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Posts Tagged ‘Millennium Development Goals

A tiring tale from the FAO that again ignores the global food industry

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Cheap processed food advertised in Chengdu, P R China.

Cheap processed food advertised in Chengdu, P R China.

Why has the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) not stated what has become painfully obvious to households the world over – that the macro-economics which determines everything from what farmers grow and what city workers pay for food is utterly out of control?

This silence is why FAO’s ‘State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013’ – with its updated estimates of undernourishment and its diplomatic paragraphs about progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and World Food Summit (WFS) hunger targets – remains conceptually crippled.

The roles of the food industry, its financiers, its commodities satraps, the marketers and their fixers in government, the networks that link legislators and food business investors in countries with growing processed foods businesses, all these shape food security at the community and household level. Yet none of these are considered critically by an FAO report that ought to be thoroughly non-partisan on the matter.

The FAO ‘State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013’ (condensed to SOFI 2013) has said that “further progress has been made towards the 2015 MDG target, which remains within reach for the developing regions as a whole, although marked differences across regions persist and considerable and immediate additional efforts will be needed”.

How many more food insecurity indicators are needed to tell governments what their working class households already know? The table of SOFI 2013 indicators.

How many more food insecurity indicators are needed to tell governments what their working class households already know? The table of SOFI 2013 indicators.

In the first place, let’s consider the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) target concerning hunger. This is to halve the proportion of hungry people in the total population. There is also the World Food Summit (WFS) target, which is to halve the number of hungry people. Both have 2015 as the target year. However, any hunger has no place in a world that today produces more than enough food to adequately feed every elder, child, woman and man.

But there is another aspect, and this is: who does the FAO think is paying attention to ‘global’ targets and placing these targets above any local needs or ambitions? Just as the MDGs are scarcely known and recognised outside the enormous development industry which perpetuates a growing mountain of studies and reports on the MDGs, nor are ‘global’ hunger reduction targets. When alleged leaders of the world gather together in the United Nations General Assemblies and other grand international fora and ask (in a tiresome and repetitive way) how we are going to feed 9 billion people, no individual smallholder farmer listens, because growing and feeding is done locally, and therefore ‘targets’ are also local, just as food insecurity or security is local.

This is why the SOFI 2013 approach – which is to say that “the estimated number of undernourished people has continued to decrease [but] the rate of progress appears insufficient to reach international goals for hunger reduction” – is utterly out of place and does not in any way reflect the numerous variety of problems concerning the provision of food, nor does it reflect the equally numerous variety of local approaches to fulfilling food provisioning.

Next, it is way past high time that FAO and the UN system in general jettison the “developing regions” label. It has no meaning and is an unacceptable legacy of the colonial view. Besides, as I point out a little later, food inadequacy (including insecurity and outright poverty) is becoming more and not less prevalent in the so-called developed regions. And moreover, I object to “considerable and immediate additional efforts will be needed” to reverse food insecurity, as the SOFI recommends, because this is the green signal to the global industrial agri-food industry to ram through its destructive prescriptions in the name of additional efforts.

SOFI 2013 also “presents a broader suite of indicators that aim to capture the multi-dimensional nature of food insecurity, its determinants and outcomes”. Once again, it is way past high time that the FAO ceased encouraging a proliferation of indicators of every description (and then some) that do next to nothing to ensure low external input and organic agriculture supported by communities and local in scale and scope, and in which the saving of seed and the preservation of crop and plant diversity is enshrined. There is not one – not a single indicator from FAO (and not one from any of its major partners, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) – for this need that is at the core of the myriad wonderful expressions of human civilisation.

Oxfam has made graphic the growing poverty in the European Union.

Oxfam has made graphic the growing poverty in the European Union.

SOFI 2013 also said that “recent global and national food consumer price indices suggest that changes in consumer prices were generally much more muted than those recorded by international price indices, often influenced by greatly increased speculation in spot, futures and options markets”. This unfortunately is completely untrue, for even FAO’s own database on national consumer price indexes (supplied by FAO member countries themselves) suggests that the CPI follows international price indices (this blog has pointed out the correlation a number of times in the last two years). And it is the same macro-economics that rewards speculators in “in spot, futures and options markets” which also deepens food insecurity every year.

Now, to return to the question of who is “developing” and who is not. The European Union (28 countries) has a population of 503 million (the early 2012 estimate). The USA has a population of 313 million (mid-2012 estimate). How large a group in both the European Union and the USA are hovering around the poverty lines, or who are plain poor, and who cannot afford to buy enough food for themselves?

In a report released in September 2013, the Oxfam aid agency warned that the poverty trap in Europe, which already encompasses more than 120 million people, could swell by an additional 25 million with austerity policies continuing. The report, ‘A cautionary tale: Europe’s bitter crisis of austerity and inequality’, said that one in two working families has been directly affected by the loss of jobs or reduction of working hours.

The food insecurity problem has been growing in the non-“developing” world just as fast as it has been growing in sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, south-east Asia and other “developing” regions that the FAO’s flagship reports habitually places in the foreground. In early 2012 news reports in European Union countries were mentioning regularly how “ever more people are threatened with poverty”. The European Commission’s office for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion said so too: “Household incomes have declined and the risk of poverty or exclusion is constantly growing.”

Across the Atlantic, a US Census Bureau report released in September 2013 titled ‘Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012’, poverty was found to be “at a near-generation high of 15 percent, close to the high point since the 1965 War on Poverty, the 15.2 percent rate reached in 1983”. This report found that 46.5 million USA ctitzens (about 9.5 million families) live in poverty and that some 20.4 million people live on an income less than half of the official poverty line of the USA.

FAO’s ‘State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013’ will with its present methods, outlook and biases be useful neither to cultivating communities growing the food we eat, nor to administrators in districts and provinces who must plan and budget to encourage local action that brings about food security, nor to the member countries of the United Nations if it continues to ignore the very large and growing numbers of the poor in the European Union and USA – 170 million poor people, and therefore food insecure, is a population that is considerably larger than that of any country in sub-Saharan Africa which inevitably figures in these reports.

Here are the materials for FAO’s ‘State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013’: The FAO news story. A frequently asked questions document. The FAO page on State of Food Insecurity 2013. The executive summary. The full pdf file and chapters. The e-book. The food security indicators data.


New, improved human development indices

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Now where did I put that new index?

Policymakers and commentators are constantly looking for new ways to measure development, writes Martin Ravallion, Director of the Development Research Group of the World Bank, in his column at VoxEU. In his comment, titled ‘Your new composite index has arrived: Please handle with care’, he warns against embracing new composite indices with little guidance from economic or other theories. Ravallion then talks about the strengths and weaknesses of using what he calls ‘mashup’ indices of development (a ‘mashup’ is a web term, which means to mix data in a new way using a new ‘app’ that presents it to users).

“A host of indicators are used to track development. The World Bank’s annual World Development Indicators presents hundreds of such indicators. The United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals are defined using a long list of indicators. Faced with so many indicators – a “large and eclectic dashboard,” as the Stiglitz report nicely puts it – there is an understandable desire to form a single composite index.”

You want to index our work? Surely you're joking.

“For some of the composite indices found in practice, economic theory provides useful clues as to how the index should be constructed (GDP, for example). This is not the case for another type of composite index that is becoming popular. For these, neither the list of underlying data nor the aggregation technique is informed by theory or practice. The maker of the composite-indicator has free roam and is largely unconstrained by economic or other theories intended to inform measurement practice.”

Having referenced in his article the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, developed by among others Sabina Alkire and Maria Emma Santos, Alkire has commented on Ravallion’s musings. “I am grateful for the interest shown in our Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) that we developed as an experimental series for the 2010 UNDP Human Development Report that will be released 4 November.”

This paper recycling shop in Mumbai is not yet a beneficiary of the human development indexing effort

“In sum, I agree with Martin’s statement in his Mashup paper, “The lesson to be drawn from this review is not to abandon mashup indices.” I agree equally with the emphasis of this article: that we need to handle composite indices of all kinds with care and curiousity, to understand exactly their construction, their robustness, their legitimate policy interpretations, and their oversights. For that reason Maria Emma Santos and I have stated explicitly the strengths and limitations of the new Multidimensional Poverty Index, and undertaken thorough robustness tests and quality checks, and found it was indeed robust to a number of plausible changes to the indicators, thresholds, and changes in the poverty cutoff. We also have highlighted the areas which do require further research, are undertaking that work and hope others will contribute.”

Well, an index is only as good as the intention that guides it. It will be most useful if it helps the right questions to be framed, and indicates where the answers may be found. Indices of poverty and human development which command most attention are also those that are global in scope. As Ravallion says, these help people – policymakers among them – see where their country stands when compared with others. That’s well and good, but much of our work is within countries, not across them, and much of our work involves dealing with realities that are highly subjective and fluid, open always to a variety of forces and influences.

Poverty for example may be deepened just as much by barriers of caste or environmental degradation as it is by ill health and natural calamity. How does one capture caste biases and environmental degradation as it affects a sub-tribe in a particular locale? An index that attempts to do this will be both dreadfully complex and not portable. Perhaps it is best for locals to develop their own means of measurement, comparison and rating. In that, the lessons provided by Ravallion, Alkire and the host of social scientists on whose shoulders they rest can be put to use.

MDGs, hunger and the global food system

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Rawal Dam Running Dry

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

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

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

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

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

Islamabad Water Carrier

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Do or die’ year for agriculture

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“If we don’t take steps to address the serious ecological, economic and social crises facing our farm families, we will be forced to support foreign farmers, through extensive food imports.”
“This will result in a rise in food inflation, increase the rural-urban and rich-poor divides and allow the era of farmers’ suicides to persist.”
“On the other hand, we have a unique opportunity for ensuring food for all by mobilizing the power of Yuva and Mahila Kisans and by harnessing the vast untapped yield reservoir existing in most farming systems through synergy between technology and public policy.”
“2010 is a do or die year for Indian agriculture.”

An increased number of residents of the terai are now food insecure as a result of unusually heavy rains earlier this month

An increased number of residents of the terai are now food insecure as a result of unusually heavy rains earlier this month

So says Prof M S Swaminathan, India’s best-known agriculture scientist, who established the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in 1988. Chastened by the limitations of the ‘green revolution’, the MSSRF’s mission is the conservation and enhancement of natural resources, and generation of agricultural, rural and off-farm employment with a particular emphasis on the poor and the women.

Swaminathan made these points in a blunt, hard-hitting and no-nonsense convocation address at the Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana on 10 February 2010. The content of his address should have attracted national attention, because of the urgency of his tone and also because of the specific, very feasible institutional transformations his suggestions will need. He talked about adaptation to climate change and explained that a group of scientists led by the MSSRF have undertaken studies during the last five years in Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh on climate change adaptation measures. The districts chosen were Udaipur in Rajasthan and Mehabubnagar in Andhra Pradesh. The approach adopted was to bring about a blend of traditional wisdom and modern science through farmer participatory research.

MSS mentioned five particular points of adaptation:
1. Water conservation and sustainable and equitable use
2. Promoting fodder security
3. More crop and income per drop of water
4. Weather information for all and climate literacy
5. Strengthening community institutions

He said these interventions were supported by training and skill development and education and social mobilization. A training manual was prepared by MSSRF for training one woman and one male member of every Panchayat as Climate Risk Managers. Such local level Climate Risk Managers will be well trained in the art and science of managing weather abnormalities. The work has highlighted the need for location specific adaptation measures and for participatory research and knowledge management.

“The adaptation interventions have also highlighted the need for mainstreaming gender considerations in all interventions. Women will suffer more from Climate Change, since they have been traditionally in charge of collecting water, fodder and fuel wood, and have been shouldering the responsibility for farm animal care and post-harvest technology. All interventions should therefore be pro-nature, pro-poor and pro-women.”

Sujit Kumar Mondal and his wife Rupashi Mondal of Gopalgonj district in southern Bangladesh working in their floating garden.

Sujit Kumar Mondal and his wife Rupashi Mondal of Gopalgonj district in southern Bangladesh working in their floating garden.

“It is clear that to promote location specific and farmer-centric adaptation measures; India will need a Climate Risk Management Research and Extension Centre at each of the 127 agro-ecological regions in the country. Such centres should prepare Drought, Flood and Good Weather Codes what can help to minimize the adverse impact of abnormal weather and to maximize the benefits of favourable monsoons and temperature. Risk surveillance and early warning should be the other responsibilities of such centres. Thus the work done so far has laid the foundation for a Climate Resilient Agriculture Movement in India. The importance of such a Movement will be obvious considering the fact that 60% of India’s population of 1.1 billion depend upon agriculture for their livelihood. In addition, India has to produce food, feed and fodder for over 1.1 billion human, and over a billion farm animal population.”

It is a shared responsibility, said MSS, and one that the non-farming, urban population must recognise and help bear. “Urban and non-farming members of the human family should realize that we live on this planet as the guests of sunlight and green plants, and of the farm women and men who toil in sun and rain, and day and night, to produce food for over 6 billion people, by bringing about synergy between green plants and sunlight. Let us salute the farmers of the world and help them to help in achieving the goal of a hunger free world, the first among the U N Millennium Development Goals.”

These points are made at a time when India (or rather the central government and key ministries) still places economic growth as a priority rather than ecologically sustainable existence which is mindful of cultural traditions and which builds on extensive systems of traditional knowledge to take a human development route that is climate neutral. From 2007 onwards, there have been major intergovernmental and international studies on the impacts of climate change (including on agriculture). Several of these have shown that in South and East Asia, rice yields are affected. For most crops and regions, carbon fertilisation accentuates the positive impacts and mitigates the negative ones. However, there is considerable uncertainty about the true impact of carbon fertilisation. Among developing countries, the number of countries which ‘lose’ exceed the number of countries that ‘gain’, and their decrease in cereal production was greater than gains elsewhere.

Developing countries are worse off, where agriculture is concerned, said an OECD study in 2008 titled ‘Costs of Inaction on Key Environmental Challenges’. For example, the scenario with the highest CO2 concentration showed a 7% decline for developing countries. For developed countries, yields actually increased under all scenarios, but the global effect was always negative, or (at best) neutral. Not only was there significant variation across countries; the implications for the risk of hunger also varied greatly, depending on assumptions made about the fertilising effects of increasing CO2 concentrations.

“Assuming ‘no action’ is taken with respect to emissions, positive changes in yields (due to warming, precipitation, and crop fertilisation) in mid and high latitudes were predicted to be more than compensated by reductions in the lower latitudes, particularly in Africa and the Indian sub-continent. Changing crop yields (and demands) will affect market prices for agricultural output, as well as land prices. Decreases in agricultural yields in developing countries are likely to have significant implications for risk of hunger.”

Moreover, there has been evidence enough of the links between reducing poverty and strengthening agriculture. A paper produced by DFID (the British official aid agency, in 2004) emphasises the historically close correlation between different rates of poverty reduction over the past 40 years and differences in agricultural performance – particularly the rate of growth of agricultural productivity. There are links described between agriculture and poverty reduction through four ‘transmission mechanisms’: 1) direct impact of improved agricultural performance on rural incomes; 2) impact of cheaper food for both urban and rural poor; 3) agriculture’s contribution to growth and the generation of economic opportunity in the non-farm sector; and 4) agriculture’s fundamental role in stimulating and sustaining economic transition, as countries (and poor people’s livelihoods) shift away from being primarily agricultural towards a broader base of manufacturing and services.

Why is this so important to India and so important now? An ADB paper explains (‘A General Equilibrium Analysis of the Impact of Climate Change on Agriculture in the People’s Republic of China’, by Fan Zhai, Tun Lin, and Enerelt Byambadorj, Asian Development Bank, 2010). Despite rapid growth in recent decades, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is no exception to the effects of climate change. It also faces a great challenge to meet increasing demand for agricultural products due to increasing population and income level in the coming years. In the PRC, agriculture accounted for 11.7% of the national gross domestic product (GDP) in 2006 and agricultural crop land occupied 157 million hectares. Agricultural production has enabled the country to feed a population of 1.3 billion people, more than a fifth of the world’s population, of whom 900 million live in rural areas, from an eighth of the world’s arable land.

“Global climate change could cause rises in temperature, redistribution of rainfall, and more frequent flooding and droughts, and do considerable damage to crop production and the agricultural sector in general,” says the ADB paper. “At the national level, overall impact on crop production, assuming there is no carbon dioxide (CO2) fertilisation, is an estimated 7 to 14% reduction in rice, 9 to 10% reduction in maize, and 2 to 9% reduction in wheat. Assuming an average drop of 7%, this means a reduction of almost 40 million metric tons of food grain, and 20% of the global grain trade. Such a loss would undermine food security in the PRC, with particular health consequences for the poor and women, as females are primarily responsible for feeding the family.”

Billions of euros, and the zero-rupee note

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The German weekly newspaper, Die Zeit, is easily among the best designed papers in the world. It is also consistently critical in its investigations and reporting, and just as consistently innovative in the manner in which it presents subjects. Visually, Die Zeit’s pages have few peers worldwide, if at all.

Billions swallowed up (Die Zeit, Deutschland)This is a typical example of how Die Zeit is able to hold its readers’ interest, dramatically present numeric data and at the same time make a strong political statement about state spending.

The title of this arresting full page graphic is ‘Seid verschlungen, Milliarden!’, which means ‘Billions swallowed up’. The graphic purports to be an aid to politicians who notoriously have no idea, says Die Zeit, how many zeros there are in a billion but who blithely continue to agree to spend billions (of public money).

There are some eye-popping numbers represented by the coloured squares on this page. The German healthcare system is 245 billion euro, the income of the church in Germany is 330 billion euro, Germany’s federal budget for ‘Bildung und Forschung’ (education and research) is 11 billion euro, Germany must reserve 283 billion euro for pensions (which is separate from the 36 billion euro to be spent on pensions for its government officials).

Billions swallowed up (Die Zeit, Deutschland)The cost of sending all children in developing countries to school for five years is reckoned to be 321 billion euro, the development aid of the richest developed/industrialised countries is 72 billion euro, the cost of halving the incidence of poverty in developed countries (as under the UN’s Millennium Development Goals) is 32 billion euro, the cost to the USA of the 2003 Iraq war was 40 billion euro, and the cost to date of the Iraq and Afghanistan war to the USA is 1,242 billion euro.

While on the subject of money and public spending, The Economist has reported the issue of the zero rupee currency note. The surprising note looks like the typical 50-rupee note, except it is for ‘zero rupees’. In place of ‘Reserve Bank of India’ it says ‘Eliminate Corruption at all Levels’ and in the same vein has replaced the usual “I promise to pay the bearer…” with “I promise to neither accept nor give bribe”. This excellent public campaign has been launched by a Chennai-based NGO called 5th Pillar (P O Box No 5338, Chennai 600024, phone +91 44 65273056).

The zero rupee noteVijay Anand is president of the NGO and is also, according to the Economist report, an expatriate Indian physics professor from the University of Maryland “who, travelling back home, found himself harassed by endless extortion demands. He gave the (zero rupee) notes to the importuning officials as a polite way of saying no.” 5th Pillar reportedly had 25,000 zero rupee notes printed and publicised to mobilise opposition to corruption. The idea caught on and the NGO says it has distributed a million zero rupee notes since 2007. Haven’t seen any in Mumbai though – although in Mumbai it’s at least a hundred that the most junior traffic policeman will settle for and for municipal jobs one starts with 500 rupees, so 5th Pillar will need to do a Mumbai and Delhi set of zero-rupee notes in those colours, not 50-rupee colours.