31 August 2011
05 June 2011
This January I visited two cohousing communities in Colorado. Being midwinter I saw both under a blanket of snow in near freezing temperatures.
Nyland Cohousing is set in farmland a little east of Boulder, and has 135 people (110 adults and 35 kids) in 42 households on a large acreage of former farmland – 42 acres.
The land is partly being revegetated with local grasses, the rest available for organic gardening and farm projects. The houses built in 1992 include duplexes and triplexes and are smaller than average US homes, and the monthly townhouse association fee is lower than normal. Despite the large land available, the homes are grouped close together in lines running eastwest, to maximise southern sun access for heat/light/solar electric power and to make social interaction easy. (A regular developer would surely have placed them all in north-south rows to take in the view of the Rockies!) Cars are kept to the extremities, and ‘pedways’ (pedestrian ways) run between the rows of houses. Handcarts are used to move shopping or large items.
The ‘common house’ (a regular feature of cohousing projects) is a large separate building located among the houses – with a commercial kitchen and meeting rooms which are used for community meals and functions, and are sometimes hired out. It includes a young kids’ playroom, a teens game room, a laundry room, a craft room, a TV and ping pong room, a gym, a mailroom and two guest rooms (for which there’s a small nightly charge).
River Rock Commons is in the heart of Fort Collins, a town with a name for being ‘green’. Like Boulder, it has about 100,000 population and is set against the ‘front range’ of the Rockies but a little further north. River Rock is the second cohousing community there (the first being Grey Rock Commons), and has slightly less houses and residents than Nyland.
Houses, parking and pedways are similarly arranged to Nyland, and while some houses have a small backyard which they may choose to fence, there is no additional land.
To the north, however, River Rock has an elevated view over the adjacent public park and playing fields to trees flanking the Poudre River a few hundred metres away. At River Rock I was invited to see inside two homes, as well as the common house which was very similar in essence to Nyland’s. I also met more residents there, and immediately felt that they would have slotted into Christie Walk seamlessly, and vice versa, as our guiding principles and general arrangements are essentially similar.
As cohousing is so well established in the US, there are plenty of resources on their websites created by residents who have shared their experiences over the years. Topics like planning, financing and building are well discussed, and there’s a lot of information on things like social arrangements, shared work, pets, consensus decision making and dispute resolution.
The River Rock Manual is a good example of how an individual community works in practice. It welcomes new residents in a friendly and positive way, and explains that everyone is expected to participate in the work and life of the community.
Cleaning the Common House, for example, is done by all households on a rotating basis 3 to 4 times a year (except for under 15s and over 80s), though you can opt out and instead pay $20 per time. And everyone is expected to give at least 2 hours on monthly work days six times a year (they don’t have working bees the other 6 months due to weather).
Interestingly, renters who rent an entire unit take on that household’s community work responsibilities. Renters are also encouraged to participate in all activities to get the full River Rock experience.'
04 June 2011
Besides a handful of national holidays, the typical American worker bee gets two or three precious weeks off out of a whole year to relax and see the world - much less than what people in many other countries receive.
And even that amount of vacation often comes with strings attached.
Some U.S. companies don't like employees taking off more than one week at a time. Others expect them to be on call or check their e-mail even when they're lounging on the beach or taking a hike in the mountains.
"I really would like to take a real, decent vacation and travel somewhere, but it's almost impossible to take a long vacation and to be out of contact," said Don Brock, a software engineer who lives in suburban Washington.
"I dream of taking a cruise or a trip to Europe, but I can't imagine getting away for so long."
The running joke at Brock's company is that a vacation just means you work from somewhere else. So he takes one or two days off at a time and loses some vacation each year. Only 57% of U.S. workers use up all of the days they're entitled to, compared with 89% of workers in France, a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found.
Brock's last long holiday was more than 10 years ago, when he took a two-week drive across the country.
'Americans work like robots'
It's a totally different story in other parts of the world.
Nancy Schimkat, an American who lives in Weinheim, Germany, said her German husband, an engineer, gets six weeks of paid vacation a year, plus national holidays - the norm. His company makes sure he takes all of it.
It's typical for Germans to take off three consecutive weeks in August when "most of the country kind of closes down," Schimkat said. That's the time for big trips, perhaps to other parts of Europe, or to Australia or North America. Germans might also book a ski holiday in the winter and take a week off during Easter.
Schimkat's family back in the United States teases her that she's spoiled. But when she tells Germans that workers in the U.S. usually get two weeks of vacation a year, they cringe.
"They kind of have this idea that Americans work like robots and if that's the way they want to be, that's up to them. But they don't want to be like that," Schimkat said.
"[Germans] work very hard, but then they take their holiday and really relax...It's more than just making money for Germans, it's about having time for your family and it's about having time to wind down."
No legal obligation to offer vacation
So what's going on here?
A big reason for the difference is that paid time off is mandated by law in many parts of the world.
Germany is among more than two dozen industrialized countries - from Australia to Slovenia to Japan - that require employers to offer four weeks or more of paid vacation to their workers, according to a 2009 study by the human resources consulting company Mercer.
Finland, Brazil and France are the champs, guaranteeing six weeks of time off.
But employers in the United States are not obligated under federal law to offer any paid vacation, so about a quarter of all American workers don't have access to it, government figures show.
That makes the US the only advanced nation in the world that doesn't guarantee its workers annual leave, according to a report titled "No-Vacation Nation" by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal policy group.
Most US companies, of course, do provide vacation as a way to attract and retain workers.
But the fear of layoffs and the ever-faster pace of work mean many Americans are reluctant to be absent from the office - anxious that they might look like they're not committed to their job. Or they worry they won't be able to cope with the backlog of work waiting for them after a vacation.
Then, there's the way we work.
Working more makes Americans happier than Europeans, according to a study published recently in the Journal of Happiness Studies. That may be because Americans believe more than Europeans do that hard work is associated with success, wrote Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, the study's author and an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas.
"Americans maximize their... [happiness] by working, and Europeans maximize their [happiness] through leisure," he found.
So despite research documenting the health and productivity benefits of taking time off, a long vacation can be undesirable, scary, unrealistic or just plain impossible for many U.S. workers.
Little appetite for regulation
Critics say it's time for a change.
"There is simply no evidence that working people to death gives you a competitive advantage," said John de Graaf, the national coordinator for Take Back Your Time, a group that researches the effects of overwork.
He noted that the United States came in fourth in the World Economic Forum's 2010-2011 rankings of the most competitive economies, but Sweden - a country that by law offers workers five weeks of paid vacation - came in second.
De Graaf drafted the first version of the Paid Vacation Act of 2009, which would have required larger companies to provide at least one week of paid annual leave to employees. But the bill, introduced by then-Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Florida, in May of 2009, got little traction.
Opponents said that it would have a negative impact on business and that the government shouldn't get involved in the workplace in this way.
"You would have had the idea that we were calling for the end of Western civilization. Comments like, 'Oh, they're going to make America a 21st-century France,' as if we were all going to have to eat snails," de Graaf said.
"I'm in no way anti-capitalist, I think the market does a lot of good things, but the Europeans understand that the market also has its failings and that when simply left completely to its own devices, it doesn't produce these perfect results."
But is more government regulation the answer? The debate rages on.
Back in suburban Washington, Brock - the software engineer who hasn't had a long vacation for more than 10 years - is finally planning a real getaway. His 60th birthday is coming up in December, and he'd like to do something special, maybe go on a cruise to the Bahamas.
Will he be able to pull it off and get away from work? He's still not entirely sure, he said.'
02 June 2011
"Our solar-accumulation arrays in Muhammad Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, and Mexico are operating at full capacity, and still, we're struggling to meet demands," said Muhammad Arabia's Prince Fayahd al-Saud, whose family has controlled the world's energy market for more than 100 years. "In a very short time, the sun will not be able to meet the world's energy needs."
SOLOPEC, formed in the '20s to regulate solar-energy prices, currently includes the sunlight-rich nations of Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Muhammad Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Mexico, Venezuela, Iran, and Iraq...
With an output of 4x1026 watts per second, the sun was considered an inexhaustible energy supply when SOLOPEC was formed 30 years ago. However, if growth continues along the current trajectory, that amount will be inadequate to fuel the Cuba/Newer York/Boston megapolitan corridor as soon as 2070.
"Once again, human consumption has expanded to meet available supply," said SOLOPEC economic director Hermann Villalobos of Mexico City. "With today's fully automatic homes, artificially sentient robotic cities, 32-lane automatic roadways, floating antigrav-suspended skyscrapers, air-conditioned city-domes, and 96-inch personal fusion-screen monitors, the energy demand of human civilization has never been higher. Why, last year, the wattage requirements of leisurebots alone exceeded the entire world's energy-consumption rates of 1988. It's no surprise that SOLOPEC can barely keep up."
MIT scientist Glen Schraeder said he predicted the shortage a decade ago.
"The U.S. must reduce its dependence on foreign solar power," Schraeder said. "The sun was created billions of years ago, with the formation of our galaxy. When its unused energy output is gone, it's gone. We must look for alternative energy sources throughout the universe now."'
30 May 2011
Ever hear a business reporter on the evening business news say, “Today, investors drive up the price of commodities to create a hundred billion in new value,” or some such? Sounds great, almost implying we should offer thanks to these champions of the public good who are risking their fortunes to expand the pool of wealth to enrich us all. The reporter is manipulating the language to set us up as marks in the Wall Street con.
A more honest report might have said, “Today, hedge fund traders speculating with other people’s money walked away with multimillion dollar commissions for inflating the commodities bubble by a hundred billion dollars.” In a more honest world, the report would clearly distinguish between real investors creating real wealth through real investments and speculators creating phantom wealth with financial games. People who bet on the price of pieces of paper would be called “gamblers.” Those who hold the bets and distribute the winnings would be called “bookies.”
Boil it down to the basics and you see that Wall Street is in the business of operating four sophisticated, large-scale confidence games.
▪ Counterfeiting: Through financial bubbles and loan pyramids, it creates facsimiles of official money for private gain unrelated to anything of real value.
▪ Securities fraud: Selling shares in asset bubbles that are maintained solely by the constant inflow of new money is, in effect, a Ponzi scheme.
▪ Reverse insurance fraud: Insurance fraud, by common definition, occurs when the insured deceives the insurer. In reverse insurance fraud, the insurer deceives the insured. In Wall Street practice this involves collecting premiums to cover risks the insurer lacks adequate reserves to cover and then refusing to pay legitimate claims.
▪ Predatory lending: Using a combination of extortion, fraud, deceptive promises, and usury, predatory lenders lure the desperate into perpetual debt at exorbitant interest rates.
Because of Wall Street’s hold on lawmakers, these may all be perfectly legal, but phantom wealth is still phantom wealth, and these are all forms of theft. In three-card monte the dealer shuffles the cards so fast you can’t follow them, while talking even faster. Complex derivatives are a fast shuffle that makes it virtually impossible to follow the connection to any real value.
What makes the Wall Street con so much better for the dealers than a typical street con is that Wall Street dealers bet on their own game using other people’s money and then manipulate the market outcome in their own favor, rewarding themselves with huge bonuses when they win and taking billions in taxpayer bailouts when they lose.
Real financial reform would render unproductive speculation either illegal or unprofitable. Here are a few suggestions:
- Prohibit selling, insuring, or borrowing against an asset not actually owned by the seller, and issuing any security not backed by a real asset—all common Wall Street practices.
- Place strict limits on how much a financial institution can borrow in order to buy a property, and establish conservative reserve and capital requirements for institutions in the business of selling insurance of any kind.
- Regulate bond-rating agencies and impose strict penalties for fraudulent ratings.
- Impose a small financial-speculation tax of a penny on every $4 spent on the purchase and sale of financial instruments such as stocks, bonds, foreign currencies, and derivatives. This would have no consequential impact on real investors making long-term investments in real businesses and assets. But it would discourage short-term speculation and arbitraging.
- End the obscure tax loophole that allows hedge fund managers to report their billion-dollar compensation packages as capital gains, taxed at only 15 percent.
- Assess a 100 percent capital gains surcharge on profit from the sale of assets held less than an hour, 80 percent if held less than a week, and perhaps falling to 50 percent on assets held more than a week but less than six months. This would render most forms of speculation unprofitable, stabilize financial markets, and lengthen the investment horizon without penalizing real investors.
- Eliminate debt slavery by raising the wages of working people and the taxes of the moneylenders.
Opponents will claim that such regulation and taxes will stifle financial innovation. Good. That is the intention. Wall Street’s financial innovations are mostly ever more sophisticated and deceptive forms of theft. They should be discouraged. Keep the casinos in Vegas. The need to rebuild financial institutions that meet our needs for basic financial services will be the subject of next week’s blog. '
The first is a national story about how smuggling people across the Mexico/US border has become a billion dollar business. The Associated Press story reports on “a clandestine business worth billions a year, people packed tighter than cattle and transported like consumer goods in tractor trailers to the United States.” The United Nations estimates this to be a $6.6 billion people-trafficking business.
Making babies makes money
The second is a local editorial lamenting census reports that fewer Coloradoans are families with children. The rant warns of the “dangers of population decline,” and that “we cannot sustain the economy…when old, non-working Americans – dependent on pensions and government subsidies – outnumber people of working age.” It advises we’re in for “a future of poverty and despair,” if we don’t either get busy making babies or importing children. I kid you not! The headline reads, We Must Produce or Import Children.
These sad, but true pieces of modern Americana from today’s paper reveal that the bean counters have won. Persons are now perceived as little more than a commodity, an asset on the balance sheet to be bought, sold, exported, and imported.
The value of a human life is now too often counted by its contribution to an economy. We’ve been seeing the signs of this for quite some time, but today’s local editorial just begged for a bright spotlight to be shone on its unapologetic stance.
The best laid plans…
If it weren’t potentially so tragic, it’d be pretty funny. The writer actually had the temerity to pen, “a minority cannot provide adequately for a majority, any more than a pyramid can balance upside down.” He’s apparently unashamed that he’s defending a (right side up) pyramid scheme. And he clearly disregards that a pyramid scheme, unlike a diamond, is not forever.
The editorial completely ignores what other headlines this week have revealed: populations are starving, oceans are dying, rivers and aquifers are drying up. But don’t let that stop the grow-at-all-costs mind set. God forbid we interrupt this scheme of Ponzi demography and let the rate of population growth – whether it be global, national or local- decline.
Growth-pushers frequently use the pension and Social Security population Ponzi scheme to defend and encourage population growth. And while they’re correct in identifying one of the difficulties inherent in achieving a sustainable population, their analysis is grossly slanted and incomplete. They blow the problem out of proportion, ignore myriad smart solutions, and jump on the easiest but most deadly solution of adding more players to the bottom of the pyramid.
My local paper’s editorial opinionator might just be an uninformed hack. Or perhaps he’d rather hang on to his readership the easy way – by trucking new subscribers into town when the labor and delivery rooms aren’t meeting their quotas, rather than the more difficult way – writing informed, enlightened, thoughtful pieces more of us will want to read.
It’s hard to say.
Life for life’s sake
For now, I offer an alternative view. People aren’t financial assets. We’re not drones to be exploited in service to corporate profits or government tax coffers. We’re not products to be produced or imported.
Continued population and consumption overshoot will result in very serious resource shortages. This is already happening.
Adjusting to the relatively minor challenges of ending an unsustainable population and economic growth scheme is much preferred to dooming our children to a life of hunger and misery. Unless you’re a soulless growth-pusher counting nothing but dollars, a good life for fewer is better than a crappy life for more.'
27 May 2011
26 May 2011
Roughly 1.3bn tonnes of food is either lost or wasted globally due to inefficiencies throughout the food supply chain, says the report, based on research by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (Sik). Amid rising global food prices, the study says that reducing food losses in developing countries could have an "immediate and significant" impact on livelihoods and food security in some of the world's poorest countries.
According to the report, industrialised and developing countries waste or lose roughly the same amount of food each year – 670m and 630m tonnes respectively. But while rich countries waste food primarily at the level of the consumer, the main issue for developing countries is food lost due to weak infrastructure – including poor storage, processing and packaging facilities that lack the capacity to keep produce fresh. Food losses mean lost income for small farmers and higher prices for poor consumers in developing countries, says the study.
The average European or North American consumer wastes 95kg-115kg of food a year, above all fruits and vegetables. In contrast, the average consumer in sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia or south-east Asia wastes only 6kg-11kg. The study notes that in developing countries poverty and limited incomes make it unacceptable to waste food, and that poor consumers in low-income countries generally buy smaller amounts of food at a time.
Food wasted by consumers in rich countries (222m tonnes) is roughly equal to the entire food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230m tonnes).
Looking for solutions, the report argues that reducing reliance on retailers such as big supermarkets could help cut food waste in the north, and suggests promoting the direct sale of farm produce to consumers. It also encourages retailers and charities to work together, to distribute unsold but perfectly edible food that would otherwise go to waste.
For developing countries, the study says the key lies in strengthening food supply chains, urging investment in infrastructure and transportation, along with increased attention to food storage, processing and packaging.
While world food prices fell slightly in March this year – after eight months of successive increases – the overall cost of food in April was 36% higher than it was last year. Prices of wheat, maize and soya reached levels last seen in 2008, when a global food crisis sparked food riots across the developing world. Last month, the World Bank said that rising food prices had pushed 44 million more people into extreme poverty, and the World Bank president, Robert Zoellick, added that an additional 10 million people could soon fall below the $1.25 a day extreme poverty line unless immediate action was taken to increase the supply of food.
But the FAO-backed report says: "Food production must clearly increase significantly to meet the future demands of an increasing and more affluent world population … In a world with limited natural resources (land, water, energy, fertiliser), and where cost-effective solutions are to be found to produce enough safe and nutritious food for all, reducing food losses should not be a forgotten priority."'
'From September 2011, Schumacher College, Dartington will be offer a new MA degree course in "The Economics for Transition: Achieving low carbon, high well-being, resilient economies". This pioneering postgraduate programme has been developed by nef, Schumacher College and the Transition Network, and is offered through the Business School at the University of Plymouth.
The programme is designed to support a new generation of leaders and activists to create an economy fit for the challenges of the 21st century. It will be attractive to people at different stages in their life seeking to make a positive contribution to the economics of transition through enhancing their knowledge; acquiring practical skills for sustainable living, working and ecological citizenship; and sharing experiences with people from all over the world.
Who is the programme for?
The programme is designed to support a new generation of leaders and activists to create an economy fit for the challenges of the 21st century. Schumacher College attracts people from all walks of life from across the globe – from business leaders and entrepreneurs to policy makers and social and environmental activists.
This programme will be attractive to people at different stages in their life seeking to make a positive contribution to the economics of transition through enhancing their knowledge; acquiring practical skills for sustainable living, working and ecological citizenship; and sharing experiences with people from all over the world.
Why a new masters in economics?
As the world struggles to recover from the most severe and synchronized downturn since the Great Depression, the reputation of economists has rarely been lower. For many, economics was a big part of the problem and so cannot be part of any solution.
Never has there been a more important time for a new approach to economics. Over the past two decades, key thinkers and practitioners have been developing alternative ways forward that once were dismissed as radical and marginal, but now are fast moving centre stage.
E.F. Schumacher was one of these foresighted pioneers who in 1973 laid out a new approach to economics that put values and compassion, people and planet at the centre of our economic system. To this day, Schumacher is known as the grandfather of new economics and his work has inspired a whole generation of leading thinkers, practising economists and environmental and social activists who have been growing the shoots of the new economy ever since. As we enter the decade of climate change, now is the time to make visible these achievements, learn from what works and in practice and co-create the great transition towards low carbon, high well-being, resilient economies
Challenges facing society that this Masters programme will address are:
• The triple crunch of climate change, financial crises and peak oil
• The crises in ecosystem health and social well-being across the globe
• The inter-connected nature of these crises and how they are systemically linked with the global economic model
• Growing disillusionment with current economic approaches and solutions
• How to transform these challenges into opportunities for change
Studying with leading thinkers, activists and practitioners
The MA in Economics for Transition is a collaboration between Schumacher College, the nef (the new economics foundation), the Transition Network and the Business School at the University of Plymouth. This provides a unique opportunity to study with leading thinkers, activists and practitioners in the new economy from a range of different perspectives.
Teachers include faculty from Schumacher College (Julie Richardson, Stephan Harding, Satish Kumar, and Philip Frances); nef (the new economics foundation) (including Andrew Simms, David Boyle and nef staff and associates), the Transition Network (including Naresh Giogrande, Sophy Banks and Rob Hopkins) and the University of Plymouth (including David Wheeler, Derek Shepherd, Atul Mishra and Lynda Rodwell).
Visiting teachers will be drawn from Schumacher College associates. In recent years, this has included Tim Jackson, Gunter Pauli, Wolfgang Sachs, Jonathon Porritt, Ed Mayo, Nic Marks, Vandana Shiva, Catherine Cameron, Janine Benyus, Ken Webster, Richard Douthwaite, Bunker Roy and many other key thinkers and activists. We will also be inviting new influential teachers such as Eve Mitleton Kelly who is Head of the Complexity Programme at the London School of Economics.
• Module One: The Ecological Paradigm (20 credits)
• Module Two: The Emergence of the New Economy (20 credits)
• Module Three: The New Economy in Practice (20 credits)
• Elective Courses (20 credits each) The short course options for 2011/12 will be finalised in the summer of 2011. Indicative titles for short courses include: Creating a Transition Initiative (20 credits) Sustainable Models of Enterprise (20 credits) Ecological Leadership and Facilitation (20 credits)
Dissertation (80 credits)'
How does a food web differ from a food chain?
Food webs reflect the complexity of all the relationships among organisms. The simple way to think about it is a bunch of food chains that are stuck together. You can take a typical food chain and interconnect it with another food chain, and another, and you end up getting a more complex network.
Why is it important to look at it this way?
Everyone learns about food chains in elementary school, and it usually doesn’t go any further than that. We all understand the idea of networks, and this is just an example of an ecological network. Looking at this helps us understand what happens when a species goes extinct or if there’s climate change or a change in the habitat. The food web gives us a more complex view.
Can you walk me through an example?
Let’s talk about wolves in Yellowstone. Before humans decided to hunt wolves to extinction, they preyed on a bunch of different species. But then they went extinct, and the things they preyed on – like deer and elk – their populations exploded. And that impacted all the vegetation they fed on. So you end up affecting the plant community in a variety of ways in terms of the plants that elk or deer would feed on. Those plant populations would go down, and the population of the competing plants would go up. So now, wolves are in the system and are feeding on elk and other things, and that affects the plants and animals like coyotes and bears who also feed on elk and deer.
So basically, one simple chain of links doesn’t really get you the full complexity when you reintroduce wolves in Yellowstone. Grizzlies now compete with wolves for at least some of what they eat — elk. And in some cases, the grizzlies are out-competed by wolves in foraging for elk. Again, you continue to get these ripple effects up and down the food web.
If you’re reintroducing a wolf, or reintroducing a species for pest control , you can quickly end up in a situation you didn’t expect because you had too simple a picture in your mind. We see that a lot — you think you’re going to introduce a predator of a bug we don’t like, but at the same time it’ll take out beneficial insects like pollinators.
So it’s important that conservation managers take a look at the bigger picture.
A lot of them have focused on tiny pieces of the system. In fishery systems, we have competition for the fish we like to eat, like seals or sea lions. So some fishery scientists in earlier years have called for killing or removing seals or sea lions, thinking that if we get rid of them there will be more of the fish we want to harvest. Network models show that about half the time the abundances would go up, but the other half, the abundances would go down. That’s because all these fish are not just linked to humans or sea lions. There are all these many different indirect paths and interactions throughout the network.
This is why a network approach in ecology provides a quantitative framework where we can begin to analyze and try to understand more systematically all the effects of us monkeying with the system, and we can avoid the bad unintended consequences.
From the time we were hunter-gatherers, what are some general trends in how humans are affecting the food web?
I’m involved in this study with the Sanak Aleut people in Alaska. It’s the first time that scientists have taken this ecological network approach and plugged humans into the complex ecosystem as predators. We’re talking about humans in the Aleutian Islands over the last 6,000 years , who lived closely tied to the ecosystem. One of the things we wanted to see is are humans just like other predators, or do they play special roles. It turns out humans do play special roles – they are more general eaters; they are eating more types of food than any other predator in the system. So humans are super-generalists and also super-omnivores.
They’re feeding on everything from algae all the way up to higher predators like sea otters, and everything in between — clams, fish, marine mammals. So when you do a quantitative analysis, they’re more strongly omnivorous than any other species is. They play special roles in how they fit into this network. Yet we know they were living on these islands continuously without crashing it. They don’t seem to have driven other species out of existence. So the humans lived as part of this ecosystem for thousands of years.
We use this model in order to understand the conditions by which a species could stabilize the system — either be part of the system without causing other species to go extinct, or destabilize the system. If a species that feeds on many different things enters the system, as long as it’s foraging for just a few of the species it eats, that’s very stabilizing.
What we know from previous modeling is that generalists fit into a system fine as long as they do this switching behavior. If they focus on just one species, its abundances will go down, and it will be harder for the predator to find and capture the species. So it will naturally switch to another prey because they can’t get their preferred thing anymore. So this is what generalist predators do — it’s good for the predators and releases pressure on the prey periodically. You get this cycling, with a predator feeding on something, switching to something else, and then the first prey item starts to recover. That’s very well documented. They’re constantly switching between habitats, between freshwater and terrestrial . This is what non-human generalist predators do.
So in our commercial food industry, are we messing up this natural cycle?
Here’s my take on commercial fisheries. Modern humans are homo-economicus, or humans in an economic system. Think about what happens in a blue fin tuna fishery: They’re becoming increasingly rare, because we are hunting them to extension.
We’re not talking about hunter-gatherers; we’re talking about people motivated by the global sushi industry. So even though they are harder and harder to catch, their value is increasing. With hunter-gatherers, as abundance goes down, the value decreases. In this case, the more rare they become, the more valuable they become. So instead of the system causing the predators to fish something else, it’s increasing the rate of the fishing because they’re trying to get those last few blue fin tuna. It’s obvious it’s bad for the tuna. But what people don’t really understand is that it could be destabilizing for the system – not just for the blue fin tuna but for those organisms that are indirectly connected to the tuna.
So instead of decreasing the rate on low abundance, you are increasing it and making it potentially unstable. We’re just modeling it now for the potential impact of these economically driven activities that introduce an unnatural dynamic to the system. If we fish blue fin tuna to extension, it could have a ripple effect.
A lot of fisheries around he world have failed because fishery managers have thought much too narrowly. There’s a new emphasis to do ecosystem management and to think about the whole system. People are pushing it very much in the context of fishery management. There’s many stakeholders — local fisherman, commercial fisherman, sport fishermen, scientists, managers, policy makers. Getting them all at the table and getting them to agree on a good way forward is difficult. I’m interested in how we can take things from basic science research and how to translate them to management practices.
Tell me about some of your other research areas.
One of the things I’m most excited about is working with paleo-biologists to try to understand food webs from ancient ecosystems — hundreds of millions of years ago, like a dinosaur food web. There’s a lot of evidence in the fossil records from these ecosystems to show what they ate, who ate them. The reason that’s important is that understanding ancient ecosystems gives us a context to understand current ecosystems. We can start to understand whether ancient systems were organized similarly to modern ecosystems. It gives us a baseline, so if we see a change in the fundamental organization of an ecosystem, that’s radical. It gives us a way to understand the severity of changes and to understand big macro-evolutionary patterns. Plus, working with the paleo-biologists is really fun.'
But even if, despite all the evidence, growth is still possible or likely, surely it makes sense for our economy to move on to defining prosperity not as more "stuff" and money but more wellbeing? If you disagree with that idea, you won't like what follows, but I hope you will read on.
Why do I talk about "beyond-growth" economics? Here in a short video I give a précis of what I normally take an hour to explain. We're trashing our one and only planet. On many measures like the LPI and Rockstrom, it is clear we are in overshoot and living off the capital as well as the interest. You wouldn't run a company that way would you?
And, despite all the rapid growth causing all that destruction, since the 1970s, wellbeing has flatlined in the developed world. We know that, at a level beyond which most in the developed world have long passed, extra income brings little or no more wellbeing.
So what's the growth for? And how come the new economic foundation's happy planet index shows us that "underdeveloped" countries such as Costa Rica are far more ecologically efficient at delivering long, happy lives than places like the UK? Professor Tim Jackson summarises our growth obession and affluenza in his TED talk, saying "We spend money we don't have, on things we don't need, to make impressions that don't last, on people we don't care about."
The increase in the scale of this consumerist economy is relentless. And this scale is just as important as the intensity of resource use. While some evidence can be found for relative decoupling, absolute decoupling remains fatally elusive.
The numbers are scary. If we want to reach the (far too high) 450 parts per million CO2 level by 2050, we need every global dollar of economic output to drop from its current 768gCO2/dollar to 6gCO2/dollar. That's an 11% per annum reduction every year on every global dollar output. The best we have done in the last 17 years is 0.7%.
So lets get real: either we discover the perpetual-motion machine or the myth of absolute decoupling is just dangerous denial. What's more, if the developing world is to have any chance of continuing to develop, a moral response to these facts would suggest the rich world needs to find a reverse gear very quickly.
That's why there is a rising debate about the need to move beyond growth, with numerous Nobel prizewinners, politicians and business leaders such as Adair Turner, Ian Cheshire, Bernie Bulkin and 77% of the members of Prince Charles's Cambridge programme for sustainability leadership agreeing on the need to question and dethrone growth.
And you don't have to be anti-growth to buy this. For many, including Heinberg and Gilding, it is clear that 2008 was in any case the end of growth at the macro level. You don't need to look too closely at the concatenation of peak – everything from oil, water, food and metals combined with snowballing environmental meltdown and a bust financial system – to see that growth is over once and for all. Yes there may be blips of growth going up, but only at the expense of other countries and sectors. Absolute growth may well be over.
But in any case, macro-economic modelling by people like Professor Tim Jackson and Professor Peter Victor shows that we can deliver everything we expect from a developing world: growth economy, fiscal balance, high employment, high levels of wellbeing and environmental sustainability, with zero growth.
My vision of flourishing enterprise is based on the kinds of changes Victor and Jackson build into these zero-growth models. And it's based on leadership from companies calling for radical changes in the way the market is set up, leadership in the necessary shift for a Citizen Renaissance from extrinsic to intrinsic values, and leadership in integrating wellbeing in business innovation and strategy.
A flourishing enterprise will be one that aims to maximise the wellbeing it delivers to society and minimises the units of planet it uses to deliver that wellbeing. It will shift its focus from seeing products as benefits to seeing production as a cost of maintenance of delivery to societal wellbeing-needs (not created "wants").
And don't just take my word for it. The (hot-bed of anti-capitalism) World Economic Forum looked forward in its 2010 Redesigning Business Value report to a rapid shift to business in which "we are no longer selling 'stuff'; we are enhancing people's wellbeing overall."
And there is support from politicians around the world. In the UK the prime minister acted on a recommendation from the Quality Of Life Commission by calling on the Office for National Statistics to measure and act on wellbeing measures. He has also said that his Every Business Commits initiative "calls for business to work on improving quality of life and wellbeing." As Ian Cheshire, chief executive of B&Q Kingfisher, has said "We need to radically redesign our business models with less emphasis on growth and more on wellbeing." Or as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has put it "The relevant metric of sustainability is the production of human wellbeing per unit of extraction from or imposition upon nature" and the Stiglitz Commission, looking into way to stop a repeat of the last international financial collapse, has said "measures of wellbeing should be put in a context of sustainability".
In the necessary updating of capitalism that this will entail, business needs to get comfortable with the shift to more porous, collaborative and hybrid value forms. As Botsman and Rogers say in What's Mine Is Yours: "We believe collaborative consumption is part of an even bigger shift from a production-orientated measurement system that just gauges the amount we sell to a multi-dimensional notion of value that also takes into consideration the wellbeing of current and future generations. With the consideration of a more holistic understanding of wellbeing, we see this epoch as a time when we take a leap and recreate a sustainable system built to serve basic human needs for community, individual identity, recognition and meaningful activity."
As well as a radical updating of capitalism, this journey calls for a deep dive into the dynamics of wellbeing and flourishing. It calls for business to think about the real wellbeing-needs that sit behind products and services. And it calls for supporting not undermining "capabilities for flourishing".
These are not concepts that business is overly familiar with, but I'm excited by the interest I am getting from the corporate world in this new approach to business. In a series of blogs to follow, I will be examining what flourishing enterprise might mean for a selection of companies and sectors.
Above all, flourishing enterprise seems to be applealing to the companies I work with because its a 'yes we can' story. For too long sustainability and 'CSR' have been firmly a NO story about stopping doing things. Whats new here is that a focus on maximising the wellbeing of customers and society is a positive vision. That makes it very empowering for companies and more likely to succeed in helping to create the kinds of change we need.
“We are just starting a campaign calling for an ecological constitution,” said Turkey’s Green Party spokesperson Ümit Şahin, who is among 40 people including politicians, academics, and lawyers involved in the Initiative for an Ecological Constitution (IEC).
“As Turkey has been talking about making a new constitution, which is supposed to value the individual, then we should be talking about an ecological approach to it,” Şahin said, adding that their role models are Bolivia and Ecuador, which understand the value and rights of Mother Earth. The IEC believes in this approach of the Latin American states, he said, because neither the European states nor the United States have been able to fully address the issue even though there are some examples like France, which has a Green Charter, and some states in the US, which have been adopting ecologically sensitive laws.
He noted that Ecuador’s is the first constitution in the world to recognize legally enforceable Rights of Nature. Although a small country, Ecuador is home to the Galapagos Islands, Andean Mountains and Amazon rainforest as it is a geologically, ecologically and ethnically diverse country. Ecuador took a bold step in 2008 to add Rights for Nature to their new constitution providing a system of environmental protection based on rights. Şahin noted like many countries, Turkish laws treat ecosystems as articles of property that give land owners the right to destroy even fragile ecosystems, but that a lot of governments have started to enact environmental regulations to limit harm to ecosystems and impose fines for damage.
Additionally, a group of countries led by Bolivia have recently brought the issue to the agenda of the UN General Assembly as they ask for a UN treaty that would grant the same rights found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to Mother Nature so there will be legal systems to maintain balance between human rights and what they say are the rights of other members of the Earth, such as plants, animals and terrain.
Supporting the idea, Şahin said communities should be given more power to monitor and control industries and development to ensure harmony between humans and nature...'
25 May 2011
Welcome to the new food economics of 2011: Prices are climbing, but the impact is not at all being felt equally. For Americans, who spend less than one-tenth of their income in the supermarket, the soaring food prices we've seen so far this year are an annoyance, not a calamity. But for the planet's poorest 2 billion people, who spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food, these soaring prices may mean going from two meals a day to one. Those who are barely hanging on to the lower rungs of the global economic ladder risk losing their grip entirely. This can contribute -- and it has -- to revolutions and upheaval.
Already in 2011, the U.N. Food Price Index has eclipsed its previous all-time global high; as of March it had climbed for eight consecutive months. With this year's harvest predicted to fall short, with governments in the Middle East and Africa teetering as a result of the price spikes, and with anxious markets sustaining one shock after another, food has quickly become the hidden driver of world politics. And crises like these are going to become increasingly common. The new geopolitics of food looks a whole lot more volatile -- and a whole lot more contentious -- than it used to. Scarcity is the new norm.
Until recently, sudden price surges just didn't matter as much, as they were quickly followed by a return to the relatively low food prices that helped shape the political stability of the late 20th century across much of the globe. But now both the causes and consequences are ominously different.
In many ways, this is a resumption of the 2007-2008 food crisis, which subsided not because the world somehow came together to solve its grain crunch once and for all, but because the Great Recession tempered growth in demand even as favorable weather helped farmers produce the largest grain harvest on record. Historically, price spikes tended to be almost exclusively driven by unusual weather -- a monsoon failure in India, a drought in the former Soviet Union, a heat wave in the U.S. Midwest. Such events were always disruptive, but thankfully infrequent. Unfortunately, today's price hikes are driven by trends that are both elevating demand and making it more difficult to increase production: among them, a rapidly expanding population, crop-withering temperature increases, and irrigation wells running dry. Each night, there are 219,000 additional people to feed at the global dinner table.
More alarming still, the world is losing its ability to soften the effect of shortages. In response to previous price surges, the United States, the world's largest grain producer, was effectively able to steer the world away from potential catastrophe. From the mid-20th century until 1995, the United States had either grain surpluses or idle cropland that could be planted to rescue countries in trouble. When the Indian monsoon failed in 1965, for example, President Lyndon Johnson's administration shipped one-fifth of the U.S. wheat crop to India, successfully staving off famine. We can't do that anymore; the safety cushion is gone.
That's why the food crisis of 2011 is for real, and why it may bring with it yet more bread riots cum political revolutions. What if the upheavals that greeted dictators Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya (a country that imports 90 percent of its grain) are not the end of the story, but the beginning of it? Get ready, farmers and foreign ministers alike, for a new era in which world food scarcity increasingly shapes global politics.
THE DOUBLING OF WORLD grain prices since early 2007 has been driven primarily by two factors: accelerating growth in demand and the increasing difficulty of rapidly expanding production. The result is a world that looks strikingly different from the bountiful global grain economy of the last century. What will the geopolitics of food look like in a new era dominated by scarcity? Even at this early stage, we can see at least the broad outlines of the emerging food economy.
On the demand side, farmers now face clear sources of increasing pressure. The first is population growth. Each year the world's farmers must feed 80 million additional people, nearly all of them in developing countries. The world's population has nearly doubled since 1970 and is headed toward 9 billion by midcentury. Some 3 billion people, meanwhile, are also trying to move up the food chain, consuming more meat, milk, and eggs. As more families in China and elsewhere enter the middle class, they expect to eat better. But as global consumption of grain-intensive livestock products climbs, so does the demand for the extra corn and soybeans needed to feed all that livestock. (Grain consumption per person in the United States, for example, is four times that in India, where little grain is converted into animal protein. For now.)
At the same time, the United States, which once was able to act as a global buffer of sorts against poor harvests elsewhere, is now converting massive quantities of grain into fuel for cars, even as world grain consumption, which is already up to roughly 2.2 billion metric tons per year, is growing at an accelerating rate. A decade ago, the growth in consumption was 20 million tons per year. More recently it has risen by 40 million tons every year. But the rate at which the United States is converting grain into ethanol has grown even faster. In 2010, the United States harvested nearly 400 million tons of grain, of which 126 million tons went to ethanol fuel distilleries (up from 16 million tons in 2000). This massive capacity to convert grain into fuel means that the price of grain is now tied to the price of oil. So if oil goes to $150 per barrel or more, the price of grain will follow it upward as it becomes ever more profitable to convert grain into oil substitutes. And it's not just a U.S. phenomenon: Brazil, which distills ethanol from sugar cane, ranks second in production after the United States, while the European Union's goal of getting 10 percent of its transport energy from renewables, mostly biofuels, by 2020 is also diverting land from food crops.
This is not merely a story about the booming demand for food. Everything from falling water tables to eroding soils and the consequences of global warming means that the world's food supply is unlikely to keep up with our collectively growing appetites. Take climate change: The rule of thumb among crop ecologists is that for every 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the growing season optimum, farmers can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields. This relationship was borne out all too dramatically during the 2010 heat wave in Russia, which reduced the country's grain harvest by nearly 40 percent.
While temperatures are rising, water tables are falling as farmers overpump for irrigation. This artificially inflates food production in the short run, creating a food bubble that bursts when aquifers are depleted and pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge. In arid Saudi Arabia, irrigation had surprisingly enabled the country to be self-sufficient in wheat for more than 20 years; now, wheat production is collapsing because the non-replenishable aquifer the country uses for irrigation is largely depleted. The Saudis soon will be importing all their grain.
Saudi Arabia is only one of some 18 countries with water-based food bubbles. All together, more than half the world's people live in countries where water tables are falling. The politically troubled Arab Middle East is the first geographic region where grain production has peaked and begun to decline because of water shortages, even as populations continue to grow. Grain production is already going down in Syria and Iraq and may soon decline in Yemen. But the largest food bubbles are in India and China. In India, where farmers have drilled some 20 million irrigation wells, water tables are falling and the wells are starting to go dry. The World Bank reports that 175 million Indians are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. In China, overpumping is concentrated in the North China Plain, which produces half of China's wheat and a third of its corn. An estimated 130 million Chinese are currently fed by overpumping. How will these countries make up for the inevitable shortfalls when the aquifers are depleted?
Even as we are running our wells dry, we are also mismanaging our soils, creating new deserts. Soil erosion as a result of overplowing and land mismanagement is undermining the productivity of one-third of the world's cropland. How severe is it? Look at satellite images showing two huge new dust bowls: one stretching across northern and western China and western Mongolia; the other across central Africa. Wang Tao, a leading Chinese desert scholar, reports that each year some 1,400 square miles of land in northern China turn to desert. In Mongolia and Lesotho, grain harvests have shrunk by half or more over the last few decades. North Korea and Haiti are also suffering from heavy soil losses; both countries face famine if they lose international food aid. Civilization can survive the loss of its oil reserves, but it cannot survive the loss of its soil reserves.
Beyond the changes in the environment that make it ever harder to meet human demand, there's an important intangible factor to consider: Over the last half-century or so, we have come to take agricultural progress for granted. Decade after decade, advancing technology underpinned steady gains in raising land productivity. Indeed, world grain yield per acre has tripled since 1950. But now that era is coming to an end in some of the more agriculturally advanced countries, where farmers are already using all available technologies to raise yields. In effect, the farmers have caught up with the scientists. After climbing for a century, rice yield per acre in Japan has not risen at all for 16 years. In China, yields may level off soon. Just those two countries alone account for one-third of the world's rice harvest. Meanwhile, wheat yields have plateaued in Britain, France, and Germany -- Western Europe's three largest wheat producers.
IN THIS ERA OF TIGHTENING world food supplies, the ability to grow food is fast becoming a new form of geopolitical leverage, and countries are scrambling to secure their own parochial interests at the expense of the common good.
The first signs of trouble came in 2007, when farmers began having difficulty keeping up with the growth in global demand for grain. Grain and soybean prices started to climb, tripling by mid-2008. In response, many exporting countries tried to control the rise of domestic food prices by restricting exports. Among them were Russia and Argentina, two leading wheat exporters. Vietnam, the No. 2 rice exporter, banned exports entirely for several months in early 2008. So did several other smaller exporters of grain.
With exporting countries restricting exports in 2007 and 2008, importing countries panicked. No longer able to rely on the market to supply the grain they needed, several countries took the novel step of trying to negotiate long-term grain-supply agreements with exporting countries. The Philippines, for instance, negotiated a three-year agreement with Vietnam for 1.5 million tons of rice per year. A delegation of Yemenis traveled to Australia with a similar goal in mind, but had no luck. In a seller's market, exporters were reluctant to make long-term commitments.
Fearing they might not be able to buy needed grain from the market, some of the more affluent countries, led by Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and China, took the unusual step in 2008 of buying or leasing land in other countries on which to grow grain for themselves. Most of these land acquisitions are in Africa, where some governments lease cropland for less than $1 per acre per year. Among the principal destinations were Ethiopia and Sudan, countries where millions of people are being sustained with food from the U.N. World Food Program. That the governments of these two countries are willing to sell land to foreign interests when their own people are hungry is a sad commentary on their leadership.
By the end of 2009, hundreds of land acquisition deals had been negotiated, some of them exceeding a million acres. A 2010 World Bank analysis of these "land grabs" reported that a total of nearly 140 million acres were involved -- an area that exceeds the cropland devoted to corn and wheat combined in the United States. Such acquisitions also typically involve water rights, meaning that land grabs potentially affect all downstream countries as well. Any water extracted from the upper Nile River basin to irrigate crops in Ethiopia or Sudan, for instance, will now not reach Egypt, upending the delicate water politics of the Nile by adding new countries with which Egypt must negotiate.
The potential for conflict -- and not just over water -- is high. Many of the land deals have been made in secret, and in most cases, the land involved was already in use by villagers when it was sold or leased. Often those already farming the land were neither consulted about nor even informed of the new arrangements. And because there typically are no formal land titles in many developing-country villages, the farmers who lost their land have had little backing to bring their cases to court. Reporter John Vidal, writing in Britain's Observer, quotes Nyikaw Ochalla from Ethiopia's Gambella region: "The foreign companies are arriving in large numbers, depriving people of land they have used for centuries. There is no consultation with the indigenous population. The deals are done secretly. The only thing the local people see is people coming with lots of tractors to invade their lands."
Local hostility toward such land grabs is the rule, not the exception. In 2007, as food prices were starting to rise, China signed an agreement with the Philippines to lease 2.5 million acres of land slated for food crops that would be shipped home. Once word leaked, the public outcry -- much of it from Filipino farmers -- forced Manila to suspend the agreement. A similar uproar rocked Madagascar, where a South Korean firm, Daewoo Logistics, had pursued rights to more than 3 million acres of land. Word of the deal helped stoke a political furor that toppled the government and forced cancellation of the agreement. Indeed, few things are more likely to fuel insurgencies than taking land from people. Agricultural equipment is easily sabotaged. If ripe fields of grain are torched, they burn quickly.
Not only are these deals risky, but foreign investors producing food in a country full of hungry people face another political question of how to get the grain out. Will villagers permit trucks laden with grain headed for port cities to proceed when they themselves may be on the verge of starvation? The potential for political instability in countries where villagers have lost their land and their livelihoods is high. Conflicts could easily develop between investor and host countries.
These acquisitions represent a potential investment in agriculture in developing countries of an estimated $50 billion. But it could take many years to realize any substantial production gains. The public infrastructure for modern market-oriented agriculture does not yet exist in most of Africa. In some countries it will take years just to build the roads and ports needed to bring in agricultural inputs such as fertilizer and to export farm products. Beyond that, modern agriculture requires its own infrastructure: machine sheds, grain-drying equipment, silos, fertilizer storage sheds, fuel storage facilities, equipment repair and maintenance services, well-drilling equipment, irrigation pumps, and energy to power the pumps. Overall, development of the land acquired to date appears to be moving very slowly.
So how much will all this expand world food output? We don't know, but the World Bank analysis indicates that only 37 percent of the projects will be devoted to food crops. Most of the land bought up so far will be used to produce biofuels and other industrial crops.
Even if some of these projects do eventually boost land productivity, who will benefit? If virtually all the inputs -- the farm equipment, the fertilizer, the pesticides, the seeds -- are brought in from abroad and if all the output is shipped out of the country, it will contribute little to the host country's economy. At best, locals may find work as farm laborers, but in highly mechanized operations, the jobs will be few. At worst, impoverished countries like Mozambique and Sudan will be left with less land and water with which to feed their already hungry populations. Thus far the land grabs have contributed more to stirring unrest than to expanding food production.
And this rich country-poor country divide could grow even more pronounced -- and soon. This January, a new stage in the scramble among importing countries to secure food began to unfold when South Korea, which imports 70 percent of its grain, announced that it was creating a new public-private entity that will be responsible for acquiring part of this grain. With an initial office in Chicago, the plan is to bypass the large international trading firms by buying grain directly from U.S. farmers. As the Koreans acquire their own grain elevators, they may well sign multiyear delivery contracts with farmers, agreeing to buy specified quantities of wheat, corn, or soybeans at a fixed price.
Other importers will not stand idly by as South Korea tries to tie up a portion of the U.S. grain harvest even before it gets to market. The enterprising Koreans may soon be joined by China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and other leading importers. Although South Korea's initial focus is the United States, far and away the world's largest grain exporter, it may later consider brokering deals with Canada, Australia, Argentina, and other major exporters. This is happening just as China may be on the verge of entering the U.S. market as a potentially massive importer of grain. With China's 1.4 billion increasingly affluent consumers starting to compete with U.S. consumers for the U.S. grain harvest, cheap food, seen by many as an American birthright, may be coming to an end.
No one knows where this intensifying competition for food supplies will go, but the world seems to be moving away from the international cooperation that evolved over several decades following World War II to an every-country-for-itself philosophy. Food nationalism may help secure food supplies for individual affluent countries, but it does little to enhance world food security. Indeed, the low-income countries that host land grabs or import grain will likely see their food situation deteriorate.
AFTER THE CARNAGE of two world wars and the economic missteps that led to the Great Depression, countries joined together in 1945 to create the United Nations, finally realizing that in the modern world we cannot live in isolation, tempting though that might be. The International Monetary Fund was created to help manage the monetary system and promote economic stability and progress. Within the U.N. system, specialized agencies from the World Health Organization to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) play major roles in the world today. All this has fostered international cooperation.
But while the FAO collects and analyzes global agricultural data and provides technical assistance, there is no organized effort to ensure the adequacy of world food supplies. Indeed, most international negotiations on agricultural trade until recently focused on access to markets, with the United States, Canada, Australia, and Argentina persistently pressing Europe and Japan to open their highly protected agricultural markets. But in the first decade of this century, access to supplies has emerged as the overriding issue as the world transitions from an era of food surpluses to a new politics of food scarcity. At the same time, the U.S. food aid program that once worked to fend off famine wherever it threatened has largely been replaced by the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), where the United States is the leading donor. The WFP now has food-assistance operations in some 70 countries and an annual budget of $4 billion. There is little international coordination otherwise. French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- the reigning president of the G-20 -- is proposing to deal with rising food prices by curbing speculation in commodity markets. Useful though this may be, it treats the symptoms of growing food insecurity, not the causes, such as population growth and climate change. The world now needs to focus not only on agricultural policy, but on a structure that integrates it with energy, population, and water policies, each of which directly affects food security.
But that is not happening. Instead, as land and water become scarcer, as the Earth's temperature rises, and as world food security deteriorates, a dangerous geopolitics of food scarcity is emerging. Land grabbing, water grabbing, and buying grain directly from farmers in exporting countries are now integral parts of a global power struggle for food security.
With grain stocks low and climate volatility increasing, the risks are also increasing. We are now so close to the edge that a breakdown in the food system could come at any time. Consider, for example, what would have happened if the 2010 heat wave that was centered in Moscow had instead been centered in Chicago. In round numbers, the 40 percent drop in Russia's hoped-for harvest of roughly 100 million tons cost the world 40 million tons of grain, but a 40 percent drop in the far larger U.S. grain harvest of 400 million tons would have cost 160 million tons. The world's carryover stocks of grain (the amount in the bin when the new harvest begins) would have dropped to just 52 days of consumption. This level would have been not only the lowest on record, but also well below the 62-day carryover that set the stage for the 2007-2008 tripling of world grain prices.
Then what? There would have been chaos in world grain markets. Grain prices would have climbed off the charts. Some grain-exporting countries, trying to hold down domestic food prices, would have restricted or even banned exports, as they did in 2007 and 2008. The TV news would have been dominated not by the hundreds of fires in the Russian countryside, but by footage of food riots in low-income grain-importing countries and reports of governments falling as hunger spread out of control. Oil-exporting countries that import grain would have been trying to barter oil for grain, and low-income grain importers would have lost out. With governments toppling and confidence in the world grain market shattered, the global economy could have started to unravel.
We may not always be so lucky. At issue now is whether the world can go beyond focusing on the symptoms of the deteriorating food situation and instead attack the underlying causes. If we cannot produce higher crop yields with less water and conserve fertile soils, many agricultural areas will cease to be viable. And this goes far beyond farmers. If we cannot move at wartime speed to stabilize the climate, we may not be able to avoid runaway food prices. If we cannot accelerate the shift to smaller families and stabilize the world population sooner rather than later, the ranks of the hungry will almost certainly continue to expand. The time to act is now - before the food crisis of 2011 becomes the new normal.'