Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Posts Tagged ‘ecology

Villages in their splendid talukas

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As part of my continuing and long term study on the relation between populations both rural and urban, the land base upon which they depend for the growing of food, and the socio-economic changes taking place in our districts, I have begin an examination of how households are distributed in administrative regions, that is, districts and talukas. This graphed plot describes one kind of finding. (Click here for a full size plot that lets you explore each data point.)

rg_nrega_pics_201612States are administratively divided into districts (earlier the concept of a ‘division’, which was a group of districts, was more common – the ‘division’ is still used, for revenue determination but also for home affairs) and these are divided into talukas. How many talukas does the typical district have? Some have four, others as many as 12. There are talukas whose households are entirely rural as there is not a single census town, let alone a municipal council, within its precincts. The taluka contains villages and these can be numerous. Some talukas may have 50-60 villages whereas others may have 200 and more.

It is always an interesting matter to ponder. How did households in a small sub-region – at the confluence of a stream and a river for example or at the edge of a plain and at the margins of hills – become villages and what determined the distribution of such hamlets in a very local habitat? The factors were always environmental and there was often a strong cultural reason, such as proximity to a sacred site, a mandir or a venerated shrine, historical sites (such as those mentioned in the Ramayana and documented in detail thereafter in numerous local commentaries).

From the set of districts analysed so far a few guiding figures have emerged. The number of rural households in a taluka varies from 7,200 to 96,800; the number of villages in a taluka varies from 28 to 338; the average number of households in a village is 330; there is one urban household for every 3 rural households.

Where the agro-ecological conditions are favourable, there is to be found a denser gathering of villages and these will have larger populations. This can easily be understood. It is less clear how the toil of the households accommodated in a large number of villages are required to maintain, in many ways, urban households which are now clustered in a town or two of the same taluka. This dependence is what a study of not only the rural-urban population, but also how it is distributed within agro-ecological boundaries, can help uncover. The graphed plot included here is one step towards that understanding.

Environmental law and the dharmic principle

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RG_tree_om_blog_20160829The recent history of “global” approaches to the environment has shown that they began full of contradictions and misunderstandings, which have continued to proliferate under a veneer of internationalisation. To provide but a very brief roster, there was in the 1970s the “Club of Rome” reports, as well as the United Nations Conference on Human Environment in 1972 (which produced the so-called Stockholm Declaration). In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro) was held and was pompously called the “Earth Summit,” where something called a “global community” adopted an “Agenda 21.” With very much less fanfare also in 1992 came the Convention on Biological Diversity, and signing countries were obliged to “conserve and sustainably manage their biological resources through global agreement,” an operational conundrum when said resources are national and not international.

In 2000 came the “Millennium Summit,” at which were unveiled the Millennium Development Goals, which successfully incubated the industry of international development but had almost nothing to do with the mundane practice of local development. In 2015 came the UN Sustainable Development Summit, which released a shinier, heftier, more thrillingly complex list of sustainable development goals. During the years in between, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and its associated satellite meetings (three or four a year) spun through every calendar year like a merry-go-round (it is 22 years old, and the very global CO2 measure for PPM, or parts per million, has crossed 400).

The visarjan (immersion) of Shri Ganesh. The idol is accompanied by huge crowds in Mumbai. Photo: All India Radio

The visarjan (immersion) of Shri Ganesh. The idol is accompanied by huge crowds in Mumbai. Photo: All India Radio

Looking back at some five decades of internationalisation as a means to some sort of sensible stock-taking of the connection between the behaviors of societies (ever more homogenous) and the effects of those behaviors upon nature and environment, I think it has been an expensive, verbose, distracting, and inconclusive engagement (but not for the bureaucratic class it sustains, and the “global development” financiers, of course). That is why I find seeking some consensus between countries and between cultures on “ecocide” is rather a nonstarter. There are many differences about meaning, as there should be if there are living cultures left amongst us.

Even before you approach such an idea (not that it should be approached as an idea that distinguishes a more “advanced” society from one apparently less so), there are other ideas, which from some points of view are more deserving of our attention, which have remained inconclusive internationally and even nationally for fifty years and more. Some of these ideas are, what is poverty, and how do we say a family is poor or not? What is economy and how can our community distinguish economic activity from other kinds of activity (and why should we in the first place)? What is “education,” and what is “progress”-and whose ideas about these things matter other than our own?

That is why even though it may be academically appealing to consider what ecocide may entail and how to deal with it, I think it will continue to be subservient to several other very pressing concerns, for very good reasons. Nonetheless, there have in the very recent past been some efforts, and some signal successes too, in the area of finding evidence and intent about a crime against nature or, from a standpoint that has nothing whatsoever to do with law and jurisprudence, against the natural order (which we ought to observe but for shabby reasons of economics, career, standard of living, etc., do not).

Clay cooking pots and decorative terracotta. A craftsman and his wares at a weekly market in Kerala.

Clay cooking pots and decorative terracotta. A craftsman and his wares at a weekly market in Kerala.

These efforts include Bolivia’s Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, whose elaborate elucidation in 2010 gave environmentalists much to cheer about. They also include the recognition by the UN Environment Programme, in incremental doses and as a carefully measured response to literally mountainous evidence, of environmental crime. This is what the UNEP now says, “A broad understanding of environmental crime includes threat finance from exploitation of natural resources such as minerals, oil, timber, charcoal, marine resources, financial crimes in natural resources, laundering, tax fraud and illegal trade in hazardous waste and chemicals, as well as the environmental impacts of illegal exploitation and extraction of natural resources.”  Quite frank, I would say, and unusually so for a UN agency.

Moreover, there is the Monsanto Tribunal, which is described as an international civil society initiative to hold Monsanto-the producer of genetically modified (GM) seed, and in many eyes the most despised corporation ever-“accountable for human rights violations, for crimes against humanity, and for ecocide.” In the tribunal’s description of its rationale, ecocide is explicitly mentioned, and the tribunal intends to follow procedures of the International Court of Justice. It is no surprise that Monsanto (together with corporations like Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, and DuPont) is the symbol of industrial agriculture whose object and methods advance any definition of ecocide, country by country.

This ecocidal corporation (whose stock is traded on all major stock markets, which couldn’t care less about the tribunal) is responsible for extinguishing entire species and causing the decline of biodiversity wherever its products are used, for the depletion of soil fertility and of water resources, and for causing an unknown (but certainly very large) number of smallholder farming families to exit farming and usually their land, therefore also exiting the locale in which bodies of traditional knowledge found expression.  Likewise, there is the group of Filipino investigators, a Commission on Human Rights, who want forty-seven corporate polluters to answer allegations of human rights abuses, with the polluters being fossil fuel and cement companies, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, and BP, and the allegations include the roles of these corporations’ products in causing both “global warming and the harm that follows.”

A 'gudi' and 'bhagwa dhvaj' hoisted by a home in Goa for Gudi Padwa, the festival which marks the beginning of the new year.

A ‘gudi’ and ‘bhagwa dhvaj’ hoisted by a home in Goa for Gudi Padwa, the festival which marks the beginning of the new year.

Such examples show that there is a fairly strong and active manifestation of the movement to recognise ecocide as a crime under international law. However, to find such manifestations, one has to look at the local level. There, the questions pertain more tangibly to the who, what, and how of the ecological or environmental transgression, and the how much of punishment becomes more readily quantifiable (we must see what forms of punishment or reparation are contained in the judgments of the Monsanto Tribunal and the Philippines Commission).

Considering such views, the problem becomes more immediate but also more of a problem-the products of industrialised, mechanised agriculture that is decontextualised from culture and community exists and are sold and bought because of the manner in which societies sustain themselves, consciously or not. It is easier to find evidence for, and easier to frame a prosecution or, the illegality of a corporation, or of an industry, than for the negligence of a community which consumes their products. So the internationalisation (or globalisation) of the idea of ecocide may take shape in a bubble of case law prose and citations from intergovernmental treaties but will be unintelligible to district administrators and councils of village elders.

My view is that searching for the concept which for the sake of semantic convenience we have called ecocide as an outcome of an “internationally agreed” idea of crime and punishment will ultimately not help us. I have such a view because of a cultural upbringing in a Hindu civilisation, of which I am a part, and in which there exists an all-embracing concept, “dharma,” that occupies the whole spectrum of moral, religious, customary, and legal rules. In this view, right conduct is required at every level (and dominates its judicial process too), with our literature on the subject being truly voluminous (including sacred texts themselves, the upanishads, various puranas, and works on dharma).

Perhaps the best known to the West from amongst this corpus is the Arthashastra of Kautilya, a remarkable legal treatise dealing with royal duties which contains a fine degree of detail about the duties of kings (which may today be read as “governance”). This treatise includes the protection of canals, lakes, and rivers; the regulation of mines (the BCE analogue of the extractive industries that plague us today); and the conservation of forests. My preference is for the subject of ecocide and its treatment to be subsumed into the cultural foundation where it is to be considered for, when compared with how my culture and others have treated the nature-human question, it becomes evident that we today are not the most competent arbiters, when considering time frames over many generations, about how to define or address such matters. The insistence on “globalising” views in fact shows why not.

(This comment has been posted at the Great Transition Initiative in reply to an essay titled ‘Against Ecocide: Legal Protection for Earth’.)

The ideologies about knowledge

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The few paragraphs that follow are taken from my recent article for the TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) magazine, Terragreen. Published in the 2016 May issue, the article links what we often call traditional knowledge with the ways in which we understand ecology and the ways in which we are defining ‘sustainable development’.

quotes-blueSustainable development has today become a commonly used term, yet it describes a concept that is still being considered by different kinds of societies, by each in a manner of its choosing. This has happened because while historically how societies grew to be ‘developed’ was a process that took a variety of pathways, today the prescribed pathway to the ‘modern’ scarcely changes from one country to another.

Hence culturally what these societies have considered as being ‘sustainable’ behaviour – each according to its ecological context – is being replaced by a prescribed template in which interpretations are discouraged. Such a regime of prescription has led only to the obscuring of the many different kinds of needs felt by communities that desire a ‘development’ that makes cultural sense, but also of the kinds of knowledge which will allow that ‘development’ to be sustainable.

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Click for image pdf (600kb) of article

Some of this knowledge we can readily see. To employ labels whose origin is western, these streams of knowledge and practice are called traditional knowledge, intangible cultural heritage, indigenous wisdom, folk traditions, or indigenous and local knowledge. These labels help serve as gateways to understand both the ideas, ‘development’ and ‘sustainable’. It is well that they do for today, very much more conspicuously than 20 years earlier, there is a concern for declining biodiversity, about the pace and direction of global environmental change, a concern over the unsustainable human impact on the biosphere and the diminishing of community identity.

There is widespread acknowledgement of the urgency of the situation – this is perceived across cultures, geographical scales (that is, from local units such as a village, to national governments), and knowledge systems (and this includes both formal and non-formal ways of recognising these systems). The need for such a new dialogue on the situation is expressed in several global science-policy initiatives, both older and recent, such as the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) which is now 22 years old, and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), whose first authoritative reports became available in 2015.

Development whose sustainability is defined locally and implemented locally means that the ‘investment’, ‘technology’ and ‘innovation’ (terms that have become popular to describe development efforts) comes from the people themselves. Many diverse agencies at this level – civil society, youth groups, vocational networks, small philanthropies – assist such development and provide the capacities needed. This is the level at which the greatest reliance on cultural approaches takes place, endogenously.

In domains such as traditional medicine, forestry, the conservation of biodiversity, the protection of wetlands, it is practitioners of intangible cultural heritage and bearers of traditional knowledge, together with the communities to which they belong, who observe and interpret phenomena at scales much finer than formal scientists are familiar with. Besides, they possess the ability to draw upon considerable temporal depth in their observations. For the scientific world, such observations are invaluable contributions that advance our knowledge about climate change. For the local world, indigenous knowledge and cultural practices are the means with which the effects of climate change are negotiated so that livelihoods are maintained, ritual and cultivation continue, and survival remains meaningful.

A beginning to Monsanto’s end

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Monsanto_TribunalEnough is enough. Just under a year from now, the Monsanto Tribunal will sit in Den Haag (The Hague), Holland, to assess allegations made all over the world against Monsanto, and to evaluate the damages caused by this transnational company.

The Tribunal will examine how and why Monsanto is able to ignore the human and environmental damage caused by its products and “maintain its devastating activities through a strategy of systemic concealment”. This it has done for years, the Tribunal has said in an opening announcement, by lobbying regulatory agencies and governments, by resorting to lying and corruption, by financing fraudulent scientific studies, by pressuring independent scientists, by manipulating the press and media. As we know in India, that is only a part of its bag of very dirty tricks; others are even more vile.

The history of this corporation – representative of a twisted industrial approach to crop, food, soil, water and biodiversity which we today collectively call ‘bio-technology’ – is constitutes a roster of impunities. Like its peers and its many smaller emulators, Monsanto promotes an agro-industrial model that is estimated to contribute a third of global greenhouse gas emitted by human activity, a lunatic model largely responsible for the depletion of soil and water resources on every continent, a model so utterly devoted to the deadly idea that finance and technology can subordinate nature that species extinction and declining biodiversity don’t matter to its agents, a model that has caused the displacement of millions of small farmers worldwide.

Monsanto_Tribunal2In this demonic pursuit Monsanto – like its peers, its emulators and as its promoters do in other fields of industry and finance – has committed crimes against the environment, and against ecological systems, so grave that they need to be termed ecocide. In order that the recognition of such crimes becomes possible, and that punishment and deterrence at planetary scale becomes possible, the Tribunal will rely on the ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’ adopted at the United Nations in 2011, and on the basis of the Rome Statue that created the International Criminal Court in The Hague in 2002. The objective is that Monsanto become criminally liable and prosecutable for crimes against the environment, or ecocide.

“Recognising ecocide as a crime is the only way to guarantee the right of humans to a healthy environment and the right of nature to be protected,” the Tribunal has said. Since the beginning of the 20th century Monsanto has developed a steady stream of highly toxic products which have permanently damaged the environment and caused illness or death for thousands of people. These products include:

* PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), one of the 12 Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP) that affect human and animal fertility.
* 2,4,5 T (2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid), a dioxin-containing component of the defoliant, Agent Orange, which was used by the US Army during the Vietnam War and continues to cause birth defects and cancer.
* Lasso, an herbicide that is now banned in Europe.
* RoundUp, the most widely used herbicide in the world, and the source of the greatest health and environmental scandal in modern history. This toxic herbicide, designated a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization, is used in combination with genetically modified (GM) RoundUp Ready seeds in large-scale monocultures, primarily to produce soybeans, maize and rapeseed for animal feed and biofuels.

Monsanto_Tribunal3The Tribunal has: Corinne Lepage, a lawyer specialising in environmental issues, former environment minister and Member of tne European Parliament, Honorary President of the Independent Committee for Research and Information on Genetic Engineering  (CRIIGEN); Olivier De Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Co-Chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food); Gilles-Éric Séralini, professor of molecular biology since 1991, researcher at the Fundamental and Applied Biology Institute (IBFA); Hans Rudolf Herren, President and CEO of the Millenium Institute and President and Founder of Biovision; Vandana Shiva, founder of Navdanya to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources especially native seed, the promotion of organic farming and fair trade; Arnaud Apoteker, from 2011 to 2015 in charge of the GMO campaign for the Greens/EFA group at the European Parliament; Valerie Cabanes, lawyer in international law with expertise in international humanitarian law and human rights law; Ronnie Cummins, International Director of the Organic Consumers Association (USA) and its Mexico affiliate, Via Organica; Andre Leu, President of IFOAM Organics International, the world umbrella body for the organic sector which has around 800 member organisations in 125 countries; and Marie-Monique Robin, writer of the documentary (and book) ‘The World According Monsanto’, which has been broadcast on 50 international television stations, and translated into 22 languages.

Why India must rely on local food stocks

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RG_Goa_ploughman_201507

The below average June to September monsoon season will lead to lower foodgrains production. What is the likely impact and how can society cope?

Context – For the last four years the numbers that describe India’s essential food security have become a common code: 105 million tons (mt) of rice, 95 mt of wheat, 41 to 43 mt of coarse cereals, 19 to 20 mt of pulses, 165 to 170 mt of vegetables and 80 to 90 mt of fruit.

With these quantities assured, our households feed themselves, army and factory canteens are supplied, the public distribution system is kept stocked and the processed and retail food industry secures its raw material.

Only provided there is such assurance, and that the allowance for plus or minus is as small as possible. Monsoon 2015 has removed that assurance for the agricultural year 2015-16. Our 36 states and union territories – and the 63 cities whose populations are more than a million – must begin to deal with the possible scenarios immediately.

Stock scenarios – In September 2015 the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare, of the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, released the first of its usual four ‘advance estimates’ for the 2015-16 agricultural year. Each estimate sets the targets for the year for the foodgrain (and also commercial) crops, and provides with every estimate how likely it is that the annual target will be met.

This first advance estimate has issued a direct warning: rice production is estimated at 90.6 mt against a target of 106.1 mt. The wheat target is just under 95 mt but there is no estimate provided as yet. The target for coarse cereals is 43.2 mt whereas the advance estimate is just under 28 mt. The target for pulses is 20mt and the first estimate is 5.5mt.

What are the implications? The responsibility of the Department is to provide a provisional reading of the conditions that affect the production of our staple crops, and to inform and prepare state and central governments of the likelihood of shortfalls in foodgrain. The signal it has given for rice, estimated at 85% of the target, must be taken as a flashing red beacon which demands that our food stocks return to the foreground of the national agenda.

It is likely that the second and third advance estimates will see quantities revised upwards, but our planning must be based on this first estimate so that even the most adverse of natural contingencies can be met with suitable measures.

Using the first advance estimate as the basis, here are the likely annual production quantities, at 90% of the target and at 95% of the target: rice, between 95 and 101 mt; wheat, between 85 and 91 mt; coarse cereals, between 39 and 42 mt; pulses, between 16 and 17 mt; total foodgrains, between 236 and 250 mt of which cereals are between 220 and 232 mt.

RG_foodstocks_table_201509Household demand – Will these quantities suffice, as for the last four years total foodgrain targets and production have been in the region of 260-273 mt?

To help answer this question, two sets of deductions must be accounted for. To begin with, for each main category of foodgrain, there are production quantities, imports, stock variations and exports. When these are added or subtracted, a gross domestic supply quantity remains.

It is worth also noting that this gross quantity is still no more than a best assessment that is synthesised from the information provided by state governments. The first set of deductions is by way of feed, seed and waste (foodgrain that is used in animal feed, is harvested to use as seed for sowing, and which is damaged after harvest or rendered unusable because of pests and infection). Allowing for the lowest likely level of deductions, the combined deduction is about 7% for rice, 10.5% for wheat, 17% for coarse cereals, 15% for pulses, 5% for vegetables and 10% for fruits.

The available quantities are now revised further. Under a 95% of target scenario, we will have 93.5 mt of rice, 81 mt of wheat, 34.5 mt of coarse cereals and 14.5 mt of pulses. In the same way, a 95% of target scenario for vegetables is 153.5 mt and for fruits it is 72.5 mt. On the consumption side we have the households – in 2016 we will have 175 million rural and 83 million urban households.

These households will require a baseline minimum of 181 mt of cereals, 136 mt of vegetables, 45 mt of fruits and 41 mt of pulses. Under a 95% of production target scenario therefore, there will be enough cereals, enough vegetables and enough fruits. We have been falling short in pulses for several years.

But this apparent comfort is still without the second set of deductions. And these are: (1) buffer stocks of rice and wheat to be maintained, with 5-8 mt of rice during the year and 10-18 mt of wheat during the year (to fulfil the demands on the public distribution system and to fulfil the allocations for the food-based welfare programmes), and in addition the strategic reserve of 2 mt of rice and 3 mt of wheat to be maintained; (2) the use of foodgrains by the food processing and retail food industry; (3) exports of primary crops (such as rice and in particular basmati) and processed crops (vegetables and fruits); (4) the industrial use of foodgrain (including for biodiesel); (5) the diversion of cereals to alcohol distilleries.

Some amongst the second set of deductions are known – such as the withdrawals for buffer stocks and the food reserves, and the export quantities – but the others are either hidden, concealed or misreported. In a food production scenario that is less than 95% of targets (in the way that rice has already been estimated for 2015-16), the deductions from gross crop production will decrease available foodgrains, vegetables and fruits to levels that will compromise household food security, especially those households in the lower income brackets.

Recommendations – The climate variations that have led the Department of Agriculture to raise a red flag warning are no longer uncommon. The 2015 monsoon was affected by El Nino conditions, which are expected to continue into the first quarter of 2016. These changes in the pattern of the Indian summer monsoon are amplified by land use change in our districts, by deforestation, by rapid urbanisation, by inequitous water use, and by consumption behaviour. Some of these can be addressed through policy, education and incentives over the long term. What is needed immediately however are:

a) A review of the drivers of crop cultivation choice in our watersheds and agro-ecological zones so that, as far as possible, these settlements units begin the transition towards local food security in sustainable ways. This means that the income-led arguments which favour the cultivation of commercial crops for farming households must be critically re-examined – in a situation of primary crop scarcity an income buffer alone will not help these households.

b) The demands placed by export arrangements (including the export of meat, which represents fodder and feed) and by the food processing and retail food industry must be quantified and made public. Especially at the level of district administrations, the need to rationally incentivise land use towards the cultivation of food crop staples that suit agro-ecological conditions has become an urgent one. The decentralisation of planning that can make such an approach possible can take place only when hitherto hidden and concealed foodgrains use becomes public.

c) To reach self-reliance at the level of panchayat or block (tahsil, taluka), cooperative farming must be vigorously encouraged, villages must become self-reliant in the provisioning of their food staples (a consideration that must balance that of the ‘national market’), the bio-physical limits of the major food producing districts (the top 250 by quantity) have already been reached and this necessarily limits the demand urban India can exert upon rural districts, in terms not only of food quantities but also in terms of the population that must be fully engaged in foodgrains cultivation.

Scientists’ statement deflates the bogus idea of ‘safe’ GM

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ENSSER_GMO_statement_10More scientists, physicians and legal experts have signed the group statement issued by the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) on the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The number of initial signatories to the statement, titled ‘No scientific consensus on GMO safety’, was almost 100 on the day it was released, 2013 October 21, and has more than doubled since.

The ENSSER group has reminded us that crop genetic engineering is dominated not by ecological experts but by molecular biologists: “Many are not knowledgeable about ecological risks and – more importantly – they fail to recognise the limitations of their expertise.”

ENSSER_GMO_statement_13Regarding the environmental risk of GM crops, ENSSER has said, the negative effects now documented empirically have been predicted since about 25 years.

For instance, while naturally occurring Bt toxins come in a diversity of variants, GM crops necessarily have to choose one Bt toxin to be transferred, significantly enhancing the probability of resistance development. Such effects are analysed by community ecology researchers and not visible on the genetic level.

“So it is a shame that, more than 20 years after the international academic societies of ecologists and molecular biologists agreed on the complementarity of their competences, and the necessity to assess ecosystem impacts in a systemic fashion, today’s molecular biologists still do neither recognise nor respect the limits of their competencies (not to speak about the influence of funding). Ignoring one’s own blind spots is what can turn science into a social risk.”

ENSSER_GMO_statement_11Those who have signed the statement “strongly reject claims by GM seed developers and some scientists, commentators, and journalists that there is a ‘scientific consensus’ on GMO safety and that the debate on this topic is ‘over’.”

The signatories have said they “feel compelled to issue this statement because the claimed consensus on GMO safety does not exist. The claim that it does exist is misleading and misrepresents the currently available scientific evidence and the broad diversity of opinion among scientists on this issue. Moreover, the claim encourages a climate of complacency that could lead to a lack of regulatory and scientific rigour and appropriate caution, potentially endangering the health of humans, animals, and the environment”.

ENSSER_GMO_statement_16ENSSER members and non-members alike who have signed the statement have collectively said that science and society do not proceed on the basis of a constructed consensus, as current knowledge is always open to well-founded challenge and disagreement. They endorse the need for further independent scientific inquiry and informed public discussion on GM product safety and urge GM proponents to do the same.

Regarding the safety of GM crops and foods for human and animal health, a comprehensive review of animal feeding studies of GM crops found that most studies concluding that GM foods were as safe and nutritious as those obtained by conventional breeding were “performed by biotechnology companies or associates, which are also responsible [for] commercialising these GM plants”.

ENSSER_GMO_statement_12It is often claimed that “trillions of GM meals” have been eaten in the US with no ill effects. However, no epidemiological studies in human populations have been carried out to establish whether there are any health effects associated with GM food consumption. As GM foods are not labelled in North America, a major producer and consumer of GM crops, it is scientifically impossible to trace, let alone study, patterns of consumption and their impacts. Therefore, claims that GM foods are safe for human health based on the experience of North American populations have no scientific basis.

ENSSER_GMO_statement_15A report by the British Medical Association concluded that with regard to the long-term effects of GM foods on human health and the environment, “many unanswered questions remain” and that “safety concerns cannot, as yet, be dismissed completely on the basis of information currently available”. The report called for more research, especially on potential impacts on human health and the environment.

ENSSER_GMO_statement_14Likewise, a statement by the American Medical Association’s Council on Science and Public Health acknowledged “a small potential for adverse events … due mainly to horizontal gene transfer, allergenicity, and toxicity” and recommended that the current voluntary notification procedure practised in the US prior to market release of GM crops be made mandatory. The ENSSER group has said that even a “small potential for adverse events” may turn out to be significant, given the widespread exposure of human and animal populations to GM crops.

Water spikes of the 48,000 large dams that humans have built

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This is a three-minute film that narrates the impact of humans on the planet and on the water cycle. The global footprint of human habitation – built-up regions, water extraction, industrial agriculture, mineral and fossil fuel extraction – has driven Earth into a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.

Human activities such as damming and agriculture are changing the global water cycle in significant ways. The film quickly and dramatically describes Earth’s changing global water cycle, why it is changing and what this means for the future. The vertical spikes that appear in the film represent the 48,000 large dams that have been built. The film is part of the first website on the concept of humans as a geological force and was made for the the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme.

A food policy pedlar’s annual derby

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IFPRI_GFPR_2012Evidence, investment, research, commitments and growth. You will find these reprised in the second Global Food Policy Report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI, which, as I must never tire of mentioning, is the propaganda department of the CGIAR, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which, ditto, is the very elaborate scientific cover for control over the cultivation and food choices made especially by the populations of the South). And now, with the dramatis personae properly introduced, let me quickly review the plot.

The GFPR (to give this slick production an aptly ugly acronym) for 2012 follows the first such report and furthers its  claim to provide “an in-depth look at major food policy developments and events”. It comes equipped with tables, charts, cases, apparently authoritative commentary (many from outside IFPRI), and is attended by the usual complement of models and scenarios (can’t peruse a report nowadays without being assaulted by these).

In an early chapter, the GFPR 2012 has said:
“Evidence points to a number of steps that would advance food and nutrition security. Investments designed to raise agricultural productivity — especially investments in research and innovation — would address one important factor in food security.”
“Research is also needed to investigate the emerging nexus among agriculture, nutrition, and health on the one hand, and food, water, and energy on the other.”
“In addition, by optimizing the use of resources, innovation can contribute to the push for a sustainable ‘green economy’. Boosting agricultural growth and turning farming into a modern and forward-looking occupation can help give a future to large young rural populations in developing countries.”

The G20 in session

The G20 in session

Consider them one by one. Whose evidence? That of the IFPRI, the CGIAR and its many like-minded partners the world over (they tend to have the same group of funding donors, this institutional ecosystem). A round-up of food policy by any outfit would have ordinarily included at least some evidence from the thousands of studies and surveys, large and small, humble and local, that discuss policy pertaining to food and cultivation. But, you see, that is not the CGIAR method. What we have then is the IFPRI view which, shorn of its crop science fig leaf, is similar to that of the Asian Development Bank’s view, the World Bank’s view, the International Finance Corporation’s view or the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s view (raise your fist in solidarity with the working class of Cyprus for a moment). And that is why the GFPR 2012 ties ‘investment’ to ‘evidence’, and hence ‘research’ to ‘food security’.

What research? Well, into “the emerging nexus among agriculture, nutrition, and health” naturally. This extends the CGIAR campaign that binds together cultivation choices for food staples, the bio-technology mittelstand which is working hard to convince governments about the magic bullet of biofortification (especially where cash transfers and food coupon schemes are already running), and the global pharmaceutical industry. It is really quite the nexus. As to food, water and energy, that is hardly an original CGIAR discovery is it, the balance having being well known since cultivation began (such as in the fertile crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates, about seven millennia ago, now trampled into sterility by ten years of an invasion, or as was well recognised by the peons of central America, an equal span of time ago, and whose small fields are being reconquered by the GM cowboy duo of Bill Gates and Carlos Slim).

What kind of ‘green economy’? Among the many shortcomings of IFPRI (in common with the other CGIAR components) is its studied refusal to incorporate evidence from a great mass of fieldwork that supports a different view. ‘Growth’, ‘modern’ and ‘forward looking’ are the tropes more suited to a public relations handout than an annual review of policy concerning agriculture and therefore also concerning the livelihoods and cultural choices made by millions of households. IFPRI’s slapdash use of ‘green economy’ reflects also its use by those in the circuit of the G20 and by the Davos mafia – they are the hegemons of politics and industry who force through decisions (they use sham consensus and gunpoint agreement) that have scant regard for climate change, biodiversity loss or dwindling resources. Hence the IFPRI language of “optimizing the use of resources”. The idea of unfettered growth as the way to end poverty and escape economic and financial crisis remains largely undisputed within the CGIAR and its sponsors and currently reflects the concept as found in ‘green economy’.

Food (trade and commodity) security.

Food (trade and commodity) security.

[The GFPR 2012 report and associated materials can be found here. There is an overview provided here. There are press releases: in Englishen Français and in Chinese.]

“Building poor people’s resilience to shocks and stressors would help ensure food security in a changing world”, the IFPRI GFPR 2012 has helpfully offered, and added, “In any case, poor and hungry people must be at the center of the post-2015 development agenda”. Ah yes, of course they must be, in word and never mind deed. “International dialogues, such as the World Economic Forum, the G8, and the G20, must be used as platforms to develop this concept, propose policy options, and formulate concrete commitments and actions to reduce poor people’s vulnerability to food and nutrition insecurity and enhance their capacity for long-term growth”.

To call the World Economic Forum, the G20 and the G8 ‘platforms’ and ‘dialogues’ is laughable, for there are no Southern farmers’ associations present, nor independent trade unions, nor members of civil society and community-based organisations that actually pursue, rupee by scarce rupee, the agro-ecological restoration of rural habitats in the face of migration, rural to urban, that occurs through dispossession, nor are there any of the myriad representatives of socialist and humanist groups whose small work has a restorative power greater than that of the CGIAR and its sponsors.

Never part of the CGIAR-IFPRI sonata that is played at these ‘dialogues’, there is ample evidence (since that is the theme) of locally articulated and politically wrested food sovereignty that can be held up as examples with which to reduce poor people’s vulnerability. In the past ten years, countries particularly in South America (we salute you, Hugo Chavez) have incorporated food sovereignty into their constitutions and national legislations.

In 1999 Venezuela approved by referendum the Bolivarian Constitution of Venezuela whose Articles 305, 306 and 307 concern the food sovereignty framework. In 2001 Venezuela’s Law of the Land concerns agrarian reform. In 2004 Senegal’s National Assembly included food sovereignty principles into law. In 2006 Mali’s National Assembly approved the Law on Agricultural Orientation which is the basis for implementation of food sovereignty in Mali. In 2007 Nepal approved the interim constitution which recognised food sovereignty as a right of the Nepalese people. In 2008 Venezuela enacted legislation to further support food sovereignty: the Law of Food Security and Food Sovereignty; the Law for Integrated Agricultural Health; the Law for the Development of the Popular Economy; the Law for the Promotion and Development of Small and Medium Industry and Units of Social Production. In 2008 Ecuador approved a new constitution recognising food sovereignty. In 2009 Bolivia’s constitution recognised the rights of indigenous peoples as well as rights to food sovereignty. In 2009 Ecuador’s Food Sovereignty Regime approved the Organic Law on Food Sovereignty. In 2009 Nicaragua’s National Assembly adopted Law 693 on Food and Nutrition Security and Sovereignty.

This is what true resilience looks and sounds like. For those unfortunate populations that continue to struggle under a food price inflation whose steady rise is aided and abetted by the CGIAR and its sponsors, the alternatives become clearer with every half percent rise in the price of a staple cereal, and with the loss of yet another agro-ecological farming niche to the world’s land grabbers.

India’s clumsy, insecure environment ministry hides mountain ecology report

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A 522-page report on the ecology of the Western Ghats and the threats to the biodiversity it harbours, a report that was months in the preparation and includes the outcomes of numerous consultations has been ‘released’ to the public by India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests. Not as a well-signposted link on the ministry website, no, that is far too direct and discomfiting for the secretive and conniving bureaucrats and their craven staff.

First there is a pdf document summarily inviting comments from the public on the report, the official title of which is the ‘Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel’ chaired by professor Madhav Gadgil. This pdf contains a link, not to the report, but to the disclaimer! This second pdf file has the text of the ‘disclaimer’ which is: “The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel report has not been formally accepted by the Ministry and that the report is still being analyzed and considered by the Ministry.” This second pdf then contains a link to the actual Report [pdf, 7.7mb]!

This is from the preface by Gadgil:

“The Western Ghats are naturally an important focus of sustainable development efforts. The protector of the Indian peninsula, the mother of the Godavari, Krishna, Netravathi, Kaveri, Kunthi, Vaigai and a myriad other rivers, Kalidasa likens the Western Ghats to a charming maiden; Agastyamalai is her head, Annamalai and Nilgiri the breasts, her hips the broad ranges of Kanara and Goa, her legs the northern Sahyadris. Once the lady was adorned by a sari of rich green hues; today her mantle lies in shreds and tatters. It has been torn asunder by the greed of the elite and gnawed at by the poor, striving to eke out a subsistence. This is a great tragedy, for this hill range is the backbone of the ecology and economy of south India.”

And this from the introduction:

A section from the map of ecologically sensitive zoning of the talukas of Karnataka

“Mountains also create isolated habitats far away from other similar habitats, promoting local speciation. Hence distinct species of the flowering plant Rhododendron and the mountain tahr goat Hemitragus occur on the higher reaches of the Western Ghats and Himalayas, with a large gap in the distribution of these genera in between. Moreover, mountains, being less hospitable to human occupation, retain much larger areas under natural or semi-natural biological communities.”

“This is why the Western Ghats and the Eastern Himalayas are today the most significant repositories of India’s biodiversity. Amongst them, the Western Ghats scores over the Eastern Himalayas in harbouring a larger number of species restricted to India alone. Not only are the Western Ghats and Eastern Himalayas biological treasure troves, they are also two of the world’s biodiversity hot spots, a hot spot being a biodiversity-rich area that is also under a high degree of threat.”

The Blue Planet warning, and prescription

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Painting by Shraddha Satish Shenoy of St Columba School, Mumbai, India

This February in London, Britain, a group of the world’s leading scientists and experts in sustainable development called for urgent changes to policies and institutions to enable humanity to tackle environmental crises and improve human well-being. They had gathered to finalise a paper launched at the UN Environment Programme’s Governing Council meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, on 20-22 February.

Now available, the paper emphasises transformational solutions to key environment and development challenges. It highlights the policies, technologies and behaviour changes required to protect the local, regional and global environment, stimulate the economy and enhance the livelihoods of the poor. Called ‘Environmental and Development Challenges: The imperative to act’, this group wrote the paper as a prelude to the Rio+20 conference in Brazil in June, which marks the 20th anniversary of the historic UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio Earth Summit).

The paper’s authors are all past winners of the Blue Planet Prize, an award presented to individuals or organisations worldwide in recognition of outstanding achievements in scientific research and its application that have helped provide solutions to global environmental problems.

“The challenges facing the world today need to be addressed immediately if we are to solve the problem of climate change, loss of biodiversity and poverty,” said Bob Watson, who is the Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), a Blue Planet Prize winner in 2010 and a co-author of the new paper.

Here are the salient messages from their paper:

There is an urgent need to break the link between production and consumption on the one hand and environmental destruction on the other. This can allow risking material living standards for a period that would allow us to overcome world poverty. Indefinite material growth on a planet with finite and often fragile natural resources will however, eventually be unsustainable. Unsustainable growth is promoted by environmentally-damaging subsidies in areas such as energy, transportation and agriculture and should be eliminated; external environmental and social costs should be internalized; and the market and non-market values of ecosystem goods and services should be taken into account in decision-making.

Painting by Siddhi Sudhakar Ghadi of St Agnes High School, Mumbai, India

The immense environmental, social and economic risks we face as a world from our current path will be much harder to manage if we are unable to measure key aspects of the problem. For example, governments should recognise the serious limitations of GDP as a measure of economic activity and complement it with measures of the five forms of capital, built, financial, natural, human and social capital, i.e., a measure of wealth that integrates economic, environmental and social dimensions.

Green taxes and the elimination of subsidies should ensure that the natural resources needed to directly protect poor people are available rather than via subsidies that often only benefit the better off.

The present energy system, which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, underlies many of the problems we face today: exhaustion of easily accessible physical resources, security of access to fuels, and degradation of health and environmental conditions. Universal access to clean energy services is vital for the poor, and a transition to a low carbon economy will require rapid technological evolution in the efficiency of energy use, environmentally sound low-carbon renewable energy sources and carbon capture and storage. The longer we wait to transition to a low carbon economy the more we are locked into a high carbon energy system with consequent environmental damage to ecological and socio-economic systems, including infrastructure.

Painting by Sanchana Laxman Jadhav of St Agnes High School, Mumbai, India

Emissions of GHG emissions are one of the greatest threats to our future prosperity. World emissions (flows) are currently around 50 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent (COe) per annum and are growing rapidly. As the terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems are unable to absorb all of the world’s annual emissions, concentrations (stocks) of GHG emissions in the atmosphere have increased, to around 445ppm of CO2e today and increasing at a rate of around 2.5 ppm per year.

Thus we have a flow-stock problem. Without strong action to reduce emissions, over the course of this century we would likely add at least 300 ppm COe, taking concentrations to around 750 ppm COe or higher at the end of the century or early in the next. The world’s current commitments to reduce emissions are consistent with at least a 3 C rise (50-50 chance) in temperature: a temperature not seen on the planet for around 3 million years, with serious risks of 5 C rise: a temperature not seen on the planet for around 30 million years. Given there are some uncertainties present in all steps of the scientific chain (flows to stocks to temperatures to climate change and impacts), this is a problem of risk management and public action on a great scale.

There are serious short-comings in the decision making systems at local, national and global levels on which we rely in government, business and society. The rules and institutions for decision making are influenced by vested interests, with each interest having very different access over how decisions are made. Effective change in governance demands action at many levels to establish transparent means for holding those in power to account. At the local level public hearings and social audits can bring the voices of marginalized groups into the forefront. At national level, parliamentary and press oversight are key.

Globally, we must find better means to agree and implement measures to achieve collective goals. Governance failures also occur because decisions are being made in sectoral compartments, with environmental, social and economic dimensions addressed by separate, competing structures.

Painting by Pooja Badhe of Udaychal High School, Mumbai, India

The Blue Planet laureates who gathered in London to work on the paper are:

Professor Sir Bob Watson, Chief Scientific Adviser of the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra); Lord (Robert) May of Oxford, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government and President of Royal Society of London; Professor Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University; Professor Harold Mooney, Stanford University; Dr. Gordon Hisashi Sato, President, Manzanar Project Corporation; Professor José Goldemberg, secretary for the environment of the State of São Paulo, Brazil and Brazil’s interim Secretary of Environment during the Rio Earth Summit in 1992; Dr Emil Salim, former Environment Minister of the Republic of Indonesia; Dr Camilla Toulmin, Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development; Bunker Roy, Founder of Barefoot College; Dr Syukuro Manabe, Senior Scientist, Princeton University; Julia Marton-Lefevre, Director-General of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature; Dr Simon Stuart, Chair of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature; Dr Will Turner, Vice President of Conservation Priorities and Outreach, Conservation International; Dr Karl-Henrik Robert, Founder of The Natural Step, Sweden.