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Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

Posts Tagged ‘sustainability

The FAO mask slips further

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Family farming is a descriptive phrase that rings well with environmentalists, with anthropologists and ethnologists who have had anything to do with food and its cultivation, with naturalists and especially with the many groups promoting agro-ecological farming all over the world. What could be wrong with recognising and valorising family farming?

The FAO's view of smallholder farming, agri-business and markets, rendered in textbook business school fashion.

The FAO’s view of smallholder farming, agri-business and markets, rendered in textbook business school fashion.

Quite a lot, when it comes through the machinery of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s propaganda mill. The most cited of the FAO’s ‘flagship’ publications, the State of Food and Agriculture in 2014 has as its theme family farming, but this theme carries a passenger, which the FAO has described as ‘Innovation in family farming’. And that is how the mask has slipped further.

[The State of Food and Agriculture, FAO’s major annual flagship publication has as its 2014 theme ‘Innovation in family farming’ (the full report here and a summary here).]

The publication needs to be read not for the assertions of how important smallholder farming is, but for the conceptual machinery that has been assembled so that a technical take-over of small farms can be achieved with limited opposition. This is the scheme of the FAO of 2014, which is sadly a very different agency from what it was even a decade ago.

SOFA 2014 in its prose swings rather schizophrenically between sugary pronouncements about how family farms are “the custodians of about 75 percent of all agricultural resources in the world”, and therefore why they should be the new focus for an innovation that is techno-centric. The publication has made liberal use of terms such as “improved ecological and resource sustainability” and where the word ‘sustainable’ is used ‘vulnerable’ is surely not far behind. It isn’t, and SOFA 2014 goes to some lengths to convince its readers that most family farms are vulnerable in one or many ways.

The spin doctors employed by the FAO have come up with what the publication has called a triple challenge for family farming (challenges are most intimidating when they come in threes). This is: “yield growth to meet the world’s need for food security and better nutrition; environmental sustainability to protect the planet and to secure their own productive capacity; and productivity growth and livelihood diversification to lift themselves out of poverty and hunger”. The answer, according to the machine men of international crop science, is that they must innovate (or, better still, nominally hold the title to the factors of crop production while the innovation is administered by outside agents).

FAO_SOFA_2014_coverThis very brief canning of the publication’s main objective helps to place in context the main messages of this year’s State of Food and Agriculture, which include:

“Family farms are part of the solution for achieving food security and sustainable rural development; the world’s food security and environmental sustainability depend on the more than 500 million family farms that form the backbone of agriculture in most countries.”

Here the device of a very large number, 500 million, is used to reassure the critics that the forces that would control the world’s crop staples are unlikely to homogenise such a number. But indeed it is their number and variety that are being studied carefully in order to find approaches that – to use the acidic terms of the multi-lateral banks – boost investor confidence. Hence the considered advice from FAO: “Family farms are an extremely diverse group, and innovation systems must take this diversity into account.”

There is more on complexity and diversity with specific regard to the institutions for crop science (and for food retail and sales, the porcine twin of formal modern agriculture research). The SOFA has said: “The challenges facing agriculture and the institutional environment for agricultural innovation are far more complex than ever before; the world must create an innovation system that embraces this complexity.” What the FAO means by “more complex than ever before” is the growing opposition to industrial agriculture, agricultural biotechnology and the use of genetic modification techniques. So, the embracing that is called for is one that should sound acceptable, non-threatening, inclusive, participatory and all the other terms that the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal-setters so volubly use.

FAO_SOFA_2014_cover_bwInstitutions cost money, which will come from where exactly? The FAO has a ready answer. “Public investment in agricultural R&D and extension and advisory services should be increased and refocused to emphasise sustainable intensification and closing yield and labour productivity gaps.” That is to say, leave the innovation bit to the private sector, turn your research centres (built and run with public monies) over to us, dismantle your nationalist agricultural extension service but give us the network, and look how we close yield and productivity gaps. That’s the pitch, in a nutshell, ignoring the several blunt cautions raised by other UN agencies (including the previous Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food) that we have quite enough food but far too little equity and fairness concerning how it reaches those who need it.

This publication, the State of Food and Agriculture, is the latest that has been outfitted to serve FAO’s new interest, camouflaged though it is. The usual empowering wordiness that has become so tiresomely characteristic of the UN system is on view here too: family farmers need an enabling environment, good governance, stable macroeconomic conditions, transparent legal and regulatory regimes, secure property rights, risk management tools, market infrastructure, capacity development through investment in education and training, participatory agricultural research, emphasise sustainable intensification, closing the yield and productivity gaps.

Until the next major report, this one will be turned into a mini-curriculum to be referenced by client governments so that a technologically obsessed industrial agriculture and seed industry annexes larger shares of old markets (India and South-East Asia) and totally subordinates small new ones (African countries). ‘Fiat panis’ (let there be bread) is the FAO motto and after a reading of SOFA 2014 one could be excused for considering that this motto be switched with ‘fiat food oligarchs’, for that is the direction the FAO, under Jose Graziano da Silva, is firmly pursuing.


At 21, the Human Development Report and its message of equity in 2011

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Today, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) will release its 2011 Human Development Report, the 21st in the annual series that lets us know how well – or not – the populations in countries are doing. Whether on education, health, income, poverty, cost-of-living the human development indices are now well-constructed and evolved measures of the well-being of people. Today, we’ll know a little more about how 7 billion people live on our Earth.

This year’s ediition is called  ‘Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All’. The HDR website has said the report will call for the urgent global challenges of sustainability and equity to be addressed together – and that the 2011 HDR identifies policies on the national and global level that could spur mutually reinforcing progress towards these interlinked goals.

These introductory articles are uniformly boring and uniformly useless to all those who deal with real questions, hard quetions and tough decisions every day. They say things like “bold action is needed if the recent human development progress for most of the world’s poor majority is to be sustained” and things like “the benefit of future generations as well as for those living today”.

The excitingly squiggly colourful HDI lines that debuted in 2010

This is irritating, but has become part of the HDI furniture. For some perverse reason top politicians and top UN agency muckamucks seem unwilling to cut the waffling and get on with it. Anyway. we’re interested in the rest of the report, the data, the statistics, the methodologies, the background studies and a whole bunch of related research – so that’s what this and related HDI posts will dwell on in the weeks to come.

The HDR website has mentioned that the 2011 report will talk about living standards. Here’s a sentence I want to read more about when the big package opens up: “Yet the 2011 Report projects a disturbing reversal of those trends if environmental deterioration and social inequalities continue to intensify, with the least developed countries diverging downwards from global patterns of progress by 2050.” What are the numbers that led to this prickly insight, I would very much like to see.

Look for these in the 2011 edition:
UNDP HDR 2011 International Consultations
UNDP HDR 2011 Advisory Panels
UNDP HDR 2011 Human Development Seminars
UNDP HDR 2011 Commissioned Research

Let’s look back. A year ago, in 2010 November, UNDP when releasing the HDR 2010 said that “most developing countries made dramatic yet often underestimated progress in health, education and basic living standards in recent decades, with many of the poorest countries posting the greatest gains”. HDR 2010 cautioned that “patterns of achievement vary greatly, with some countries losing ground since 1970”.

Overall, HDR 2010 showed that life expectancy climbed from 59 years in 1970 to 70 in 2010, school enrolment rose from just 55 percent of all primary and secondary school-age children to 70 percent, and per capita GDP doubled to more than US$10,000 (sorry, but this last is a particularly meaningless number). Life expectancy, for example, rose by 18 years in the Arab states between 1970 and 2010, compared to eight years in sub-Saharan Africa. The 135 cuntries studied include 92 percent of the world’s population.

The visual designing coup of 2010

Within the pattern of overall global progress, the variation among countries is striking, said HDR 2010. Over the past 40 years – that is, tilll 2010 – the lowest performing 25 percent experienced less than a 20 percent improvement in HDI performance, while the top-performing group averaged gains of 54 percent. Yet as a group, the quartile of countries at the bottom of the HDI scale in 1970 improved faster than those then at the top, with an average gain of 61 percent. Somewhat zanily, HDR 2010 then advised us that “the diverse national pathways to development documented … show that there is no single formula for sustainable progress”. Umm, we did somehow notice that, all by ourselves actually.

What was enormously useful in HDR 2010 were three new indices that the world’s rambunctious and usually argumentative development community has still not grasped firmly with opposable thumbs. These are:
• The Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI) – For the first time, this year’s Report examines HDI data through the lens of inequality, adjusting HDI achievements to reflect disparities in income, health and education. The HDI alone, as a composite of national averages, hides disparities within countries, so these adjustments for inequality provide a fuller picture of people’s well-being.
• The Gender Inequality Index (GII) – The 2010 Report introduces a new measure of gender inequities, including maternal mortality rates and women’s representation in parliaments. The Gender Inequality Index is designed to measure the negative human development impact of deep social and economic disparities between men and women.
• The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) – this is the equivalent of the 400-pound gorilla for all HDI-related stuff – it complements income-based poverty assessments by looking at multiple factors at the household level, from basic living standards to access to schooling, clean water and health care. About 1.7 billion people—fully a third of the population in the 104 countries included in the MPI—are estimated to live in multidimensional poverty, more than the estimated 1.3 billion who live on $1.25 a day or less.

So, while waiting for the goodies from HDR 2011, there are some questions that still smoulder from earlier editions. Here’s one: what does the evidence from the past 40 years tell us about the relationship between growth and changes in human development? The two-panel chart which accompanies this post (below) presents the basic result. The left panel shows a positive association — though with substantial variation — suggesting that growth and improvements in human development are positively associated.

Remember, however, that income is part of the HDI; thus, by construction, a third of the changes in the HDI come from economic growth, guaranteeing a positive association. That’s why a far more useful exercise is to compare income growth with changes in the non-income dimensions of human development (gift economies would be wonderful subjects). This has been done using an index similar to the HDI but calculated with only the health and education indicators of the HDI to compare its changes with economic growth. The non-income HDI is presented in the right panel of the chart – looking for the correlation? Remarkably weak and statistically insignificant, as they said so themselves.

That will deliver a smart kick in the collected pants of the G20 muckamucks when they assemble (what? again!) in France (Cannes) for a new episode of creative bullshitting fiscal sophistry. But, here’s the strange thing. Previous studies have found the same result. One of the first scholars to study this link systematically was US demographer Samuel Preston, whose landmark 1975 article showed that the correlation between changes in income and changes in life expectancy over 30 years for 30 countries was not statistically significant. As ideas such as ‘sustainability’ and ‘environmental’ began gaining traction from the early 1970s onwards – think ‘Limits to Growth‘ – more data became available, and other researchers obtained the same result. In a 1999 article, ‘Life during Growth‘, William Easterly found a remarkably weak association between growth and quality of life indicators such as health, education, political freedom, conflict and inequality. Easterly’s work was ignored by the bankers and their compradors for years thereafter.

Next, François Bourguignon, director of the Paris School of Economics, and several African and European colleagues concluded that “the correlation between GDP per capita growth and nonincome [Millennium Development Goals] is practically zero”. That should have been turned into a poster and hung on the wall of every bloody finance minstry from Abuja to Auckland. More recently, World Bank economist Charles Kenny recently confirmed the lack of correlation between improvements in life expectancy and growth, using both a large sample of countries over 25 years and a smaller sample covering a much longer period. I advise his still-serving colleagues to dust off his file and read his work, for the first time for them.

Well, ’nuff said. Let’s wait till the HDR 2011 starts streaming towards us, tweets and video and all.