Saturday, January 29, 2011

It's (partially) the food, stupid!

On the face of it, the protests currently sweeping across the Arab world have been driven by overwhelmingly leaderless, frustrated, impoverished, unemployed youths battling, geriatric dictatorial regimes, supported by a pampered military--and the United States.

Fueling all these protests though, from Egypt, to Yemen, to Jordan to Tunisia to  Algeria is another common factor: rocketing food prices, just as they fueled the French revolution.

A “perfect storm” of natural disasters around the globe, plus rising oil prices and rapacious speculators have produced the current dramatic spike in food prices, but even without those events, the fact is food prices will continue to spiral upward, and will continue roiling the planet, no matter who is governing.

What is outrageous is that our leaders know this—they’ve known it for years--but, like deer transfixed by the lights of an onrushing truck—they’ve done precious little to avert catastrophe.  Indeed, rather than deal with impending disaster, they’ve made the situation even worse.   

The statistics are stark:  Almost 7 billion people currently inhabit this planet, one billion of whom are already on the brink of starvation. By 2050 the total will be 9.2 billion, with higher incomes for many; thus much larger and demanding appetites.

The bottom line is the world will need 70% more food in 2050 than it produced in 2000. But at the same time, the resources available are plummeting. The amount of agricultural land per person on the planet will drop from 10.6 acres in 1961 to 3.7 acres in 2050.  

As for water, just to maintain current levels of (mal) nutrition--never mind improving things—farmers will need 17% more fresh water by 2050.  Problem is 70% of the world’s fresh water is already used for irrigation.

But instead of investing in agriculture, the world’s leaders, and development organizations have been obsessed with industrialization. The statistics are shocking: development assistance from all sources to agriculture went from 20% of all aid twenty-five years ago--to only 4 % today.   

Developing countries themselves reduced their own investment in agriculture from 11% twenty-five years ago to 7% in 2007.

These figures from Pandey Shivaji, a soft-spoken Indian official I spoke with at the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Offices in Rome.

First off, he says, food production has to be transformed from a dull, bureaucratic backwater to page one of the international agenda.  75% of the world’s hungry and poor still live in rural areas and derive their livelihood from the land.

O.K., I ask, but surely it makes sense to industrialize, get those people good factory jobs and off the over-crowded land, right?

Wrong, he says.  “Agriculture has been shown to be twice as effective in eliminating hunger and poverty as any other kind of development. There is scientific evidence that every one percent increase in crop productivity will reduce the number of poor and hungry by .4 percent.”

What about the wonders of the “green revolution”? That’s over,” says Shivaji. “Sixty years ago, rice, wheat and maize yields in countries like India, were dramatically rising at 3% a year. No longer. The rate of growth instead is declining heading for about one percent a year by 2050.”

It was the soaring food prices of 2007 and 2008 and the radical political unrest they sparked, that finally got the world’s leaders to start paying attention.  One result, Pandev Shivaji heads a steering committee under the auspices of the FAO, tasked with figuring out how to dramatically increase food production without at the same time destroying the ecology.

One of the first things he did was to tell his experts to stop their research.  “Of, course, there are still things to learn,” he says, “but we already know a lot of the answers. We’ve known for decades.”

 The problem is that the politicians who call the shots have refused to listen.

-To arguments against protectionism, for example. According to Mark Malloch Brown, the former head of the UNDP,  the developed world, lavishes a billion dollars a day on subsidies and support prices to protect their farmers, many of them huge agribusinesses. That protection costs developing countries $50 billion in potential lost agricultural exports. That sum is the equivalent of all development assistance to the third world.  

--Another well-known problem: since bio energy became the flavor of the month, almost 5% of the world’s cereals are now used not to feed people but to produce 0.3% of the world’s energy.

--One major problem, says Pandey Shivaji, is that many of the new technologies have been developed for rich, large farmers. Governments have generally ignored the 400-500 million of the world’ farmers who cultivate less than 5 acres of land. “They have no strong political voice, but those small farmers produce more than half of the world’s food.”

It was small farmers tilling an average 2.7 acres of land in India’s Punjab who were responsible for the Green Revolution in the 60s and 70s, a revolution that took India from the brink of famine and to actually exporting food by 1985.   Similarly, the agriculture revolution that occurred in China in the past twenty-five years occurred on the back of farmers with less than half an acre of land.  

The “white revolution” that made India the world’s number one milk producer was achieved by women and men farmers with only one or two cows.

Says Shivaji, “In a country like Madagascar, where seventy percent of the population live on less than one dollar a day, where agriculture is the most important contributor to the GDP, if it is not agriculture that will get them out of their misery what do the so called experts propose? So many other countries are in that same situation in Africa.

“Certainly some consolidation of small land holdings would be better, but today we can make this world a better place only by making it easier for those who’ve been ignored for so long.”

--But one of the biggest victims of the lack of investment in agriculture is teaching and research. Says Shivaji, “Around the globe, many of the so-called “agriculture experts” are less qualified than they were fifty years ago. Many don’t even understand what they’re supposed to be teaching. They don’t even know that they don’t know.”

-There’s also been no investment in infrastructure to aid the farmer. That means roads, storage, electricity, and access to credit.

Of course, all that costs money. But some solutions are remarkably—if deceptively--simple. For instance, huge numbers of small landholders across the globe don’t have title to their farms. Says Shivaji, “If I don't own it I’m not going to invest in it or protect it. So they don’t invest.” In Vietnam in 1989, in the face of a dramatic food crisis, the Communist government—which was importing food--gave titles to the peasants. Within just three years, Vietnam became the world’s third largest rice exporter. “It wasn’t the only factor, but giving those titles had a major impact. Even Cuba now is talking about giving 7000 square meters of land to farmer.”

Some ways of raising production would actually save money. Thirty years ago, for example, the “experts” advised farmers to thoroughly plow their land, get rid of all weeds, ruffage and waste. Bad advice, says Shivaji.  Such methods actually destroy the soil. 

“Now we tell them to till the earth only when and where necessary.” Sounds simple, and there are dramatic side effects. In addition to saving the land, less plowing also means the farmer spends less for tractors and fuel. It also means less greenhouse gas emissions—in two ways:  less fuel burned, but also, if the soil isn’t thoroughly plowed, more carbon remains trapped in the earth —74 kilograms per acre per year.
“This reform actually means spending less, and it requires no new technology. It’s just teaching the farmer not to do something,” says Shivaji.

-It all seems obvious, but less than 10% of global farmland—largely in North and South America --is under this kind of system.

-Other reforms—like rotating crops, cutting back on rampant use of pesticides and fertilizers—are nothing new, but they can have a revolutionary impact, often in ways you would never think of. Such as teaching farmers not to burn their waste, but to use it as a mulch on their fields. That improves soil quality, but it also means less evaporation, which means farmers will need 30% less water. Also, in Australia researchers found out that such mulching also reduces the temperature of the plants by one degree--which could greatly reduce the impact of climate change on crop production.

Shivaji’s task force will present these and other strategies to agricultural ministers from around the world in Rome this June. “We’re going to boil thing down to 100 to 120 pages, something that national leaders can digest in a couple of hours while they’re flying from one spot to another.”

            On one hand, there’s reason for optimism, says Shivaji,  “The lessons we have learned in the past 40 to 50 years have taught us now we can produce more on the same amount of land, and can do it in a way that does not destroy the ecosystem.”

            Problem is, implementation is not in the hands of FAO experts. They have to convince policy makers to make the reforms, many of which have been proposed for decades.   

            Perhaps this current dramatic wave of unrest will convince at least some leaders they no longer have a choice.

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