Feeding people while sustaining resilient ecosystems

17 05 2009

Land-use change is a primary driver degrading ecosystems aside from the potential effects of climate change. This change has been brought upon us by the necessity of providing food, fibre, water and shelter to a growing human population. The mass conversion of forests, wetlands and grasslands into agricultural land has undermined the ability of ecosystems to sustain food production, maintain freshwater and forest resources, regulate climate and air quality, and buffer the spread of infectious diseases. We are presented with the challenge of creating a future in which land is used in a sustainable and integrated manner.

Paul Roberts talks a little about our food system on motherjones.com:

A couple years back, in a wheat field outside the town of Reardan, Washington, Fred Fleming spent an afternoon showing me just how hard it’s gotten to save the world.

After decades as an unrepentant industrial farmer, the tall 59-year-old realized that his standard practices were promoting erosion so severe that it was robbing him of several tons of soil per acre per year—his most important asset. So in 2000, he began to experiment with a gentler planting method known as no-till.

While traditional farmers plow their fields after each harvest, exposing the soil for easy replanting, Fleming leaves his soil and crop residue intact and uses a special machine to poke the seeds through the residue and into the soil.

The results aren’t pretty: In winter, when his neighbors’ fields are neat brown squares, Fleming’s looks like a bedraggled lawn. But by leaving the stalks and chaff on the field, Fleming has dramatically reduced erosion without hurting his wheat yields.

He has, in other words, figured out how to cut one of the more egregious external costs of farming while maintaining the high output necessary to feed a growing world—thus providing a glimpse of what a new, more sustainable food system might look like.

But there’s a catch. Because Fleming doesn’t till his soil, his fields are gradually invaded by weeds, which he controls with “judicious” amounts of Roundup, the Monsanto herbicide that has become an icon of unsustainable agribusiness.

Fleming defends his approach: Because his herbicide dosages are small, and because he controls erosion, the total volume of “farm chemistry,” as he calls it, that leaches from his fields each year is far less than that from a conventional wheat operation.

None­theless, even judicious chemical use means Fleming can’t charge the organic price premium or appeal to many of the conscientious shoppers who are supposed to be leading the food revolution. At a recent conference on alternative farming, Fleming says, the organic farmers he met were “polite—but they definitely gave me the cold shoulder.”

That a recovering industrial farmer can’t get respect from the alternative food crowd may seem trivial, but Fleming’s experience cuts to the very heart of the debate over how to fix our food system.

Nearly everyone agrees that we need new methods that produce more higher-quality calories using fewer resources, such as water or energy, and accruing fewer “externals,” such as pollution or unfair labor practices.

Where the consensus fails is over what should replace the bad old industrial system. It’s not that we lack enthusiasm—activist foodies represent one of the most potent market forces on the planet. Unfortunately, a lot of that conscientious buying power is directed toward conceptions of sustainable food that may be out of date.

Think about it. When most of us imagine what a sustainable food economy might look like, chances are we picture a variation on something that already exists—such as organic farming, or a network of local farms and farmers markets, or urban pea patches—only on a much larger scale.

The future of food, in other words, will be built from ideas and models that are familiar, relatively simple, and easily distilled into a buying decision: Look for the right label, and you’re done.

But that’s not the reality. Many of the familiar models don’t work well on the scale required to feed billions of people. Or they focus too narrowly on one issue (salad greens that are organic but picked by exploited workers). Or they work only in limited circumstances. (A $4 heirloom tomato is hardly going to save the world.)

Such problems aren’t exactly news. Organizations such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (which despite its namesake is a real leader in food reform) have long insisted that truly sustainable food must be not just ecologically benign, but also nutritious, produced without injustice, and affordable.

And yet, because concepts like local or organic dominate the alternative food sector, there is little room left for alternative models, such as Fred Fleming’s, that might begin to bridge the gap between where our food system is today and where it needs to be.

And how big is that gap? Using the definition of sustainability above, about 2 percent of the food purchased in the United States qualifies. Put another way, we’re going to need not only new methods for producing food, but a whole new set of assumptions about what sustainability really means.

Food is not simple. To make it, you have to balance myriad variables—soil, water, and nutrients, of course, but also various social, political, and economic realities.

But because our consumer culture favors fixes that are fast and easy, our approaches toward food advocacy have been built around one or two dimensions of production, such as reducing energy use or eliminating pesticides, while overlooking factors that are harder to define (and ditto to market), such as worker safety.

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Af-Pak: Obama’s War

3 04 2009

As Obama ups the war rhetoric and tries to rally support at NATO for war in Afghanistan Immanuel Wallerstein, a sociologist and world-systems scientist, assesses his motivations, the details of the situation and the potential situation in six months time.

Af-Pak is the new acronym the U.S. government has invented for Afghanistan-Pakistan. Its meaning is that there is a geopolitical concern of the United States in which the strategy that the United States wishes to pursue involves both countries simultaneously and they cannot be considered separately. The United States has emphasized this policy by appointing a single Special Representative to the two countries, Richard Holbrooke.

It was George W. Bush who sent U.S. troops into Afghanistan. And it was George W. Bush who initiated the policy of using U.S. drones to bomb sites in Paklstan. But, now that Barack Obama, after a “careful policy review,” has embraced both policies, it has become Barack Obama’s war. This comes as no enormous surprise since, during the presidential campaign, Obama indicated that he would do these things. Still, now he has done it.

This decision is likely to be seen in retrospect as Obama’s single biggest decision concerning U.S. foreign policy, one that will be noticed by future historians as imprinting its stamp on his reputation. And it is likely to be seen as well as his single biggest mistake. For, as Vice-President Biden apparently warned in the inner policy debate on the issue, it is likely to be a quagmire from which it will be as easy to disengage as the Vietnam war.

There are therefore two questions. Why did he do it? And what are likely to be the consequences during his term of office?

Let us begin with his own explanation of why he did it. He said that “the situation is increasingly perilous,” that “the future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the future of its neighbor, Pakistan,” and that “for the American people, [Pakistan’s] border region [with Afghanistan] has become the most dangerous place in the world.”

And why is it so dangerous? Quite simply, it is because it is a safe haven for al-Qaeda to “train terrorists” and to “plot attacks” – not only against Afghanistan and the United States but everywhere in the world. The fight against al-Qaeda is no longer called the “war on terrorism” but is hard to see the difference. Obama claims that the Bush administration had lost its “focus” and that he has now installed a “comprehensive, new strategy.” In short, Obama is going to do this better than Bush.

What then are the new elements? The United States will send more troops to Afghanistan – 17,000 combat troops and 4000 trainers of the Afghan forces. It will send more money. It proposes to give Pakistan $1.5 billion a year for five years to “build schools and roads and hospitals.” It proposes to send “agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers” to Afghanistan to “develop an economy that isn’t dominated by illicit drugs.” In short, Obama says that he believes that “a campaign against extremism will not succeed with bullets or bombs alone.”

However, implicitly unlike Bush, this will not be a “blank check” to the two governments. “Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders.” As for Afghanistan, the United States “will seek a new compact with the Afghan government that cracks down on corrupt behavior.” The Afghan and Pakistani governments are pleased to be getting the new resources. They haven’t said that they will meet Obama’s conditions. And Obama hasn’t said what he will do if the two governments don’t meet his conditions.

As for the way forward, Obama asserts that “there will be no peace without reconciliation with former enemies.” Reconciliation? Well, not with the “uncompromising core of the Taliban,” or with al-Qaeda, but with those Taliban “who’ve taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price.” To do this, Obama wants assistance. He proposes to create a new Contact Group that will include not only “our NATO allies” but also “the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran, Russia, India and China.”

The most striking aspect of this major commitment is how little enthusiasm it has evoked around the world. In the United States, it has been applauded by the remnants of the neo-cons and McCain. So far, other politicians and the press have been reserved. Iran, Russia, India, and China have not exactly jumped on the bandwagon. They are particularly cool about the idea of reconciliation with so-called moderate Taliban. And both the Guardian and McClatchy report that the Taliban themselves have reacted by creating unity within their hitherto divided ranks – presumably the opposite of what Obama is trying to achieve.

So, where will we probably be six months from now? There will be more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and the U.S. commanders will probably say that the 21,000 Obama is sending are not enough. There will be further withdrawals of NATO troops from there – a repeat of the Iraq scenario. There will be further, perhaps more extensive, bombings in Pakistan, and consequently even more intensive anti-American sentiments throughout the country. The Pakistani government will not be moving against the Taliban for at least three reasons. The still very influential ISI component of the Pakistani army actually supports the Taliban. The rest of the army is conflicted and in any case probably too weak to do the job. The government will not really press them to do more because it will only thereby strengthen its main rival party which opposes such action and the result may be another army coup.

In short, the “clear and focused goal” that Obama proposes – “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future” – will probably be further than ever from accomplishment. The question is what can Obama do then? He can “stay the course” (shades of Rumsfeld in Iraq), constantly escalate the troop commitment, while changing the local political leadership (shades of Kennedy/Johnson and Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam), or he can turn tail and pull out (as the United States finally did in Vietnam). He is not going to be cheered for any of these choices.

I have the impression that Obama thinks that his speech left him some wiggle room. I think he will find out rather how few choices he will have that are palatable. I think therefore he made a big, probably irreparable, mistake.

Source: agenceglobal.com





Radical geography with David Harvey

3 04 2009

David Harvey, a professor of anthropology and Marxist geographer, talks about global inequality, neo-liberalism, consolidation of power and capitalism after the crisis on Democracy Now.

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G20 forgets the environment

2 04 2009

I really don’t want to rely too much on the mainstream media for information/comment but Monbiot mentions some important points on the complete neglect of the global environmental crisis at the G20 in his  latest Guardian blog entry:

Here is the text of the G20 communique, in compressed form.

“We, the Leaders of the Group of Twenty, will use every cent we don’t possess to rescue corporate capitalism from its contradictions and set the world economy back onto the path of unsustainable growth. We have already spent trillions of dollars of your money on bailing out the banks, so that they can be returned to their proper functions of fleecing the poor and wrecking the Earth’s living systems. Now we’re going to spend another $1.1 trillion. As an exemplary punishment for their long record of promoting crises, we will give the IMF and the World Bank even more of your money. These actions constitute the greatest mobilisation of resources to support global financial flows in modern times.

Oh – and we nearly forgot. We must do something about the environment. We don’t have any definite plans as yet, but we’ll think of something in due course.”

The G20’s strategy for solving the financial and economic crisis, in other words, is detailed, innovative, fully costed and of vast scale and ambition. Its plans for solving the environmental crisis are brief, vague and uncosted. The environmental clauses – which contradict almost everything that goes before – have been tacked onto the end of the communique as an afterthought. No new money has been set aside. No new ideas are proposed; just the usual wishful thinking: let’s call the whole package green and hope for the best.

So much for the pledge, expressed in different forms by most of the governments present at the talks, to put the environment at the heart of decision-making. Though the economy is merely a measure of our engagement with the environment; though, as most of the leaders acknowledge, continued prosperity is impossible without sustainability, the communique shows that the environment still comes last. No expense is spared in saving the banks. Every expense is spared in saving the biosphere.

This suggests to me that our leaders have learnt nothing from the financial crisis. It was caused by allowing powerful agents (the banks) to exploit a common resource (the global economy) without proper control or regulation. Governments deployed a form of magical thinking: that the boom would go on forever, that a bunch of predatory psychopaths would regulate themselves, that profits, dividends and share prices could grow indefinitely even though they bore no relation to actual value.

They treat the environmental crisis the same way. Climate breakdown, peak oil and resource depletion will all dwarf the current financial crisis, in both financial and humanitarian terms. But, just as they did with the banks, the G20 leaders appear to have decided to deal with these problems only when they have to – in other words, when it’s too late. They persuade themselves that getting the economy back to where it was – infinite growth on a finite planet – can somehow be reconciled with the pledge “to address the threat of irreversible climate change”.

Next time this magical thinking fails, there’ll be no chance of a bail-out.





Peak phosphorus

24 03 2009

You have no doubt heard of peak oil. The point at which the rate of oil production begins to decline. Well there’s another peak you should be concerned about if you like to eat food grown in fertilised soil, like much of the world’s population does. Phosphate is a non-renewable resource and is therefore not created on a timescale meaningful to people. This presents us with a bit of a problem because we are using a lot of it and it could potentially run out within the next 50-100 years, having enormous consequences for global food supply and geopolitics. But, its demise could improve the condition of our rivers, lakes, seas and oceans.

A recent paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change titled “The story of phosphorus: Global food security and food for thought” has explored the phosphate dilemma. Here are some of its main points.

Food production is fundamental to our existence, yet we are using up the world’s supply of phosphorus, a critical ingredient in growing food.

Phosphate rock reserves are in the control of only a handful of countries (mainly Morocco, China and the US), and thus subject to international political influence. Morocco has a near monopoly on Western Sahara’s reserves, China is drastically reducing exports to secure domestic supply, US has less than 30 years left of supplies, while Western Europe and India are totally dependent on imports.

Existing rock phosphate reserves could be exhausted in the next 50–100 years.

The demand for phosphorus is predicted to increase by 50– 100% by 2050 with increased global demand for food and changing diets.

The need to address the issue of limited phosphorus availability has not been widely recognized.

As well as the problem of eutrophication due to the leakage of excess phosphorus into waterways, the production of fertilizers from rock phosphate involves significant carbon emissions, radioactive by-products and heavy metal pollutants.

The peak in global phosphorus production could occur by 2033.

Phosphorus can be recovered from the food production and consumption system and reused as a fertilizer either directly or after intermediate processing. These recovery measures include: ploughing crop residues back into the soil; composting food waste from households, food processing plants and food retailers; and using human and animal excreta. Such sources are renewable and are typically available locally.

Fertilizing urban agriculture with phosphorus recovered from organic urban waste could be a significant step towards reaching the Millennium Development Goals on eradicating hunger and poverty, and providing access to safe sanitation.

Shifting to a vegetarian diet, combined with reducing over-consumption, would be one of the most cost-effective measures to reduce agricultural resource inputs (including water, energy, land and fertilizers) and would also minimize greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution.

+ organic farming, permaculture and ending capitalism (an unlikely suggestion in a mainstream academic journal).






Baghdad in a time of cholera

24 03 2009




A great mission: The Olympics of destruction

16 03 2009

The characteristic corporatisation and social destruction of the Olympics is already becoming evident.

Apparently infrastructure and obsolete buildings are more important than local communities.

Vodpod videos no longer available.