Posted: Fri Aug 01, 2008 10:03 am Post subject: WORLD FOOD AND WATER CRISIS
"There is ample food to be grown, if only governments will get out of the way. "
Krishnan, Huntsville, Alabama
August 1, 2008
Harvesting Money in a Hungry World
By VICTOR DAVIS HANSON
THE latest round of global agricultural trade negotiations that began seven years ago in Doha, Qatar, collapsed in acrimony this week in Geneva. While India and China are getting the blame for refusing to reduce import tariffs and farm subsidies, you can assume that trade officials in Europe and the United States are breathing a sigh of relief that they aren’t going to have to limit their own protectionism.
Nothing new here. Nor is it a staggering blow to world trade: the aggregate loss caused by the trade barriers in question is probably no more than $70 billion in a global imported food market of more than a trillion dollars. But what is different this time is a backdrop of soaring food prices that makes all past assumptions seem ossified. It also makes the world’s poorest people even more vulnerable when trade bureaucrats in both the wealthy West and rising East make vapid arguments.
Usually trade in agricultural produce involves governments’ efforts to prop up farmers who claim they will go broke without subsidies and tariffs. Constant improvements in technology, mechanization, plant breeding and farm chemicals have steadily increased food production per acre, and for the last 30 years led to a world that we assumed would be awash in cheap food.
Yet world prices for wheat, corn, rice, soy, coffee, cotton, dairy products, meats, fruits and vegetables have suddenly reached record levels. Why now?
The answer starts with the half-billion new middle-class consumers in China and India who increasingly wish to emulate the rich diet that Westerners take for granted. And they have the cash to buy the food they want on the world market. Despite slowing growth rates, world population is nearing seven billion people and may reach nine billion mouths in less than 40 years.
In addition, increases in the cost of oil have sent diesel fuel, fertilizers and farm chemical prices sky-high. Those added costs are now being passed on to consumers. Environmental regulations, water scarcities and urban development continue to cut back arable acreage. Technology and machinery constantly improve, but now only marginally improve on past serial leaps in production. More than one-fifth of the American corn crop is now devoted to ethanol. In short, the era of cheap food, like the age of cheap gas, may be about over.
The result is a growing revolution in the way we envision the economics of agriculture, and it should be reflected in the efforts of all nations to ensure much freer trade in food.
Yet Europe — usually the self-appointed voice of global moral conscience on international human rights, climate change and poverty — remains committed to agricultural policies that protect its own farm sector while stymieing farmers abroad. It is past time that the European Union let the market determine what and how its farmers produce, while also allowing its consumers to buy the safest and cheapest food it can, regardless of its origins.
Here at home Congress recently overrode President Bush’s veto to approve a $300 billion, multiyear farm bill awash in subsidy payments regardless of current commodity prices. Yet we all know the tired refrain each time these indefensible farm bills come up for enactment.
First, they are transparent election-cycle harvests for farm-state politicians, who have small constituencies but exercise outsized national political clout.
Second, because such special-interest legislation wins little broad public support, its supporters rely on phony rationalizations if not outright deception. In 1996 the trick was to call billion-dollar subsides the Freedom to Farm Act and vow a phase-out in seven years, a promise that was quickly forgotten.
In 2002, the next farm bill piggybacked onto fears following Sept. 11. So the gimmick was to name it the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act — as if giving millions to corporate wheat farmers might protect us from Al Qaeda. Now with the public worried about gas prices, the latest bill was pushed as the Farm, Nutrition and Bioenergy Act.
Third, all the rationalizations of this Depression-era legislation have become risible. Family farmers — now less than 1 percent of the population — disappeared as the farm subsidy industry grew. Indeed the wealthiest corporations now receive the most federal largess. Political considerations, not scarcities or nutrition, explain why crops like sugar and rice are subsidized and lettuce and fresh fruit are not.
For decades there has been neither a national interest nor a moral need for farm subsidies. But now in times of soaring world food prices there is not even economic justification. As a brave new world fought it out at the Doha talks, it is growing hungrier by the day.
It is understandable that poorer nations are near paranoid in their fear for their own farmers’ livelihoods should they import a glut of imported American and European food that is a product of sophisticated economies of scale. But with food shortages looming, all countries should now support open trade in food to encourage as much supply as possible for a hungry planet.
The best thing that the United States, the beacon of world capitalism, could now do is to stop interfering with its own farmers, let markets and need determine what they grow and how they farm — and then by such a principled American example persuade the rest of the world to do the same.
Victor Davis Hanson, a former raisin farmer and a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, is the author of “Fields Without Dreams” and “The Land Was Everything.”
Last edited by kmaherali on Thu Feb 01, 2018 12:24 pm, edited 1 time in total
August 10, 2008
The Food Chain
Darfur Withers as Sudan Sells Food
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
ED DAMER, Sudan — Even as it receives a billion pounds of free food from international donors, Sudan is growing and selling vast quantities of its own crops to other countries, capitalizing on high global food prices at a time when millions of people in its war-riddled region of Darfur barely have enough to eat.
Here in the bone-dry desert, where desiccated donkey carcasses line the road, huge green fields suddenly materialize. Beans. Wheat. Sorghum. Melons. Peanuts. Pumpkins. Eggplant. It is all grown here, part of an ambitious government plan for Sudanese self-sufficiency, creating giant mechanized farms that rise out of the sand like mirages.
But how much of this bonanza is getting back to the hungry Sudanese, like the 2.5 million driven into camps in Darfur? And why is a country that exports so many of its own crops receiving more free food than anywhere else in the world, especially when the Sudanese government is blamed for creating the crisis in the first place?
African countries that rely on donated food usually cannot produce enough on their own. Somalia, Ethiopia, Niger and Zimbabwe are all recent examples of how war, natural disasters or gross mismanagement can cut deep into food production, pushing millions of people to the brink of starvation.
But here in Sudan, there seem to be plenty of calories to go around. The country is already growing wheat for Saudi Arabia, sorghum for camels in the United Arab Emirates and vine-ripened tomatoes for the Jordanian Army. Now the government is plowing $5 billion into new agribusiness projects, many of them to produce food for export.
Take sorghum, a staple of the Sudanese diet, typically eaten in flat, spongy bread. Last year, the United States government, as part of its response to the emergency in Darfur, shipped in 283,000 tons of sorghum, at high cost, from as far away as Houston. Oddly enough, that is about the same amount that Sudan exported, according to United Nations officials. This year, Sudanese companies, including many that are linked to the government in Khartoum, are on track to ship out twice that amount, even as the United Nations is being forced to cut rations to Darfur.
Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College and an outspoken activist who has written frequently on the Darfur crisis, called this anomaly “one of the least reported and most scandalous features of the Khartoum regime’s domestic policies.” It was emblematic, he said, of the Sudanese government’s strategy to manipulate “national wealth and power to further enrich itself and its cronies, while the marginalized regions of the country suffer from terrible poverty.”
Aid groups gave up long ago on the Sudanese government helping the people of Darfur. After all, the nation’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, has been accused of masterminding genocide in Darfur. United Nations officials have said that if they do not bring food into the region, the government surely will not.
That leaves the United Nations and Western aid groups feeding more than three million Darfurians. But the lifeline is fraying. Security is deteriorating. Aid trucks are getting hijacked nearly every day and deliveries are being made less and less frequently. The result: less food and soaring malnutrition rates, particularly among children.
On top of this is the broader problem of trying to find affordable grains on the world market when prices are higher than they have been in decades. United Nations officials in Sudan say that the fact that they have to import some of the same commodities that Sudan not only produces but exports is a source of constant frustration.
“Sudan could be self-sufficient,” said Kenro Oshidari, the director of the United Nations World Food Program in Sudan. “It does have the potential to be the breadbasket of Africa.”
Sudanese officials say that is precisely their goal, and they deny that Sudanese agribusiness is being built at the expense of their own people. They reject accusations that they are neglecting far-flung areas like Darfur, much less waging a war of hunger and deprivation against them.
Instead, Sudanese officials say they are simply trying to build up their economy. They say they know what it is like to be vilified, having been squeezed by American sanctions for more than a decade. And it could get worse, with Mr. Bashir facing genocide charges at the International Criminal Court in connection with the massacres in Darfur.
“Sanctions are never far from our mind,” said Al-Amin Dafa Allah, chairman of the National Assembly’s agricultural committee. “We’re trying to minimize our reliance on the outside.”
In fact, part of the reason relief agencies bring their own food into Sudan stems from the American policy of giving crops, not money, as foreign aid.
Many European countries, by contrast, just give the World Food Program cash, which can be used to buy food locally. Last year, the program bought 117,000 tons of Sudanese sorghum. United Nations officials said they would like to buy more, but they had had run-ins with Sudanese suppliers who could make more money with exports.
“We don’t get discounts,” said Emilia Casella, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program.
Sudanese officials say they want to sell more crops to the United Nations, but lost in this discussion about buying and selling food is whether the Sudanese government should be donating food to its own needy people.
For now, Sudanese officials seem more interested in doing business with their new partners in the Middle East. Sudan is the largest country in Africa, nearly one million square miles. It has 208 million acres of arable land, with less than a quarter being cultivated. The Sudanese government is striking deals left and right with Arab countries just across the Red Sea: the Arab countries bring the money, the soil scientists and the $200,000 tractors. Sudan supplies the land.
“Our country is small and dry and mountainous,” said Man Shuqwara, the Jordanian director of a Jordanian-run farm in northern Sudan that grows wheat, beans, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, oranges and bananas. “By logic we would come to Sudan.”
The same logic is attracting big money from Saudi Arabia. About an hour’s drive north of the Jordanian farm, near the town of Ed Damer, is a huge new $200 million project to grow wheat in what now looks like a 10-mile-wide sandbox. Some of the wheat will stay in Sudan; some will be shipped to Saudi Arabia. A fleet of new John Deere tractors is already lined up for harvest time. A worker on the farm whispered that the tractors had been sneaked into Sudan through Saudi Arabia because of the American trade sanctions.
Sudan’s overall economic strategy is to diversify from oil, which it began exporting in 1999, and to focus more closely on the traditional engine of the country’s economy — agriculture. More than 80 percent of the work force is engaged in raising animals or farming of one sort or another.
“Our sesame oil is the best in the world,” said Mr. Al-Amin, the agriculture committee chairman. “And it’s organic!”
But make no mistake about it: much of Sudan is still a blazing hot, cruelly barren landscape, with specterlike figures in impossibly white gowns tramping through the dust.
But at certain nodes, especially along the Nile River, this country is as green and lush as Florida. It boasts three crucial ingredients for growing things: land, labor and, most important, water.
The Nile and its tributaries flow more than 2,000 miles across Sudan, bringing the silt-rich water right to the fields. The British colonial government was the first to capitalize on this in a big way, building a dam in 1925 on the Blue Nile, one of the two main sources of the Nile River, and a network of canals. Today, that project, called the Gezira Scheme, has thousands of miles of canals irrigating nearly 2.5 million acres of farms. The genius is that it is all done by gravity, which means water flows from the dam through capillaries of canals to seedlings in the field, all without using a watt of electricity.
“We have water 24-7,” said Siddig Eissa Ahmed, the director of the Gezira Scheme, which is government-run, like much of Sudanese agribusiness.
The dark side of all this development is displacement. The conflict in Darfur, in western Sudan, is largely about grazing rights and watering holes — and the government’s brutal counterinsurgency policies in response to an armed rebellion. So far, the most ambitious agricultural projects have avoided the area altogether, and instead are concentrated in the central and northern parts of the country.
Even so, development in Sudan often means uprooting other rural subsistence farmers for large-scale commercial projects, said Alex de Waal, a Sudan scholar at the Social Science Research Council in New York.
“Smallholder food production goes down, commercial food production goes up, and food relief serves as a subsidy to this transformation, keeping the displaced alive,” he said.
The Sudanese government is widely blamed for running many of the displaced people in Darfur off their farms, making them reliant on handouts. Still, the government has been slow to feed them.
The last time the government gave the World Food Program any food for Darfur was in 2006. It was 22,000 tons of Sudanese-grown sorghum. It was a fraction of what the people needed, United Nations officials said, and some of the grain was rancid and infested with weevils.
August 31, 2008
The Food Chain
Russia’s Collective Farms: Hot Capitalist Property
By ANDREW E. KRAMER
PODLESNY, Russia — The fields around this little farming enclave are among the most fertile on earth. But like tens of million of acres of land in this country, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they literally went to seed.
Now that may be changing. A decade after capitalism transformed Russian industry, an agricultural revolution is stirring the countryside, shaking up village life and sweeping aside the collective farms that resisted earlier reform efforts and remain the dominant form of agriculture.
The change is being driven by soaring global food prices (the price of wheat alone rose 77 percent last year) and a new reform allowing foreigners to own agricultural land. Together, they have created a land rush in rural Russia.
“Where else do you have such an abundance of land?” Samir Suleymanov, the World Bank’s director for Russia, asked in an interview.
As a result, the business of buying and reforming collective farms is suddenly and improbably very profitable, attracting hedge fund managers, Russian oligarchs, Swedish portfolio investors and even a descendant of White Russian émigré nobility.
Earlier reformers envisioned the collective farms eventually breaking up into family farms. But the new business model rests on a belief that Russia’s long, painful history of collectivization is destined to end in large corporate factory farms.
These investments are also a gamble in a country accustomed to government control of business. Some officials have hinted at the prospect of a government takeover of the farming industry reminiscent of the Soviet era.
And Russia’s minister of agriculture, Aleksey Gordeyev, speaks often of food in terms of national security. “Russia is very often perceived throughout the world as a major military power,” he told a food summit in Rome early in his tenure. “At the same time, and perhaps above and beyond anything else, Russia is a major agrarian power.”
Russia occupies an unusual niche in the global food chain. Before the Russian Revolution and the subsequent forced collectivization of farming under Stalin, it was the largest grain exporting nation in the world.
Today, roughly 7 percent of the planet’s arable land is either owned by the Russian state or by collective farms, but about a sixth of all that agricultural land — some 35 million hectares — lies fallow. By comparison, all of Britain has 6 million hectares of cultivatable land.
Even excluding the slivers of land contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster or by industrial pollution, Russia also has millions of acres of untouched, pristine land that could be used for agriculture.
Yields in Russia, however, are tiny. The average Russian grain yield is 1.85 tons a hectare — compared with 6.36 tons a hectare in the United States and 3.04 in Canada. (A hectare is about two and a half acres.)
If Russia could regain its old title of leading grain exporter, it would significantly relieve strained world markets and reduce prices, Mr. Suleymanov said. It could also reduce malnutrition and starvation.
What is more, a significant expansion of farming capacity could add to Russia’s heft as a world power, much as its prowess in oil and natural gas aided its resurgence in recent years.
“The great story of this land is how big it is,” said Kingsmill Bond, chief analyst at the Troika Dialog brokerage in Moscow. Troika is closely watching the transformation of the Russian countryside into an investment opportunity. “You can’t buy anything like it anywhere else in the world,” he said.
Analysts say the new companies dedicated to breaking up and reforming collective farms hope to bring huge tracts of land into production — tracts that can take advantage of economies of scale.
Financiers See Potential
The last attempt at decollectivization, under the government of President Boris Yeltsin, failed in part because collective farms devolved into small holdings. Those who made the leap to become private farmers failed. The rest remained in the collective farms.
Some trade and agriculture experts say there is still a danger that a country like today’s Russia, which jealously guards its natural resources, could one day renationalize farms or form a cartel that dictates to landowners.
Clearly, that fear is not foremost in investors’ minds. Land prices have roughly doubled in the last two years, according to Troika. The average price a hectare was $570 in 2006 and is now $1,000, Mr. Bond said.
One of the first investors to see value in the Russian countryside was Michel Orloff, a former director of the Carlyle Group’s Moscow office and the scion of a White Russian noble family. He said a visit to Argentina in 2004 inspired him. He saw large landowners making profits without government subsidies, and envisioned a similar model for Russia that would hark back to the noble estates of his family history, only lubricated by modern finance.
“In Moscow, they said I was crazy for going into agriculture,” Mr. Orloff recalled on a visit to one of his factory farms outside Podlesny — formerly the Sunrise of Communism collective farm. “Now, they all envy us.”
His model rested on the idea that the collective farms should not be broken up into smaller plots but consolidated into larger factory farms, able to achieve economies of scale. (He calls the new corporate farms “clusters.”) Using John Deere tractors and Western-trained agronomists, he has nearly doubled yields.
Last year, Black Earth Farming fields yielded 3.3 tons of wheat a hectare, and the company says it is on track this year to reap 4.4 tons a hectare.
To be sure, this is Russia. Though many investors are piling in, their investments remain small relative to the size of the huge agricultural sector. Black Earth, Razgulai and Cherkizovo are large public companies involved in buying and reforming collective farms.
(Many Russian oligarchs and regional elites have bought land, too, but their holdings are not generally public.) While Westerners have invested in the companies, the businesses are all local, requiring a Russian connection, as most Russian commodity investment does.
That requirement, as well as the possibility that Russia could become a bigger supplier of food, gives pause to some Europeans. They are concerned about Russia’s new assertiveness diplomatically and militarily.
Even before the recent discord between Russia and the West, the obstacles to tapping Russia’s vast farmland were substantial.
The rural population has declined precipitously as young people fled to the cities. The title to land, after the failed decollectivization of the Yeltsin era, is often unclear. Rural Russians’ work ethic has been shaped by decades on collectivized farms that offered little reward for individual effort.
“We see an increasing number of entrepreneurs coming to us with business plans trying to convert this land,” Mr. Bond said. “Some will be successful, but most will not be able to do it.”
Some investors have resorted to hiring psychologists to untangle the village culture and determine how best to instill a work ethic. The best way to motivate the Russian farmer, according to one investor, is not higher salaries for individuals, which tend to create resentment, but rewards emphasizing the team nature of the work, like group bonuses.
Outside this village of log homes with decorative wooden trim, with piles of birch firewood in the yard, and where investors have bought several surrounding collective farms, a drunken man slept on a pile of sawdust one recent afternoon. A cow meandered nearby munching grass.
Specter of State Control
This latest headlong wave of privatization has gone too far and too fast for some in government here. Officials, as is often the case these days, have floated the idea of forming a state monopoly. They would create a Soviet-style grain trading company out of an existing regulatory agency, a notion that has alarmed agricultural experts, though the seriousness of the idea is unclear.
Such a monopoly could control domestic grain prices by limiting exports, benefiting low-income consumers but discouraging investment in agriculture.
That is not stopping entrepreneurs — yet. Mr. Orloff’s model is spreading quickly. By this year, about 14 percent of Russia’s agricultural land had undergone this process of greater consolidation, according to an analysis by Vedemosti, the business newspaper.
“In 10 or 15 years, Russia will be the leading force in world agriculture, just because of its mass,” Mr. Orloff said.
That is if the land rush does not bring muscular government intervention from Moscow or set off rural resentments here.
For instance, each member of the Sunrise of Communism collective farm was offered about $100 a hectare. Three years later, the land is worth about $1,100 a hectare, based on Black Earth Farming’s stock market value.
Mr. Orloff said the collective farmers did not own title to the land, and that the value of management expertise and capital outlays were included in the valuation of his company.
Still, Vasili I. Kapechnikov, who sold his shares to Mr. Orloff, considers himself to have been on the losing side of the transaction. Interviewed outside the village store, he explained what he did with the money he received for his land: “I bought a new pair of pants.”
October 26, 2008
The Food Chain
To Counter Problems of Food Aid, Try Spuds
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
VITORIA-GASTEIZ, Spain — With governments having trouble feeding the growing number of hungry poor and grain prices fluctuating wildly, food scientists are proposing a novel solution for the global food crisis: Let them eat potatoes.
Grains like wheat and rice have long been staples of diets in most of the world and the main currency of food aid. Now, a number of scientists, nutritionists and aid specialists are increasingly convinced that the potato should be playing a much larger role to ensure a steady supply of food in the developing world.
Poor countries could grow more potatoes, they say, to supplement or even replace grains that are most often shipped in from far away and are subject to severe market gyrations.
Even before a sharp price spike earlier this year, governments in countries from China to Peru to Malawi had begun urging both potato growing and eating as a way to ensure food security and build rural income.
Production in China rose 50 percent from 2005 to 2007, and the government has called potatoes “a way out of poverty.” In Peru, where potatoes are traditionally part of the highland diet, President Alan García has led a campaign to promote potato eating in cities. Schools, prisons and army canteens are serving papapan, bread made with potatoes, helping to increase potato consumption by 20 percent increase this year.
A decade ago, the vast majority of potatoes were grown and eaten in the developed world, mostly in Europe and the Americas. Today, China and India — neither big potato-eating countries in the past — rank first and third, respectively, in global potato production. In 2005, for the first time, developing countries produced a majority of the world’s potatoes.
“Increasingly, the potato is being seen as a vital food-security crop and a substitute for costly grain imports,” said NeBambi Lutaladio, an expert on roots and tubers at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. “Potato consumption is expanding strongly in developing countries, where potato is an increasingly important source of food, employment and income.”
Though the price of grains has receded in recent months from historic highs, grains are still far more expensive than they were just two years ago. The United Nations agency continues to strongly encourage countries to diversify into potato production, Mr. Lutaladio said, adding: “The world economy has entered a phase of wild swings. New and even more severe high price events could be just around the corner.”
And so the potato’s image is shifting from that of a food fit for peasants and pigs (and associated mostly with a devastating famine in Ireland) to a serious nutritional aid and an object of scientific study. When the United Nations announced last year that 2008 would be the Year of the Potato, few took it seriously. That was before grain prices doubled between early 2007 and spring 2008, and the United Nations World Food Program announced that it needed an extra half billion dollars to buy grain.
Dr. Pamela K. Anderson, director of the International Potato Center, a global scientific research center in Lima, Peru, said that as recently last year, the most common question she fielded concerned her favorite potato recipe. “Now the food system is so fragile that people have stopped laughing. People are asking, ‘How can potatoes help solve the problem?’ ” Dr. Anderson was one of dozens of international scientists who met this month here in the heart of Basque country at Neiker Tecnalia, a 200-year-old potato research center. Their goal: to discuss advances in potato farming, like the development of pest- and drought-resistant strains that could used in poorer countries.
Potatoes are a good source of protein, starch, vitamins and nutrients like zinc and iron. As a crop, they require less energy and water to grow than wheat, taking just three months from planting to harvest. Since they are heavy and do not transport well, they are not generally traded on world financial markets, making their price less vulnerable to speculation. They are not generally used to produce biofuels, a new use for food crops that has helped drive up grain prices. When grain prices skyrocketed, potato prices remained stable.
Beyond that, potato yields can be easily increased in most of the world, where they are grown inefficiently and in small numbers.
Thanks to the “green revolution” of the 1970s, yields of wheat, rice and corn jumped by more than 50 percent in a decade as fertilizers and new planting techniques were used. Potatoes never got that kind of attention.
In poor countries, potato yields are still relatively low, at just one to five tons of potatoes per hectare (about 2 1/2 acres), less than 15 percent the yield in the developed world.
From the perspective of traditional food aid programs — which buy or receive food from where it can be produced cheaply and efficiently and send it to where it is needed — potatoes have limitations.
Because they spoil easily and are heavy to ship, groups like the World Food Program avoid them. Pound for pound, they contain less protein than wheat, although, looked at another way, an acre of potatoes yields more protein than an acre of wheat.
“They are quite perishable, especially in hotter climates; they sprout and rot quite quickly,” said Tina van den Briel, a nutrition expert at the World Food Program. She said, too, that potatoes were currently a staple food in very few countries, although they were widely used in stews.
“Moving from rice to potatoes is a big leap for people,” she said.
Nonetheless, the agency has made it a priority to increase production of food for aid in the countries where it is needed, both to lessen transportation costs when fuel costs are high and to aid local economies.
Potato growth and consumption have already markedly increased in African countries in the past five years, although potatoes were introduced to the continent only about 100 years ago. In Rwanda potatoes have become the second-most important source of calories, after cassavas. Potato production and consumption are also expanding rapidly in Nigeria and Egypt, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.
One sign that potato growing is spreading: The world’s largest potato processing company, McCain Foods Ltd., has opened factories in China and India in the past two years.
The yield at a number of farms in India doubled in the past two years, to 20 tons a hectare, after McCain gave better seeds to small farmers who supply its new factory, said Daniel Caldiz, a company executive.
In Chile, where about 50 percent of production comes from small farmers, government projects to provide better seeds have increased yields by 25 percent in the past decade, said Horacio Lopez, a government potato expert.
In poor countries, farmers seed new potatoes using leftovers from the previous year’s crop, which are often infected with pests. International agricultural companies cultivate and export germ-free “clean seed” potatoes that are much more productive, but these are expensive.
The International Potato Center is trying to help poor countries produce their own clean seed potato lines.
“When you plant a potato it gives you food security,” Dr. Anderson said. “It strengthens the local economy, instead of just sending in food.”
Food crisis pushes another 40 million into hunger in '08
December 26, 2008 8:01 AM
Some 40 million more people have been plunged into chronic hunger this year because of the global food crisis, taking the estimated number to more than 960 million, the head of the UN food agency reports.
"As a result of rising food prices (since 2005), 75 million people were pushed into chronic hunger," said Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General Jacques Diouf. "This trend has continued, dragging an additional 40 million into hunger this year."
"For many countries, the world goal of reducing hunger by half is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve,"Diouf said, referring to a Millennium Development Goal set in 2000, with a target date of 2015.
"Even the objective of cutting by half the number of hungry by 2015 is morally unacceptable."
The food agency estimates the total number of under-nourished people at 963 million in a crisis affecting mainly the poorest, the landless and female-headed households, says the report,"The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2008."
Diouf, who has called on wealthy countries to invest $30 billion US a year in agriculture, said the figure was only eight per cent of agricultural subsidies paid out in developed countries.
"Thirty billion dollars is nothing compared to subsidies and support in OECD(Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development)countries . . . nothing compared to the billions of dollars being spent in all developing countries to face the (ongoing global) financial crisis," he said.
"I don't think that it's asking too much," the FAO chief said.
January 26, 2009
West African Villagers Stake Their Fortunes on the Future Price of Rice
By LYDIA POLGREEN
RONKH, Senegal — Ndeye Sarr Diop hardly looks like a bit player on the global commodities market. Resplendent in a flowing brown and mauve bou bou and carrying a dainty purse, she gazed across the watery expanse of her rice fields. She had invested everything she had, and borrowed hundreds of dollars on top of that.
“I hope rice will make me rich,” she said, running a hand over the green stalks and fingering the sheathed grains.
Hoping to take advantage of high global food prices that brought many poor nations to the brink of chaos last year, farmers across West Africa are reaping what experts say is one of the best harvests in recent memory.
But after investing and borrowing heavily to expand their production, these farmers also run the risk of being wiped out as global food prices plummet.
The price of unprocessed rice in Senegal has steadily fallen from its peak early last year of more than $30 per 110-pound sack. The drop has not been as drastic as the ones experienced in corn and wheat markets across the world. But the price for rice needs to be at least $20 for farmers here to make a profit, and as the harvest approached late last year, the price was hovering at $22 a sack.
“I am worried,” said Mrs. Diop, a 57-year-old trader and farmer. “I can double my money. Or I can lose everything.”
African farmers and consumers have often been stuck with the sharp end of globalization, and when food prices soared in 2008, poor African nations with liberalized economies suffered enormously.
In countries like Senegal, which, with a population of 13 million, consumes about 600,000 tons of rice a year, cheap imports of staples like rice and wheat from farms in Asia that are vastly more efficient, and often government-subsidized, typically flood local markets. The imports drive out more expensive locally produced rice.
So when prices rose last year and many countries stopped or curtailed exports amid global panic over food supplies, this country had virtually no local supply to replace it.
As the crisis spread, riots over high prices broke out in poor nations across the globe. In Haiti, the anger was so deep that the prime minister was forced to resign. In Senegal, angry demonstrators thronged the streets, demanding to know what the government would do to bring down prices.
President Abdoulaye Wade quickly announced plans to increase agricultural production, offering subsidized seed, fertilizer and equipment, on the theory that self-sufficiency was a matter of national security.
But the crisis also presented an opportunity to millions of farmers across Africa: high prices could finally make their crops competitive.
In Senegal, farmers eyed the long-neglected Senegal River valley, which snakes along the country’s northern border with Mauritania. A government project in the 1970s built irrigation canals that made more than 600,000 acres of land ready to produce rice, but farmers were too poor to afford the materials to farm the land on a large scale. The project was largely abandoned.
Nevertheless, the dream of creating a rice basket here never really died. The area has the potential to satisfy not just the local markets but those of neighboring countries as well, along with providing jobs for the vast army of unemployed young people with few prospects beyond the dream of migrating to Europe.
Rice is the staple of the Senegalese diet — the national dish, thieboudienne, consists of fish and broken rice grains cooked in a thick and spicy tomato sauce.
But the price of producing rice locally made it more expensive than imports, and as a result, Senegalese farmers produce on average only about 80,000 tons of rice a year, and often struggle to sell that much, according to farming experts here.
“It simply didn’t pay to grow rice,” said Arona Diakhate, technical director of a rice processing factory here. “Why grow something you can’t sell? It doesn’t make any sense.”
When the global food crisis drove prices up, the equation changed.
Ibrahima Ly, secretary general of Pinord, a local organization supported by the British charity Oxfam to help farmers get access to credit and markets for their crops, says that only 70,000 acres of rice is being farmed. Well over 500,000 acres could be planted in this region, he says, producing more than enough to feed the entire nation and beyond.
“We have a sweet-water river; we have heat, which rice likes; we have people who need jobs and know how to grow rice,” he said. “Nature has given these things, but you need to manage it, and you need to make sure there is a market for this rice.”
It is a great thing that local growers are finally expanding production, he said, but their investments are incredibly fragile.
“We don’t have any control of the market,” he said. “There is huge volatility, and that makes it very difficult to protect their investments.”
If farmers lose a lot of money this year, they are unlikely to risk planting again, Mr. Ly said, which could prove catastrophic.
In a report released in November, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations warned that low prices this season could create an even worse replay of last year’s crisis by discouraging planters from producing.
“If prices were to remain depressed in 2008-9 and plantings for next year are affected,” the report said, “a similar, if not more pronounced, price surge may be witnessed in 2009-10, unleashing even more severe food crises than those experienced in the current season.”
That wild card is the gamble for growers like Mame Bassine Gaye. A trader who had been dabbling in rice farming, she has struggled to turn a profit. The first year she tried planting rice, her yields were meager and the prices low. This year, however, she went all out, borrowing more than $1,000 from a local credit cooperative and family members to expand her production.
Mrs. Gaye surveyed her 250 acres in the village of Ronkh as the year drew to a close and the harvest was about to begin. It had been a good season across much of West Africa, and she expected a bumper crop.
“If I win, I will win big,” she said. “But if I lose, I’ll lose big. I am worried because of my debts. If you don’t pay, they cut you off. I could lose everything.”
May 26, 2009
What Will Happen When the Baobab Goes Global?
By DAWN STARIN
IT’s known as the baobab in English, sito in Mandinka, gwi in Wolof and Adansonia digitata in botanical circles. Sometimes it’s called the upside-down tree, because its weirdly shaped branches resemble roots. It was made famous in the West by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s fable “The Little Prince.”
In Africa, the baobab tree is steeped in mystique and surrounded by superstition. Many people believe that its spirit protects the community around it, and its tangible properties certainly nourish those who live near it. Parts of the tree are used to make rope and fishing line; to feed goats, sheep and cows; and to provide shelter, food and medicine.
While living in Gambia I saw parts of the baobab used to treat everything from malarial fever, infertility and asthma to headaches and toothaches. I have no idea if and how these local remedies worked, but all of a sudden the rest of the world — Western health food companies included — is catching on. There’s a growing belief that the baobab may be the world’s newest super food.
The tree’s white, powdery fruit is rich in antioxidants, potassium and phosphorus, and has six times as much vitamin C as oranges and twice as much calcium as milk. The leaves are an excellent source of iron, potassium, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum and phosphorus, and the seeds are packed with protein.
The baobab was approved for European markets last year, and the Food and Drug Administration is expected to follow suit soon. The fruit’s dry pulp will be sold as an ingredient in smoothies and cereal bars. Already, a small jar of African baobab jam made in England sells for around $11. According to the Natural Resources Institute in Britain, an international baobab industry could bring in about $1 billion a year and provide jobs for 2.5 million African families. On paper this sounds great, but there’s another side to the picture.
The baobab has never been a plantation tree; it grows wild in arid regions. (It can also be found in Australia, but it thrives in few other places outside Africa.) Presently people harvest only what they need and maybe a bit more to sell at local markets. If it becomes an international commodity, the baobab probably would need to be planted as a crop, even though arable soil is limited. The open land where local people now freely harvest wild baobab could be developed by agribusinesses into plantations, or else precious forests or farmland used to grow everyday staple crops could be turned over to the baobab export industry.
Although local people would probably find jobs on such farms, their ability to harvest or purchase the baobab themselves would be limited. They wouldn’t be able to pay as much as London dealers could. This means that some Africans could lose a source of household wealth, an important part of their diet and an essential pharmaceutical resource.
These possibilities — not to mention the threat of corruption, poor wages and genetic modification leading to a loss of the tree’s biodiversity — are not random predictions. Africa is no stranger to the overexploitation of its natural resources. But the solution isn’t necessarily to cut the baobab off from international markets. Regulations could be put in place to protect the tree, its environment and the people who depend on it — and still allow for profitable production.
The coffee trade provides a model. It’s clear that many consumers are willing to pay more for fairly traded coffee — which costs enough to provide the growers a decent wage for their labor. This bottom-up pricing should be applied to the baobab market, even if it means European health nuts have to pay a lot for their smoothies.
The baobab’s new popularity is exciting, but the European Union, the United States and African exporters should decide on regulations before the baobab is rushed to European and North American markets.
In Saint-Exupéry’s story, the planet the Little Prince lives on is too small to support the baobab. This is hardly our situation, but the Little Prince still has some useful advice for us: Taking care of your planet, he says, “is very tedious work, but very easy.”
August 23, 2009
Connecting Nature’s Dots
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Jao Flats, Botswana
Who knew that deep in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, where there are no paved roads, phones or TVs, you could find the morning paper waiting for you every day outside your tent, with the latest news, weather and sports? Who knew?
True, this is no ordinary journal. The newspaper here on the Jao Flats of the northwest Okavango flood plain is published on the roads — literally. The wetlands are bisected by hippo trails and narrow roads made from pure white Kalahari Desert sand. And every morning, when you set out to investigate the wilderness, it is not uncommon for a guide to lean out of his jeep, study the animal and insect tracks, and pronounce that he’s “reading the morning news.”
We were lucky to be accompanied by Map Ives — the 54-year-old director of sustainability for Wilderness Safaris, which supports ecotourism in Botswana — and it was fascinating to watch him read Mother Nature’s hieroglyphics.
This day’s “news,” Ives explained, studying a stretch of road, was that some lions had run very quickly through here, which he could tell by the abnormal depth of, and distance between, their paw prints. They were in stride. The “weather” was windy coming out of the east, he added, pointing to which side of the paw prints had been lightly dusted away. Flood waters remained high this morning, because the nearby hyena tracks were followed by little indentations — splashes of water that had come off their paws. Today’s “sports”? Well, over here — the hyenas were dragging a “kill,” probably a small antelope or steinbok, which is very obvious from the smooth foot-wide path in the sand that ran some 50 yards into the bushes. Every mile you can read a different paper.
It is mentally exhausting hanging with Ives, who was raised on the edge of the Okavango Delta. He points out the connections, and all the free services nature provides, every two seconds: Plants clean the air; the papyrus and reeds filter the water. Palm trees are growing on a mound originally built by termites. Yes, thank God for termites. All of the raised islands of green in the delta were started by them. The termites keep their mounds warm. This attracts animals whose dung brings seeds and fertilizer that sprout trees, making bigger islands. Ives will be talking to you about zebras and suddenly a bird will zip by — “greater blue-eyed starling,” he’ll blurt out in midsentence, and then go back to zebras.
“If you spend enough time in nature and allow yourself to slow down sufficiently to let your senses work, then through exposure and practice, you will start to sense the meanings in the sand, the grasses, the bushes, the trees, the movement of the breezes, the thickness of the air, the sounds of the creatures and the habits of the animals with which you are sharing that space,” said Ives. Humans were actually wired to do this a long time ago.
Unfortunately, he added, “the speed at which humans have improved technology since the Industrial Revolution has attracted so many people to towns and cities and provided them with ‘processed’ natural resources” that our innate ability to make all these connections “may be disappearing as fast as biodiversity.”
Which leads to the point of this column. We’re trying to deal with a whole array of integrated problems — climate change, energy, biodiversity loss, poverty alleviation and the need to grow enough food to feed the planet — separately. The poverty fighters resent the climate-change folks; climate folks hold summits without reference to biodiversity; the food advocates resist the biodiversity protectors.
They all need to go on safari together.
“We need to stop thinking about these issues in isolation — each with its own champion, constituency and agenda — and deal with them in an integrated way, the way they actually occur on the ground,” argued Glenn Prickett, senior vice president with Conservation International. “We tend to think about climate change as just an energy issue, but it’s also about land use: one-third of greenhouse gas emissions come from tropical deforestation and agriculture. So we need to preserve forests and other ecosystems to solve climate change, not only to save species.”
But we also need to double food production to feed a growing population. “So we’ll need to do that without clearing more forests and draining more wetlands, which means farmers will need new technologies and practices to grow more food on the same land they use today — with less water,” he added. “Healthy forests, wetlands and grasslands not only preserve biodiversity and store carbon, they also help buffer the impacts of climate change. So our success in tackling climate change, poverty, food security and biodiversity loss will depend on finding integrated solutions from the land.”
In short — and as any reader of the Okavango daily papers will tell you — we need to make sure that our policy solutions are as integrated as nature itself. Today, they are not.
August 24, 2009
A Farm on Every Floor
By DICKSON D. DESPOMMIER
IF climate change and population growth progress at their current pace, in roughly 50 years farming as we know it will no longer exist. This means that the majority of people could soon be without enough food or water. But there is a solution that is surprisingly within reach: Move most farming into cities, and grow crops in tall, specially constructed buildings. It’s called vertical farming.
The floods and droughts that have come with climate change are wreaking havoc on traditional farmland. Three recent floods (in 1993, 2007 and 2008) cost the United States billions of dollars in lost crops, with even more devastating losses in topsoil. Changes in rain patterns and temperature could diminish India’s agricultural output by 30 percent by the end of the century.
What’s more, population increases will soon cause our farmers to run out of land. The amount of arable land per person decreased from about an acre in 1970 to roughly half an acre in 2000 and is projected to decline to about a third of an acre by 2050, according to the United Nations. With billions more people on the way, before we know it the traditional soil-based farming model developed over the last 12,000 years will no longer be a sustainable option.
Irrigation now claims some 70 percent of the fresh water that we use. After applying this water to crops, the excess agricultural runoff, contaminated with silt, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, is unfit for reuse. The developed world must find new agricultural approaches before the world’s hungriest come knocking on its door for a glass of clean water and a plate of disease-free rice and beans.
Imagine a farm right in the middle of a major city. Food production would take advantage of hydroponic and aeroponic technologies. Both methods are soil-free. Hydroponics allows us to grow plants in a water-and-nutrient solution, while aeroponics grows them in a nutrient-laden mist. These methods use far less water than conventional cultivation techniques, in some cases as much as 90 percent less.
Now apply the vertical farm concept to countries that are water-challenged — the Middle East readily comes to mind — and suddenly things look less hopeless. For this reason the world’s very first vertical farm may be established there, although the idea has garnered considerable interest from architects and governments all over the world.
Vertical farms are now feasible, in large part because of a robust global greenhouse initiative that has enjoyed considerable commercial success over the last 10 years. (Disclosure: I’ve started a business to build vertical farms.) There is a rising consumer demand for locally grown vegetables and fruits, as well as intense urban-farming activity in cities throughout the United States. Vertical farms would not only revolutionize and improve urban life but also revitalize land that was damaged by traditional farming. For every indoor acre farmed, some 10 to 20 outdoor acres of farmland could be allowed to return to their original ecological state (mostly hardwood forest). Abandoned farms do this free of charge, with no human help required.
A vertical farm would behave like a functional ecosystem, in which waste was recycled and the water used in hydroponics and aeroponics was recaptured by dehumidification and used over and over again. The technologies needed to create a vertical farm are currently being used in controlled-environment agriculture facilities but have not been integrated into a seamless source of food production in urban high-rise buildings.
Such buildings, by the way, are not the only structures that could house vertical farms. Farms of various dimensions and crop yields could be built into a variety of urban settings — from schools, restaurants and hospitals to the upper floors of apartment complexes. By supplying a continuous quantity of fresh vegetables and fruits to city dwellers, these farms would help combat health problems, like Type II diabetes and obesity, that arise in part from the lack of quality produce in our diet.
The list of benefits is long. Vertical farms would produce crops year-round that contain no agro-chemicals. Fish and poultry could also be raised indoors. The farms would greatly reduce fossil-fuel use and greenhouse-gas emissions, since they would eliminate the need for heavy farm machinery and trucks that deliver food from farm to fork. (Wouldn’t it be great if everything on your plate came from around the corner, rather than from hundreds to thousands of miles away?)
Vertical farming could finally put an end to agricultural runoff, a major source of water pollution. Crops would never again be destroyed by floods or droughts. New employment opportunities for vertical farm managers and workers would abound, and abandoned city properties would become productive once again.
Vertical farms would also make cities more pleasant places to live. The structures themselves would be things of beauty and grace. In order to allow plants to capture passive sunlight, walls and ceilings would be completely transparent. So from a distance, it would look as if there were gardens suspended in space.
City dwellers would also be able to breathe easier — quite literally. Vertical farms would bring a great concentration of plants into cities. These plants would absorb carbon dioxide produced by automobile emissions and give off oxygen in return. So imagine you wanted to build the first vertical farm and put it in New York City. What would it take? We have the technology — now we need money, political will and, of course, proof that this concept can work. That’s why a prototype would be a good place to start. I estimate that constructing a five-story farm, taking up one-eighth of a square city block, would cost $20 million to $30 million. Part of the financing should come from the city government, as a vertical farm would go a long way toward achieving Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s goal of a green New York City by 2030. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has already expressed interest in having a vertical farm in the city. City officials should be interested. If a farm is located where the public can easily visit it, the iconic building could generate significant tourist dollars, on top of revenue from the sales of its produce.
But most of the financing should come from private sources, including groups controlling venture-capital funds. The real money would flow once entrepreneurs and clean-tech investors realize how much profit there is to be made in urban farming. Imagine a farm in which crop production is not limited by seasons or adverse weather events. Sales could be made in advance because crop-production levels could be guaranteed, thanks to the predictable nature of indoor agriculture. An actual indoor farm developed at Cornell University growing hydroponic lettuce was able to produce as many as 68 heads per square foot per year. At a retail price in New York of up to $2.50 a head for hydroponic lettuce, you can easily do the math and project profitability for other similar crops.
When people ask me why the world still does not have a single vertical farm, I just raise my eyebrows and shrug my shoulders. Perhaps people just need to see proof that farms can grow several stories high. As soon as the first city takes that leap of faith, the world’s first vertical farm could be less than a year away from coming to the aid of a hungry, thirsty world. Not a moment too soon.
Dickson D. Despommier, a professor of public health at Columbia University, is writing a book about vertical farms.
Famed 'green revolution' scientist dead at age 95
Herald News Services
September 14, 2009
Norman Borlaug, the U. S. agricultural scientist who received the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for developing high-yielding crops to prevent famine in the developing world, has died at age 95, Texas A&M University said.
Borlaug, hailed as a central figure in the "green revolution" that made more food available for the world's hungry, died on Saturday night from cancer complications in Dallas, the university said in a statement.
The "green revolution" --the development of crops such as wheat that delivered better yields than traditional strains--is credited with helping avert massive famines that had been predicted in the developing world in the last half of the 20th century.
Borlaug served as a distinguished professor of international agriculture at Texas A&M University, located in College Station, Texas.
Experts have said his crusade to develop high-yielding, disease-resistant
crops saved the lives of millions of people worldwide who otherwise may have been doomed to starvation.
He was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. In 2007, Borlaug also received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honour of the United States.
Norman Borlaug saved a billion lives from starvation. But decades on, his farming methods threaten the health of the planet
For someone of my generation, growing up under postwar food rationing, the idea that food would always be plentiful and cheap seemed about as likely as a portable phone that you could carry around with you.
For many of us the dire predictions of Thomas Malthus were all too credible. Malthus had advanced the dismal theory that human populations would always grow faster than their food supply. It meant you could forget all your grand ideas about progress. Every social advance was destined to be brought to nothing by famine.
The singular achievement of the agronomist Norman Borlaug, who died at the weekend, was to take away this age-old fear, at least for those of us in the rich West.
In a crop-breeding programme that won him the Nobel Peace Prize, he developed a clutch of wheat varieties with remarkably short stems. As a young farming journalist I remember writing about one of the first to appear in Britain, a diminutive variety called Hobbit.
Compared with the taller traditional wheats, the short-strawed types shifted a higher proportion of plant sugars into the seedhead or ear of the plant, where the grains were formed. In this way they were capable of producing dramatically higher yields. But to achieve them they needed huge amounts of chemical fertiliser. Borlaug once remarked that “if the high-yielding wheat and rice varieties are the catalysts that ignited the revolution, chemical fertiliser is the fuel that powered its forward thrust”.
His Green Revolution led to a near-doubling of wheat yields in India and Pakistan during the late 1960s. Altogether more than a billion people are believed to have been saved from starvation as a result of the new varieties.
Over the past 30 years Western governments have poured subsidies into the development of so-called high-yield grain production. One early result was the notorious grain mountains of the 1970s and 1980s which, far from alleviating hunger, did much to undermine the development of food production in poor countries. Borlaug intended his methods to be used for the benefit of people across the planet. Instead they were seized on by industrial countries with the wealth to pay for expensive seeds and fertilisers. Where they were used in developing countries, this often came at the cost of a crippling debt burden.
Today Borlaug’s ideas underpin the global food system. Three quarters of the world’s cultivated land is sown to grain crops and oilseeds. Most are dependent on massive amounts of oil energy in the form of nitrate fertilisers, pesticides, diesel fuel and heavy machinery.
Though the Green Revolution has undoubtedly given the world more food, it has brought with it worrying consequences. An investigation into agriculture funded by the World Bank concluded that the benefits have been unevenly distributed. Equally disturbing, the revolution has led to widespread environmental damage that may reduce the planet’s capacity to feed future generations.
No less than 1.9 billion hectares of farmland has been degraded by modern grain-growing techniques. Growing annual grain crops such as wheat over lengthy periods inevitably leads to soil damage. The land must be ploughed and cultivated each year, and for long periods is left bare, a condition that seldom arises in nature. Stripped of vegetation cover, the soil’s organic matter starts to burn up or oxidise, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and adding to the greenhouse gas burden. The process is hastened by heavy inputs of chemical fertiliser and pesticides. With the loss of organic matter the soil’s structure is weakened so it becomes unstable and subject to erosion, either by wind or rainfall.
Around the world soils are eroding at a faster rate than at any time in history. Each year the weight of soil washing downstream in rivers is estimated at four tonnes for every man, woman and child on the planet. For all our technology, civilisation continues to depend on a few centimetres of topsoil. At this rate of loss the future for humanity is grim.
For all the high hopes of the 1960s, it is hard to see Borlaug’s system as more than a partial success. Its weakness is its reliance on a handful of annual crops that cannot be grown without massive inputs of fossil fuel. The sustainable methods called for in the World Bank report will almost certainly make greater use of perennial crops — principally grassland — to feed livestock.
One of the consequences of the grain surpluses produced by the Green Revolution is that more than half the world’s cereal crops are now fed to animals. Cattle, which as ruminants are adapted to grazing pastures, are now routinely confined to yards, or “feedlots”, and fed on grains. There is mounting evidence that beef and dairy foods produced this way are less healthy than those same foods produced from grazing animals. One unfortunate consequence of Borlaug’s breakthrough is that we are now degrading croplands on a global scale to produce meat and dairy products that are inferior to those we used to get from pasture.
While Borlaug’s revolutionary wheats run mainly on oil, the world’s grasslands — which are mostly made up of perennial species — are truly solar-powered. Once established perennial plants maintain their root systems from year to year. So they do not need the fertilisers and chemicals required for plants grown from seed each time. Unlike grains, grasslands will give us a secure and sustainable source of meat and milk. And as part of a mixed farming system, clover-rich pastures provide a non-chemical way of building up fertility on crop land.
But there is another more pressing reason for turning away from Borlaug’s grains and making more use of the world’s neglected grasslands. The shift to industrial grain production has added hugely to the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Properly managed grassland could reverse the process.
Grasslands that are grazed rotationally are able to capture large amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide and lock it up safely in soil organic matter. Australian researchers estimate that if the world’s pasture farmers managed their grazing in this way, the amount of carbon captured could easily exceed total annual emissions. This will be the real Green Revolution. It could restore, not just our food supply, but the health of the planet.
Graham Harvey is author of The Carbon Fields: How Our Countryside Can Save Britain
World's hungry reach more than 1 billion in '09: UN
October 14, 2009
A boy eats roti at a slum in Mumbai. According to a recent report by United Nations, more than 1 billion people this year will go hungry at some point.
Photograph by: Arko Datta, Reuters
ROME — A combination of the food crisis and the global economic downturn has pushed more than 1 billion people into hunger in 2009, UN agencies said on Wednesday, confirming a grim forecast released earlier this year.
The Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program said 1.02 billion people — about 100 million people more than last year — are undernourished in 2009, the highest number in four decades.
"The rising number of hungry people is intolerable," said FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf as the new annual report on world hunger was released.
"We have the economic and technical means to make hunger disappear, what is missing is a stronger political will to eradicate hunger forever," he said.
The increase in the number of hungry people is not a result of poor harvests but is due to high food prices — particularly in developing countries — lower incomes and lost jobs.
Even before the recent twin crises of food and recession, the number of undernourished people had risen steadily for a decade, reversing progress made in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The Group of Eight countries in July pledged $20 billion over three years to help poor nations feed themselves, signalling a new focus on longer-term agricultural development.
That has sparked some concerns that emergency food aid might be cut back as a result.
The WFP last year raised a record $5 billion to feed poor people as a spike in food prices in 2006-2008 sparked rioting and hoarding in some countries.
So far this year it has received $2.9 billion, and has had to cut food rations or scale back operations in places like Kenya and Bangladesh.
FAO and WFP urge a twin-track approach, saying longer-term investment in agriculture development should not come at the expense of short-term initiatives to fight acute hunger spurred by sudden food shortages.
October 22, 2009
Experts Worry as Population and Hunger Grow
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
ROME — Scientists and development experts across the globe are racing to increase food production by 50 percent over the next two decades to feed the world’s growing population, yet many doubt their chances despite a broad consensus that enough land, water and expertise exist.
The number of hungry people in the world rose to 1.02 billion this year, or nearly one in seven people, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, despite a 12-year concentrated effort to cut the number.
The global financial recession added at least 100 million people by depriving them of the means to buy enough food, but the numbers were inching up even before the crisis, the United Nations noted in a report last week.
“The way we manage the global agriculture and food security system doesn’t work,” said Kostas G. Stamoulis, a senior economist at the organization. “There is this paradox of increasing global food production, even in developing countries, yet there is hunger.”
Agronomists and development experts who gathered in Rome last week generally agreed that the resources and technical knowledge were available to increase food production by 50 percent in 2030 and by 70 percent in 2050 — the amounts needed to feed a population expected to grow to 9.1 billion in 40 years.
But the conundrum is whether the food can be grown in the developing world where the hungry can actually get it, at prices they can afford. Poverty and difficult growing conditions plague the places that need new production most, namely sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
A straw poll of the experts in Rome on whether the world will be able to feed its population in 40 years underscored the uncertainty surrounding that question: 73 said yes, 49 said no and 15 abstained.
The track record of failing to feed the hungry haunts the effort. But other important uncertainties also give pause. The effect climate change will have on weather and crops remains an open question. The so-called green revolution of the 1960s and ’70s ended the specter of mass famines then, but the environmental cost of chemical fertilizers and heavy irrigation has spurred a bitter divide over the right ingredients for a second one.
In addition, the demand for biofuels may use up crop land. And as scores of food riots in 2008 showed, oil prices and other income shocks can quickly drive millions more people into hunger, sending ripples of instability around the world.
A summit meeting of world leaders in Rome on Nov. 16 is expected to address the future food demands. Since July, the richest countries have ostensibly committed more than $22 billion to the effort over the next three years.
The final meeting of Group of 8 leaders that month in L’Aquila, Italy, started with $15 billion already on the table. Then President Obama gave a speech evoking the Kenyan village where his father herded goats as a child. In countless villages like it, millions of people face hunger daily, Mr. Obama said, and after he finished speaking, the pledges jumped by $5 billion, according to several officials present.
Yet those pledges remain murky. Senior diplomats estimate that less than a third to slightly more than half of the money represents new commitments that had not already been made, with the rest being repackaged existing aid.
Washington and its European allies have also jostled over putting the money in a World Bank account, the American preference, or working through United Nations or domestic aid agencies, an approach the Europeans favor. An initial American proposal of one unified fund was largely rejected. How policy and priorities will be established on a worldwide scale is also a central negotiating hurdle.
“The good news is that the political class considers this important and wants to do something about it,” said one financial official involved in the talks who was not authorized to speak publicly. “But nobody has 20 billion and spare change in their sock drawer.”
The United States, with the largest pledge, $3.5 billion, organized a conference in Washington along with Italy last month in an unsuccessful attempt to nail down the pledges so that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton could announce the results during the United Nations General Assembly.
“It is a little bit difficult — I cannot give you a precise figure per country,” said Renzo Rosso, a senior Italian aid official. “But the most difficult part will be to make them all work together.”
Mrs. Clinton often calls agriculture aid a critical issue, saying the administration supports domestic efforts in developing nations and improvements in production by small farmers, particularly women. Philip J. Crowley, a department spokesman, said, “We are trying to shift away from emergency aid toward agricultural development.”
Agriculture was once a pillar of international aid programs, with World Bank figures showing that it constituted 17 percent of all foreign assistance in 1980, said Christopher Delgado, the bank’s agriculture adviser. But the emphasis declined as the number of hungry people dropped to its lowest recent level, 825 million people, around 1996. By 2000, agriculture aid had shrunk to 4 percent, he said, although it has since ticked up slowly.
World leaders often evoke the green revolution of the 1960s and ’70s as an inspiration for future progress. The original revolution employed new seeds, fertilizers and irrigation in Asia and Latin America to stave off famines affecting millions.
But the green revolution’s concentration on wheat and rice would be impossible to copy in parts of Asia and in Africa, experts say, noting that Africa has seven or eight staple crops, wildly varied growing conditions and only an estimated 7 percent of farmland irrigated.
Then there is the question of genetically modified crops. No issue provokes such an emotional division among agronomists, who debate whether they constitute the building blocks of a second green revolution or a health menace.
“Who is steering this fear and global paranoia about the G.M. cotton and all these G.M. crops?” said Hans P. Binswanger-Mkhize, a South African agriculture consultant. “Show us where the corpses are — the corpses of earthworms, the corpses of bees, the corpses of antelopes and the corpses of humans. Nobody has yet ever shown us a corpse.”
Opponents respond that organic farming is critical to producing healthy food and reducing global warming. Widespread use of nitrogen fertilizers has contributed heavily to greenhouse gases, and the vast water resources required for irrigation are not sustainable, they contend.
“We have a billion hungry people today, so we can’t say the green revolution solved the problem,” said Markus Arbenz, the executive director of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. “We can’t just cut and paste the solution from the 1960s with G.M. crops.”
November 22, 2009
Is There Such a Thing as Agro-Imperialism?
By ANDREW RICE
Dr. Robert Zeigler, an eminent American botanist, flew to Saudi Arabia in March for a series of high-level discussions about the future of the kingdom’s food supply. Saudi leaders were frightened: heavily dependent on imports, they had seen the price of rice and wheat, their dietary staples, fluctuate violently on the world market over the previous three years, at one point doubling in just a few months. The Saudis, rich in oil money but poor in arable land, were groping for a strategy to ensure that they could continue to meet the appetites of a growing population, and they wanted Zeigler’s expertise.
There are basically two ways to increase the supply of food: find new fields to plant or invent ways to multiply what existing ones yield. Zeigler runs the International Rice Research Institute, which is devoted to the latter course, employing science to expand the size of harvests. During the so-called Green Revolution of the 1960s, the institute’s laboratory developed “miracle rice,” a high-yielding strain that has been credited with saving millions of people from famine. Zeigler went to Saudi Arabia hoping that the wealthy kingdom might offer money for the basic research that leads to such technological breakthroughs. Instead, to his surprise, he discovered that the Saudis wanted to attack the problem from the opposite direction. They were looking for land.
In a series of meetings, Saudi government officials, bankers and agribusiness executives told an institute delegation led by Zeigler that they intended to spend billions of dollars to establish plantations to produce rice and other staple crops in African nations like Mali, Senegal, Sudan and Ethiopia. “They laid out this incredible plan,” Zeigler recalled. He was flabbergasted, not only by the scale of the projects but also by the audacity of their setting. Africa, the world’s most famished continent, can’t currently feed itself, let alone foreign markets.
The American scientist was catching a glimpse of an emerging test of the world’s food resources, one that has begun to take shape over the last year, largely outside the bounds of international scrutiny. A variety of factors — some transitory, like the spike in food prices, and others intractable, like global population growth and water scarcity — have created a market for farmland, as rich but resource-deprived nations in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere seek to outsource their food production to places where fields are cheap and abundant. Because much of the world’s arable land is already in use — almost 90 percent, according to one estimate, if you take out forests and fragile ecosystems — the search has led to the countries least touched by development, in Africa. According to a recent study by the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, one of the earth’s last large reserves of underused land is the billion-acre Guinea Savannah zone, a crescent-shaped swath that runs east across Africa all the way to Ethiopia, and southward to Congo and Angola.
Foreign investors — some of them representing governments, some of them private interests — are promising to construct infrastructure, bring new technologies, create jobs and boost the productivity of underused land so that it not only feeds overseas markets but also feeds more Africans. (More than a third of the continent’s population is malnourished.) They’ve found that impoverished governments are often only too welcoming, offering land at giveaway prices. A few transactions have received significant publicity, like Kenya’s deal to lease nearly 100,000 acres to the Qatari government in return for financing a new port, or South Korea’s agreement to develop almost 400 square miles in Tanzania. But many other land deals, of near-unprecedented size, have been sealed with little fanfare.
Investors who are taking part in the land rush say they are confronting a primal fear, a situation in which food is unavailable at any price. Over the 30 years between the mid-1970s and the middle of this decade, grain supplies soared and prices fell by about half, a steady trend that led many experts to believe that there was no limit to humanity’s capacity to feed itself. But in 2006, the situation reversed, in concert with a wider commodities boom. Food prices increased slightly that year, rose by a quarter in 2007 and skyrocketed in 2008. Surplus-producing countries like Argentina and Vietnam, worried about feeding their own populations, placed restrictions on exports. American consumers, if they noticed the food crisis at all, saw it in modestly inflated supermarket bills, especially for meat and dairy products. But to many countries — not just in the Middle East but also import-dependent nations like South Korea and Japan — the specter of hyperinflation and hoarding presented an existential threat.
“When some governments stop exporting rice or wheat, it becomes a real, serious problem for people that don’t have full self-sufficiency,” said Al Arabi Mohammed Hamdi, an economic adviser to the Arab Authority for Agricultural Investment and Development. Sitting in his office in Dubai, overlooking the cargo-laden wooden boats moored along the city’s creek, Hamdi told me his view, that the only way to assure food security is to control the means of production.
Hamdi’s agency, which coordinates investments on behalf of 20 member states, has recently announced several projects, including a tentative $250 million joint venture with two private companies, which is slated to receive heavy subsidies from a Saudi program called the King Abdullah Initiative for Saudi Agricultural Investment Abroad. He said the main fields of investment for the project would most likely be Sudan and Ethiopia, countries with favorable climates that are situated just across the Red Sea. Hamdi waved a sheaf of memos that had just arrived on his desk, which he said were from another partner, Sheik Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a billionaire member of the royal family of the emirate of Abu Dhabi, who has shown interest in acquiring land in Sudan and Eritrea. “There is no problem about money,” Hamdi said. “It’s about where and how.”
A long the dirt road that runs to Lake Ziway, a teardrop in the furrow of Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley, farmers drove their donkey carts past a little orange-domed Orthodox church, and the tombs of their ancestors, decorated with vivid murals of horses and cattle. Between clusters of huts that looked as if they were constructed of matchsticks, there were wide-open wheat fields, where skinny young men were tilling the soil with wooden plows and teams of oxen. And then, nearing the lake, a fence appeared, closing off the countryside behind taut strings of barbed wire.
All through the Rift Valley region, my travel companion, an Ethiopian economist, had taken to pointing out all the new fence posts, standing naked and knobby like freshly cut saplings — mundane signifiers, he said, of the recent rush for Ethiopian land. In the old days, he told me, farmers rarely bothered with such formal lines of demarcation, but now the country’s earth is in demand. This fence, though, was different from the others — it stretched on for a mile or more. Behind it, we could glimpse a vast expanse of dark volcanic soil, recently turned over by tractors. “So,” said my guide, “this belongs to the sheik.”
He meant Sheik Mohammed Al Amoudi, a Saudi Arabia-based oil-and-construction billionaire who was born in Ethiopia and maintains a close relationship with the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s autocratic regime. (Fear of both men led my guide to say he didn’t want to be identified by name.) Over time, Al Amoudi, one of the world’s 50 richest people, according to Forbes, has used his fortune and political ties to amass control over large portions of Ethiopia’s private sector, including mines, hotels and plantations on which he grows tea, coffee, rubber and japtropha, a plant that has enormous promise as a biofuel. Since the global price spike, he has been getting into the newly lucrative world food trade.
Ethiopia might seem an unlikely hotbed of agricultural investment. To most of the world, the country is defined by images of famine: about a million people died there during the drought of the mid-1980s, and today about four times that many depend on emergency food aid. But according to the World Bank, as much as three-quarters of Ethiopia’s arable land is not under cultivation, and agronomists say that with substantial capital expenditure, much of it could become bountiful. Since the world food crisis, Zenawi, a former Marxist rebel who has turned into a champion of private capital, has publicly said he is “very eager” to attract foreign farm investors by offering them what the government describes as “virgin land.” An Ethiopian agriculture ministry official recently told Reuters that he has identified more than seven million acres. The government plans to lease half of it before the next harvest, at the dirt-cheap annual rate of around 50 cents per acre. “We are associated with hunger, although we have enormous investment opportunities,” explained Abi Woldemeskel, director general of the Ethiopian Investment Agency. “So that negative perception has to be changed through promotion.”
The government’s pliant attitude, along with Ethiopia’s convenient location, has made it an ideal target for Middle Eastern investors like Mohammed Al Amoudi. Not long ago, a newly formed Al Amoudi company, Saudi Star Agricultural Development, announced its plans to obtain the rights to more than a million acres — a land mass the size of Delaware — in the apparent hope of capitalizing on the Saudi government’s initiative to subsidize overseas staple-crop production. At a pilot site in the west of the country, he’s already cultivating rice. Earlier this year, amid great fanfare marking the start of the program, Al Amoudi personally presented the first shipment from the farm to King Abdullah in Riyadh. Meanwhile, in the Rift Valley region, another subsidiary is starting to grow fruits and vegetables for export to the Persian Gulf.
Al Amoudi’s plans raise a recurring question surrounding investment in food production: who will reap the benefits? As we drove down to the waterside, through fields dotted with massive sycamores, a farm supervisor told me that the 2,000-acre enterprise currently produces food for the local market, but there were plans to irrigate with water from the lake, and to shift the focus to exports. In the distance, dozens of laborers were bent to the ground, planting corn and onions.
Later, when I asked a couple of workers how much they were paid, they said nine birr each day, or around 75 cents. It wasn’t much, but Al Amoudi’s defenders say that’s the going rate for farm labor in Ethiopia. They argue that his investments are creating jobs, improving the productivity of dormant land and bringing economic development to rural communities. “We have achieved what the government hasn’t done for how many years,” says Arega Worku, an Ethiopian who is an agriculture adviser to Al Amoudi. (Al Amoudi declined to be interviewed.) Ethiopian journalists and opposition figures, however, have questioned the economic benefits of the deals, as well as Al Amoudi’s cozy relationship with the ruling party.
By far the most powerful opposition, however, surrounds the issue of land rights — a problem of historic proportions in Ethiopia. Just down the road from the farm on Lake Ziway, I caught sight of a gray-bearded man wearing a weathered pinstripe blazer, who was crouched over a ditch, washing his shoes. I stopped to ask him about the fence, and before long, a large group of villagers gathered around to tell me a resentful story. Decades ago, they said, during the rule of a Communist dictatorship in Ethiopia, the land was confiscated from them. After that dictatorship was overthrown, Al Amoudi took over the farm in a government privatization deal, over the futile objections of the displaced locals. The billionaire might consider the land his, but the villagers had long memories, and they angrily maintained that they were its rightful owners.
Throughout Africa, the politics of land is linked to the grim reality of hunger. Famines, typically produced by some combination of weather, pestilence and bad governance, break out with merciless randomness, unleashing calamity and reshaping history. Every country has its unique dynamics. Unlike most African nations, Ethiopia was never colonized in the 19th century but instead was ruled by emperors, who granted feudal plantations to members of their royal courts. The last emperor, Haile Selassie, was brought down by a famine that fueled a popular uprising. His dispossessed subjects chanted the slogan “land to the tiller.” The succeeding Communist dictatorship, which took ownership of all land for itself and pursued a disastrous collectivization policy, was toppled in the aftermath of the droughts of the 1980s. Under the present regime, private ownership of land is still banned, and every farmer in Ethiopia, foreign and domestic, works his fields under a licensing arrangement with the government. This land-tenure policy has made it possible for a one-party state to hand over huge tracts to investors at nominal rents, in secrecy, without the bother of a condemnation process.
May 14, 2010
Genetically Engineered Distortions
By PAMELA C. RONALD and JAMES E. McWILLIAMS
A REPORT by the National Research Council last month gave ammunition to both sides in the debate over the cultivation of genetically engineered crops. More than 80 percent of the corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the United States is genetically engineered, and the report details the “long and impressive list of benefits” that has come from these crops, including improved soil quality, reduced erosion and reduced insecticide use.
It also confirmed predictions that widespread cultivation of these crops would lead to the emergence of weeds resistant to a commonly used herbicide, glyphosate (marketed by Monsanto as Roundup). Predictably, both sides have done what they do best when it comes to genetically engineered crops: they’ve argued over the findings.
Lost in the din is the potential role this technology could play in the poorest regions of the world — areas that will bear the brunt of climate change and the difficult growing conditions it will bring. Indeed, buried deep in the council’s report is an appeal to apply genetic engineering to a greater number of crops, and for a greater diversity of purposes.
Appreciating this potential means recognizing that genetic engineering can be used not just to modify major commodity crops in the West, but also to improve a much wider range of crops that can be grown in difficult conditions throughout the world.
Doing that also requires opponents to realize that by demonizing the technology, they’ve hindered applications of genetic engineering that could save lives and protect the environment.
Scientists at nonprofit institutions have been working for more than two decades to genetically engineer seeds that could benefit farmers struggling with ever-pervasive dry spells and old and novel pests. Drought-tolerant cassava, insect-resistant cowpeas, fungus-resistant bananas, virus-resistant sweet potatoes and high-yielding pearl millet are just a few examples of genetically engineered foods that could improve the lives of the poor around the globe.
For example, researchers in the public domain have been working to engineer sorghum crops that are resistant to both drought and an aggressively parasitic African weed, Striga.
In a 1994 pilot project by the United States Agency for International Development, an experimental variety of engineered sorghum had a yield four times that of local varieties under adverse conditions. Sorghum, a native of the continent, is a staple throughout Africa, and improved sorghum seeds would be widely beneficial.
As well as enhancing yields, engineered seeds can make crops more nutritious. A new variety of rice modified to produce high amounts of provitamin A, named Golden Rice, will soon be available in the Philippines and, if marketed, would almost assuredly save the lives of thousands of children suffering from vitamin A deficiency.
There’s also a sorghum breed that’s been genetically engineered to produce micronutrients like zinc, and a potato designed to contain greater amounts of protein.
To appreciate the value of genetic engineering, one need only examine the story of papaya. In the early 1990s, Hawaii’s papaya industry was facing disaster because of the deadly papaya ringspot virus. Its single-handed savior was a breed engineered to be resistant to the virus. Without it, the state’s papaya industry would have collapsed. Today, 80 percent of Hawaiian papaya is genetically engineered, and there is still no conventional or organic method to control ringspot virus.
The real significance of the papaya recovery is not that genetic engineering was the most appropriate technology delivered at the right time, but rather that the resistant papaya was introduced before the backlash against engineered crops intensified.
Opponents of genetically engineered crops have spent much of the last decade stoking consumer distrust of this precise and safe technology, even though, as the research council’s previous reports noted, engineered crops have harmed neither human health nor the environment.
In doing so, they have pushed up regulatory costs to the point where the technology is beyond the economic reach of small companies or foundations that might otherwise develop a wider range of healthier crops for the neediest farmers. European restrictions, for instance, make it virtually impossible for scientists at small laboratories there to carry out field tests of engineered seeds.
As it now stands, opposition to genetic engineering has driven the technology further into the hands of a few seed companies that can afford it, further encouraging their monopolistic tendencies while leaving it out of reach for those that want to use it for crops with low (or no) profit margins.
The stakes are too high for us not to make the best use of genetic engineering. If we fail to invest responsibly in agricultural research, if we continue to allow propaganda to trump science, then the potential for global agriculture to be productive, diverse and sustainable will go unfulfilled. And it’s not those of us here in the developed world who will suffer the direct consequences, but rather the poorest and most vulnerable.
Pamela C. Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, is the co-author of “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food.” James E. McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University at San Marcos, is the author of “Just Food.”
May 31, 2010
Virus Ravages Cassava Plants in Africa
By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.
MUKONO, Uganda — Lynet Nalugo dug a cassava tuber out of her field and sliced it open.
Inside its tan skin, the white flesh was riddled with necrotic brown lumps, as obviously diseased as any tuberculosis lung or cancerous breast.
“Even the pigs refuse this,” she said.
The plant was what she called a “2961,” meaning it was Variant No. 2961, the only local strain bred to resist cassava mosaic virus, a disease that caused a major African famine in the 1920s.
But this was not mosaic disease, which only stunts the plants. Her field had been attacked by a new and more damaging virus named brown streak, for the marks it leaves on stems.
That newcomer, brown streak, is now ravaging cassava crops in a great swath around Lake Victoria, threatening millions of East Africans who grow the tuber as their staple food.
Although it has been seen on coastal farms for 70 years, a mutant version emerged in Africa’s interior in 2004, “and there has been explosive, pandemic-style spread since then,” said Claude M. Fauquet, director of cassava research at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. “The speed is just unprecedented, and the farmers are really desperate.”
Two years ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation convened cassava experts and realized that brown streak “was alarming quite a few people,” said Lawrence Kent, an agriculture program officer at the foundation. It has given $27 million in grants to aid agencies and plant scientists fighting the disease.
The threat could become global. After rice and wheat, cassava is the world’s third-largest source of calories. Under many names, including manioc, tapioca and yuca, it is eaten by 800 million people in Africa, South America and Asia.
The danger has been likened to that of Phytophthora infestans, the blight that struck European potatoes in the 1840s, setting off a famine that killed perhaps a million people in Ireland and forced even more to emigrate.
That event changed the history of all English-speaking countries.
Compared with amber waves of grain or the blond tresses of a field of ripe corn, cassava is an inglorious workhorse of a crop, a few spindly red stems sprouting from a clutch of brown tubers. It is filling but not very nutritious; it even contains trace amounts of cyanide, which must be removed by grinding and fermenting.
But subsistence farmers depend on it because it’s “very drought-tolerant and very bad-management-tolerant,” said Edward Charles, a team leader for the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative, a six-country consortium based in Kenya and supported by the Gates Foundation. For example, he said, even when farmers are too weak from malaria to weed, their crops survive.
Also, the tubers can be left underground for up to three years, so if drought kills a corn or bean crop, the farmer’s family can still fend off starvation. But the plant falls prey to more than 20 pests and diseases.
Dr. Fauquet fears brown streak will cross the Congo Basin to Nigeria, the world’s biggest grower, because farmers sell cuttings to one another and border controls are nonexistent or can be evaded with bribes.
He is optimistic it will not cross the ocean into Thailand, Brazil, Indonesia or China because there is no world trade in the cuttings and few direct flights to Asia or South America. (Whiteflies, which are thought to spread the virus, have been known to stow aboard planes.)
However, he noted, mosaic virus did spread to India from Africa somehow. And Dai Peters, the Cassava Initiative’s director, noted that a mealybug that damages Brazilian cassavas has leapfrogged the globe to infect Thai fields, too.
Even if the brown streak virus is contained in Africa, Dr. Fauquet said, donors may eventually be forced to spend billions of dollars on food aid to prevent starving populations from going on the move, which could set off ethnic fighting.
Donations by the Gates Foundation, the United States Agency for International Development and a foundation run by Monsanto, the crop technology company, have totaled about $50 million thus far, but compared with the threat, “that’s a droplet in the ocean,” Dr. Fauquet said.
The largest Gates grant, $22 million, went to Dr. Peters’s initiative, which is overseen by Catholic Relief Services, an American charity. Working with the national agricultural laboratories of six countries, it combines American computer technology, African rural self-help initiatives and research started a century ago by British colonialists.
Right now, there is no cassava strain in Africa immune to brown streak, so the initiative is essentially buying time, teaching farmers to recognize diseased crops, asking them to burn them and offering them clean cuttings so they can get one or two harvests before the virus strikes again.
They are hoping for a lucky break, like the success they are finally having against banana wilt, another virus that attacked a different East African staple food.
In that case, the solution was relatively simple, said Chris A. Omongo, an entomologist at the National Crops Resources Research Institute in Namulonge, Uganda.
Since bees and dirt spread the virus, farmers were taught to nip the purple male flower buds off each stalk and to clean their tools and boots before entering their banana patches.
(The virus was jokingly called “banana AIDS,” because it, too, spread along the Uganda-Tanzania highways and rivers. Banana beer was shipped in jerry cans with the fat purple flowers used as stoppers.)
Some wild and some foreign cassava strains do appear resistant to brown streak, Dr. Fauquet said, but they lack the taste and consistency that Africans like. (Some cassava strains are grown just for flour, for industrial paste or for the food enhancer MSG.)
Dr. Fauquet’s lab is trying to splice genes from them into African varieties. Because of the extensive safety testing required for new plants produced that way, the process will take at least five years, he estimated.
Here in Uganda, because there are so few government agricultural agents, the Cassava Initiative is building its own parallel network. Its agents have no power to destroy a crop or seize a truckful of diseased cuttings. But they do have rugged minicomputers with software to help them teach farmers to recognize the disease. They can also pinpoint a suspect field’s GPS location, take photographs and send them from any Internet cafe.
To help farmers work together, the initiative also helps them form savings clubs, giving everyone a steel cash box and guidance.
Members put in a few dollars each week, and offer loans of $50 or $100 for money-generating projects like buying a flock of hens or brick-making molds. At year’s end, they divide the profit, which can be hefty since the interest rate is 120 percent.
Mrs. Nalugo keeps the cash box for her local savings club, and she may have to borrow from it this year. If her cassava crop had been healthy, she estimated, she could have sold it for $500.
Instead, she said, “the loss is pushing us back — we will have to buy food.”
However, she is a smart farmer. She had learned the symptoms of brown streak from Elijah Kajubi, the initiative’s local agent.
When her plants were only knee-high, she said, “I became suspicious, so I planted beans, too.”
The poor die because they cannot afford to buy grain (which they themselves may or may not have grown) at the prices that meat growers are prepared to pay; and the rich die because of over-consumption. [More]
-- Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan
United Nations identify meat eaters as warming the planet
By Margaret Munro, Canwest News ServiceJune 2, 2010 1:11 PM
With global population expected to increase 50 per cent to as many 10 billion people by 2050, the panel says changes in diet will be needed to ensure there is enough to eat.
Humanity needs to radically alter what it eats, according to an expert panel advising the United Nations on the planet's environmental challenges.
Cattle and other animals are fed more than half the world's crops, an appetite the panel says needs to be curbed to provide more food for people and reduce agriculture's environmental impact.
"A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animals products," says the report to be released Wednesday by the United Nations Environment Program.
The panel was asked to identify activities associated with the largest environmental pressures and impacts in the world of rising numbers of people, rising incomes and rising consumption.
It identified agriculture as a priority area in need of "transformational change," along with fossil fuel use -- which is helping drive climate change -- and production and use of materials such as iron, steel, aluminum and plastics, which also has a large environmental footprint.
Agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of global freshwater consumption and 38 per cent of total land use, and is a major source of greenhouse gases, phosphorus and nitrogen pollution.
With global population expected to increase 50 per cent to as many 10 billion people by 2050, the panel says changes in diet will be needed to ensure there is enough to eat.
Compounding the situation is increasing affluence, since richer people tend to consume more fossil fuels and eat more animal products.
"In the case of food, rising affluence is triggering a shift in diets towards meat and dairy products -- livestock now consumes much of the world's crops and by inference a great deal of freshwater, fertilizers and pesticides linked with that crop production in the first place," German scientist Ernst von Weizsaecker, co-chair of the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management said.
Canadian panel member Yvan Hardy, former chief scientist at Natural Resources Canada, said in a telephone interview from Brussels Tuesday that there is plenty of potential for "disaster" on the horizon.
"We have to be very prudent and aware of what is going on," said Hardy, pointing to challenges associated with growing population and climate change.
"Basically I think the world . . . has lost sight of what it takes to support our standard of living," said Hardy. "What we can extract from the earth, in terms of both natural resources and nutrients, is limited."
MOSCOW — Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin on Thursday banned all exports of grain after millions of acres of Russian wheat withered in a severe drought, driving up prices around the world and pushing them to their highest level in two years in the United States.
The move was the latest of several abrupt interventions in the Russian economy by Mr. Putin, who called the ban necessary to curb rising food prices in the country. Russia is suffering from the worst heat wave since record-keeping began here more than 130 years ago.
“We need to prevent a rise in domestic food prices, we need to preserve the number of cattle and build up reserves for next year,” Mr. Putin said in a meeting broadcast on television. “As the saying goes, reserves don’t make your pocket heavy.”
During his years as president and prime minister, Mr. Putin has never hesitated to marshal the power of the state to protect Russian economic interests, and this decision showed that this has remained his prerogative even after he stepped down as president.
Mr. Putin has also proved adept at deflecting criticism of the government with grand gestures, and the export ban was widely seen as one of a series of populist moves by Mr. Putin to address rising resentment over the calamitous heat wave and the fires it has spawned.
Pressure was also brought to bear by multinational grain trading companies, which have been lobbying for the ban as a way to escape futures contracts drawn up before the drought, when prices were far lower. A Russian subsidiary of Glencore, the Swiss-based commodities trading company that has close ties to the Russian government, pressed hard as the scope of the drought’s devastation became clear.
Wheat prices have soared by about 90 percent since June because of the drought in Russia and parts of the European Union, as well as floods in Canada, and the ban pushed prices even higher. Exports from Ukraine, another major exporter, are down sharply this year.
Russia, the largest grain-exporting nation before World War I, has largely recovered from failed Soviet agricultural policies, lifted by rising global food prices and economic reforms that encouraged private farmers and companies to once again till the country’s expansive and fertile croplands. Before this year’s drought, yields had risen steadily, and Russian grain exports totaled 21.4 million metric tons last year, about 17 percent of the global grain trade.
But on Thursday, rail cars heaped with fresh grain came to a halt around Russia, stopped in midjourney from the country’s fields to the main exporting ports on the Black Sea. The order covered a variety of grains, including barley and corn, but will have its greatest impact on wheat exports.
Mr. Putin said that the government might extend the ban if the harvest yields even less than the current grim forecasts. The projected yield is about 70 million metric tons of grain, according to the Russian Grain Union, a lobbying group for farmers, about equal to domestic needs and down sharply from last year’s total of 97 million metric tons.
The group was sharply critical of Mr. Putin’s decision. “First of all, you can congratulate American farmers, who are going to take the niche that Russian farmers are leaving” in global markets because of the ban, said Anton V. Shaparin, a spokesman for the group. He added that Russia’s reserves could cover the shortages from this year.
Owing to last year’s bumper crop, Russia currently holds about 24 million metric tons in grain elevators, the group said.
In Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer and a major customer of Russia, officials said only that they hoped current contracts would be honored.
The abrupt ban — just this week, a deputy agricultural minister had said no such measure would be taken — recalled other decisive actions by Mr. Putin. Last summer, he canceled Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization, saying the country would apply only as a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Mr. Putin twice ordered natural gas shutoffs to Europe amid disputes with Ukraine ostensibly over pricing.
The Russian agro-business sector, which has just been emerging here from the ashes of the failed Soviet collective farm system, was also left pondering its future.
Russia, blessed with the greatest reserve of fertile but fallow land in the world, is thought by many experts to have the greatest potential of any country to meet mounting demand for food from a growing global population.
Michel Orloff, the founder of Black Earth Farming, one of the new corporate farming operations that have raised yields by consolidating and reforming collective farms, said Mr. Putin’s ban made sense from the perspective of curbing domestic food prices but would cost companies like his.
“We are on the verge of national need,” Mr. Orloff said. “Of course, the freer the market, the better. But his job is not only to take care of the farmers of this country, but the citizens of this country.”
Kingsmill Bond, chief analyst at Troika investment bank in Moscow, which has studied the revolution in Russian farming, said the ban would damage shares in corporate farming operations like Black Earth, Razgulay and Cherkizov.
Still, he said, “grain is an emotive issue; you want to make sure you have sufficient supplies.”
The cracking of wheat's genome -- a breakthrough announced by scientists Friday -- will speed up the creation of hardier and higher-yielding cereal crops and improve global food security, Canadian and international researchers are predicting.
British researchers said Friday they had unravelled 95 per cent of the genetic code for a benchmark variety of wheat known as Chinese Spring line 42. The work has been made available online to help spur research into improving wheat yields and strengthening resilience to disease, water stress and insects.
"Recent short-term price spikes in the wheat markets have shown how vulnerable our food system is to shocks and potential shortages," said Doug Kell, head of Britain's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, a public-sector organization that backed the work.
"The best way to support our food security is by using modern research strategies to understand how we can deliver sustainable increases in crop yields, especially in the face of climate change."
The development could trigger a global race by the best scientific minds to apply the new genetic information. The farmers of countries that employ the genome information first would then have a competitive advantage.
That could put pressure on Canada to invest in its premium wheats, such as Canada Western Red Spring, to stay ahead of other countries.
Many crops with much smaller genomes have had their DNA sequenced for some time -- rice in 2005, corn in 2009, and soybeans earlier this year.
Wheat is so complicated partly because it is the hybridization of three ancestral strains of wheat.
"That's been one of the challenges. The genome is so huge," said Anita Brule-Babel, plant geneticist at the University of Manitoba.
September 3, 2010
U.N. Raises Concerns as Global Food Prices Jump
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
UNITED NATIONS — With memories still fresh of food riots set off by spiking prices just two years ago, agricultural experts on Friday cast a wary eye on the steep rise in the cost of wheat prompted by a Russian export ban and the questions looming over harvests in other parts of the world because of drought or flooding.
Food prices rose 5 percent globally during August, according to the United Nations, spurred mostly by the higher cost of wheat, and the first signs of unrest erupted as 10 people died in Mozambique during clashes ignited partly by a 30 percent leap in the cost of bread.
“You are dealing with an unstable situation,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, an economist at the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.
“People still remember what happened a few years ago, so it is a combination of psychology and the expectation that worse may come,” he added. “There are critical months ahead.”
The F.A.O. has called a special session of grain experts from around the world on Sept. 24 to address the supply question. Given that the fields stretching out from the Black Sea have been the main source of a huge leap in wheat trade over the past decade, the fluctuating weather patterns and unstable harvests there will have to be addressed, he said.
It is an issue not limited to Russia alone. Harvest forecasts in Germany and Canada are clouded by wet weather and flooding, while crops in Argentina will suffer from drought, as could Australia’s, according to agricultural experts. The bump in prices because of the uncertainty about future supplies means the poor in some areas of the world will face higher bread prices in the coming months.
Food prices are still some 30 percent below the 2008 levels, Mr. Abbassian said, when a tripling in the price of rice among other staples led to food riots in about a dozen countries and helped topple at least one government.
The wheat crop this year globally is also the third highest on record, according to the F.A.O., but the sudden supply interruptions make the markets jittery. In June, Russia was predicting a loss of just a few million metric tons due to hot weather, but by August it announced it would lose about one-fifth of its crop. Wheat prices more than doubled in that period.
“There are reasons to be watching this and to be concerned because regionally there will be supply challenges,” said Justin P. Gilpin, the head of the Kansas Wheat Commission. “There is uncertainty in the marketplace.”
A decade ago, the area around the Black Sea — mainly Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan — used to supply just about 4 percent of the wheat traded internationally. But most of the growth in demand globally has been supplied from there, and the region now produces about 30 percent of the wheat traded internationally, said Mr. Abbassian. This is the first time a supply crisis has originated from that area, he noted.
In early August, Russia announced an export ban that it would review at the end of the year, but Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin announced Thursday that the ban on grain exports would extend into 2011. The price of wheat jumped again, and that has had a spillover effect into other grains like corn and soybeans. The forecast for the global rice harvest has also dropped, although it is still expected to be higher than in 2009 and should be a record, the F.A.O. said.
“If you look at the numbers globally, the Americans, the Europeans and the Australians can make up the supply,” Mr. Abbassian said of the wheat harvest, playing down the chances of repeating the 2008 crisis. “There is no reason for this hype, but once the psychological thing sets in it is hard to change that perception, especially if Russia keeps sending bad news.”
After two days of rioting set off by price increases for bread and utilities like electricity and water, the streets in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, were largely calm on Friday. But 10 people had been killed and 300 injured, Health Minister Ivo Garrido told a news conference, local news agencies reported. Price increases have been much sharper in Mozambique than in most of the world because the government kept prices artificially low before elections last year, some analysts said.
As with any commodity, questions of wheat shortages spur speculation and hoarding, and experts suggest both are at play in the current market. They believe more money is washing through the commodity market for wheat because with interest rates so low and the stock market so volatile, investors are putting their money in the Chicago Board of Trade.
But the world also has to come to grips with changing weather patterns due to climate change, argued Prof. Per Pinstrup-Anderson, an expert in international agriculture at Cornell University.
“We are going to have much bigger fluctuations in weather and therefore the food supply than we had in the past, so we are going to have to learn how to cope with fluctuating food prices,” Professor Pinstrup-Anderson said.
Barry Bearak contributed reporting from Johannesburg.
Russia’s misguided decision to ban exports of wheat for the next 12 months has sent a destabilizing shock through agricultural markets, pushing prices of grains to their highest levels since 2007 and 2008, when food shortages sparked rioting around the world. The situation in poor grain-importing countries in Africa is tense. In Mozambique, the government backtracked on its decision to raise bread prices by 30 percent after riots in which more than a dozen people died. Still, the world need not experience another food crisis.
This year’s cereal harvest was the third largest on record, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Cereal stocks are at their highest point in eight years. Though drought in Russia and other big wheat producers like Australia is likely to reduce output, wheat stocks should remain substantially above two years ago, when they plunged to their lowest levels in three decades.
The danger is that misguided policies could still produce a food shortage. The ban on wheat exports announced by Russia, the world’s fourth-biggest exporter, pushed prices way above what its drought would justify. Importing nations scrambled for other sources of supply.
Russia magnified the effect by asking Kazakhstan and Belarus to impose their own bans. If other big agricultural producers were to follow Russia’s example, they would worsen market instability and help spread hunger.
Russia should learn from the last food crisis, which was caused in part by a jump in demand by the biofuels industry and rising demand in developing countries. But it was exacerbated when about 30 countries imposed restrictions on the export of agricultural products. Importing countries stockpiled food, further reducing supplies.
This year, in India, which has had a wheat export ban for the last three years, a bumper crop has led the government to stockpile. Press reports say the grain is rotting in storage. Hoarding, by exporters and importers, will only increase prices further.
The concerns in Russia about its grain supplies are understandable, but it could still buy at reasonable prices on world markets — if it and other big food exporters agreed not to impose controls. That would help return stability to the markets, where countries could make up any temporary shortfalls.
The Food and Agriculture Organization will meet on Sept. 24 to discuss the volatility in grain markets. Some of the causes — like climate change — do not lend themselves to easy solutions. But if the agency could broker an agreement not to impose export controls, it would go a long way toward protecting food security.
January 10, 2011, 9:54 am
Beyond the Eternal Food Fight
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
10:13 a.m. | Updated
Almost every time global prices surge and the media and public reach out to analysts for meaning, a decades-long food fight resumes.
The latest price surge is clearcut, bringing food costs up to or past peaks reached in 2008. With populations and appetites growing, with climate changing, Is this the edge of the cliff or just another bump in a long, climbing road?
- Experts who foresee calamity as fast-rising demand for food (and everything else) strains farmers’ capacity to keep up, while pulses of drought, heat or flooding, conflict, speculation or disruptive policies (the biofuel boom) cause ripples and occasional rogue waves in prices.
- Experts who repeatedly, and less sexily, note that humanity, on the whole, has always overcome shortages and found ways to produce ever more food even as mouths multiply and rising incomes move families up the food chain from grains to meats and dairy. They’re mostly not saying, “Don’t worry, be happy,” but they’re definitely not urging listeners to buy food insurance, as Glenn Beck’s show periodically does, or to gird for the collapse of modern civilization, as resource pessimists have long intoned. (That last note is primarily for those who only tend to see alarmism at one end of the spectrum.)
Given the new burst of concern over volatile and rising global food prices from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and various aid and environmental campaigners, late last week I sent some questions to a broad array of scholars and analysts focused on global resources and demands.
Below you can read my missive, with e-mail shorthand slightly cleaned up, followed by an exchange this query triggered between Vaclav Smil, the University of Manitoba analyst of just about every global risk and trend, and Lester Brown, who heads the Earth Policy Institute and has for decades warned of economic and environmental unraveling.
January 10, 2011, 5:06 pm
Varied Menus for Sustaining a Well-Fed World
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
On many issues relevant to charting a smooth human journey in this century, arguments are often framed between camps seeking to promote and spread “sustainable” behaviors and those pushing to advance and/or disseminate “better” technologies. In such polarized discussions, it’s hard to find acknowledgment that a variegated world heading toward roughly 9 billion people by 2050 will almost assuredly require “ all of the above.”
Still, there is plenty of room for agreement, and potentially progress.
Exchanges here this morning between Vaclav Smil and Lester Brown on food security revealed utterly divergent forecasts and preferences, but agreement on one uncomfortable reality — that substantial technological advances, along with shifts in appetites in prosperous societies, will be needed to fit human appetites on a finite, thriving planet.
On the production end, finding agreement on what the science writer Paul Voosen recently described as “a unified theory of farming” is unlikely. But finding ways to break down either-or thinking and foster traditional agricultural methods or advanced technologies where they fit best is clearly feasible.
On the consumption end, the challenges of moderating appetites may be greater.
As promised, here are more reactions to this same query from a wide range of other analysts and practitioners focused on food:
Updated February 15, 2011 08:06 PM
Is the World Producing Enough Food?
food inflation in IndiaRupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters A rice seller in Kolkata, India, in January. Food inflation is still climbing in India.
Global food prices are soaring again, as droughts, freezes and floods have affected various crops in many parts of the world. At the same time, demand is rising with living standards in fast-growing countries.
The price spikes are not as sharp as they were in 2008, but the new volatility reflects more than the sum of recent freakish weather "events," from severe droughts in China and Russia to floods in Australia to a deep freeze in Mexico.
Economists and scientists have identified longer-term changes -- from global warming to China's economic growth to a lack of productive farmland -- as the culprits. Is the world producing enough food -- specifically grain? Is this a continuation of the 2008 crisis, or something quite different?
June 1, 2011
When the Nile Runs Dry
By LESTER R. BROWN
A NEW scramble for Africa is under way. As global food prices rise and exporters reduce shipments of commodities, countries that rely on imported grain are panicking. Affluent countries like Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China and India have descended on fertile plains across the African continent, acquiring huge tracts of land to produce wheat, rice and corn for consumption back home.
Some of these land acquisitions are enormous. South Korea, which imports 70 percent of its grain, has acquired 1.7 million acres in Sudan to grow wheat — an area twice the size of Rhode Island. In Ethiopia, a Saudi firm has leased 25,000 acres to grow rice, with the option of expanding. India has leased several hundred thousand acres there to grow corn, rice and other crops. And in countries like Congo and Zambia, China is acquiring land for biofuel production.
These land grabs shrink the food supply in famine-prone African nations and anger local farmers, who see their governments selling their ancestral lands to foreigners. They also pose a grave threat to Africa’s newest democracy: Egypt.
Egypt is a nation of bread eaters. Its citizens consume 18 million tons of wheat annually, more than half of which comes from abroad. Egypt is now the world’s leading wheat importer, and subsidized bread — for which the government doles out approximately $2 billion per year — is seen as an entitlement by the 60 percent or so of Egyptian families who depend on it.
As Egypt tries to fashion a functioning democracy after President Hosni Mubarak’s departure, land grabs to the south are threatening its ability to put bread on the table because all of Egypt’s grain is either imported or produced with water from the Nile River, which flows north through Ethiopia and Sudan before reaching Egypt. (Since rainfall in Egypt is negligible to nonexistent, its agriculture is totally dependent on the Nile.)
Unfortunately for Egypt, two of the favorite targets for land acquisitions are Ethiopia and Sudan, which together occupy three-fourths of the Nile River Basin. Today’s demands for water are such that there is little left of the river when it eventually empties into the Mediterranean.
The Nile Waters Agreement, which Egypt and Sudan signed in 1959, gave Egypt 75 percent of the river’s flow, 25 percent to Sudan and none to Ethiopia. This situation is changing abruptly as wealthy foreign governments and international agribusinesses snatch up large swaths of arable land along the Upper Nile. While these deals are typically described as land acquisitions, they are also, in effect, water acquisitions.
Now, when competing for Nile water, Cairo must deal with several governments and commercial interests that were not party to the 1959 agreement. Moreover, Ethiopia — never enamored of the agreement — has announced plans to build a huge hydroelectric dam on its branch of the Nile that would reduce the water flow to Egypt even more.
Because Egypt’s wheat yields are already among the world’s highest, it has little potential to raise its agricultural productivity. With its population of 81 million projected to reach 101 million by 2025, finding enough food and water is a daunting challenge.
Egypt’s plight could become part of a larger, more troubling scenario. Its upstream Nile neighbors — Sudan, with 44 million people, and Ethiopia, with 83 million — are growing even faster, increasing the need for water to produce food. Projections by the United Nations show the combined population of these three countries increasing to 272 million by 2025 — and 360 million by 2050 — from 208 million now.
Growing water demand, driven by population growth and foreign land and water acquisitions, are straining the Nile’s natural limits. Avoiding dangerous conflicts over water will require three transnational initiatives. First, governments must address the population threat head-on by ensuring that all women have access to family planning services and by providing education for girls in the region. Second, countries must adopt more water-efficient irrigation technologies and plant less water-intensive crops.
Finally, for the sake of peace and future development cooperation, the nations of the Nile River Basin should come together to ban land grabs by foreign governments and agribusiness firms. Since there is no precedent for this, international help in negotiating such a ban, similar to the World Bank’s role in facilitating the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan, would likely be necessary to make it a reality.
None of these initiatives will be easy to implement, but all are essential. Without them, rising bread prices could undermine Egypt’s revolution of hope and competition for the Nile’s water could turn deadly.
Lester R. Brown is the president of the Earth Policy Institute and the author of “World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse.”
August 18, 2011
Engineering Food for All
By NINA V. FEDOROFF
FOOD prices are at record highs and the ranks of the hungry are swelling once again. A warming climate is beginning to nibble at crop yields worldwide. The United Nations predicts that there will be one to three billion more people to feed by midcentury.
Yet even as the Obama administration says it wants to stimulate innovation by eliminating unnecessary regulations, the Environmental Protection Agency wants to require even more data on genetically modified crops, which have been improved using technology with great promise and a track record of safety. The process for approving these crops has become so costly and burdensome that it is choking off innovation.
Civilization depends on our expanding ability to produce food efficiently, which has markedly accelerated thanks to science and technology. The use of chemicals for fertilization and for pest and disease control, the induction of beneficial mutations in plants with chemicals or radiation to improve yields, and the mechanization of agriculture have all increased the amount of food that can be grown on each acre of land by as much as 10 times in the last 100 years.
These extraordinary increases must be doubled by 2050 if we are to continue to feed an expanding population. As people around the world become more affluent, they are demanding diets richer in animal protein, which will require ever more robust feed crop yields to sustain.
New molecular methods that add or modify genes can protect plants from diseases and pests and improve crops in ways that are both more environmentally benign and beyond the capability of older methods. This is because the gene modifications are crafted based on knowledge of what genes do, in contrast to the shotgun approach of traditional breeding or using chemicals or radiation to induce mutations. The results have been spectacular.
For example, genetically modified crops containing an extra gene that confers resistance to certain insects require much less pesticide. This is good for the environment because toxic pesticides decrease the supply of food for birds and run off the land to poison rivers, lakes and oceans.
The rapid adoption of genetically modified herbicide-tolerant soybeans has made it easier for farmers to park their plows and forgo tilling for weed control. No-till farming is more sustainable and environmentally benign because it decreases soil erosion and shrinks agriculture’s carbon footprint.
In 2010, crops modified by molecular methods were grown in 29 countries on more than 360 million acres. Of the 15.4 million farmers growing these crops, 90 percent are poor, with small operations. The reason farmers turn to genetically modified crops is simple: yields increase and costs decrease.
Myths about the dire effects of genetically modified foods on health and the environment abound, but they have not held up to scientific scrutiny. And, although many concerns have been expressed about the potential for unexpected consequences, the unexpected effects that have been observed so far have been benign. Contamination by carcinogenic fungal toxins, for example, is as much as 90 percent lower in insect-resistant genetically modified corn than in nonmodified corn. This is because the fungi that make the toxins follow insects boring into the plants. No insect holes, no fungi, no toxins.
Yet today we have only a handful of genetically modified crops, primarily soybeans, corn, canola and cotton. All are commodity crops mainly used for feed or fiber and all were developed by big biotech companies. Only big companies can muster the money necessary to navigate the regulatory thicket woven by the government’s three oversight agencies: the E.P.A., the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.
Decades ago, when molecular approaches to plant improvement were relatively new, there was some rationale for a cautious approach.
But now the evidence is in. These crop modification methods are not dangerous. The European Union has spent more than $425 million studying the safety of genetically modified crops over the past 25 years. Its recent, lengthy report on the matter can be summarized in one sentence: Crop modification by molecular methods is no more dangerous than crop modification by other methods. Serious scientific bodies that have analyzed the issue, including the National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society, have come to the same conclusion.
It is time to relieve the regulatory burden slowing down the development of genetically modified crops. The three United States regulatory agencies need to develop a single set of requirements and focus solely on the hazards — if any — posed by new traits.
And above all, the government needs to stop regulating genetic modifications for which there is no scientifically credible evidence of harm.
Nina V. Fedoroff, who was the science and technology adviser to the secretary of state from 2007 to 2010, is a professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University.
By VIKAS BAJAJ
RANWAN, India — In this north Indian village, workers recently dismantled stacks of burned and mildewed rice while flies swarmed nearby over spoiled wheat. Local residents said the rice crop had been sitting along the side of a highway for several years and was now being sent to a distillery to be turned into liquor.
Just 180 miles to the south, in a slum on the outskirts of New Delhi, Leela Devi struggled to feed her family of four on meager portions of flatbread and potatoes, which she said were all she could afford on her disability pension and the irregular wages of her day-laborer husband. Her family is among the estimated 250 million Indians who do not get enough to eat.
Such is the paradox of plenty in India’s food system. Spurred by agricultural innovation and generous farm subsidies, India now grows so much food that it has a bigger grain stockpile than any country except China, and it exports some of it to countries like Saudi Arabia and Australia. Yet one-fifth of its people are malnourished — double the rate of other developing countries like Vietnam and China — because of pervasive corruption, mismanagement and waste in the programs that are supposed to distribute food to the poor.
“The reason we are facing this problem is our refusal to distribute the grain that we buy from farmers to the people who need it,” said Biraj Patniak, a lawyer who advises India’s Supreme Court on food issues. “The only place that this grain deserves to be is in the stomachs of the people who are hungry.”
February 5, 2013
The Global Farmland Rush
By MICHAEL KUGELMAN
OVER the last decade, as populations have grown, capital has flowed across borders and crop yields have leveled off, food-importing nations and private investors have been securing land abroad to use for agriculture. Poor governments have embraced these deals, but their people are in danger of losing their patrimony, not to mention their sources of food.
According to Oxfam, land equivalent to eight times the size of Britain was sold or leased worldwide in the last 10 years. In northern Mozambique, a Brazilian-Japanese venture plans to farm more than 54,000 square miles — an area comparable to Pennsylvania and New Jersey combined — for food exports. In 2009, a Libyan firm leased 386 square miles of land from Mali without consulting local communities that had long used it. In the Philippines, the government is so enthusiastic to promote agribusiness that it lets foreigners register partnerships with local investors as domestic corporations.
The commoditization of global agriculture has aggravated the destabilizing effects of these large-scale land grabs. Investors typically promise to create local jobs and say that better farming technologies will produce higher crop yields and improve food security.
However, few of these benefits materialize. For example, as The Economist reported, a Swiss company promised local farmers 2,000 new jobs when it acquired a 50-year lease to grow biofuel crops on 154 square miles in Makeni, Sierra Leone; in the first three years, it produced only 50.
Many investors, in fact, use their own labor force, not local workers, and few share their technology and expertise. Moreover, about two-thirds of foreign investors in developing countries expect to sell their harvests elsewhere. These exports may not even be for human consumption. In 2008 in Sudan, the United Arab Emirates was growing sorghum, a staple of the Sudanese diet, to feed camels back home.
Much of the land being acquired is in conflict-prone countries. One of the largest deals — the acquisition by investors led by the Saudi Binladin Group of some 4,600 square miles in Indonesia — was put on hold because the area, in Papua, was torn by strife.
The prospects for conflict are heightened by legal uncertainties. Often, an absence of authoritative land registration and titles makes it easy for foreign investors, with the connivance of host governments, to secure land that local communities have long depended upon, even if they cannot demonstrate formal ownership. About 500 million sub-Saharan Africans rely on such communally held land, and land sales can be devastating, as in Mali. Access to food is often cut off, livelihoods are shattered and communities are uprooted.
Not surprisingly, the land sales provoke protests and then repression. Last year, in Cambodia, where 55 percent of arable land has been acquired by domestic and foreign agribusiness interests, the authorities killed an activist, a journalist and a teenage girl facing eviction; jailed other activists, and harassed politically active Buddhist monks.
To be sure, financiers have invested in farmland for centuries: Ancient Romans acquired assets in North Africa, just as American fruit companies secured plantations in Central America a century ago. But today’s transactions are far bigger. Nearly 200 private equity firms are expected to have almost $30 billion in private capital invested by 2015.
Some speculators just sit on high-value land they have acquired without cultivating it. In many traditional communities, this feels like a desecration, a violation of land’s purpose and meaning. That kind of capitalist disregard can set the stage for pitched battles over land that investors see as uninhabited, but that local communities cherish as a source of food, water and medicine, or venerate as ancestral burial grounds.
The chief drivers of the global farmland race — population growth, food and energy demand, volatile commodity prices, land and water shortages — won’t slow anytime soon. Neither will extreme weather events and other effects of climate change on natural resources.
In theory, host countries could limit how much land can be acquired by foreigners, or require that a minimum portion of harvests be sold in local markets. Argentina and Brazil have announced measures to limit or ban new land concessions. But investors use their wealth and their own governments’ power to impede regulation. Host governments should establish better land registration practices and enact safeguards against the displacement of their citizens. The World Bank and other international entities must ensure that their development projects are free from the taint of exploitative practices.
Of course, this will be difficult because so many host governments are riddled with corruption and prioritize profit-making land deals over the needs of their populations. Cambodia, Laos and Sudan — all sites of transnational land purchases — are among the world’s 20 most corrupt nations, according to Transparency International.
“Buy land, they’re not making it anymore,” is a quotation often attributed to Mark Twain. These days, that advice is being heeded all too well.
Michael Kugelman, a senior program associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is co-editor of “The Global Farms Race: Land Grabs, Agricultural Investment, and the Scramble for Food Security.”
To meet demand for food, fuel and wood, countries are snapping up property beyond their borders
By Mark Fischetti | Apr 14, 2015  
Fertile land is becoming scarce worldwide, especially for crops for food, feed, biofuels, timber and fiber such as cotton. To produce those goods, wealthy countries such as the U.S. and small countries with little space are buying up or leasing large tracts of land that are suitable for agriculture in other nations. Products are shipped back home or sold locally, at times squeezing out native farmers, landowners and businesses. In the past 15 years companies and government groups in “investor” countries have grabbed 31.8 million hectares of land, the area of New Mexico (column on right), according to the Land Matrix Global Observatory's database of transactions that target low- and middle-income countries. Crops are being produced on only 2.7 million of those hectares thus far (column on left). Overall, a large transfer of land ownership from the global south to the global north seems to be under way.
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Technology: Timeline: The Amazing Multimillion-Year History of Processed Food
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