World hunger best cured by small-scale agriculture: report

Nidhi Prakash, the guardian
The key to alleviating world hunger, poverty and combating climate change may lie in fresh, small-scale approaches to agriculture, according to a report from the Worldwatch Institute.

The US-based institute’s annual State of the World report, published yesterday, calls for a move away from industrial agriculture and discusses small-scale initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa that work towards poverty and hunger relief in an environmentally sustainable way.

The authors suggest that instead of producing more food to meet the world’s growing population needs, a more effective way to address food security issues and climate change would be to encourage self-sufficiency and waste reduction, in wealthier and poorer nations alike.

“If we shift just some of our attention away from production to consumption issues and reducing food waste, we might actually get quite a big bang for our buck, because that ground has been neglected,” said Brian Halweil, co-director of the project…

…The projects explored in the report include community-based initiatives in urban farming, school gardening and feeding programmes, and indigenous livestock preservation.

In Kenya’s largest slum, in Nairobi, local women are growing vertical gardens in sacks, providing them with a source of income but also an element of food security for their families.

Although Halweil says national governments should lead the way in implementing change, the report suggests that international attitudes towards agricultural development need to shift if the lessons from these case studies are to bring about results on a larger scale…
(13 January 2011)
related: The report is behind a paywall here. The State of the World 2011 Decision-Maker Briefs are on the Nourishing the Planet website. Grist also has an article by one of the authors.

The futility of trying to fight these food and energy price shocks

Roger Bootle, The Telegraph
Agricultural commodity prices are almost 50pc higher. This is the bigger event, not just proportionately but also because in most countries, particularly poor ones, food accounts for a larger share of consumer expenditure than energy.

Should the world’s monetary authorities, including our own Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), react to an increase in inflation driven by increases in commodity prices? The arguments for doing so rest on the idea that these price rises reflect general inflation pressures and/or, even if they don’t, the danger that they will form the basis of higher future inflation.

Contrary to the views of many readers, the argument against reacting does not turn on the inability to influence these prices directly.

Just because the MPC cannot cause international oil prices to fall back does not mean it should not seek to contain the inflationary consequences of higher oil prices. This would involve tightening policy in order to force other prices down to offset the higher price of oil.

…By contrast, for countries which are net importers of these things, such as the UK, with an increase in consumer prices caused by a rise in food and energy prices there can be no offsetting increase in incomes. Individual groups can try to gain recompense by forcing up their pay, but if they succeed they only make it worse for others. If workers succeed in raising overall pay they will only do so by squeezing profits, which will result in higher prices or job losses.
(10 January 2011)

Transylvania: could this ‘lost in time’ land be the future of European agriculture?

Laura Sevier, the ecologist
Transylvania has maintained traditional farming methods for hundreds of years. As it faces the twin threats of intensive agriculture and byzantine EU policies, its model of under-development is attracting the interest of policy makers

Forget Count Dracula. Deep in the heart of Transylvania, an altogether more mesmerising scene is playing itself out – a vision of what life must have been like in a medieval village.

There’s not a brightly coloured shop or advert in sight. Horse and carts clatter down the dirt track roads and cows wander freely. There are barely any cars. And behind the tall walls of each of the old Saxon houses is a self-contained ‘courtyard farm’ complete with a wooden hay barn, livestock sheds and a small vegetable plot and fruit orchard.

In the distance are unfenced wildflower-rich grasslands and communal hay-meadows and beyond that, thick, old growth forests where bears, wolves and wild cats still roam.

This village, Crit, is one of the 150 or so well preserved Saxon villages and settlements of southern Transylvania that have remained almost unchanged for hundreds of years. The so-called Saxons were German colonists who immigrated to Transylvania in the 12th and 13th centuries and they were renowned for being hard working farmers. The smallholder lifestyle continues to flourish here today, with most villagers entirely self-sufficient…

…ADEPT, funded by Defra’s Darwin Initiative, Orange Romania and Innovation Norway, has assisted small farmers in two main ways. The first is to help them find a market by organising regular farmer’s markets in nearby towns and cities and enabling producers to get their kitchens authorised (by persuading inspectors not to excessively interpret the Brussels guidance). ADEPT, based in the large Saxon village of Saschiz, also provides a modern ‘food barn’ authorised by the Romanian Food Safety Authority where people can produce food. The 20 producers it works with now sell 70,000 euros worth of produce a year through markets, although ADEPT is keen to work with more. In addition, ADEPT has helped 65 small-scale farmers gain an income again by finding a market for milk. By working with them to improve hygiene and equipment, the farmers had their milk collection reinstated.

The second aspect of what ADEPT does is to help small-scale farmers get grants from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. Many farmers own under 1 hectare, so don’t receive basic Pillar 1 payments. ADEPT is dealing this at a policy level, promoting higher payments for small farmers.

…‘An amazing thing is happening within the EU,’ says Page. ‘A few years ago everyone said these farms were irrelevant and policy favoured competitive farms. Now small-scale farms are seen as valuable for food and landscape, with massive benefits for flood and fire control, biodiversity and mitigation against climate change. They are increasingly appreciated as vital for Europe’s future.’
(7 January 2011)

Can We Feed 9 Billion People?

The world’s population is projected to pass 9 billion in 2050. An important new study asks the question: Can nine billion people be fed sustainably?

The Agrimonde project, organized by France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and International Agricultural Research for Development Center (CIRAD) has been researching this question for several years. The final report, Scenarios and Challenges for Feeding the World in 2050, was released this week.

The researchers compared two scenarios.

Agrimonde GO is based on the “Global Orchestration” framework of the UN’s Millenium Ecosystem Assessment: agriculture would continue to develop as it has in past decades.

Agrimonde 1 involves “increasing yields by using the ecological and biological functionalities of ecosystems to the greatest possible extent.”

A complex model examined the year-by-year impact of these approaches to 2050, in six regions: Middle East-North Africa; sub-Saharan Africa; Latin America; Asia; former Soviet Union; and OECD countries…
(13 January 2011)
The report can be found here behind a paywall.

EU organic food push hailed by African farmers

James Melik, BBC News
The European Union (EU) is co-funding a $2.8m (£1.8m) publicity campaign to convince UK residents that organic food is good.

According to the industry body, the Organic Trade Board (OTB), the aim is to democratise organic foods and make people aware of their benefits.

In other words, the OTB wants people to buy more organic produce.

The board will be running advertising campaigns for nine months of the year over the next three years, entitled: Why I Love Organic.

They want to put across the message that there is nothing elitist about organic foods and to highlight what they consider to be the advantages, both to a person’s health and to the environment.

This is good news for organic farmers, whose trade has been diminishing as shoppers continue to tighten their belts and look upon organics as a luxury they can no longer afford…
(8 January 2011)

Best practices for organic gardeners

Michael Bomford, Organic Kentucky

A rigorous set of guidelines for organic gardeners (download 6 MB pdf) has been released by Garden Organic, which has a 50-year history of organic gardening research and advocacy in Britain.

Since most gardeners don’t sell the food they grow, they are not subject to organic certification requirements. Garden Organic’s guidelines represent a voluntary code of practice based on principles of organic agriculture applied to garden-scale growing. These principles are just as applicable to gardens in Kentucky as in the United Kingdom.

The color-coded guide is divided into sections on garden soil care, container growing, plant health, weed management, water use, wood use, and energy use. Each section identifies best organic practices, and practices that are unacceptable in organic gardens. Between these extremes are practices labeled ‘acceptable,’ and ‘acceptable, but not for regular use. ‘The guide does a good job of explaining the reasoning behind its ratings.

(7 January 2011)

The Great Food Crisis of 2011

Lester Brown, Earth Policy Institute
As the new year begins, the price of wheat is setting an all-time high in the United Kingdom. Food riots are spreading across Algeria. Russia is importing grain to sustain its cattle herds until spring grazing begins. India is wrestling with an 18-percent annual food inflation rate, sparking protests. China is looking abroad for potentially massive quantities of wheat and corn. The Mexican government is buying corn futures to avoid unmanageable tortilla price rises. And on January 5, the U.N. Food and Agricultural organization announced that its food price index for December hit an all-time high.

But whereas in years past, it’s been weather that has caused a spike in commodities prices, now it’s trends on both sides of the food supply/demand equation that are driving up prices. On the demand side, the culprits are population growth, rising affluence, and the use of grain to fuel cars. On the supply side: soil erosion, aquifer depletion, the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, the diversion of irrigation water to cities, the plateauing of crop yields in agriculturally advanced countries, and—due to climate change —crop-withering heat waves and melting mountain glaciers and ice sheets. These climate-related trends seem destined to take a far greater toll in the future.

There’s at least a glimmer of good news on the demand side: World population growth, which peaked at 2 percent per year around 1970, dropped below 1.2 percent per year in 2010. But because the world population has nearly doubled since 1970, we are still adding 80 million people each year. Tonight, there will be 219,000 additional mouths to feed at the dinner table, and many of them will be greeted with empty plates. Another 219,000 will join us tomorrow night. At some point, this relentless growth begins to tax both the skills of farmers and the limits of the earth’s land and water resources.

Beyond population growth, there are now some 3 billion people moving up the food chain, eating greater quantities of grain-intensive livestock and poultry products. The rise in meat, milk, and egg consumption in fast-growing developing countries has no precedent. Total meat consumption in China today is already nearly double that in the United States.

The third major source of demand growth is the use of crops to produce fuel for cars. In the United States, which harvested 416 million tons of grain in 2009, 119 million tons went to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars. That’s enough to feed 350 million people for a year. The massive U.S. investment in ethanol distilleries sets the stage for direct competition between cars and people for the world grain harvest. In Europe, where much of the auto fleet runs on diesel fuel, there is growing demand for plant-based diesel oil, principally from rapeseed and palm oil. This demand for oil-bearing crops is not only reducing the land available to produce food crops in Europe, it is also driving the clearing of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia for palm oil plantations.

The combined effect of these three growing demands is stunning: a doubling in the annual growth in world grain consumption from an average of 21 million tons per year in 1990-2005 to 41 million tons per year in 2005-2010. Most of this huge jump is attributable to the orgy of investment in ethanol distilleries in the United States in 2006-2008.

…The unrest of these past few weeks is just the beginning. It is no longer conflict between heavily armed superpowers, but rather spreading food shortages and rising food prices—and the political turmoil this would lead to—that threatens our global future. Unless governments quickly redefine security and shift expenditures from military uses to investing in climate change mitigation, water efficiency, soil conservation, and population stabilization, the world will in all likelihood be facing a future with both more climate instability and food price volatility. If business as usual continues, food prices will only trend upward.
(14 January 2011)