimate the positive and negative effects of the markets on food production. In most parts of the world there is still a huge potential to increase yields – if prices motivate farmers to intensify production. I miss a discussion about the negative effects of unfettered global competition on local food production in many parts of the world. Without those economic and social perspectives we can’t fully understand farmers’ behaviors and choices (or lack of choice) and therefore we are bound to fail in addressing the underlying problems. I also think he largely ignores the enormous dependency of fossil fuel that our food system has in all its chains, from inputs such as fertilizers to the global distribution chains.

The book does drive across that we are moving towards increased competition for basic resources such as land and water. Competition between poor that are hungry and rich that want to drive cars, between multinationals that buy up land and local populations of smallholders. But also, as shown by Brown, between farmers and cities. Many farmers in the US has chosen to let their land revert to desserts when they sell water rights to cities. In this way, expansion of cities creates new desserts.

The web site for the book does contain a wealth of information, including the full data sets used for the research for the book. http://www.earth-policy.org/books/fpep

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Millennium Villages: the Great Experiment

The Millennium Villages is one of the most prestigious humanitarian aid projects that have been launched in Africa in the past years, and a lot has actually happened. Yet, the project’s central question remains unanswered – how do you eradicate extreme poverty?

By Ann-Helen Meyer von Bremen & Gunnar Rundgren

-          I have learned a lot through this project, and I have become much more self-confident. I have a plan for the future that I am already working towards, says Mama Sarah, while showing us her well-kept fields. 

            We are in Inonelwa, one of the fifteen villages of Mbola, outside Tabora, in Tanzania. Mbola is one of Africa’s Millennium Villages*, a high-status, ten-year humanitarian aid project that was launched by Jeffrey Sachs, in order to show that it is possible to reach the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. 
            Seven years into the project, Mama Sarah is undoubtedly one of the winners. She emanates strength, energy and stability. A brand-new brick-house has been built next to her old, much simpler home, and a new storage shed for harvested corn and peanuts has also been set up in the courtyard, which enables her to sell her products when prices are at the highest. Mama Sarah earns an income from her farming practices, which is not a given in Tabora, or in Tanzania, for that matter. A brand-new bicycle is also leaning against the wall. It was given to Mama Sarah by Tanzania’s president when he came to visit.
            According to Eliezer Kigaya, who is responsible for agriculture in the Millennium Villages’ local office in Tabora, the secret behind the project’s success resides in its focus on financing chemical fertilizers and seeds, which increases the amount of corn harvested. This is one way to look at it. Another explanation is that Mama Sarah is not any farmer, but one of 67 agriculturists who have been chosen as good examples, to inspire the remaining approximately 6,000 households living in the villages. Prior to the implementation of this project in this particular village, she already belonged to a leading group of farmers. 
            Ruth Kirunda picked the shorter end of the stick.  We met her in the neighbouring village, carrying her young boy on her shoulder. Here, the harvest has been poor, and there are large gaps between the corn plants. She is one of many farmers who have not had the means to pay back her part of the financed package of chemical fertilizers and modern hybrid seeds.
-          We entered the project when it started in 2006, but in 2011, we were unable to pay back the loan. My brother, who I manage the farm with, and I had to leave to care for our aunt who got sick. We therefore could not properly care for the weeds, the harvest was poor, and we were unable to pay back the loan, says Ruth Kirunda.
            When the project was launched, all farmers were included. The reason was simple – for the first two years, chemical fertilizers and seeds were given out for free. After that, farmers were meant to pay for parts of the cost themselves, an investment that they could take out a loan for. Only one per cent of the farmers paid their loan back. Yet, the project persisted and farmers were still asked to pay a certain portion of the invested money back, and today, more farmers are able to do so. However, the majority still cannot pay back, and around two thirds of the farmers are thus not receiving the subsidies.
As opposed to many other humanitarian aid projects that tend to focus solely on one particular area, the idea behind the Millennium Villages is to implement solutions in various different fields, such as health, schools and income-generating activities (more specifically, agriculture). According to the Millennium Villages’ coloured publications, poverty is decreasing, as is hunger and the number of illiterates, while health, food production and economic welfare are increasing. The closer we come to reality in Mbola, the more nuanced this picture becomes. The reports claim that corn production has increased three to four times, but during our visit, the Tanzanian government is distributing food to the villages of Mbola. 
When we visited one of the cooperatives that process corn and peanuts, we discovered a tragic, and all too common, scene in the humanitarian aid world – the machines have been broken for about a month, and all activities have been put on hold. We did not see any signs of the remaining market investments that were mentioned in the reports. The school meals have not worked out as planned.
-          The idea was that each parent should contribute with two bags of corn (about 440 Pounds) per year, but this has never been the case, says Katherine Mbando, director of Madaha Primary School.
            At the same time, a lot has actually happened. Prior to the project launch, there was barely any clean water in Mbola, whereas today, 64% of the inhabitants have access to it. Three health centres have been built, and as many have been renovated. Sixty health workers have been employed, schools have been restored, mosquito nets that prevent malaria have been distributed, toilets have been built, and electricity has been installed in schools and in health centres. Amongst the positive results, fatality rates have decreased, and so has the rate of undernourished children and the cases of malaria. Moreover, the number of children including girls, attending school has dramatically increased. Maternity care has been expanded, but the rate of mothers dying from childbirth is still high. 
Girl cycling to school in Tabora

            And yet, the two most important questions remain unanswered – are the poorest being reached, and is the agriculture intervention successful? Since the idea is that monetary gains obtained from agriculture should enable households to invest money into public or community services, without a striving agriculture, development will never be sustainable. 
            It is highly likely that the Millennium Villages will not meet the expected Millennium Development Goals, at least Mbola will not. Jeffrey Sachs, founder of the Millennium Villages, and heading the work of establishing the Millennium Development Goals, observes from New York that so far – seven years into the project – not all efforts have reached out to the poorest.
-          You chose to focus on rather expensive investments in agriculture, such as chemical fertilizers and seeds. Was that the right path to take?
-          In order to increase production, you need costlier means of investment. Mbola was also shockingly poor; it was one of the poorest areas that we chose. When we started the project, there was no market, people were hungry during the months leading up to harvest, and there was barely any real housing. This has become better, but it is not the case for everybody, not for the small farmers, and not for those who do not own land.

Tobacco is grown without any subsidies and provides most of the income in Mbola
On our way back from Tabora to Mwansa, we saw a group of women and children of different ages sitting crushing stones by hand with sledge-hammers, while the youngest children were playing in the piles of stones. Later, we drove past a gravel pit where a stone-breaker was used for the construction of a new road. The question is whether this new road will be the beginning of economic development, and the end of a market for labour-intensive hand-crushed stone? Or is the new road going to be as meaningless as the more than a hundred-year-old railway? Will it mostly be used to transport the young people of Tabora into cities, where they will sell telephone cards, bananas and lighters? – Third World Network Features.

*The Millennium Villages
The Millennium Villages is a ten-year-project that will last until 2015, and its aim is to reach the Millennium Development Goals. The villages that have been selected exist in ten countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda. According to project data, it reaches out to half a million people. The initiative was launched by Jeffrey Sachs at Earth Institute, Colombia University, and he is also heading the project. 

Published as a TWN Feature in July 2013

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Agroforestry in the Amazon

Maria Viera

”The two first years, while we cleared the land, we survived on rat, palm heart, the flour from the babassu  palm and other wild plants,” Maria Viera says when she receives us in her home in the small settlement Nova Esperança, where the road ends and the vast Amazon takes over. 

She is just 57 years but looks older, and that is no wonder when we hear her story. Nine children she has carried, of which six are still alive. She has diabetes, a wound with emerging sepsis and just three teeth in her mouth. But she is full of life, just like her husband Luis. He can’t sit still for a second; he talks incessantly and is excited that we have come all the way from Sweden to visit them and their farm. 

It was twenty years ago that Maria and Luis left their life as poor farm workers in the poverty ridden Northeast and settled here on the fringes of the Amazon, where the government gave them land. Of the twenty four families that settled here, only seventeen are left; the others perished from malaria or other diseases, or they simply gave up. The colonization of Mato Grosso is part of a policy that gives settlers land for free. Maria and Luis got a barrack to live in when they came here.

Brazil is infamous for its high inequality, and in particular the unequal land ownership. Many millions of the rural population have no land; they work as farm labourers. Since the 1990s, they have occupied land in many places. Some of the occupations ended in blood, such as the one in 1996, in Eldorado de Carajas in the state of Pará, where 19 persons died and 40 were wounded. A land reform has always been on the political agenda, but it has been easier for the government to let the landless have land in the Amazon than to make reforms in conflict with the interest of the mighty land-owners. During the presidency of Lula, the colonisation gained momentum and between 2003 and 2008, 519,000 families got land. 

Maria and Luis think their life is good now and their farm is an example of how you can have a decent life with small means and a small ecological footprint. Solar panels produce enough electricity for a few lamps, a TV and a radio, not more. They have their own well water from the mountain, led by gravity into the house; the sewage water goes into the fish pond. Even though there is a gas stove, most of the cooking is done on the wood stove – they get firewood  from their own forest. Today there is a road. Even if that is not passable in the rainy season, it is a great improvement compared to the mule path that was there when they came. 

We are offered a simple but good and nutritious meal of beans, rice, meat and lettuce – all from the farm. It is a typical meal, according to Maria. For breakfast they drink home-grown coffee and bread made from the wheat that they buy.
Luis showing us sweet potatoes from the agroforestry.

Luis proudly shows us the agro-forestry cultivation that covers around a fifth of their hundred hectares. Here they grow coffee, cacao, bananas, papaya, and mango, alongside trees such as teak and eucalyptus. In all, there are 83 different species, an impressive variety. Luis taps a trunk of teak.
“This will give me 1,000 reais (around 500 dollars) and I have four thousands of them. I am a millionaire,” he says with a content smile.

Under the shade of the trees, smaller bushes, herbs and vegetables grow better than in an open field. Luis and Maria also raise various animals and sell calves. But the calves are now fourth in economic importance, taken over by coffee, cocoa and palm heart from the pupunha palm, all crops from the agro-forestry. Luis and Maria farm organically, but they are not certified. They sell their crops locally and there is no special organic market available. 

Agro-forestry can contribute with another possible stream of income. At least one ton of carbon per year can be bound in growing biomass and in the soil as increased organic matter. This gives opportunities for selling so called carbon credits to those that emit carbon dioxide. Consumers can compensate their air travel and companies can compensate their carbon foot print by paying for carbon credits. In this way, they can claim to be carbon neutral. Therefore, Petrobras, the parastatal oil company of Brazil, supports the project in Nova Esperança. It is in their interest to find ways to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions from its operations.

The carbon credits could be worth more than 100 dollars per month for the participating farmers, a considerable increase on the average income of around 200 dollars. In this way, it could constitute a strong incentive to plant trees and manage the land in the best way possible. But there are also some snags with this business idea. It is complicated and expensive to measure how much carbon is actually stored in the ground. Therefore much of the money will go to consultants and certification bodies involved in the verification. The income is also very fluctuating. Between 2009 and 2010, the price of carbon credits fell by 90 per cent on the Chicago exchange. While it does create new income opportunities for farmers, it also creates new dependencies. By participation in the carbon market, farmers are obliged to manage their land in a particular way for long periods of time. Critics mean that carbon credits and climate compensation amount to a new form of colonization, albeit with an eco-friendly veil.

“We don’t emphasize the carbon credits but rather the economic and environmental advantages of agro-forestry,” says Paulo Nunes, coordinator of the NGO Poço de Carbono Juruena.

(this is an extract from The Earth We Eat, a book for which we (Gunnar Rundgren and Ann Helen Meyer von Bremen seek a publisher).

Friday, July 12, 2013

Organic to be sound and sensible

farmers have reported spending more time completing forms and maintaining records. A certain amount of records are essential to ensure organic farmers are meeting the organic standards, such as planting non-genetically modified seeds or raising dairy cattle on organic pasture. But, too much focus on paperwork can detract from farming activities that support organic principles, such as conservation and cycling of resources. - See more at: http://blogs.usda.gov/2013/04/19/organic-101-sound-and-sensible-approach-to-organic-certification/#sthash.eV7lihko.dpuf
farmers have reported spending more time completing forms and maintaining records. A certain amount of records are essential to ensure organic farmers are meeting the organic standards, such as planting non-genetically modified seeds or raising dairy cattle on organic pasture. But, too much focus on paperwork can detract from farming activities that support organic principles, such as conservation and cycling of resources. - See more at: http://blogs.usda.gov/2013/04/19/organic-101-sound-and-sensible-approach-to-organic-certification/#sthash.eV7lihko.dpuf
farmers have reported spending more time completing forms and maintaining records. A certain amount of records are essential to ensure organic farmers are meeting the organic standards, such as planting non-genetically modified seeds or raising dairy cattle on organic pasture. But, too much focus on paperwork can detract from farming activities that support organic principles, such as conservation and cycling of resources. - See more at: http://blogs.usda.gov/2013/04/19/organic-101-sound-and-sensible-approach-to-organic-certification/#sthash.eV7lihko.dpuf
farmers have reported spending more time completing forms and maintaining records. A certain amount of records are essential to ensure organic farmers are meeting the organic standards, such as planting non-genetically modified seeds or raising dairy cattle on organic pasture. But, too much focus on paperwork can detract from farming activities that support organic principles, such as conservation and cycling of resources. - See more at: http://blogs.usda.gov/2013/04/19/organic-101-sound-and-sensible-approach-to-organic-certification/#sthash.eV7lihko.dpuf
"Farmers have reported spending more time completing forms and maintaining records. A certain amount of records are essential to ensure organic farmers are meeting the organic standards, such as planting non-genetically modified seeds or raising dairy cattle on organic pasture. But, too much focus on paperwork can detract from farming activities that support organic principles, such as conservation and cycling of resources." writes the head of the US National Organic Program Miles McEvoy explaining the administrations ‘Sound and Sensible’ initiative*.
An article by Grace Gershuny in the latest issue (#146) of The Organic Standard, describes the background to this awakening. The new orientation was partly a result of a white paper by the IOIA  developed at the request of NOP. This in turn was prompted by the receipt of a memo on the subject of ‘Opportunities for the Organic Program - Practices, Not Paperwork’, submitted by Jake
Lewin, Chief Certification Officer of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) in November 2012. CCOF says: 
“over the last 10 years we have observed the evolution of the accreditation system: concepts that were written into the NOP standards have driven some certifiers towards paper-heavy practices that may act as barriers to success for operations”
I will not go into the technical details here, just want to express my support for these efforts. I find a specially rewarding that in the letter from CCOF to NOP that triggered this development, Jack Lewin refers to my presentation at Biofach 2012. "The core of the problem is that through a reliance on third party auditing theory we have over emphasized process and paperwork instead of fundamental organic practices".

I have written many blog posts about this and related topics before:
Quality management is a management fad elevated to divinity
Organic certification - Is it worth it?
Where does the buck stop?
The danger of predictable procedures
Standards as tools for power
How quality Management can result in low quality....
What gives value to an eco label

*Five Principles of Sound and Sensible
Efficient Processes: Eliminate bureaucratic processes that do not contribute to organic integrity.
Streamlined Recordkeeping: Ensure that required records support organic integrity and are not a barrier for farms and businesses to maintain organic compliance.
Practical Plans: Support simple Organic System Plans that clearly capture organic practices.
Fair, Focused Enforcement: Focus enforcement on willful, egregious violators; handle minor violations in a way that leads to compliance; and publicize how enforcement protects the organic market.
Integrity First: Focus on factors that impact organic integrity the most, building consumer confidence that organic products meet defined standards from farm to market

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Organic Agriculture: African Experiences in Resilience and Sustainability

 I am currently in Tanzania organizing an organic conference. It is also my pleasure to launch a new publication from FAO of which I have been a co-editor together with Nadia Scialabba, with Raymond Auerbach as the main editor.
Organic Agriculture: African Experiences in Resilience and

It demonstrates that organic management can benefit people, the
economy and ecosystems and that this can be achieved in Africa, where hunger and degradation stubbornly persist, despite decades of development efforts.

You can see my presenting slides here and download the whole publication here