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Posts Tagged ‘Asia

Does a food price index plateau signal rising real food prices?

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The short red line is more worrying than the gyrating blue line.

The short red line is more worrying than the gyrating blue line.

We have from the FAO this month (that means February 2013, released in March), the updated FAO food price index coinciding with its Crop Prospects and Food Situation. This dual release gives us the opportunity to look at the interplay between the FAO food price index and its cereals sub-index, what the ‘Prospects’ quarterly has said about cereals worldwide, and what recent index numbers seem to be telling us.

First the tale of the unfiltered numbers. The FAO Food Price Index averaged 210 points in February 2013, unchanged from January but – FAO points out with what sounds to me like mild relief – “five points (2.5%) below the corresponding month last year”. More interesting is the observation by the food price indexers that “since November the Index has moved within a narrow 210-212 point range, as increases in the prices of dairy products and oils/fats were largely balanced out by declines in the prices of cereals and sugar”.

The usual blue pair

The usual blue pair

If you dwell awhile on the chart I have made for just the cereals sub-index of the FAO food price index (above left), which traces the journey of this sub-index from 2008 January, you will see that from 2008 July it plunged and stayed low (relatively for this period) until 2010 June, and then the ascent to the 230-250 level was steep. And there it has remained. The short red line describes a cumulative average for the 12 months until 2013 February, and the trend for this ‘alarum’ (I am partial to medieval English) is quite clear, forsooth.

Since we have discussed earlier what the FAO food price index in fact describes, which is not what food consumers pay for their daily several hundred grams (if that, sadly) of staples, this does to me look like we can read a plateau as signalling persistent high and rising true cost of food to consumer. Perhaps I should petition the folks inside that citadel on Rome’s Viale delle Terme di Caracalla to rename their index into an indicator.

The leading wheat producers for 2013

The leading wheat producers for 2013

But only if they are not otherwise busy answering telephone calls (or telegrams, as they did in an earlier and far less frenetic age) about the ‘early prospects for 2013 cereal crops’ which is the star of this quarter’s Crop Prospects and Food Situation bulletin. For, here is what they have said:

“FAO’s first forecast for world wheat production in 2013 stands at 690 million tonnes, representing an increase of 4.3 percent from the 2012 harvest and, the second largest crop on record after that of 2011. The increase is expected mostly in Europe, driven by an expansion in area in response to high prices, and a recovery in yields from below-average levels in some parts last year, notably the Russian Federation.”

Cereals production in Asia

Cereals production in Asia

Elsewhere in Europe, we have been told, prospects are satisfactory in the Russian Federation (a big jump, as the chart shows). In neighbouring Ukraine, a large recovery in wheat output is forecast. In North America, the outlook in the USA has been diplomatically called “less favourable than among the other major wheat producing countries” (makes me wonder if the Prospects authors have been fraternising too frequently with UNFCCC staff). Perhaps they haven’t yet noticed the US Drought Monitor, which may explain the “aggregate wheat output is tentatively forecast to decrease” for the USA.

In Asia, the Prospects expects “a record wheat output of some 121 million tonnes in 2013” in the People’s Republic (of China, newly minus Wen Jiabao as premier). It also expects “a record wheat output” in Pakistan and “another bumper crop” in India (what will that do to the already mountainous central stocks of cereals?). Australia and wheat can be summarised (by me, not them) in a word: uncertain.

Written by makanaka

March 7, 2013 at 20:23

Earth 1 : Humans 7,000,000,000

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The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has released its annual State of the World Population report for 2011. Here are a few samplers from the mass of analysis and data:

Our record population size can be viewed in many ways as a success for humanity. But not everyone has benefited from this achievement or the higher quality of life that this implies. Great disparities exist between and within countries. Disparities in rights and opportunities also exist between men and women, girls and boys. Charting a path now to development that promotes equality, rather than exacerbates or reinforces inequalities, is more important than ever.

The Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, in its World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision (published in May 2011), foresees a global population of 9.3 billion people in 2050, and more than 10 billion by the end of this century. Much of this increase is expected to come from high-fertility countries, which comprise 39 in Africa, nine in Asia, six in Oceania and four in Latin America.

Asia will remain the most populous major area in the world in the 21st century, but Africa will gain ground as its population more than triples, increasing from 1 billion in 2011 to 3.6 billion in 2100. In 2011, 60 per cent of the world population lives in Asia and 15 per cent in Africa. But Africa’s population is growing about 2.3 per cent a year, a rate more than double that of Asia (1 per cent). Asia’s population, which is currently 4.2 billion, is expected to peak around the middle of the century (5.2 billion in 2052) and to start a slow decline thereafter.

The populations of all other major areas combined (the Americas, Europe and Oceania) amount to 1.7 billion in 2011 and are projected to rise to nearly 2 billion by 2060 and then decline very slowly, remaining still near 2 billion by the turn of the century. Among the regions, the population of Europe is projected to peak around 2025 at 0.74 billion and decline thereafter.

[See What’s Your Number – Population Action International]
[See Population Reference Bureau – features, video, interactive world map, reference data sheets]

This report makes the case that with planning and the right investments in people now—to empower them to make choices that are not only good for themselves but for our global commons—our world of 7 billion and beyond can have thriving, sustainable cities, productive labour forces that can fuel economic growth, youth populations that contribute to the well-being of economies and societies, and a generation of older people who are healthy and actively engaged in the social and economic affairs of their communities.

In many parts of the developing world, where population growth is outpacing economic growth, the unmet need for reproductive health care, especially voluntary family planning, remains great. The attainment of a stable population is a sine qua non for accelerated economic growth and development. Governments that are serious about eradicating poverty should also be serious about providing the services, supplies, information that women, men and young people need to exercise their reproductive rights.

Written by makanaka

October 31, 2011 at 23:04

Who’s poor and who isn’t – the flawed $1.25 formula

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The $1.25 a day poverty line is neither realistic nor is it any use to governments of less industrialised countries. It is time this ‘global poverty line’ is rejected.

An early stage shanty settlement of rural labourers, in Maharashtra, western India

Once again a major international thinktank has released a ‘big picture’ prognosis about global poverty. Once again the $1.25 a day line has been used to confirm that in developing countries, poverty is on the retreat and that the current model of economics is working for the poor by yanking them over that troublesome dollar line.

This time, the thinktank is the Brookings Institution, USA. Here’s their bottomline. Most of the poverty reduction we have seen in the last decade has happened because of the economic growth in China and India, where, until the end of the 20th century, a large number of the world’s poor lived. That growth in Asia not being matched by similar growth in Africa is the reason, Brookings has explained, for Nigeria heading towards being home to the largest population of poor by 2015, more so even than India. Poverty will be an African problem, according to Brookings.

As many other high-profile thinktanks have done over the years, Brookings has proferred its poverty prognostications [pdf] based on a few givens in the world of macroeconomics. One is that $1.25 a day, the World Bank’s revision of its own dollar-a-day definition which is now of some vintage, is the most reliable way to set a global poverty line. Two is that economic growth has brought many people in developing countries out of poverty and will continue to do so. Three is that the kind of growth that we have witnessed (and participated in) in China is the best anti-poverty solution to be found.

A vegetable vendor pushes his cart over a bridge across the river Ganga, near Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India

Based on these ‘givens’, which I shall turn to in a moment, the world’s development specialists and macroeconomists who measure poverty have lately been waxing enthusiastic about the prospect of providing all poor people in the world cash supplements, which they are sure will bring them out of poverty. The cost, they say, is relatively quite small, at about $66 billion. This cash transfer, to each and every poor person, will cost less now than it would have done only five years ago, they have said.

Well, yes and no. All programmes, even ones that distribute cash to people, cost money to run. If you have to distribute on a regular basis enough money to enough poor people at the rate of more than $1.25 a day, that distribution itself is going to be huge and enormously complicated, and of course quie expensive too. Faced with this question, they do have a ready answer, which goes something like this: recent advances in biometric identification technologies—such as fingerprint and iris scanning—have greatly expanded the promise of implementing large-scale welfare programs in poor countries. No doubt, the technology is there and it has been proven to work. However we who work in the field know well that a gizmo in the hand is not exactly worth a meal on the table, so to speak.

That’s the nuts-and-bolts part of the proposal to buy our way out of poverty. A far more troublesome set of questions concerns the ‘givens’ this whole idea is based on. Let’s look again at $1.25 a day to start with. In most developing countries, this is in mid-2011 equivalent to about a litre of petrol. It will buy about three kilos of rice in some countries, pay for two autorickshaw commutes in others, or buy 10-15 litres of water in some cities (this year on World Water Day the UN said that “Someone living in an informal settlement in Nairobi pays 5 to 7 times more for a litre of water than an average North American citizen”).

Built-up shanties along a Mumbai highway, leading to suburbs bristling with expensive new high-rise residential blocks.

That daily line also works out to $37.50 (EUR 26.25) a month. What can an individual buy with that much for a month? Can she buy shelter which does not leak when it rains, can she buy baby food for her children and medicines for her aging parents? Can she pay for schoolfees? Can she afford even a kilowatt hour of electric power a day with that money? Can she stock her kitchen with the cereal, fresh vegetable and lentils her family needs? Never mind $1.25 a day – can she do this on $2 a day in Cairo, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro or Nairobi?

I can’t see a ‘yes’ answer to any of those questions, anywhere. Next, on what basis do the thinktanks and multilateral lending banks (World Bank, IMF) continue to say that economic growth removes poverty? They use variations of the GDP-divided-by-population formula, and ask th macroeconomists to make the appropriate adjustments for income categories and rural-urban distribution. The trouble is, the real world of poverty doesn’t function the way these models and formulae do. Economic growth has meant the continuing and deepening inequality of income. The ‘richer’ a country gets based on GDP, the more unequal the distribution of the money amongst its people. That’s the very reason the ‘advanced’ economies of Western Europe and North America put in place social safety nets (whose very much poorer cousins are the cash transfer programmes in vogue nowadays).

The truth is plainer and far more visible. There is no let-up in poverty, not in the numbers of poor, and not in how far under the poverty line they are. Any other view may be well-intentioned but misguided. [Thanks to From Poverty To Power, the blog by Duncan Green of Oxfam, for mentioning the Brookings report.]

Written by makanaka

July 31, 2011 at 01:24

The carefully constructed mirage of the ‘green economy’

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Not a week goes by nowadays without one high-profile institution or high-powered interest group directing us all to be part of the ‘new, green economy’. That’s where the next jobs are, where innovation is, where the next wave of financing is headed, where the best social entrepreneurship lies. There are the big inter-governmental organisations telling us this: United Nations Environment Program, UNCTAD, OECD, International Energy Agency, the big international lending agencies like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. There are big think-tanks telling us the same thing – backed up by hefty new reports that are boring to read but whose plethora of whiz-bang charts are colourful. There are big companies, multinationals and those amongst the Fortune 500, also evangelising the new green economy and patting themselves on the back for being clean and green and so very responsible.

Artisanal blacksmith and his family, Maharashtra, India

What on earth are they all talking about? Does it have to do with us average, salaried, harassed, commuting, tax-paying types who are struggling with food inflation and fuel cost hikes and mortgages and loans that break our backs? Are they talking to our governments and our municipalities, who are worried about their budgets and their projects and their jobs too?

Here are a few answers from working class Asia. Let’s start with restating a couple of trendlines. One, the era of growth in the West is over. Growth is Asia is what is keeping the MNCs and their investors and bankers and consultants interested, and this means China and India (also Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Indonesia). Two, the environmental consciousness which began in the 1970s to spread quickly in the West led to many good laws being framed and passed. These were responses to the industrial and services growth in the Western economies. As globalisation took hold, people in less industrialised countries – ordinary citizens – saw what had happened in the West and learnt from their experiences with industrialisation. Green movements took root all over Asia and South America, protests were common, confrontations just as much, and global capital found itself being questioned again, even more fiercely.

These are the two major trends. The forces of production want to move much further into what used to be the ‘developing’ world, but want to meet much less resistance. That’s why they appeal to the consumer minds of China, India and the other target countries – you need jobs, homes, nice cars, big TVs, cool vacations, credit, aspirations, and lifestyle is what the messages say, whether they’re from telecom companies or condominium salesmen. But it’s hard to market all this stuff – real stuff, virtual stuff – to people who are still struggling to make ends meet.

This was after all the old 'green economy'. A late 19th century painting in a maritime museum near Mumbai, India

That’s where the ‘new, green economy’ tagline and its earnest-sounding philosophy comes in. “The main challenges to jump-starting the shift to a green economy lie in how to further improve these techniques, adapt them to specific local and sectoral needs, scale up the applications so as to bring down significantly their costs, and provide incentives and mechanisms that will facilitate their diffusion and knowledge-sharing,” said one of these recent reports. Look at the text which contains all the right buzzwords – ‘scale up’, ‘jump-start’, ‘applications’ (that’s a favourite), ‘knowledge-sharing’, ‘local’.

This makes the ‘old economy’ sound good but changes nothing substantial on the ground, or on the factory shopfloor or for the tens of thousands of little manufacturing units that do small piecework jobs for the bigger corporations up the chain. The world’s business philosophy has changed drastically even without the impact of environment and energy. To drive home this point, it has been a long time since we heard anything like ‘industrial relations’, and that alone should tell us how far the dominance of capital has reached, when labour, whose organisation gave the West its stellar growth rates in the 1960s and 1970s, has now become all but ignored. This is because the dominant interests associated with capital have insisted, successfully for investors and for pliant governments, that the manufacturing firms break loose from the industrial relations moorings they had established. The restructuring of firms to emphasise leaner and meaner forms of competition – as the ruthless management gurus and greedy consulting agencies instructed – was in line with market pressures that are viewed by the powers-that-be as crucial to the revitalisation of the economy.

Read their greenwash carefully and the control levers are revealed. “Further innovation and scaling up are also needed to drive down unit costs. Technologies will need to be ‘transferred’ and made accessible, since most innovation takes place in the developed countries and private corporations in those countries are the main owners of the intellectual property rights covering most green technologies.” So says ‘World Economic and Social Survey 2011: The Great Green Technological Transformation’ (UNESCO, Department of Economic and Social Affairs). Rights and access are built in from the start, as you can see.

And yet it is this very system of production, of the arrangement of capital and of the effort to weaken working regulations that is now talking about the ‘green economy’. Why do they even imagine we should believe them? They are the ones who have remained locked into the fossil fuel economy and who have partnered the enormous influence of the finance markets, who have followed every micro-second of the way the dictates of capital flows and what the market investors want in their endless quest for greater profits in ever-shorter cycles of production. For the major business of the world, ‘green economy’ is yet another route to super-profits and the consolidation of both forces of production and masses of consumers. The difference between now and the 1970s is that today they are able to successfully enlist the apparently authoritative inter-governmental organisations with their armies of economists and social scientists and engineers, to support this new profiteering. Only now, the cost is planetary.

Throwing it away – food losses, food waste and retail responsibility

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Good job by FAO on this topic, an extremely important one. ‘Global food losses and food waste’ is the title of a new report by FAO and it is an eye opener indeed. FAO has said that food waste is “more a problem in industrialised countries, most often caused by both retailers and consumers throwing perfectly edible foodstuffs into the trash”. This is true, but only partly.

It is in fact a problem of societies that have industrialised their food handling, processing and retailing systems to the average level that is seen in the OECD economies, and that this problem is therefore as much visible in the urban food consumer markets of say Sao Paulo and Mumbai and Jakarta as it is in North American or west European cities and towns.

The study has shown that per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115 kg a year in Europe and North America, while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia each throw away only 6-11 kg a year. The ‘only’ is relative of course. If these averages are mapped to populations and their food wasting habits, then for Bangladesh in 2011 we have a total wastage of 1.275 million tons! What was the total harvest of vegetables in Bangladesh in 2008? It was 1.1 million tons (FAOstat)!

Per capita food waste

Total per capita food production for human consumption is about 900 kg a year in rich countries, almost twice the 460 kg a year produced in the poorest regions. In developing countries 40% of losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels while in industrialised countries more than 40% of losses happen at retail and consumer levels. Food losses during harvest and in storage translate into lost income for small farmers and into higher prices for poor consumers, said the report. Reducing losses could therefore have an “immediate and significant” impact on their livelihoods and food security.

There are wider connections between food loss + waste and natural resources and energy. Food loss and waste also amount to a major squandering of resources, including water, land, energy, labour and capital and needlessly produce greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global warming and climate change.

Components of food waste/loss

What can be done? For a start, selling farm produce closer to consumers, without having to conform to the quality standards of retail markets, is a good suggestion. “This could be achieved through farmers’ markets and farm shops” said the report, which is in fact one of the strengths of the Transition movement in the West.

The real problem lies in the retail labyrinth in urban areas, particularly in fast-industrialising Asia. Here, in rather myopic copycat fashion without any learning having taken place, food is wasted due to quality standards that over-emphasise appearance. My guess is that this report will not have reliability of the kind it ought to for India and China, simply because in Asian cities and towns, a large network of scrap vendors (for food too) exists which will place food rejected by the retail markets into channels used by the urban poor, by small roadside eateries and by micro-businesses in the informal food processing industry.

What the study is cler about is that “consumers in rich countries are generally encouraged to buy more food than they need”. The ‘Buy three, pay for two’ promotions are one example, while the oversized ready-to-eat meals produced by the food industry are another. Restaurants frequently offer fixed-price buffets that spur customers to heap their plates. Generally speaking, consumers fail to plan their food purchases properly, the report found. That means they often throw food away when “best-before” dates expired.

There are some useful numbers in here. The study has shown that the per capita food loss in Europe and North-America is 280-300 kg per year. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia it is 120-170 kg per year. The total per capita production of edible parts of food for human consumption is, in Europe and North-America, about 900 kg per year and, in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia, 460 kg per year. Per capita food wasted by consumers in Europe and North-America is 95-115 kg per year, while this figure in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia is 6-11 kg per year. Food waste at consumer level in industrialised countries (222 million tons) is almost as high as the total net food production in sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tons).

Asia worries about food stocks and prices

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Protesters scramble for food and drink being distributed during mass demonstrations at Cairo's Tahrir Square in early February. Photo: Reuters/RFERL

Protesters scramble for food and drink being distributed during mass demonstrations at Cairo's Tahrir Square in early February. Photo: Reuters/RFERL

Bangladesh, South Asia’s biggest rice buyer, is in talks with India to buy grains on a regular basis to bolster food security as governments seek to avoid a repeat of the unrest that broke out when prices last soared, reported Bloomberg.

A long-term agreement will protect Bangladesh from possible defaults by private traders, who sometimes fail to meet their commitments if prices gain, Muhammad Abdur Razzaque, the nation’s food minister, said in an interview yesterday. “Rice prices rose this year in our country; people are suffering as they have limited income,” Razzaque said by phone from Dhaka.

Bangladesh’s plan underscores a drive by governments to strengthen their reserves to help manage the impact of food prices that advanced to a record last month, beating the jump in 2008 that spawned riots from Haiti to Egypt. This year’s surge has driven millions into extreme poverty, according to the World Bank, and contributed to unrest in the Middle East and Africa. “When we go for international tenders and prices suddenly rise, private suppliers sometimes fail to fulfill their commitments,” Razzaque said. “They don’t supply us and put us in trouble. It has happened.”

In the Philippines, Sen. Francis Pangilinan, chairman of the Senate committee on agriculture, has called on the country’s Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to start preparing for the worst-case scenario as far as the prices of oil and other basic commodities are concerned in response to the volatile situation in the Middle East.

The Philippine Star quoted Pangilinan as having said that other nations have started preparing for an expected food and oil shortage, not only because of the turmoil in the Middle East but also because of the erratic weather patterns that the world has been experiencing. “Some Asian governments have already started to come up with measures to mitigate rising prices. Erratic weather patterns have started wreaking havoc on our agricultural lands. China and India are stockpiling on grains, which means we need to rely less on importation to secure our buffer. The price of oil continues to soar, it is a matter that requires our serious attention,” he said.

In today’s world of interlinked markets, a problem in one place quickly ripples out to others. Croplands in Russia, one of the world’s leading wheat producers, were devastated by fires during last summer’s record-breaking heat wave. Wheat harvests in Ukraine, also plagued by torrid weather, dropped 15 percent last year, a comment in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reminded readers.

Both countries responded by introducing export bans that have exacerbated global shortages of the commodity. Partly as a result, world wheat prices doubled between June 2010 and January 2011. According to the World Bank, wheat prices have risen in the past six months by 54 percent in Kyrgyzstan, 45 percent in Bangladesh, and 33 percent in Mongolia.

In the oil-rich Caucasus republic of Azerbaijan, high prices have been sending citizens across the border into neighboring Georgia, where they are buying up meat, potatoes, onions, and apples. Nadeem Ilahi, head of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) delegation visiting Baku this week, warned that Azerbaijanis should expect overall prices to rise 10 percent in the course of this year — most of it due to the worldwide rise in the cost of food.

Written by makanaka

February 26, 2011 at 22:40

Gauging China’s influence on the world-IMF

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Salesperson in a textile shop in Beijing, China. Photo: IMF/Finance & Development

In an article in the International Monetary Fund magazine ‘F&D’ (Finance & Development), Vivek Arora and Athanasios Vamvakidis discuss the ramifications of China’s opening-up policy. They said that the effects are well documented but even so, “the facts are astonishing”. From relatively poor beginnings three decades ago, the authors have said, China’s economy is now second in size only to that of the United States of America.

“Real gross domestic product (GDP) has grown by about 10% annually, implying a doubling every seven to eight years. The resulting 16-fold increase in a major economy’s national income during a single generation is unprecedented.”

China’s opening up has meant increasing linkages with the rest of the world, as reflected in its rising share in world trade, global markets for selected goods, and capital flows. China’s stronger linkages with the global economy have also led to a growing use of its currency, the yuan, abroad, as well as closer correlation of market sentiment in China and the rest of Asia and, more recently, the world. China’s share in world trade has increased nearly tenfold over the past three decades, to about 9 percent, while its share in world GDP has risen to 13% from less than 3%.

“The increase in China’s share of world trade is particularly striking in the markets for certain products. China now accounts for nearly one-tenth of global demand for commodities and more than one-tenth of world exports of medium- and high-technology manufactured goods. China’s rising share in world trade over the past three decades is underpinned by a rise in its share in the external trade of every major region (chart). China’s share is, perhaps unsurprisingly, largest in the trade of other emerging Asian economies (13%), and this share has seen a striking increase over time. But its share of African trade is almost as large, and its share in trade with the Middle East, the Western Hemisphere, and Europe has increased several-fold in recent decades.”

To quantify the effects of China’s growth on the rest of the world, Arora and Vamvakidis conducted an empirical analysis using data from the past few decades (the details are to be found in the paper this article is based upon). Shifting to the longer term, they estimated the impact on the rest of the world of long-term changes in Chinese growth, smoothing over the short-term fluctuations associated with the typical business cycle and focusing on longer-term fluctuations. Their results, based on data for the past two decades, suggest that a 1 percentage point change in China’s growth sustained over five years is associated with a 0.4 percentage point change in growth in the rest of the world (coincidentally the same amount as for the short and medium term).

Written by makanaka

January 25, 2011 at 15:10

By lanternlight in rural Asia

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The Shivalaya Bazaar, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India

One of the magazines of the CR Media group of Singapore interviewed me about energy needs in rural Asia. My responses to some thoughtful questions have been published, although I don’t have a link yet to any of the material online. Until then, here’s a selection of questions and replies.

Do you have a case study or know of an innovative instance when an Asian country has broken the mould successfully in generating energy for its citizens in a way that is remarkable?

When you travel in rural South Asia you see that in almost every unelectrified village there is a flourishing local trade in kerosene and kerosene lanterns for lighting, car batteries and battery-charging stations for small TV sets, dry cell batteries for radios, diesel fuel and diesel generator sets for shops and small businesses and appliances. It’s common to spot people carrying jerricans or bottles of kerosene from the local shop, or a battery strapped to the back of a bicycle, being taken to the nearest charging station several kilometres away. People want the benefits that electricity can bring and will go out of their way, and spend relatively large amounts of their income, to get it. That represents the opportunity of providing power for energy appliances at the household level (LED lamps, cookstoves, solar- and human-powered products) and of community-level power generation systems (village bio-gasification, solar and small-scale hydro and wind power).

Household income and electricity access in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

Household income and electricity access in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

In areas such as western China, the South American rainforest or the Himalayan foothills, the cost of a rural connection can be seven times that in the cities. Solar power has spread rapidly among off-grid communities in developing countries, only sometimes subsidised. A typical solar home system today in South Asia provides light, power for TVs, radios and CD players, and most important charges mobile phones. At US$ 400-500, such a system is not cheap for rural Asia, especially when households are struggling with rising food and transport costs. But targeted subsidies and cheap micro-credit has made this energy option more affordable.

How can Asian countries cooperate to bring a new energy reality into Asia and balance development with conservation?

Let’s see what some authoritative forecasts say. The Sustainable World Energy Outlook 2010 from Greenpeace makes projections of renewable energy generation capacity in 2020: India 146 GW, developing Asia 133 GW, China 456 GW. These are enormous quantities that are being forecast and illustrate what has begun to be called the continental shift eastwards of generation and power. India dwarfs developing Asia the way China dwarfs India – the conventional economies today reflect this difference in scale. It’s important to keep in mind, while talking about energy, that Asia’s committed investment and planned expansion is centred to a very great degree around fossil fuel.

Factory and high-tension power lines, Mumbai, India

Certainly there are models of regional cooperation in other areas from where lessons can be drawn, the Mekong basin water sharing is a prominent example. But cooperation in energy is a difficult matter as it is such an essential factor of national GDP, which has become the paramount indicator for East and South Asia. Conversely, it is because the renewables sector is still relatively so small in Asia that technical cooperation is flourishing – markets are distributed and small, technologies must be simple and low-cost to be attractive, and business margins are small, all of which encourage cooperation rather than competition.

What could be immediately done to help alleviate energy shortage in South Asia for the masses, at a low cost? Do you have a case study of this?

Let’s look at Husk Power Systems which uses biomass gasification technology to convert rice husk into gas. Burning this gas runs generators which produce relatively clean electricity at affordable rates. Rice husk is found throughout northern, central and southern India and is a plentiful fuel. While Husk Power says that the rice husk would otherwise be “left to rot in fields” that isn’t quite true, as crop biomass is used in many ways in rural South Asia, but the point here is that this entrepreneurial small company has successfully converted this into energy for use locally.

Household income and access to modern fuels in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

Household income and access to modern fuels in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

I think it’s important that access to energy be seen for its importance in achieving human development goals. Individuals in governments do see this as clearly as you and I, but disagreements over responsibility and zones of influence get in the way. Responsible private enterprise is one answer. If you look at micro-enterprise funders, like Acumen, they recognise that access to electricity is also about healthcare, water and housing, refrigerated vaccines, irrigation pumps and also lighting in homes so that children can study.

What issues (externalities etc) do Asian governments do not factor in when they go for new sources of energy?

The poverty factor has for years obscured many other considerations. Providing energy, infrastructure and jobs has been the focus of central and provincial governments, and in the process issues such as environmental degradation and social justice have often been overlooked. That has been the pattern behind investment in large, national centrally-funded and directed power generation plans and in many ways it continues to shape centralised approaches to renewable energy policy.

Developing Asia is still mired in the legacy bureaucracies that have dominated (and continue to) social sector programmes, which for decades have been the cornerstone of national ‘development’. Energy is still seen as a good to be allocated by the government, even if the government does not produce it. And it still takes precedence over other considerations – ecosystem health, sustainable natural resource management – because of this approach. If India has a huge programme to generate hydroelectricity from the rivers in the Himalaya, there is now ample evidence to show both the alterations to river ecosystems downstream and the drastic impacts of submergence of river valleys, let alone the enormous carbon footprint of constructing a dam and the associated hydropower systems. Yet this is seen as using a ‘renewable’ source of energy.

Eat it? Then grow it, IRRI tells young Singaporeans

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Via the very active, carefully eclectic and tastefully humorous Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog comes this curiosity on IRRI, the International Rice Research Institute, which says that Singapore students will soon have the chance to learn one of the most fundamental and important aspects of living in Asia – how to grow rice.

This activity is being organized by the Science Centre Singapore (SCS) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). The aim is to teach young Singaporeans about rice and how it is grown, especially the environmental cost of producing a bowl of rice.

“Rice is the single most important, best known, and most loved food staple in Singapore and across Asia,” says Duncan Macintosh, executive director of the IRRI Fund Singapore. “Even though we eat it every day, most Singapore students know little about rice and the challenge of growing it. We hope to change that by letting them grow their own rice. In the process, we also want them to learn – and get excited about – the biological sciences.”

The IRRI Fund Singapore is working with SCS to prepare and distribute 10,000 small packets of rice seed to students, with more being provided in subsequent years. They will then be taught how to sow, germinate, and take care of the rice in pots, while avoiding the use of standing water, either at school or at home. Each 5-gram packet will contain about 150 seeds, with an average germination rate of about 80 percent, easily guaranteeing at least one plant per packet, and likely many more.

Written by makanaka

October 23, 2010 at 00:18

Food inflation in Asia and India, and a word about price indexes

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Vendors in Mapusa, Goa

Vendors in Mapusa, Goa. The middle basket contains 'nachne', local millet

 

The question in Asia again is food inflation. Entering the last quarter of 2010, news reports from South and South-East Asia cite continuing high food inflation as a persistent worry for consumers. The food weighting in Asia’s consumer price indexes is mostly high. China, India, Indonesia and Thailand have CPI weightings of 33%-46% for food.

Hence, persistently higher food prices pose a bigger risk of a rise in inflation expectations and wages in these countries as compared with higher per capita income economies on a relative basis, says the late September Global Economic Forum briefing from Morgan Stanley. “While job growth was affected by the latest global financial crisis, with GDP growth back to trend line and employment levels having recovered sharply, the risk of a rise in inflation expectations is significant. While employment statistics in the region are not very transparent, given the GDP growth trend, it appears that employment growth should have been strong.”

China, India and Indonesia together account for 40% of the global population. Any small increase in demand from these countries in the form of imports tends to push up global prices. The recent crop failure in India and its attempt to import sugar are a case in point. Moreover, there are some crops that are peculiar to local markets with very little global supply. For instance, in the case of India last year, the country fell short of pulses (lentils), and it was not really possible to import the crop even if the government had wanted to. Indeed, the top four (in terms of population) countries in the region (China, India, Indonesia and Thailand) are all net exporters of food items. All four countries tend to maintain inventories for staple items like rice and wheat, and have public distribution systems to ensure availability of these essential items at a reasonable price. Most countries in the region subsidise food for the poor.

Against this background, two recent speeches from senior figures in India’s central bank, the Reserve Bank of India, are worth examining closely. First, in ‘Managing the Growth-Inflation Balance in India: Current Considerations and Long-term Perspectives’ the deputy governor of the RBI Dr Subir Gokarn talks directly about food inflation (he gave the speech on 05 October 2010 at The Private Equity International India Forum).

“The inflation rate, which was briefly negative in the middle of 2009, began to accelerate rapidly later in the year. This upward momentum continued into the first half of 2010, with double-digit inflation persisting for a few months. The rapidity of the transition was surprising, given the fact that the recovery in growth was just getting under way and, importantly, the global situation was still very uncertain. However, the reason for the sharp increase was that all the possible drivers of inflation were simultaneously contributing. Each one by itself may not have resulted in the outcome that we saw, but all three working together resulted in a rather sharp acceleration. Food prices rose sharply because the monsoon of 2009 was deficient in most parts of the country, impacting agricultural production. However, there are, I believe, longer term forces at work on food prices, which are a matter of concern.”

 

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

 

Next, in a speech titled ‘Perspectives on Inflation in India’, executive director of the RBI, Deepak Mohanty (on 28 September 2010 at the Bankers Club, Chennai) said that the Reserve Bank is concerned over “the unacceptably high inflation rate”. Mohanty dwelt awhile on the Indian government’s new wholesale price index series.

“In the meanwhile, the Government has also released the new series on the Wholesale Price Index (WPI) changing the base year from 1993-94 to 2004-05. In terms of change in the relative weight of major commodity groups, the share of primary articles has gone down by 1.9 percentage points, which has been compensated by increase in the share of fuel group by about 0.7 percentage point and manufactured products by 1.2 percentage points. There has been a reduction in weightage of primary food articles and manufactured food products by 2.6 percentage points in the new series to 24.3 per cent from about 26.9 per cent in the old series.”

“Second, notwithstanding a significant reduction in weightage, the food inflation in the new series is higher than in the old series. This is because of change in the consumption basket in favour of protein-rich items such as egg, meat and fish where price rise has been high apart from milk and pulses. Third, the non-food manufactured products inflation is lower in the new series than in the old series. This is because of a substantial overhauling of the basket with the introduction of a number of new items. For example, the new series has 417 new commodities of which 406 are new manufactured products. Fourth, the new series has wider coverage. For example, the number of price quotations has increased from 1,918 in the old series to 5,482 in the new series. The new series, therefore, is better representative of overall commodity price inflation.”

What is curious is that these trends have taken place during a phase of rapid growth in India’s formal economy. Gokarn explained that what was most significant from the monetary policy perspective was the growing visibility of demand-side pressures. He examined the price dynamics of the manufacturing sector – overall and without the food processing component. The latter, he said, has been used by many analysts as a reasonable proxy of demand-side inflation, which is the phenomenon that monetary policy can and should influence. Both sectors he said, and particularly non-food manufacturing inflation, “show a tremendous acceleration from a significantly negative rate of inflation during 2009 to reach rather worrisome levels by the middle of 2010”.

Mohanty finds that the new series of WPI inflation marks a major change in terms of scope and coverage of commodities and is more representative of the underlying economic structure. As per the new series, the manufactured products inflation is lower than what was seen on the basis of the old series, he said. The food price inflation, on the other hand, is higher than what was seen on the basis of the old series. “The high level of food prices is The 100th postindeed a matter of concern as the prices of protein-based items, which have a higher share in the consumption basket, are showing larger increases”. Moreover, Mohanty said, there is continuing shortage of food items such as pulses and edible oils. “If the supply response doesn’t improve, there is a risk that food price inflation could acquire a structural character”.