Posts Tagged ‘Europe’
India’s Republic Day in 2015 will also see the visit of the president of the USA, Barack Obama, accompanied by the usual large delegation of business persons, lobbyists and functionaries of the American government. They will use this visit to demand many things, and amongst the demands will be that the NDA-BJP government ‘reform’ all that is hindering the agriculture and food transformation in Bharat.
We must resist this with strength and perseverance. So far, the NDA-BJP government has not shown that it recognises or understands the threats and dangers, which are very very serious indeed. The American delegation will push this government to clear the way for genetically modified seed and crop (including in food staples such as cereals), for the further industrialisation and mechanisation of crop production (which will mean the removal of smallholder ‘kisans’ from their plots, all in the name of market efficiency), and the deepening of the food processing and food retail industries’ grip on what we eat.
The Prime Minister’s Office, the Union Cabinet and the seniormost bureaucrats of the major ministries involved must wake up to this threat and be firm against it. The signals from elsewhere are many and they are clear about what lies in store for Bharat if the NDA-BJP government at the centre and if state governments do not discharge their duty – which is, safeguard the sovereignty of Bharat.
Already in Europe, the German Environment Ministry is insisting on a complete ban on green genetic engineering in Germany. Under a new European Parliament directive, member states of the European Union will now be able to restrict or completely ban GMO cultivation within their borders. One of the leading proponents of such a legal ban in Germany is its Ministry of Agriculture, which also supports a national ban on cultivation.
Moreover, in a position paper from the Federal Ministry of the Environment, Minister Barbara Hendricks said she does not want to leave any back doors open for genetic engineering. The GMO law must be changed, so that controversial green genetic engineering cannot be used under any pretext in Germany, she stated in the document. “Green genetic engineering has turned out to be the wrong track,” Hendricks said. “It is risky for nature and the environment and is not desired by consumers.”
Worldwide, the project to fully industrialise global food production is far from complete, yet already it is responsible for most deforestation, most marine pollution, most coral reef destruction, much of greenhouse gas emissions, most habitat loss, most of the degradation of streams and rivers, most food insecurity, most immigration, most water depletion, and massive human health problems.
Under GM- and tech-centric industrial agriculture and food systems – which is what the Americans will demand from us – countries are becoming literally uninhabitable as a result of the social and ecological consequences.
Wherever industrial and genetically engineered agriculture is found, landscapes are left progressively emptier of life. Eventually, the soil turns either into mud that washes into the rivers or into dust that blows away on the wind. Industrial agriculture has no long term future and is ecological suicide. But those who profit from it cannot allow all this to become broadly understood – and unfortunately that has included our NDA-BJP government. That is why they have continued to peddle the lie of food scarcity in India, which the previous Congress government employed so recklessly.
The agriculture and food problem – which will become a more extreme problem for us if the Obama group is given its way – is closely interlinked with growing demand for land. Land is a lucrative investment and has fuelled the real estate boom in India for the last decade. But for our smallholder kisans it is the source of livelihood, as it is for our shepherd groups and tribal communities. Rising demand for land also harms the ecosystem – as is seen in each and every one of the 63 cities whose populations this year are at least one million. The more intensive the farming, the more damage it does to the environment. This is the main reason for the decline in biological diversity, above and below the ground.
The American push will be for agri-food systems in accordance with the new international trade agreements. These are nothing but colonial ways of thinking – that food should be produced for international export as a tool of foreign policy and to control populations (especially through GM) and as a byproduct financially benefit powerful corporations that act as agents of such colonial ways of thinking. Thus it is a direct assault on people’s sovereignty over their natural resources, farming systems and food access as well as their human right to dignified living standards free of exploitation and dependence.
Such treaties (such as the TTP which is facing opposition even amongst those the USA calls allies) are dangerous because they are negotiated in secret. But what has emerged (thanks to leaks) is appalling. Some of the texts in these treaties wants the outright patenting of plants and animals, many draft agreements come with severe punishments for farmers who break intellectual property laws, they deliberately undermine local agriculture (as seen with NAFTA), commons lands are proposed for privatisation, labelling of GM foods will be prohibited, and the governments of countries that try to undo the damage will be liable to be sued by the multi-national corporations. This is the extent of the danger facing Bharat, which will become more clear come Republic Day 2015.
Some two years ago, it was calculated, the world firmly entered the urban age, for the available evidence pointed to a startling truth: more people now live in cities than outside them. The balance between urban and rural populations differs between countries, at times considerably. Chad and Congo have about the same number of people living in cities, 2.95 million and 2.96, but these urban populations are 22% of the total population for Chad and 65% of the total population for Congo.
Overall, the balance between urban and rural populations is thought, conventionally, to directly describe whether a country is likely to be in the high income or low income groups of countries. The Department of Economic and Social Affairs – a specialist agency of the United Nations – entrusts such calculations to its Population Division whose ‘World Urbanization Prospects’ found, in its 2014 revision, that the proportion of urban populations for high income countries was 80% while that for low income countries was 30%. This seems to lend weight to the conventional wisdom that it is cities that galvanise the creation of the sort of wealth which gross domestic product (GDP) growth depends on.
Cities are seen to harbour dynamism and vitality. For those who live in such cities, this is largely true. Residents of cities like Seoul (Korea), Lima (Peru), Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad (all India), Bogotá (Colombia), Nagoya (Japan), Johannesburg (South Africa), Bangkok (Thailand) and Chicago (USA) are very likely to agree that living and working in their respective cities has brought tham prosperity, and are less likely to ponder about this group of cities being the top ten in the world with populations under 10 million in 2014 (there are 28 cities worldwide with populations of at least 10 million).
There is however another aspect to the formation of cities. In 1927, the film Metropolis, conceived by Fritz Lang and delivered as an artfully stylised cinematic message, described the strains and dangers of the power that cities had already come to have over their residents. For Metropolis was a futuristic city where a cultured utopia existed above a bleak underworld populated by mistreated workers. Just over 50 years later, another film, Blade Runner (1982), blended science fiction with a disturbing portrait of a dystopian and dangerous cityscape that was both gigantic and technology-centric, through which the human element struggled to find meaning.
If Metropolis represented the post-industrial revolution European cityscape, then Blade Runner depicted the flagship of what has been called the Asian century, for its mesmerising and frightening urban backdrop was Tokyo then, and could well be China now. The Japanese capital remains in 2014 the world’s largest city with an agglomeration of 38 million inhabitants, followed by New Delhi with 25 million, Shanghai with 23 million, and Mexico City, Mumbai and São Paulo, each with around 21 million inhabitants. By 2030, so the projections say, the world will have 41 mega-cities of more than 10 million inhabitants.
For all their celebrated roles as centres of wealth, innovation and culture, these mega-cities and their smaller counterparts exert dreadful pressures on natural resources and the environment. These are already either unmanageable or uneconomical to deal with, more so in the rapidly growing urban centres of Asia and Africa. Despite the lengthening list of urban problems – most caused by rural folk flocking to cities faster than urban governance structures can cope with existing needs – demographers foresee that today’s trend will add 2.5 billion people to the world’s urban population by 2050. India, China and Nigeria are together expected to account for 37% of the projected growth of the world’s urban population between this year and 2050. It is there that the idea of the city, which so fascinated Fritz Lang, will be sorely tested.
With results from the 32 councils declared, the ‘no’ voters of Scotland carried referendum day and opted to stay in the union, that is, the United Kingdom. The margin – 55% ‘no’ to 45% ‘yes’ – still means that every other Scot wants independence of some sort from the UK and its London-centric Westminster government.
There are some immediate reliefs for London’s politicos who were besides themselves with worry until early today morning. The Union survives (but not in the same shape). Still, this means that the UK remains a G7 economic power and a member of the UN Security Council. It also means Scotland will get more devolution and David Cameron will not be forced out (which may be a disappointment to many more English people than the number of those who voted ‘yes’).
Those reliefs will not provide cheers until after this weekend. Monday morning, the United Kingdom will have to look back at the last few weeks of referendum mania, and the last few adrenalin and hope-filled days, and realise that the 307-year-old union must change course radically to stay in any shape at all (and even that will be on borrowed time). Here is why:
First, there has indeed been a victory for Scotland, for those who considered themselves patriots for voting ‘yes’ and for voting ‘no’. The victory is more devolution for Scotland. Scottish Nationalist Party leader Alex Salmond (who is also the governor of Scotland) is the one who initiated the referendum campaign and who had wanted three options on the ballot papers: independence; the status quo; or more devolution for Scotland.
Until mid-year, the British government led by prime minister David Cameron accepted only the independence question, for more powers to the regional government in Edinburgh was rejected outright, and at the time they thought so, polls were showing a comfortable majority against ‘yes’ – as high as 65% in 2013. That advantage dropped steadily, with a shock poll in early September 2014 putting the ‘yes’ camp for the first time in the lead. This is when Cameron and the leaders of the two other main parties in Westminster – Labour and the Liberal-Democrats – signed a pledge to give more powers to Scotland if its voters chose ‘no’. Cameron and the other leaders – Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and the Labour party’s leader Ed Miliband – will now have to deliver on those promises and also face claims from the other regions – Wales, England and Northern Ireland – for more money and powers.
Second, the ‘yes’ camp had painstakingly put together the arguments its campaign needed to show that Scotland could be successful as an independent country. These arguments appealed to many and convinced a good number – just over 44% as it has turned out – to take the leap of faith and thereby stare down the ‘no’ placards which read, “It’s not worth the risk”. Where the SNP fell short was in convincing more Scots about the risks and how to hedge them. But even in falling short, the ‘yes’ camp has proved to UK (and to all those regions in Europe seeking self-determination) that to seek independence is a powerful and uplifting tonic, which is a substance in very short supply all over the continent.
In the end – for so the commentators and observers mutter – it is the respectable middle class in sober dress who have tended to vote ‘no’, and so have the Labour stalwarts of all ages for whom some idea of ‘solidarity’ is apparently more comforting and familiar than the gritty new business of making independence work and dealing with the more obvious contradictions of the Salmond plan. Scottish monetary union with the UK also meant an independent Scotland using the pound as its single currency, but having no control over it.
The Euro crisis taught Europeans that a monetary union without a political one is a debilitating project, and so the risks shrewdly exploited by the ‘no’ camp (and the banks and the petroleum industry, let’s not forget them) came to weigh more than placards. Even so, Scottish independence as an idea based upon an implicit assumption of Scottish national and ethnic uniqueness – incompatible with the British identity, as any gent in a kilt would swear – has been considerably strengthened, at the cost of the Westminster style of government, whose days are from today numbered.
Third, the nature of this long demise. Early on Saturday morning political scientists were already saying that for British politics, much thought now needs to be given to constitutional arrangements, that constitutional change will have to be delivered. Such work will have to begin on Monday morning to make a start towards reconciling all the interests – Scots, English, Welsh, Northern Irish and local (however local chooses to define itself in the UK). It is not the kind of “epochal opportunity” that the SNP was waving overhead as a flag until yesterday, but it is for similar movements all over Europe, and the project in UK will be watched very carefully indeed in those countries and territories.
Salmond and the SNP will still govern Scotland until 2016 and the party will need to decide whether to run in 2016 on a stronger pledge for full independence (a two-stage referendum was amongst the eminently sensible suggestion made earlier this year). The question of equality will be raised more pertinently than before – in the Linlithgow Palace, Scotland’s James V built an elaborate fountain to express his equal status with his English uncle, Henry VIII, and amongst the ruins the fountain survives as a vivid reminder of Scottish pride. As for the economics of independence, it was Salmond who told the BBC: “The central mistake that the ‘no’ campaign has made is to tell the people of Scotland that the land of Adam Smith is not capable of running its own matters financially.”
The Scottish ‘no’ therefore is but a punctuation mark in a strong statement of cultural identity that began to be written well over half a millennium ago. A more thoughtful UK may result, one whose political performers learn to understand the union they claim to love. If so, the Scots have indeed won.
Industrial livestock production in Europe and the USA began when feed, energy and land were inexpensive, the ‘Meat Atlas’ has explained, which is published jointly by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and Friends of the Earth Europe.
Nowadays, feed, energy and land have all become scarce and costs have gone up. As a result, total meat production is growing less quickly than before. “The market is growing only for pigs and poultry. Both species utilise feed well and can be kept in a confined space. This means that they can be used to supply the insatiable demand for cheap meat,” the Meat Atlas has said.
By 2022, almost half the additional meat consumed will come from poultry. Beef production, on the other hand, is scarcely growing. The USA remains the world’s largest beef producer, but the meat industry describes the situation there as dramatic. For 2013, it expects a fall of 4-6 per cent compared to 2012 and predicts the decline to continue in 2014. In other traditional producing regions including Brazil, Canada and Europe, production is stagnating or falling.
“The star of the day is India, thanks to its buffalo meat production, which nearly doubled between 2010 and 2013. India is forcing its way onto the world market, where 25 percent of the beef is in fact now buffalo meat from the subcontinent,” said the Atlas (see this news report from 2013 June).
According to the US Department of Agriculture, India became the world’s biggest exporter of beef in 2012 – going ahead of Brazil. Buffaloes are considered inexpensive to keep by the USDA (what benchmark do they use for husbandry I wonder). Thus the USDA considers buffalo meat a dollar a kilo cheaper than beef from Western cattle. In addition, the Meat Atlas has reminded us, the Indian government has invested heavily in abattoirs. Moreover, faced with the high price of feed, Brazilian cattle-raisers are switching to growing soybeans which has presented an opportunity for Indian buffalo-meat exporters.
China and India differ markedly in their food consumption patterns. In India, a vegetarian lifestyle has deep cultural and social roots. In surveys cited by the Atlas, a quarter or more of all Indians say they are vegetarian. “But the number of meat-eaters is growing. Since the economic boom (my note: usual dreadful mis-labelling here; it is no ‘boom’ but a slow destruction) in the early 1990s, a broad middle class that aspires to a Western lifestyle has emerged (true enough). This includes eating meat which has become a status symbol among parts of the population. Nevertheless, meat consumption in India is still small – per person it is less than one-tenth of the amount consumed in China.”
The costs borne by the environment because of the world’s fondness for animal-origin protein are probably the biggest, but are still difficult to calculate despite some 30 years of following advances in environmental economics. This helps us estimate some damage to nature in monetary terms. It covers the costs of factory farming that do not appear on industry balance sheets, such as money saved by keeping the animals in appalling conditions. The burden upon nature also grows by over-fertilisation caused by spreading manure and slurry on the land and applying fertilisers to grow fodder maize and other crops.
The signs have been gaining substance over the last two years. In western Europe (Britain excluded), citizens and independent researchers have demanded and end to GM food products. The support given to the seed-biotech-fertiliser conglomerates of the USA and Europe, by their governments has been well met by organised consumer awareness and resistance. It is no wonder then that these cartels have shifted the use of their tactics to Asia, where political establishments can be more easily influenced and where consumer awareness about the dreadful dangers of GM is generally lower than in western Europe.
Europe’s press is reporting that Monsanto, the fertiliser and biotechnology company, is withdrawing all permits requested to the European Commission to grow genetically modified corn, soy and sugar beet because it does not see “a commercial outlook” for these products (that’s what the public relations scoundrels call what we know and practice as informed consumer awareness).
German daily Die Welt reported that only a request to grow genetically modified corn (of the MON810 type) will be renewed. For the moment, this type of corn is the only genetically modified organism commercially cultivated in Europe, said Die Welt. While MON810 corn type is admitted into the EU, several countries including France, Germany and Italy have banned it at the national level, following citizen initiatives. Last year, German chemical firm BASF threw in the towel and relocated its biotechnology centre to the USA because genetic engineering is so strongly contested in Europe.
Monsanto has loudly insisted that its genetically modified products, including maize MON810, which is authorised in Europe, are safe for humans. It has an army of compromised ‘scientists’ on its payroll in every single country where it wants to push its GM products, and using its public relations agents has infiltrated media in every country that it sees as a market. But the evidence that GM is dangerous for humans and animals, for insects and plants alike grows by the day. A study conducted on rats for two years by a team of French researchers on Monsanto NK 603 corn revealed an abnormally high tumour and death rate – Monsanto’s own in-house studies, pushed out as counter-evidence by mercenary accomplices, were conducted for no more than three months!
Greenpeace noted the company will also seek to continue sales of its controversial MON810 maize, which was already approved in Europe and is the last remaining GM crop grown there. “The EU-wide authorisation for the cultivation of MON810 is expiring at the end of a ten-year period and the safety of the crop is due to be reassessed. The company is permitted to continue to use MON810 in Europe until the European Commission announces its decision,” stated Greenpeace.
The GM Freeze campaign welcomed Monsanto’s announcement that it is withdrawing pending applications to cultivate GM crops in the European Union but said this is not the end of Europe’s GM story. GM Freeze pointed out that Monsanto’s GM crops will still be imported into the EU, primarily for use in animal feed and biofuels, so the damage to ecosystems and human health caused by GM will continue elsewhere. The lack of labels on meat, eggs, dairy products and fish produced using GM feed means that Europe’s reliance on GM is hidden from consumers so they cannot easily avoid buying GM-fed products. Food companies should meet the clear demand for entirely non-GM foods by labelling those produced without GM, as is done successfully by many companies in Germany, Austria and France.
In tiresomely typical contrast, the government of the United Kingdom is to push the European Union to ease restrictions limiting the use of GM crops in the human food chain, reported The Independent. Britain’s Environment Secretary Owen Paterson is next week due to announce a UK government drive to increase Britain’s cultivation of GM foods! The newspaper said Britain’s ministers are hopeful of building support in Brussels for a change of heart on GM, with Germany seen as a key swing voter. The government of Britain’s craven attempts to relax the rules will face opposition from countries like Poland which in April became the eighth EU member state to ban the cultivation of GM crops.
Forgetting their ‘commitments’ to get GM out of their supply chains, big British food retailers – Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and Tesco – have gone in the opposite direction. Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer have joined Monsanto, Cargill and Nestle on the absurd Roundtable on Responsible Soy, a group that has been condemned by organisations around the world as a greenwash of existing bad practice in industrial soya monoculture. The Roundtable ‘certifies’ (judge and jury) GM soya as “responsible” despite growing evidence of adverse health, environmental and socioeconomic impacts in producer countries. Tesco is now backing GM soya production in South America, where it is grown in huge monocultures sprayed frequently with Roundup to the detriment of people and ecosystems there.
In an important news report, ‘How the NSA Targets Germany and Europe’, Der Spiegel has reviewed a series of documents which prove that Germany played a central role in the NSA’s global surveillance network – and how the Germans have also become targets of US attacks. Each month, the US intelligence service saves data from around half a billion communications connections from Germany.
According to the listing, Germany is among the countries that are the focus of surveillance. Thus, the documents confirm that the US intelligence service, with approval from the White House, is spying on the Germans, said Der Spiegel, and possibly right up to the level of the chancellor.
Britain has been revealed as the junior partner in this Orwellian scheme. But the European Commission has reacted swiftly and strongly. In a letter to UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, the Commission vice-president Viviane Reding requested detailed clarifications about the scope of the UK’s spying practices and even hinted at legal action.
The new aspect of the revelations isn’t that countries are trying to spy on each other, eavesdropping on ministers and conducting economic espionage. What is most important about the documents is that they reveal the possibility of the absolute surveillance of a country’s people and foreign citizens without any kind of effective controls or supervision.
Many high-ranking European officials have issued statements of outrage and protest against America’s spying. These representatives of the European ruling class pretend surprise at the revelations but have no doubt acquiesced to, authorised or supported similar surveillance of their own populations and of their American counterparts.
Nevertheless, the unanimity of the response is an indication that European governments have been goaded into voicing the concerns of their citizens. The US dragnet of telecommunications and the internet over Europe has never been so visible, as are now, thanks to Edward Snowden, US efforts to persecute those who have brought the spying to public notice.
In the USA, the slavish corporate media has condemned Snowden’s actions. Witness a representative reaction in the New York Times, for whom Snowden is the product of an “atomised society” and lacking “respect for institutions and deference to common procedures”! This daily newspaper, like others in its pettyfogging class and like the American national television channels, bloodthirsty and war-mongering now for a decade, has ignored the point made bluntly by the American Civil Liberties Union that these “institutions and procedures” long ago lost their claim to respectability.
Britain has been cast even further into Europe’s data protection wilderness after revelations that its formerly glorious signals intelligence agency GCHQ has been monitoring web and telecommunications on an even greater scale than the NSA. Germany’s justice minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, has demanded explanations from her British counterpart, asking whether the 30-day retention of signals data is based on concrete suspicion or is warrantless (guess which?).
Yet, as Der Spiegel has commented, among the intelligence agencies in the Western world there appears to be a division of duties and at times extensive cooperation. And it appears that the principle that foreign intelligence agencies do not monitor the citizens of their own country, or that they only do so on the basis of individual court decisions, is obsolete in this world of globalised communication and surveillance. Hence Britain’s GCHQ intelligence agency, the American NSA and Germany’s BND foreign intelligence agency create a matrix is created of boundless surveillance in which each partner aids in a division of roles.
Deepening inequalities in income between the richer and poorer families, greater relative income poverty in recent years compared with earlier, a greater burden borne by children and young people than before because of their being relatively poor – these are some of the stark conclusions contained in the OECD briefing, ‘New Results from the OECD Income Distribution Database’.
This is the picture of Europe today (and of the non-European members of the OECD). “Looking at the 17 OECD countries for which data are available over a long time period, market income inequality increased by more over the last three years than what was observed in the previous 12 years,” observed the new briefing, which is sub-titled ‘Crisis squeezes income and puts pressure on inequality and poverty’.
The figures and data show that many of the countries recording the most dramatic increases in inequality are European countries which have been subjected to punitive austerity measures by the European Union and International Monetary Fund. The OECD report singles out Spain and Italy, where the income of “the poorest 10 percent was much lower in 2010 than in 2007”.
Five percent falls in income (per year) amongst the poorest 10 percent were also recorded in Greece, Ireland, Estonia, and Iceland. The only non-European nation with a comparable level of income decline was Mexico. The report also stated that over the same period, poor families in the United States, Italy, France, Austria and Sweden all recorded income losses in excess of the OECD average.
Indeed the ‘New Results’ briefing has showed that across OECD countries, real household disposable income stagnated. Likewise, the average income of the top 10% in 2010 was similar to that in 2007. Meanwhile, the income of the bottom 10% in 2010 was lower than that in 2007 by 2% per year. Out of the 33 countries where data are available, the top 10% has done better than the poorest 10% in 21 countries.
This is the OECD picture till 2010. Since then, recession has been the companion of inequality. With an average growth of -0.2 per cent in the first quarter (against -0.1 per cent in the EU as a whole) and hardly better prospects for the whole rest of the year (-0.7 per cent), according to Eurostat, the dreaded “double dip” has become a reality. The press attributes the result largely to the austerity policies.
“Eurozone sets bleak record of longest term in recession,” reported the Financial Times. The daily noted that “this latest dismal record came after unemployment hit 12.1 per cent in the bloc, its highest level,” and that this data “is likely to add to pressure on the European Central Bank to take further action after cutting interest rates this month, and to revise down its economic forecast predicting a recovery later in the year.”
Moreover, relative income poverty – the share of people having less income than half the national median income – affects around 11% of the population on average across OECD countries. Poverty rates range between 6% of the population in Denmark and the Czech Republic to between 18% and 21% in Chile, Turkey, Mexico and Israel. Over the two decades up to 2007, relative income poverty increased in most OECD countries, particularly in countries that had low levels of income poverty in the mid-1990s.
In Sweden, Finland, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic, the income poverty rate increased by 2 percentage points or more. In Sweden, the poverty rate in 2010 (9%) was more than twice what it was in 1995 (4%). Relative poverty also increased in some countries, such as Australia, Japan, Turkey and Israel, with middle and high levels of poverty.
The OECD briefing has stated bluntly: “Households with children were hit hard during the crisis. Since 2007, child poverty increased in 16 OECD countries, with increases exceeding 2 points in Turkey, Spain, Belgium, Slovenia and Hungary.” The ‘New Results’ briefing added: “Since 2007, youth poverty increased considerably in 19 OECD countries. In Estonia, Spain and Turkey, an additional 5% of young adults fell into poverty between 2007 and 2010. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, the increase was 4%, and in the Netherlands 3%.”
Between 2007 and 2010, average relative income poverty in the OECD countries rose from 12.8 to 13.4% among children and from 12.2 to 13.8% among youth. Meanwhile, relative income poverty fell from 15.1 to 12.5% among the elderly. This pattern confirms the trends described in previous OECD studies, with youth and children replacing the elderly as the group at greater risk of income poverty across the OECD countries.
These results only tell the beginning of the story about the consequences of austerity, growing unemployment, the burden on children and youth, and burden on immigrant wage labour. The OECD data describes the evolution of income inequality and relative poverty up to 2010. But “the economic recovery has been anaemic in a number of OECD countries and some have recently moved back into recession”, said the briefing.
Worse, since 2010, many people exhausted their rights to unemployment benefits. In such a situation, the briefing has warned, “the ability of the tax-benefit system to alleviate the high (and potentially increasing) levels of inequality and poverty of income from work and capital might be challenged”. These are unusually blunt words from the OECD and their use reflects the depth and persistence of the crisis of modern, reckless, destructive capitalism in Europe.
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”.
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.
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.”
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.
The National Intelligence Council of the USA, earlier in 2012 December, released the latest Global Trends report, which is titled ‘Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds’. The Global Trends project is described as bringing expertise from outside (the American) government on factors of such as globalisation, demography and the environment. In the USA, the Director of National Intelligence serves as the head of what in America is called the ‘intelligence community’, overseeing and directing the implementation of the American National Intelligence Program and acting as the principal adviser to the President, the National Security Council, and the Homeland Security Council for intelligence matters related to national security. Specifically, the goal of the Director of National Intelligence is described as “to effectively integrate foreign, military and domestic intelligence in defense of the homeland and of United States interests abroad”.
With that background, ‘Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds’ is the fifth installment in the National Intelligence Council’s series aimed at providing to the ruling regime of the USA “a framework for thinking about the future” by “identifying critical trends and potential discontinuities”. This 2012 report distinguishes between ‘megatrends’ (factors that will likely occur under any scenario) and ‘game-changers’ (critical variables whose trajectories are far less certain). Finally, to better explain the diversity and complexity of various factors, the 2012 report sketches out scenarios or alternative worlds.
From our Asian point of view, ‘Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds’ has a most interesting section describing the middle classes, which the report says almost everywhere in the developing world are poised to expand substantially in terms of both absolute numbers and the percentage of the population that can claim middle-class status during the next 15-20 years. “Even the more conservative models see a rise in the global total of those living in the middle class from the current 1 billion or so to over 2 billion people,” said the report.
All the analyses reviewed by the authors of the ‘Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds’ suggest that the most rapid growth of the middle class will occur in Asia, with India somewhat ahead of China over the long term. According to the Asian Development Bank, if China “achieves the new plan target of increasing household expenditures at least as rapidly as GDP, the size of its middle class will explode” with “75 percent of China’s population enjoying middle-class standards and $2/day poverty will be substantially wiped out”.
The report does not make an attempt to link the impact of the rise of this middle-class with either one of the ‘mega trends’ described or two of the ‘game-changers’ described, which speak in a halting manner about the effects of over-consumption and galloping resource grabbing.
‘Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds’ has conceded that “establishing the threshold for determining when someone is middle class versus climbing out of poverty is difficult, particularly because the calculations rely on the use of purchasing power parity”. In India the debate about who is poor is 40 years old and remains intractable – thanks mostly to the intransigence of central planners who still refuse to link the current cost of basics with current low levels of real income.
Instead, ‘Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds’ has forecast that most new members of the middle class in 2030 will be at the lower end of the spectrum. “Their per capita incomes will be still rated as ‘poor’ by Western standards even though they will have begun to acquire the trappings of middle-class status. Growth in the number of those living in the top half of the range of this new middle class — which is likely to be more in line with Western middle-class standards — will be substantial, rising from 330 million in 2010 to 679 million in 2030.
Much of the future global leadership is likely to come from this segment,” said the report, raising a number of worries. Firstly, I would be loath to see any kind of leadership – political, economic or social – come from this segment as such leadership will strengthen, not diminish, the consumption patterns destroying our environment. Second, it is less the chasing of ‘Western’ per capita incomes we need and more the re-education of the middle-class to emphasise the virtues of ‘less’ and ‘small’ that is urgently needed.
More to the point, ‘Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds’ has forecast that with the expansion of the middle class, income inequalities — and the report says these “have been a striking characteristic of the rising developing states” — may begin to lessen in the developing world. This is astonishingly misread. Approximately a generation of economic liberalisation (which has gone under various names in different large countries) in India, China, Russia, South Africa, Brazil and Indonesia have proven the opposite.
The report goes on in this befuddled vein: “Even if the Gini coefficients, which are used to measure inequalities, decline in many developing countries, they are still unlikely to approach the level of many current European countries like Germany and Finland where inequality is relatively low”. Again, a decade of ‘austerity’ under various guises (longer in Britain in fact, under Thatcherism) in Europe has created inequalities approaching the true levels seen in the BRICS and similar countries, and these have been camouflaged by welfare measures that are fast-disappearing and by community action. So this ‘Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds’ is flat wrong on these matters.
However, the report has made an attempt to infuse some social science into what is otherwise good news for the global consumer goods multinationals (and of course for the fossil fuel barons). “That said, a perception of great inequality will remain, particularly between urban- and rural-dwellers, motivating a growing number of rural-dwellers to migrate to the cities to seek economic opportunities. Their chances of becoming richer will be substantially greater in cities, but the increasing migration to urban areas will mean at least an initial expansion in the slums and the specter of poverty,” said the ‘Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds’ report. More interesting is the warning the report has issued, which is that if new middle-class entrants find it difficult to cling to their new status and are pulled back toward impoverishment, they will pressure governments for change. “Rising expectations that are frustrated have historically been a powerful driver of political turmoil.” Hear, hear. Remember the 99 per cent.