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A Jekyll and Hyde food price index

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FAO's usual winsome twosome, the food price index and food commodity price index charts.

FAO’s usual winsome twosome, the food price index and food commodity price index charts.

Why does the perversity of international food price monitoring continue when all evidence tells us food price inflation is raging just as it was in 2007-08? Here is an example of how persistent this perversity is.

Maize in Malawi at 280%, maize in Tanzania at 110%, maize in Mozambique at 60%, maize in Zambia at 50%. Wheat in Tajikistan and in Russia at 55%, wheat in Kyrgystan and Afghanistan at 40%, rice in Myanmar at 35%. Maize in Haiti at 55%, maize in Honduras at 40%, wheat and rice in Brazil at 30%, maize in Nicaragua at 30%, rice in Bolivia at 25%.

Those are the annual increases in the prices of these cereals in the countries named. The estimates come from the charts found in the FAO Global Food Price Monitor for 2013 May (which has prices for up to April). The charts however are at the end of the Monitor. On the first page, the Monitor offers very short summaries. Like this one:

“In Eastern Africa, maize prices mostly strengthened for the second consecutive month following seasonable patterns. However, prices stabilized or started to decline in some countries where new harvests are about to start.” Is that what is being described with a 110% increase in Tanzania?

Or this one:

“In Asia, domestic prices of rice and wheat generally weakened with the arrival of the 2013 early season rice and winter wheat harvests.” Is that what is being described with a 35% increase in Myanmar?

Or even this one:

What FAO's own charts tell us about rising food prices for staples worldwide. These are from the FAO Global Food Price Monitor for 2013 May.

What FAO’s own charts tell us about rising food prices for staples worldwide. These are from the FAO Global Food Price Monitor for 2013 May.

“In Central America, maize prices strengthened in April with the onset of the lean season and in some countries were at high levels. Bean prices remained low, pressured by abundant supplies from bumper crops in the 2012-13 cropping season.” Is that what is being described with a 40% increase in Honduras?

Who are these summaries really for and why does FAO persist in releasing to the public these misleading pictures of food prices (when it means export prices), and especially when its own price monitoring tools tell us very clearly that many many people are struggling under crushing inflation in the prices of food staples?

To take the food price opera further, this is what the FAO Food Price Indexwhich is one of the world’s primary indices and referred to thousands of times a day by planners, the food industry, policy-makers, bankers (always bankers), commodity traders, foreign exchange brokers, bond market artists and rogues, warehousing tycoons, the purveyors of genetically modified seed, the cigar-smoking CEOs of grain trading companies, and the smarmy corrupt political cronies of all of the above – says about cereals:

“The FAO Cereal Price Index averaged 234.6 points in April, down 10 points (4.1%) from March, but nearly 11 points (4.9%) above the corresponding period last year. Most of the decline in April was triggered by weaker maize prices on expectation of higher closing stocks and favourable 2013 crop prospects. Wheat prices changed little, as the downward pressure stemming from expectation of larger inventories was offset by the upward pressure resulting from concern over the poor growing conditions and spring crop planting delays in the United States. Rice prices were marginally down …”

Read that again, 4.9% above the corresponding period last year. The smallest of the annual percentage increases in the second paragraph of this posting is five times as much as 4.9% which is why we must ask FAO, again and again, who the beneficiaries of this large international effort to collect and distribute food prices really are.

Not the populations of Mzuzu, Kampala and Milange or Jalalabad, Yangon and Sughd, or Tegucigalpa, Sao Paulo and Jacmel, all of whom must find their own means of measuring the burdens of food price increases, and who have in the last year, cut down on health care and perhaps even the education of their children, only to not go hungry too often, too painfully.

Tiffin: dry regions, China’s guidelines, permaculture, GM crops, valuing drylands, FAO saves money

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(1) The International Instititute for Environment and Development (IIED) says that current policy narratives limit climate resilience in world’s dry regions: “Partial narratives that underpin policymaking prevent people in arid regions from fulfilling their potential to provide food and sustain resilient livelihoods in a changing climate.” IIED has country-specific papers on the following topics: rainfed agriculture for an inclusive, sustainable and food secure India; pastoralism as the custodian of China’s grasslands; moving beyond the rhetoric and the challenge of reform in Kenya’s drylands. (Thanks to the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog for this.)

(2) International Rivers says that on 28 February 2013 the Chinese government released its ‘Guidelines for Environmental Protection in Foreign Investment and Cooperation’ which was based on recommendations by the Chinese NGO Global Environmental Institute. These Guidelines provide civil society groups with a new source of leverage when it comes to holding Chinese companies responsible for their environmental and social impacts overseas. These (non-binding) guidelines cover key issues, including legal compliance, environmental policies, environmental management plans, mitigation measures, disaster management plans, community relations, waste management, and international standards.

(3) Permaculture programmes are more multifunctional than typical agricultural development programmes, according to this comment in the Guardian, which is important given the growing call for ‘triple-win solutions’ (more management gobbledygook) for agriculture, health, and environmental sustainability. Some examples are given. Partners in Health ran a model permaculture farmer programme in Malawi which helped HIV/Aids patients get the additional caloric and micronutrient intake that they need. In Malawi and South Africa, permaculture is used “as a sustainable, non-donor dependent tool for improving the health, food and nutrition security, and livelihoods,” of orphans and vulnerable children, according to a recent USAid report. In Indonesia, Oxfam funded a permaculture school that taught ex-combatants and tsunami survivors how to improve their food security and livelihoods, while protecting the environment.

(4) A review article in the Agronomy for Sustainable Development journal concludes that GM crops will not only not feed the world, they are hampering efforts to sustainably feed the world by jeopardising existing biological and genetic diversity. The authors argue that agrobiodiversity should be a central element in sustainable agriculture development, and increased access to genetic resources is necessary to increase food production for an expanding world population under the threat of climate change. GM crops on the other hand concentrate ownership of agricultural resources in the hands of corporate interests in developed countries through intellectual property rights instruments. (Thanks to Third World Network for this.)

(5) Drylands in European and North American countries on average generate US$4,290 and US$277 per hectare respectively every year, but this figure jumps to US$6,462 in Asia, US$9,184 in Africa and US$9,764 in Latin America. Around 40 per cent of the world’s total land area consists of dryland ecosystems, the majority of which are in developing nations. The economic value of dryland ecosystems — determined by factors including food and raw material production, ecosystem services and tourism — is far greater in (what are still commonly called) ‘developing countries’, according to a study. This value in Africa and Latin America is more than double that in Europe and more than 30 times that in North America, which should influence how policymakers prioritise dryland conservation, according to the study that was presented at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification’s (UNCCD) 2nd Scientific Conference this month.

(6) During the FAO Council’s Hundred and Forty-sixth Session (in Rome, 22-26 April 2013) delegates learned that in addition to the US$6.5 million in savings that member countries mandated FAO to identify, the Organization was able to cut costs by an additional $19.3 million. The total savings of $25.8 million, nearly four times what was required, consisted mostly of savings in administrative areas especially at FAO headquarters. Director-General Graziano da Silva said that this process made it possible to advance with the Organization’s decentralisation, which includes the creation of 55 professional posts worldwide while maintaining technical capacity at Headquarters. “As I have argued before, I believe that a strong presence in the field is the way to truly make FAO a knowledge organization with its feet on the ground,” Graziano da Silva said.

The man who (almost) sold his mother for fertiliser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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