The @WorldResources Institute On How To “Create A Sustainable Food Future”

It happens that once you specialize in a topic, you get a little jaded about ‘broad overview’ talks. Whenever I go to one of those now, I notice myself mentally playing the ‘food security bingo’ game – what doesn’t the presenter mention? What is emphasized? The point scale in my head looks somewhat like this:

  • Mentions food waste as a problem: + 3
  • Speaks about diet choice: + 3
  • Mentions food sovereignty: + 2
  • Has a differentiated opinion about GMOs: + 1
  • Opens with “how in the world will we feed 10 billion people?”: – 1
  • Speaks about the green revolution as something to emulate: – 1
  • Doesn’t question the current feed vs. food vs. fuel distribution: – 2
  • Speaks about “incredible unused land resources in Africa and Latin America” (which are mainly pastoral or rainforest land): – 3
  • Speaks about multinationals as saviors or alternatively as THE ENEMY: – 3

Like a blackjack player that is counting cards, I try to keep track of whether the tally in my head is positive or negative, and more often than not it finishes around 0 – which is always a slight disappointment. Not so with the World Resources Institute: they thoroughly impressed me with the broadness of their approach, the balanced variety of solutions – focusing on both demand- and supply-side issues – and the honesty with which they presented their research.

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The talk that was presented at DG AGRI was based on the WRI’s upcoming World Resources Report which they dedicate to the challenge of “feeding more than 9 billion people by 2050” and “filling the food gap” (- 1). The speaker thus opened the talk by presenting the fact that we need to produce 70% more food by 2050 – making my eyebrows rise in anticipation of yet another talk focusing on production, production, and yield increases. But I was positively surprised: look at the list of recommendations they give, and look at the top of the list (list as presented in their press release):

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Drought in Central America – Sequía en Centroamérica

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Sometimes, it´s easy to get caught up in the news of the day – Ukraine, Gaza, ISIS – that other news items go unnoticed. So, for example, that Central American agricultural producers are being hit extremely hard this year after a disease called coffee leaf rust destroyed many export crops. Now, on top of that, a drought has set in that might leave as many as 2.81 million in the need of food assistance, according to UN estimates.

Dry soils (here in Argentina in 2007-08) = no food :(
Dry soils (here in Argentina in 2007-08) = no food 😦

Though the drought is affecting much of Latin America as well, it is countries in the ‘dry corridor’ of Central America – southern Guatemala, northern Honduras, and western El Salvador – that are suffering most. Guatemala has called out a national state of emergency after 256,000 families lost their crops. Particularly corn and beans, staple foods in the region, have seen stark reductions of up to 80 – 90%. Furthermore, thousands of cattle have died of undernutrition. The region is extremely reliant on agricultural self-sufficiency, with over 60% of the 42 million inhabitants living below the poverty line.

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Review: Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’

Man, sometimes you just have to catch yourself in moments of pure luck. Like today, after a morning spent in glorious summer weather hammering out the last formatting issues of my thesis, when I was able to attend a lunch seminar (who said there was no free lunch in economics?) with the inspiring Kate Raworth and have a 2-hour chat afterward with her as well as some senior researchers in ecology, animal genetics, food systems and the like from SLU. What did we talk about? Basically, how to change the world. And economics education. But most of all, Raworth’s suggestion for a new framing of the global challenges and goals as we move from the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals as of next year: the so-called “doughnut” of the safe and just operating space for humanity.

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As Raworth explained, she was inspired by and built on the concept of Planetary Boundaries developed by Rockström et al., which we already talked about in a previous blogpost (more than a year ago! How time flies!). Basically, this is a theory by earth scientists on how human action affects different realms of our ecosystem – the outer 9 wedges of the circle – which all have ‘tipping points’ over which we should not venture because they could lead to unforeseeable damage to our entire habitable planet.

Well, great, Raworth thought – but clearly we can’t live in the very inside of the circle either where we don’t have any human impact on the planet? Because that would mean deprivation, human suffering, and a clear disregard for human rights – and from an anthropocentric perspective, we are trying to keep within the boundaries to enable human life to continue in a way worth living for generations to come. So what we need to aim for is to live within the band – or, if you will, the doughnut – that enables us to fulfill the needs of all without overloading the planet with impacts it cannot absorb.

But enough with fluffy concepts – we need to operationalize them too. We already know how the outer limits were defined – by Rockström and his team of scientists -, but how did Raworth come up with the inner minimum standards? She read through all government submissions for the Rio+20 conference on their development foci in the coming decades and found a common denominator in those categories that at least 50% of all governments mentioned. They are the wedges on the inside of the circle – health, resilience, and food for instance.

life-ring-graph-3-backgrd_0When, in turn, you try to quantify these goals – using indicators assembled by the UN, such as the amount of food insecure households for the food category or the wage gap for gender equality – you realize that on a global scale, we are still falling short on all these goals. On the other hand, if you consider that we would only need 3% of the current agricultural production would be needed to end global hunger (around 1/10 of the estimated food wasted between farm and fork!), that only 1% of current greenhouse gas emissions would be spent to achieve global electrification, and that 50% of the world’s carbon emissions are produced by the 11% richest people – then you understand that the two goals of sustainability and development are not necessarily mutually exclusive (which is the purported reason why the climate negotiations keep stalling).

Rather, what is needed according to Raworth is for the least developed countries to keep developing, but to avoid resource lock-ins; for the emerging countries, to pursue the relative de-coupling of GDP growth and resource throughput; and for the richest countries to pursue absolute de-coupling – to reduce our per-capita footprint on an absolute scale.

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What Did Malthus Really Say?

For my new class, I was assigned the reading “The Limits to Growth: Malthus and the Classical Economists” by E. A. Wrigley. It’s a great primer into the worries classical economists had about the state of the economy, growth and population dynamics, and was interesting enough that I decided to look further into the issue. … Continue reading What Did Malthus Really Say?

10 Facts About Food (Shortages) in North Korea

Think of “food” and “North Korea” and chances are you will be reminded of the near-yearly news items speaking of hunger, starvation, and malnutrition in the country. However, times might be changing, at least if you believe Andrei Lankov, professor of Korean Studies at Seoul University. In this Al Jazeera piece, he argues that the “myth of starvation” is over due to the moderate economic growth in the country driven by semi-legal private enterprises starting to bloom. Yet, the situation of the current food system is still dire and stuck between the bizarre and the fascinating in this neo-Stalinist state. Inspired by Lankov’s article, here are 10 facts about food (shortages) in North Korea you might not know:

1. According to Lankov, “this year, North Korea enjoyed an exceptionally good harvest, which for the first time in more than two decades will be sufficient to feed the country’s entire population. Indeed, according to the recent documents of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations), North Korea’s harvest totaled 5.03 million tonnes of grain this year, if converted to the cereal equivalent. To put things in perspective, in the famine years of the late 1990s, the average annual harvest was estimated (by the same FAO) to be below the 3 million tonne level.

2. However, the WFP and FAO estimate that despite the 3-year improvements in food production, there are still shortages particularly for protein-rich foods, and child malnutrition remains widespread, said the Wall Street Journal in November of last year. 84% of the population’s households were estimated to have borderline or poor food consumption.

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Image via Flickr-user yeowatzup, who commented: Situated on the outskirts of Wonsan, the Chonsam Cooperative Farm is possibly the only place in the country where foreign visitors are allowed into a working farm. While it is indeed a working farm, it does feel a little bit contrived. (Flickr CC)

3. One of the main reasons for the ongoing problems is a combination of outdated farming practices and a lack of access to agricultural inputs such as fertilizers due to international trade sanctions. This account of a North Korean farmer-turned-emigrant is fascinating (though sad) in describing farming conditions reminiscent of the early 20th century: “As North Koreans do not have good equipment or much fertilizer, we got used to doing most of the work by hand rather than with the help of machinery. In spring when weeds bagan to sprout it would be time to plough the fields and this could be done by ox or with tractors. But in North Korea, in addition to fuel being too expensive, there aren’t many tractors for the farmers to use, so most of the ploughing is done by oxen. As you can probably guess, the oxen were therefore very valuable animals, and we needed to keep them healthy for the entire year’s farming work. While oxen could help plough the fields, they were useless at dealing with weeds. So when new weeds appeared in the fields again, they had to be removed by hand because the chemicals we had were not sufficient. Between spring and autumn, we did back breaking work,  weeding the field about four times with a hoe. Not wanting to waste even the weeds, we also used a sickle to cut them down to make compost with them. This compost helped make the soil better, so every summer or autumn we made compost after doing the weeding.” It also serves as a good reminder that the mechanization of agriculture has, indeed, had a massively beneficial impact on farmers’ lives, despite the calls to go back towards a more natural way of farming…

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Tackling Food Waste – One Strategy at a Time

It’s nice to see that, once challenges are identified, sometimes we do take steps forward to address them. This is at least the purpose of the European food-waste prevention project FUSIONS (Food Use for Social Innovation by Optimizing Waste-Prevention Strategies) that was launched in 2012 and will run until 2016. Along with UK partner WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme), it tried to identify social innovation strategies that could be scaled up to prevent food waste on a larger societal level, and is implementing them right now in field trials to see whether they work, how they work, and how they could be improved.

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First off, they created an inventory of all social innovation strategies connected to food waste that they could find throughout Europe, and it’s actually surprisingly huge. This might be a great starting point if you wanted to become more active in your community, too – they have examples from a great range of countries!

Initially, 39 projects submitted applications to be supported, but only 7 were chosen to actually be implemented. Let’s have a look and see what they do, shall we?

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The USA Have A Farm Bill! Halle … Well … Yeah.

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The USDA will begin to implement the Bill soon, provided it passes the Senate floor.

On Wednesday, as anticipated, the House of Representatives passed the Farm Bill after a 2 year impasse with 251 to 166 votes. The Democratic leadership of the Senate has already endorsed it, making it likely that it will pass the Senate floor as well in the coming week and be on President Obama’s desk soon. Media and lobby group reactions, as well as politicians’ own levels of satisfaction, were an extremely mixed bag. One frequently cited commentary came from Rep. Tim Walz (a Democrat from Minnesota):

“Of course it’s not perfect. If you want perfect, you’ll get that in heaven. This place is closer to hell, so this is a pretty good compromise that we have come up with.”

Let’s go through the main features, shall we?

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Stiglitz Does It Again – Great Piece on the Insanity of US Food Policy

Have you heard of Joseph Stiglitz? The former World Bank economist that turned into one of the major critics of big international organizations such as the IMF and WB, penning books such as “Globalization and Its Discontents“? He was one of the first people I started reading when I got into international economics, and he … Continue reading Stiglitz Does It Again – Great Piece on the Insanity of US Food Policy