Thursday, February 7, 2013
Tuesday, February 5, 2013
- 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?
Monday, February 4, 2013
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
|Image By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0|
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Saturday, February 2, 2013
- 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.
|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
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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
Friday, February 1, 2013
|Though there had been no important decrease in rice production, prices soared. |
Image by Jose-Agriterra (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons