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Posts Tagged ‘Africa

The man who (almost) sold his mother for fertiliser

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Five recent news features from the IPS (Inter Press Service) network describe problems of agriculture and livelihood in Africa and South America. The report from Malawi is shocking – of how a young man attempted to sell his mother so as to buy fertiliser!

Thou Market, southern Sudan. Across the Sahel, women generate income from balanites seeds, which are about half oil and a third protein. After processing at home, they can be turned into many tasty items, including roasted snacks and a spread not unlike peanut butter. They also supply a vegetable oil that is a prized ingredient in foods as well as in local cosmetics. (From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Caroline Gullick)

Thou Market, southern Sudan. Across the Sahel, women generate income from balanites seeds, which are about half oil and a third protein. After processing at home, they can be turned into many tasty items, including roasted snacks and a spread not unlike peanut butter. They also supply a vegetable oil that is a prized ingredient in foods as well as in local cosmetics. (From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Caroline Gullick)

Climate Change Means New Crop Health ConcernsIn Brazil, the Climapest project has brought together 134 researchers from 37 institutions to evaluate the potential effects of climate change on crop health, and to guide policies and provide options so that this South American and global agricultural leader can adapt. The changes in climate “will not necessarily aggravate the crop diseases” in all cases, because warmer temperatures or increased carbon gases could impede the proliferation of certain microorganisms, but it is important to be ready for future scenarios because “generating solutions takes time,” explained Raquel Ghini, project leader.

Funguses, viruses and other agents that are harmful to agriculture are among the organisms that react fastest to changes in the climate, because of their short life cycles and their ability to reproduce quickly. Climapest began in January 2009 and has a four-year mandate to study 85 problems of plant health affecting 16 crops, including major exports like coffee, soybeans and fruit (banana, apple and grape), as well as African palm and castor oils, both of which are gaining ground as raw material for biodiesel.

Small Scale Farmers Face Uphill Battle – “Small farmers need substantial infrastructure to be competitive. If not, we can’t deliver according to our clients’ needs,” said Alan Simons, an emerging small-scale farmer in South Africa. “Big farmers kill you, they flood the market,” he added.

“Bigger farmers have an advantage over smaller farmers because smaller farmers face bigger obstacles to getting into the market,” said Chair of the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Stellenbosch, Professor Nick Vink. “Geographically they are mostly further away from the market, infrastructure is often geared to working with large quantities of produce, the transaction costs of working with small amounts of product are higher, and last but not least they get no support from the state.”

Zinder, Niger Republic. Aizen occupies some of the hottest, driest locations ever faced by plant life in the modern era. Yet it not only survives, it yields enough useful products to sustain human life almost by itself. In at least a dozen countries, people virtually live off aizen fruits, seeds, roots, and leaves. The bushes typically give a lot of fruits, which mostly ripen at once. The fruits shown here are unripe, and would normally be collected only after they turn yellow. But because of the food shortage, people are often unable to wait that long. ((From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Eden Foundation)

Zinder, Niger Republic. Aizen occupies some of the hottest, driest locations ever faced by plant life in the modern era. Yet it not only survives, it yields enough useful products to sustain human life almost by itself. In at least a dozen countries, people virtually live off aizen fruits, seeds, roots, and leaves. The bushes typically give a lot of fruits, which mostly ripen at once. (From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Eden Foundation)

So how do small farmers cope? “Marketing holds the key to making profits”, said Jeptha. “You need to have contracts and a proper market. Your produce should be sold before you plant them. You must know where you are going to deliver it before you plant that seed,” he said. Farming short cycle crops is also key. Simons farms green beans, baby marrows and gem squash – crops that can be harvested within eight weeks. Small farmers don’t venture into fruit farming. It can take up to three years for fruit trees to bear fruit, a major risk for the emerging small farmer who has little start up cash.

Desperation Over Subsidies – Many needy farmers are being left out of a government fertiliser and seed subsidy programme in Malawi, and are employing desperate measures in order to access these commodities. A 21-year-old man, Jolam Ganizani, from Malawi’s central district of Ntchisi, is in police custody after he attempted to sell his own mother to use the money to buy fertiliser and seed.

Police prosecutor Sub Inspector Peter Njiragoma told local journalists last month that Ganizani had confessed to the police that he was so poverty- stricken that he felt that selling his mother would be the solution to his problems. “He had wanted to use the money obtained from selling his mother to buy farm inputs which would assist him to grow a lot of crops and harvest more,” explained Njiragoma.

Few trees on earth engender respect like baobab. Millions believe it receives divine power through the branches that look like arms stretching toward heaven. The baobab is entrenched in the folklore of much of Africa. This is partly because of its singular appearance but also because of the cures and the foods it provides. ((From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Jerry Wright)

Few trees on earth engender respect like baobab. Millions believe it receives divine power through the branches that look like arms stretching toward heaven. The baobab is entrenched in the folklore of much of Africa. This is partly because of its singular appearance but also because of the cures and the foods it provides. (From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Jerry Wright)

According to the police, Ganizani was working with a herbalist in Mozambique who advised him that his mother could be used as a slave by businesspeople. Malawi is highly susceptible to human trafficking because of high levels of poverty, low literacy levels and HIV/AIDS, according to a local NGO, the Malawi Network Against Child Trafficking, MNACT.

New Vegetables in Kenya’s Food Markets – Kale is also popularly known as “sakuma wiki”, a name that loosely translated means that it can sustain people throughout the week due to its extreme affordability, particularly for those who earn a dollar and below a day. It is thus the single most popular and available vegetable. “In spite of its popularity, varieties of kale available to farmers are generally of poor quality, yield easily to diseases and their production is also low,” explains Catherine Kuria.

Vegetables are grown by an estimated 90 percent of Kenyan households, with Kale accounting for the highest production. In a bid to improve food security and consequently alleviate hunger, new varieties of kale have been developed that are more productive and can cope better with the unpredictable climatic changes across the country. These new varieties are expeted to aid a government programme called ‘Njaa Marufuku Kenya’ which basically means eliminating hunger in Kenya. This programme supports agricultural development initiatives targeting the poor in rural areas, where an estimated 60% live below a dollar a day.

Dantokpa market, Cotonou, Benin. “Mustard” made from seeds of the savanna tree commonly called locust in English is essential for making nutritious soup. Across West Africa locust bean is a major item of commerce, as is its major processed form, dawadawa, a nutrient-dense, cheese-like food. These together constitute an important economic activity for women. Production of the pungent paste is a traditional family craft and although most is produced for home use, some ends up being sold in local markets. ((From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables', The National Academies Press. Photo: L.J.G. van der Maesen)

Dantokpa market, Cotonou, Benin. “Mustard” made from seeds of the savanna tree commonly called locust in English is essential for making nutritious soup. Across West Africa locust bean is a major item of commerce, as is its major processed form, dawadawa, a nutrient-dense, cheese-like food. These together constitute an important economic activity for women. Production of the pungent paste is a traditional family craft and although most is produced for home use, some ends up being sold in local markets. ((From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables', The National Academies Press. Photo: L.J.G. van der Maesen)

Rain May Disappear from South American Breadbasket – South America still has vast extensions of land available for growing crops to help meet the global demand for food and biofuels. But the areas of greatest potential agricultural production – central-southern Brazil, northern Argentina, and Paraguay – could be left without the necessary rains. Every deforested hectare in the Amazon – a jungle biome extending across the northern half of South America – weakens the system that has been protecting the region. “We don’t know where the point of no return is,” when forest degradation will become irreversible, and lands that benefited from the rains generated in the Amazon turn to desert, said the scientist Antonio Nobre, of the Brazil’s national space research institute, INPE.

The Amazon forest and the barrier created by the Andes Mountains, which run north-to-south through South America, channel the humid winds, now known as “flying rivers.” Those winds ensure rainfall for a region that is the continental leader in meat, grain and fruit exports, and a world leader in sugar, soybeans and orange juice. The flying-river phenomenon, as established by climate researchers, led Nobre and other scientists around the globe to a new theory, the “biotic pump,” which explains climate phenomena, equilibrium and disequilibrium in the Earth’s natural systems and in which forest biomes play an essential role. A large tree in the Amazon can evaporate up to 300 litres of water in a day. One measure suggests that the Amazon generates 20 billion tonnes of water vapour daily. The Amazon River, in comparison, churns out 17 billion tonnes of water into the ocean.

Why drought and hunger in Africa spells opportunity for global agri-tech

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Agriculture in Africa. Photo: FAOClimate change is leading to more intense drought conditions in Africa. Small and marginal farmers, pastoralists and nomadic communities are the most vulnerable and the hardest hit. Already. aid agencies have warned that 10 million people are already facing severe food shortages, particularly in the landlocked countries of Chad and Niger, after a drought led to the failure of last year’s crops. As many as 400,000 children are at risk of dying from starvation in Niger alone, according to Save the Children.

The Independent of Britain has reported that unusually heavy rains have washed away this year’s crops and killed cattle in a region dependent on subsistence agriculture. Organisations including Oxfam and Save the Children say that the slow international response to the emergency means that only 40 per cent of those affected are receiving food aid. As many as four out of five children require treatment for malnutrition in clinics.

Against this grim new news, the global agri-technology networks are readying plans to use possible food shortages to push new structures of seed, funding and conditions onto countries looking for quick fix solutions. One such programme ia the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) which has announced that it received a major boost as several countries have begun drawing on funds from a US$22 billion pledge made by the G8.

Agriculture in Africa. Photo: FAOUnder CAADP, African governments are committed to increase their national budget expenditure on agriculture to at least 10 percent. The Programme, agreed by heads of state at the 2003 summit of the African Union, expects a six percent growth rate in agriculture every year. What part of this growth will meet the needs of the drought-hit people in Chad and Niger is not discussed.

Close behind is the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT, one of the CGIAR centres) which has used the alarming food situation news as a prop on which to announce a study which it says “finds widespread adoption of recently developed drought-tolerant varieties of maize could boost harvests in 13 African countries by 10 to 34 percent and generate up to US$1.5 billion in benefits for producers and consumers“. Who will these producers and consumers be?

The study was conducted as part of the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa Initiative (DTMA) implemented by CIMMYT and IITA with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. CIMMYT and IITA have said they “worked with national agriculture research centers in Africa to develop over 50 new maize varieties that in drought conditions can produce yields that are 20 to 50 percent higher than existing varieties”. There is no mention of Africa’s immense wealth of traditional cereals or the communities that have guarded and used old growing knowledge in difficult times.

Agriculture in Africa. Photo: FAOFinally, from August 30 to September 4, Namibia hosted the annual Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) Regional Food Security Policy Dialogue, where over 200 policymakers, farmers, agricultural product dealers, scientists and non-governmental organisations from across Africa and the world gathered “to address African priorities on climate change and its impacts on food security, agricultural development and natural resource management”.

The tone and tenor is astonishingly upbeat, especially considering the dreadful food situation and climate change news that’s now coming out daily from central, eastern and north Africa: “Increasing the collaboration between public and private sector organisations can also help build infrastructure, secure better access to natural resources, improve the distribution of agricultural inputs and services, and share best practices. The Farming First coalition is a successful example of farmers, scientists, engineers, industry and agricultural development organisations coming together to push for improved agricultural policies which benefit farmers while safeguarding natural resources over the long term.”

FANRPAN has cited two reports by consulting firm McKinsey and Company which have (1) estimated that Africa produced only 10 percent of the world’s crops despite representing a quarter of land under cultivation and (2) noted that 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land lies in Africa with the potential for African yields to grow in value more than three-fold by the year 2030, from US$280 billion today to US$880 billion.

Agriculture in Africa. Photo: FAOThose extraordinarily large sums may explain why FANRPAN is currently working in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation “to improve food security throughout sub-Saharan Africa by promoting the understanding of climate change science and its integration into policy development and research agendas”. FANRPAN said it is also working with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) – a study cell based in Washington, USA, whose research objectives have tended towards international agricultural trade in recent years. A recent collaboration is called ‘Strategies for Adapting to Climate Change in Rural sub-Saharan Africa: Targeting the Most Vulnerable’ which says it recognises the interrelated impact of climate change on household poverty, hunger and food security.

No doubt, but these high-minded statements of objectives come bundled with some decidedly commercial conditions. As IPS news reports, there are conditions attached to how countries will be accessing CAADP funds. Countries will need to have gone through the CAADP process, which includes designing a “national investment plan” which contains detailed and fully-costed programmes and signing a “CAADP compact”. This is nothing but an agreement between the government, regional representatives and “development partners” for “a focused implementation of the programme”. Moreover, the investment plans will have to undergo “an independent technical review” and the plan should also “have been tabled before a high-level CAADP business meeting” before funds are allocated. Which simply means that there are only so many ways the money can move.

Agriculture in Africa. Photo: FAOFor all these noble programmes, the countries in their sights are: Angola, Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The aid agencies on the ground are warning again what they have said last year, the year before, five years ago, a decade ago. “After six months without proper nutrition, these children have little resistance to disease,” said Severine Courtiol, Save the Children’s Niger manager. “There is little children can do to avoid coming into contact with this contaminated, disease-ridden floodwater. That’s why it’s critical we make sure they get enough food so they are strong enough to fight off and recover from sickness.”

Robert Bailey, Oxfam’s west Africa campaigns manager, said that some food was available in marketplaces in Niger, but was too expensive for ordinary households to afford. As a result, many were reduced to eating leaves and berries. Chad and parts of Mali were also affected, he added. “The international donor response has been too little too late. We estimate that 7.9 million people are affected by food shortages in Niger, with only 40 per cent receiving international aid. The other 60 per cent are dependent on the government and NGOs [non-governmental organisations]. But the government has no food.”

Poverty, low carbon, Transition and history

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UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

Energy Bulletin, which is a project of the Post Carbon Institute, has just published my article on the Transition movement and poverty (in the South, Asian and African). I have raised some questions and perspectives about this aspect of the Transition movement which has intrigued me for some time.

It also has to do with knowing the perspective from Europe – which sadly has too often been coloured by a “we know best how to help you” approach. That’s led to all sorts of inter-cultural problems and the last thing I want to see is for Transition ideas to be looked at with suspicion in the South because of historic blunders on aid and ‘dev-econ’.

The full article is available on Energy Bulletin. Here is the intro:

Serious traders see the trends before anyone else. They do so because their business depends on seeing the minute deviation that signals the beginning of a trend. Early in June 2010 commodities traders charted the new signals they were getting from the world’s agricultural exporters and major consumers. What they saw then became the picture that in late July began to alarm governments and international development agencies. World foodgrain supplies were entering a new phase of tightening, as the impacts of drought and extreme weather in grain producing countries around the world became clear.

For the trading community – whose strong and deep links with the world’s financial markets and banks have become more visible since 2008 – the opportunity is large, perhaps even bigger than the one that slowly unfolded in 2007, when the last global food price crisis swept through cities and villages alike. For inter-governmental agencies such as the United Nations system, the news is a body blow to the idea and effort that has sustained work on social justice and equality.

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

The effects of the 2007-08 food price crisis were still being unravelled when the 2009 financial crisis took hold. That prompted many UN agencies, major aid organisations and hundreds of large NGOs to quickly study the impact of both on their work, and on those whom they work for, which is the poor and marginalised on all continents. Much less visible and quite unrecognised is the impact of the same two crises on the small but philosophically very sound transition movement. Guided by tenets that became clear in the 1960s and 1970s, this constellation of movements (low carbon, sustainable communities, local resilience being some variations readily recognisable in the ‘west’) has adapted practices central to all ur-rural settlements, and continues to internalise the collected wisdom and practice of the world’s indigenous peoples. In so doing, the transition movement in the ‘west’ (and therefore North) has for the most part been unable to conceptualise a response to the human development and social justice needs of the South.

Much of this lack, as I see it, has to do with the very formidable inertness which western societies inherited from the transformations wrought by the Industrial Revolution, and the apparently incontrovertible ideas of ‘progress’ and ‘growth’, which by the time the Bretton Woods institutions came into being were well suited to form the core of a ‘development economics’ that has wrought havoc on both North and South, although in different periods of the 20th century. Transition ideas and praxis have had to therefore first wage an intellectual battle against ‘development economics’ and then launch a physical struggle against the socio-ecological degradation that followed such economics on the ground.

What we do know is that rural realities and living conditions are usually very different from the sketches contained in funding documents. Poverty is the main source of hunger now, not a lack of food. Efficiency has become a central theme, which means getting higher yields on small plots with fewer inputs of water and chemical/synthetic fertiliser. It hasn’t helped that government investment in basic research and development on agriculture, in the countries of the South, is very little. Here are a few points that help explain why the MDGs assessment is crippled by its reluctance to face facts:

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UN Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UN Photo

1. In 2009, more than 1 billion people went undernourished – their food intake regularly providing less than minimum energy requirements – not because there isn’t enough food, but because people are too poor to buy it. The US$1.25 a day line (which can be replaced by any currency unit at any ruling amount) does not describe a poverty threshold. At best it provides a measure of one marker out of many for poverty, and even that marker needs to be localised for it to have community meaning. Although the highest rates of hunger are in sub-Saharan Africa – correlated with poverty – most of the world’s undernourished people are in Asia and particularly South Asia.

2. The percentage of chronically hungry people in the developing world had been dropping for years even though the number of hungry worldwide has barely dipped. But the food price crisis in 2008 reversed these years of slow gains, and now the gathering 2010-11 food crisis (a shortage of availability coupled with price rise) will further reverse the gains.

There is another linkage, that of population. Scientists long feared a great population boom that would stress food production, but population growth is slowing and could plateau by 2050 as family size in almost all poorer countries falls to roughly 2.2 children per family. Even as population has risen, the overall production of food has meant that the fairly weighted global average of available calories per person has increased, not decreased. Producing enough food in the future is possible, but doing so without drastically sapping other resources, particularly water and energy, is not (which is exactly where transition concepts and praxis come in).

3. An outlook published in 2009 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says that current cropland could be more than doubled by adding 1.6 billion hectares – mostly from South America and Africa – without impinging on land needed for forests, protected areas or urbanisation. But Britain’s Royal Society has advised against substantially increasing cultivated land, arguing that this would damage ecosystems and biodiversity. Instead, it backs “sustainable intensification,” which has become the priority of many agricultural research agencies.

How June 2010 blazed new climate records, and the story of Rongbuk glacier

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NOAA, National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate, Global Analysis, June 2010It’s been another searing half year from January 2010 to June. Global temperature records have been surpassed all over the place. Both land and sea temperatures have climbed upwards to match previous highs, and in some places to top them. Here are the global highlights for June 2010 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA), National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate, Global Analysis, June 2010:

* The combined global land and ocean average surface temperature for June 2010 was the warmest on record at 16.2°C (61.1°F), which is 0.68°C (1.22°F) above the 20th century average of 15.5°C (59.9°F). The previous record for June was set in 2005.
* June 2010 was the fourth consecutive warmest month on record (March, April, and May 2010 were also the warmest on record). This was the 304th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average. The last month with below-average temperature was February 1985.
NOAA, National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate, Global Analysis, June 2010* The June worldwide averaged land surface temperature was 1.07°C (1.93°F) above the 20th century average of 13.3°C (55.9°F)—the warmest on record.
* It was the warmest April–June (three-month period) on record for the global land and ocean temperature and the land-only temperature. The three-month period was the second warmest for the world’s oceans, behind 1998.
* It was the warmest June and April–June on record for the Northern Hemisphere as a whole and all land areas of the Northern Hemisphere.
* It was the warmest January–June on record for the global land and ocean temperature. The worldwide land on average had its second warmest January–June, behind 2007. The worldwide averaged ocean temperature was the second warmest January–June, behind 1998.
* Sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean continued to decrease during June 2010. According to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, La Niña conditions are likely to develop during the Northern Hemisphere summer 2010.

NOAA, National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate, Global Analysis, June 2010The ‘State of the Climate, Global Analysis’ for June 2010 said that warmer-than-average conditions dominated the globe during the month, with the most prominent warmth in Mexico, northern Africa, and most of Europe, Asia, South America, and the USA. The world land surface temperature June 2010 anomaly of 1.07°C (1.93°F) was the warmest on record, surpassing the previous June record set in 2005 by 0.12°C (0.22°F).

The warm conditions that affected large portions of each inhabited continent also contributed to the warmest June worldwide land and ocean surface temperature since records began in 1880. The previous June record was set in 2005. Separately, the worldwide ocean surface temperatures during June 2010 were 0.54°C (0.97°F) above the 20th century average—the fourth warmest June on record. Warmer-than-average conditions were present across most of the Atlantic, Indian, and the western Pacific oceans.

NOAA, National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate, Global Analysis, June 2010“June 2010 was the fourth consecutive month with reported warmest averaged global land and ocean temperature on record (March, April, and May 2010 were also the warmest on record),” said the Global Analysis for the month. “When averaging the last three months, the combined global land and ocean surface temperature during April–June 2010 (three-month period) ranked as the warmest April–June on record, with an anomaly of 0.70°C (1.26°F) above the 20th century average. The previous April–June record was set in 1998, which had an anomaly of 0.66°C (1.19°F) above the 20th century average.”

The areas with the wettest anomalies during June 2010 included southern India, southern China, southern Europe, the midwestern USA, and parts of northwestern South America. The driest anomalies were present across northern India and across parts eastern Asia, northeastern South America, and Australia. There was climate havoc in China. According to the Beijing Climate Center (BCC), the provinces of Guizhou, Fujian, and Qinghai had above-average precipitation during June 2010, ranking as the second wettest June since national records began in 1951.

The BCC also reported that ten provinces in southern China were affected by storms that brought heavy rainfall across the area—resulting in record breaking daily rainfall in some places of Jiangxi and Fujian. The copious rainfall prompted floods that killed nearly 200 people. Meanwhile, the province of Jiangsu had its driest June on record, while Shanxi had its second driest on record. Overall, the monthly averaged precipitation in China during June 2010, 95.0 mm (3.7 inches), was near the 1971–2000 average.

Asia Society-The 1921 photograph taken by George Mallory of the Rongbuk Glacier and the northern slope of Mount Everest in the distance, Tibet Autonomous Region

Asia Society-The 1921 photograph taken by George Mallory of the Rongbuk Glacier and the northern slope of Mount Everest in the distance, Tibet Autonomous Region

The impact of a succession of record warm Junes is described in photographic detail by an eye-opening exhibit of the Asia Society. (The Telegraph of Britain had an early report on the startling photos.) The two pictures show an alarming retreat in ice over more than 80 years.

The first was taken in 1921 by British mountaineer George Mallory. The Asia Society commissioned the same picture to be taken of the main Rongbuk glacier on the northern slope of Mount Everest in Tibet in 2007.

The new picture by mountaineer David Breashears show that the glacier is shrunk and withered. Breashears retraced the steps of the 1921 British Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition Team, using photos taken then by surveyor and photographer Maj Edward Wheeler and amateur photographer George Mallory, who later died attempting to reach the Everest summit in 1924.

Asia Society-The 2007 photograph taken by David Breashears of the Rongbuk Glacier taken from the same place as Mallory's 1921 photograph

Asia Society-The 2007 photograph taken by David Breashears of the Rongbuk Glacier taken from the same place as Mallory's 1921 photograph

The Himalayan glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, as is starkly documented in photographic comparisons between archival images and recent photographs taken by mountaineer David Breashears in the new Asia Society Museum exhibition Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers in the Greater Himalaya. “That melting also has a profound impact on the local communities the Himalayan glaciers serve, and has emerged as a primary bellwether of global climate change,” said the Asia Society.

The surface area of glaciers in these high altitude valleys is often covered by layers of debris or snow. To determine the full measure of loss in the ice mass in these photos, look not only at how far the glaciers have receded, but at the surrounding valley walls. In many cases, the loss in depth is upwards of 300 vertical feet.

MDGs, hunger and the global food system

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Rawal Dam Running Dry

Rawal Dam Running Dry: A canoe near the former bank edge of Rawal Dam reservoir was left high and dry when waters receded to dangerously low levels due to the prolonged drought afflicting much of Pakistan. Officials of Pakistan’s Small Dams Organization (SDO) told the nation’s English-language Dawn newspaper that dam water was just 20 feet (6 meters) above the dead level and that the current supply might last only until mid-July. The reservoir has reached such low levels only once before, during the drought year of 2003. Photograph by Aamir Qureshi, AFP/Getty Images

A new report from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI, a US-based think-tank), discusses meeting the UN Millennium Development Goal to halve hunger. The report is called Business As Unusual.

The report says that the global food governance system itself needs to be reformed to work better. Reforms should include (1) improving existing institutions and creating an umbrella structure for food and agriculture; (2) forming government-to-government systems for decision-making on agriculture, food, and nutrition; and (3) explicitly engaging the new players in the global food system-the private sector and civil society-together with national governments in new or reorganised international organizations and agreements. A combination of all three options, with a leading role for emerging economies, is required.

The first step in reducing poverty and hunger in developing countries is to invest in agriculture and rural development. Most of the world’s poor and hungry people live in rural areas in Africa and Asia and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, but many developing countries continue to underinvest in agriculture. Research in Africa and Asia has shown that investments in agricultural research and extension have large impacts on agricultural productivity and poverty, and investments in rural infrastructure can bring even greater benefits.

After the 2006-08 crisis, when staples such as maize, rice and wheat climbed to their highest prices in 30 years, many donor countries, aid agencies and analysts suggested that the existing Committee on World Food Security (CFS) be reformed. The CFS is a technical committee of the FAO, and serves as a forum in the UN system for the review and follow-up of policies on world food security, food production, nutrition, and physical and economic access to food.

Islamabad Water Carrier

Islamabad Water Carrier: Water shortages have become common for many people in the capital who must gather their daily water from government tankers or private trucks, when it's available at all. The nation’s acute rainfall shortage has also cut water supplies at hydroelectric dams, exacerbating disruptive power shortages and forcing officials to implement some rather dramatic solutions. Photograph by Aamir Qureshi, AFP/Getty Images

Jacques Diouf, director-general of FAO, announced last week that the CFS was being reformed to make it a “global platform for policy convergence and the coordination of expertise and action in the fight against hunger and malnutrition in the world”.

Uncoordinated policy actions of governments across the world during the 2006-08 food crisis made prices even more volatile and affected access to markets, said a new joint Agricultural Outlook for the next 10 years, produced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and FAO. Food prices have come down, but are still high, according to FAO.

“While food prices have dropped, incomes because of the recession have been reduced by a much higher rate,” said Holger Matthey, an economist at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Some aspects of this “business as unusual” approach have already been successful in a few countries, but they need to be scaled up and extended to new countries to have a real impact on the reduction of global hunger.

Scaled-up investments in social protection that focus on nutrition and health are also crucial for improving the lives of the poorest of the poor. Although policymakers increasingly see the importance of social protection spending, there are still few productive safety net programs that are well targeted to the poorest and hungry households and increase production capacity.

The OECD-FAO Outlook has acknowledged that the 2006-08 food price crisis “was due to the contemporaneous occurrence of a panoply of contributing factors, which are not likely to be repeated in the near term. However, if history is any guide, further episodes of strong price fluctuations in agricultural product prices cannot be ruled out, nor can future short-lived crises”.

Urban food pistoleros

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A boy plays with mud pistols in Mathare slum of Nairobi, Kenya ©Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

A boy plays with mud pistols in Mathare slum of Nairobi, Kenya ©Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

Alexander Müller, Assistant Director General, Natural Resources Management and Environment Department (FAO) and Paul Munro-Faure, Chairperson, Food for the Cities Multidisciplinary Initiative (FAO) have put out a call for “ideas, contributions and inputs that could be used for a conclusive statement related to food, agriculture and cities to be finalised during the World Urban Forum V“. This will take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 22 to 26 March and the theme is: ‘The Right to the City, Bridging the Urban Divide’. As the call went out on the Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum), I sent in my response, as below:

Dear Alexander, Paul,

My contribution to your call on FSN for a statement on food, agriculture and cities follows. I work in India, with a Ministry of Agriculture programme called National Agricultural Innovation Project. One of its sub-projects is a knowledge-sharing effort that links crop science and farm practice through ICT. Within that framework I study rural livelihoods and the urban demand on a rural space that faces greater constraints with every passing year.

We are told frequently by central governments that growth is good (i.e. rising GDP) and that increasing per capita income is a national mission. This assertion has much to do with the boom-and-bust cycles we have witnessed in the last decade: in any number of stock markets, in the banking and finance system, in savings and pensions systems, in commodities, in credit and derivatives, and of course in basic food grains. That these cycles have occurred more frequently has as much to do with growing urbanisation in the South, and the mechanics of globalised capital and market risk.

The result is that cities in the South are, to put it crudely, laboratories for risk-taking experiments. The Gini coefficients of cities in Asia show why this is so. (Generally, cities and countries with a Gini coefficient of between 0.2 and 0.39 have relatively equitable distribution of resources. A Gini coefficient of 0.4 denotes moderately unequal distributions of income or consumption. This is the threshold at which cities and countries should tackle inequality urgently.)

Here are the composite urban Gini coefficients (from ‘State of the World’s Cities 2008/2009: Harmonious Cities’; United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), 2008). Over a given period (separate for each country), the urban Gini rose most for Nepal (0.26 to 0.43 from 1985 to 1996), China (0.23 to 0.32 from 1988 to 2002), Viet Nam (0.35 to 0.41 from 1993 to 2002), Bangladesh (0.31 to 0.37 from 1991 to 2000), Sri Lanka (0.37 to 0.42 from 1990 to 2002) and Pakistan (0.32 to 0.34 from 2000 to 2004) and it dropped marginally for India (0.35 to 0.34 from 1994 to 2000) and Cambodia (0.47 to 0.41 from 1994 to 2004). Note that the UN-Habitat calculations are only until 2004 for the latest city, and that the impacts of the triple crisis of climate change, financial volatility and food system distortions became widespread only thereafter. It’s very likely then that in cities in Asia, Africa and South America, the Gini coefficient has risen faster in the last five years than in the decade until 2004.

Gini coefficients for populations in Asian cities

Gini coefficients for populations in Asian cities

There’s another aspect that the urban Gini indicates, which several country studies have dealt with in the last few years, and that is the rural-urban divide, in terms of income inequality, consumption inequality, inequality in access to basic services and inequality of representation. Yet those at the deprived end of this quotient are also those who grow the food, absorb the agricultural risks, manage the natural resources and steward the crop biodiversity for a country. If we subscribe to the view of a dominant policy theocracy that ‘economic efficiency’ is good, then for such gross inequalities to be allowed to continue is not good, yet they do. For one thing, education and healthcare outcomes are directly impacted by such inequalities, let alone industrially-oriented ratios such as cost of redistribution, investment allocation and ‘growth’. Yet these continue, and are seen in every single country of the South quite conspicuously in the higher bands of food inflation in rural areas as compared with urban areas.

If inequality seems inescapable at outcome level however, the rural and urban ‘poor’ are certainly not sitting around waiting to be pushed even further into penury. They are using their stores of traditional knowledge (which have travelled with them just as they have migrated to the world’s peri-urbs) to innovate, adapt and survive. If we look at waste recycling in developing countries, most of it (as tonnage and as material value) relies largely on the informal recovery of waste of every description by scavengers or waste pickers. A raft of studies done on this sector in the Asia-Pacific region provide estimates of at least 2% and as much as 4% of the urban population is occupied in waste recovery (its reprocessing and re-use occupies another set of the population).

Is there a similar ‘waste picker’ model of urban agriculture that is being followed, almost invisibly, in Asian cities and towns? Likely yes. It flies under the radar of statistics because it is, per household unit, so small and well integrated with astonishingly tough living conditions. It is seen on tiny patches of marginal lands that are unsettled, usually only because of a city municipality’s hostility to rural migrants. These tiny linear patches run alongside railway tracks, drainage canals, water pipelines, expressways, marshes and swamps, residual watercourses, and between industrial zones. These vestigial connections to the immeasurably healthier lives led in their rural origins by migrants are the only in situ ‘urban farms’ in most Asian cities and towns. Existing municipal planning and zoning in Asia of the South either ignores them or subtracts them from its calculations.

A street in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh ©Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

A street in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh ©Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

Yet such spaces will be vital for our urban settlements. They are currently farmed in squalid conditions, often cheek-by-jowl with small-scale industries and their toxic effluents, and have no option but to use dangerously polluted water sources. Were they to be encouraged, planned for, incentivised and built into ward or neighbourhood food markets, they would lessen the massive burden the city places upon rural food cultivators. In ‘developing’ Asian cities that today are exemplars of more-GDP-is-good economics, there is often an utter disconnection between purchase of food and a recognition of its sources. The size, power and reach of the food processing industry plays a dominant role in enforcing this disconnection, for what it calls its economies of scale would not exist without it.

Where lie the answers? Linking rural food production – not with urban consumers but with urban wards and neighbourhoods – can help bridge the Gini gaps between urban and rural, between urban salaried and urban marginal. Just as in the ‘transition towns’ movement, in which agriculture is being increasingly promoted in urban areas, so too rural non-agricultural livelihoods development is starting to be promoted. Work-in-progress examples include the strategy adopted for the promotion of Town and Village Enterprises (TVEs) in China. These expanded rapidly in China in the post-reform period and as a result of their promotion between 1978 and 2000, the number of workers in China’s rural non-farm and farm labour sector grew, which stemmed the tide toward the hungry cities.