Saturday, March 23, 2013

Book Club: Fair Coin

The book club is not dead, long live the book club! After a loooong hiatus, John, Hillary and I decided on a new book to review together: Fair Coin by E.C. Myers. 
We originally decided on it after reading this article that promised that the book would be "pure awesome crack" - which seemed to be a pretty good description of a book to go after. 
I have to say that I vacillated between liking it a lot and being rather disappointed by it throughout the reading experience; disappointed not because it was bad, but because it could have been so much more. 
It started out in a clever guise of a young adult magic novel where a troubled teen finds a coin that grants wishes when flipped and starts making changes to his life that (SHOCKINGLY) take unexpected and undesired turns, in a classical "be careful what you wish for" morality-infused story line. This is where I got most annoyed with the protagonist Ephraim: it just seemed so shallow and similar to what I read when I was twelve that I was a little upset with the io9 author which suggested it could be seen as Sci-Fi adult literature as well. 
Hillary does a wonderful job in laying out a female perspective on why Ephraim is unrelatable as a character which I also agree with fully (hint: it has to do with his treatment of women, particularly the girl he likes...) This interpretation also head-on collides with the io9 author's perspective that "a lot of books, dealing with the premise of a young guy who gets an insanely powerful artifact, would try to spin out the plot by having the main character be kind of a selfish jerk, who gets corrupted by all that power and makes things worse and worse until he finally repents. ... Myers, very wisely, avoids that pitfall and makes Ephraim both smarter and more likable than that storyline would allow." I disagree; Ephraim seems aware that his wishes are wrong for the most part, and tries to correct them relatively early in the game, but the fact that he is a thoughtful outsider and not the football-playing jerk makes it even harder to sympathize in a way. This first part, I kept half-identifying but then being thoroughly taken aback by his decisions, always thinking "you know better than that!" 
HOWEVER (spoilers after the jump; suffice it to say that there is a lot more to the story than that and if you like your elements of surprise you will only find out about it when you read it ;)...

Thursday, February 7, 2013

And one becomes two...

Hey friends, 
soo developments, developments happening! After trying out the food policy blogging a little here and deciding that I like it, I made the further decision to migrate those thoughts to a separate forum so people with separate interests can choose what to read: here more personal stories about travels (more Eastern European adventures coming up!), books, experiences (Carnival in Bonn is happening right now and I am due a blog post on that too), and just general inspiration; and things related to my field of studies and interested tidbits about our food system in general over at Food (Policy) For Thought. Please head on over, give the new baby blog a look and follow it as well if it tickles your fancy, but rest assured that I won't vanish from here either - I just updated the template, after all! =P 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Other Inconvenient Truth

Ah man. From now on, anytime anybody asks why I am studying what I am studying, I'll just refer them to Jonathan Foley, who gave a riveting TED talk in 2010 about what he calls "The Other Inconvenient Truth".

Some of his major arguments why agriculture is one of the main challenges of the future: 
  • Already today, 40% of the Earth's surface area is devoted to agriculture. 
  • Of this amount, 16 Mio. square km are used for crops - about the size of South America. 
  • Also, 30 Mio. square km are used for livestock pasture - around the size of Africa. 
  • We are already using 50% of all fresh water reserves - and 70% of that is used for agriculture. 
  • Agriculture is also responsible for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, the greatest overall contributor of all industries. 
  • We need to double agricultural production in the next 40 years to keep up with current consumption levels and population growth - but how are we going to do that without destroying vital ecosystems and depleting top soil, water and nutrient reserves that future generations depend on? 
Riley calls for a new form of agriculture, what he calls "Terraculture" - agriculture for the entire Earth, which combines expertise and knowledge of conventional farmers, environmentalists, organic farmers, animal welfare experts and the like to find ways for a new way forward in collaboration. For more on Riley's views on the perceived efficiency of particularly American agriculture, check out this blog post on Chewswise. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Seed Banks– Deposits for our Future

No, seeds banks are not mainly located in Switzerland, and they were also not involved in the recent financial crisis. Instead, they are an insurance against the loss of agricultural biodiversity – a vital step when we consider the developments in the industrialization of agriculture in the last 100 years. The FAO estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity was lost between 1900 and 2000 – through globalization, the scaling up of retail and specialization in consumer preferences, the introduction and widespread adoption of new varieties that edged out local crops, and other factors. In addition, climatic changes could lead to a loss of up to 22% of the wild varieties of important staple crops such as peanuts, potatoes and beans until 2055. While precise figures are impossible to collect, it is estimated that there were as many as 100,000 varieties of rice a century ago in India, whereas now there only exist a few thousand; in the US, apple varieties decreased from around 5,000 to a couple of hundred.

Why is crop biodiversity important? Well, with each variety, you lose genetic material that has been adapted to the particular local circumstances, and could be vital in the future to adapt crops to more resistance to heat, drought, salinity, pest and diseases – on the flipside, if only one particular variety is planted over an extended region, a single pest or disease can have enormous consequences on the yield and lead to shortages and, in the worst case, famine.

This is why since the 1970s there has been a race to document and preserve crop varieties while they are still used, in particular through the establishment of seed banks. According to the FAO, in 2010 there were 1,750 seed banks worldwide, and around 130 of them hold more than 10,000 accessions. The crown jewel, of course, is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which was opened in Norway in 2008.

The Vault is located on a Norwegian island near the town of Longyearbyen, one of the most northern habitats in the world. It is constantly maintained at a temperature of –18 degrees Celsius, and due to its location – 160 metres into the permafrost – would probably take two centuries to warm to freezing point in a case of power outage. Plus, its tunnel head has a concave design in order to deflect a missile  strike. It’s supposed to act as a global backup for national and local seed banks, and with good reason – the seed banks of the Philippines, Iraq and Afghanistan have already been destroyed through accidents and/or conflict. The Economist has a fascinating piece on Svalbard if you are interested in more details.

However, part of the preservation of crop diversity is also its constant use and development, for which local initiatives are just as important – as for example the seed library in Basalt, Western Colorado, where a local public library distributes not only books, CDs and DVDs, but also packets of seeds which you return at the end of the harvesting season with the seeds of your own biggest and best fruits and vegetables. According to the American Library Association, there are around a dozen such programs in the US, and they have also spread to the United Kingdom.


Still, the maintenance of our crop diversity will remain a struggle, which in my opinion can only be addressed through the collaboration of individuals, governments and the global community and through the diversification of our food production systems.

For more information, the FAO launched a report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in 2010 – here is the executive summary.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Let's Talk About Bees

Until recently, when I thought about bees, I would think honey. Or spring meadows. Or I would't think about bees at all. However, this changed when I watched the excellent documentary "More Than Honey" by Markus Imhoof, a Swiss movie director. The movie in equal parts explains the fascinating  social interactions in a beehive, stresses how vital they are to our food system as pollinators, and shows how our relationship to bees has changed. It was truly eyeopening to realize that in industrial fruit, nut and vegetable production (here is a list of all the crops bees pollinate), you also need an industrial scale of beekeeping - or at least, people think it's necessary. It's a part of the food production process you forget only too easily. "More Than Honey" also investigates some of the causes of the recent mysterious deaths of entire bee colonies - which seem to be linked to habitat destruction, the intense stress of being treated as yet another agricultural input with no regard to their social organization, and the widespread use of pesticides such as neonicotinoids. And it gives an ominous look into a possible future without bees in China and answers the question - who would pollinate our food crops otherwise? The movie is extremely well executed, with beautiful images, harrowing comparisons (think Swiss mountain beekeeper and Californian commercial bee-sinessman) and very limited subjective narration - it lets the people and images speak for themselves, which I liked a lot. Watch the trailer below or check out the movie's website for a preview!

Germany and France already banned some pesticides in the neonicotinoid family and recently, the EU Commission decided to recommend banning three poisons as well after more than 2 million people signed a petition in under 36 hours to take action. However, the final vote is still upcoming. 

For more information about the fascinating anatomy and life of bees, Stuff You Should Know just did a podcast on them based on this article

Saturday, February 2, 2013

2012 - A Year of Food Crisis Solutions?

In their article "Resolving the food crisis: The need for decisive action", published on 30. January on Al Jazeera, Sophia Murphy (from the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy) and Timothy A. Wise (the Policy Research Director of Tuft University's Global Development and Environment Institute) evaluate what global leaders have done in 2012 to address the food crisis. Their verdict: too little. Having published a report in 2011 on the main issues to tackle, they go through them point by point and investigate what change has been achieved this year. A round-up: 
  • Donor funding for agricultural development: Instead of renewing the L'Aquila commitments of 2012 to invest more public funding in agricultural research, governments have chosen to pursue public-private partnerships (through the G8's 'New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition') that, in the words of Murphy and Wise, "revert[...] to donor-imposed conditionalities that give foreign firms greater access to Africa's markets." 
  • Reducing biofuels expansion: While both the US and the EU made progress in revising their policy targets regarding renewable fuels, the US's Renewable Fuel Standard remained in place and contributed to continued competition between food and fuel use of corn in the wake of the 2012 drought in the Midwest. 
File:Scorched corn fields, Castroville, TX, 2011 IMG 3231.JPG
Similar to these scorched corn fields in Texas in 2011, US farmers in the Midwest 
faced  huge challenges this year.  
Image By Billy Hathorn (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 
(], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Curbing financial speculation on agricultural commodities: Regulations were initiated on both sides of the Atlantic, but lobbying efforts lead to delays that push implementation back to at least June 2013 (US) and 2015 (EU) respectively. 
  • Building food reserves: Publicly held food stocks "remain at historically low levels", according to Murphy and Wise, which makes prices more dependent on the immediately preceding harvest season and more volatile overall. Improved information systems among the G-20 are helpful to prevent panic buying (such as was discussed in the NPR podcast), but the authors argue that this information should be expanded beyond the G-20 to make net food-importing countries less dependent on the big players. 
  • Halting land grabs: Murphy and Wise refer to the Land Matrix's analytical report that I also wrote about and its "worrying trends" regarding land acquisitions. They laud the speed with which Voluntary Guidelines on Land Tenure were devised by the UN Committee on World Food Security and adopted by member states (in May 2012), but point out that now domestic and international implementation and monitoring efforts are vital for the Guidelines' success.
  • Addressing climate change: As was criticized elsewhere, the authors point out the small progress and toothless commitments achieved at the Doha climate talks - but also highlight the silver lining of the possibility of addressing "loss and damage" resulting from climate change, which could be vital in the context of agriculture. 
  • Prospects for change in 2013: Ending this somewhat dissatisfied assessment with a look in the future, Murphy and Wise give us a great overview of what to focus on this year: 
    • Implementation of limits on financial speculation
    • Creation of stronger food reserves
    • New mandate and leadership of UNCTAD
    • March: Meeting of the G20 in Russia
    • June: G8 follow-up meeting to the "Hunger Summit" last year
    • October: UN Committee on World Food Security meeting
    • December: WTO meeting in Bali
I would definitely recommend reading the entire article and maybe also the report to get a better overview of the issues. Also, when reading this article one is reminded of how many avenues there are to address the issues that concern is today - national, international and otherwise - if the political will is present. We will see whether that will can be strengthened next year. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

How Unfounded Fear Can Lead to Real Hunger

Ever since John introduced me to podcasts, I have been hooked (Information? On the go? All the time? Dream come true!). One of my favorites to listen to is NPR Planet Money, where stories of economic realities are told, and sometimes contrasted with economic thought. Truly, this sounds a lot more boring written down than any of the episodes actually are. Ever wondered how to get an offshore banking account, and what to do with it (legally)? Or what economists would actually want presidential candidates to campaign for? Then Planet Money is your source. 
You can imagine my excitement when they recently repeated an episode that was originally produced in 2010 (before my Planet Money - loyalty began) that dealt with - the food crisis! In particular, the part of the 2008 food crisis related to rice supplies. It tells the story about how - without there being an actual real supply crisis - the expectations surrounding one of Asia's main food commodities brought prices shooting up, and created real hunger for low-income consumers. The show does an amazing job in highlighting how governmental policies of "food security" (specific only to their own country, of course) can lead to market interventions that are troubling to say the least (don't I already sound like a neo-classical economist? =P). Also, without giving away too much, the solution to the vicious circle of food shortage expectations that lead to even higher prices is as ingenious as surprising, since it came as the result of even more distorted trade policies - give it a listen! It's Episode 320: How Fear Turned a Surplus into A Scarcity.

Bonus: Three more fascinating and entertaining episodes that I enjoyed recently: 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Foreign Direct Investment or Land Grabbing?

So... I guess my enthusiasm for intense, in-depth blog posts on the food system was a little short-lived. To be honest, I truly admire people who can dedicate that much time to in-depth research, tons of links and source information - it's harder than it looks! Every time I started up a new post I felt a little overwhelmed by my perfectionistic, need-to-be-accurate-and-detailed nature. Maybe it's more manageable to tune things down a little and still share interesting stuff that I stumble over in the course of my studies/exploration trips - which was the idea in the first place. In that vein... 

Our professor in Agricultural Markets actually pointed us to a really interesting resource on transnational land deals. So-called "land grabbing" has been in the media lately a lot since it started in the 2000s as consequence of an increase in the demand for biofuels (and thereby the demand for the biomass needed for transformation), a realization of countries with large populations (India, China) and little fertile land (many Gulf states) of their import dependency in food, and global market fluctuations that turned land into interesting investment opportunities. Since then, the practice of other countries and multinational corporations buying or leasing land, particularly in Africa and South-East Asia, has been under increasing debate as it is unclear whether the pros (mainly investment in agricultural infrastructure and efficiency) outweigh the cons (threats to the food security of the local population if they are evicted from the land, environmental consequences of a short-term profit mentality, etc.) One of the main hurdles to an informed discussion is that comparatively little information on the nature and consequences of these deals exist, as the agreements are often kept secret. Yet, the project Land Matrix (supported by Oxfam, and the governments of Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany and the European Commission) attempts to track information about deals reported in the media or by governments. They also furnish beautiful and amazingly interesting infographics about the nature and direction of land deals. 


These let you see who are the main investing countries, target countries, who invests where and of what nature the deals are. 


The information is organized from less to more detailed analyses, culminating in an analytical report for those with a greater interest in the arguments for and against "land grabs" and in quantitative material. 


From a researcher's perspective, I can only applaud the efforts of this organization - independent of your opinion, actual data and accurate information is key to a useful discussion that goes beyond ideology - well done!