Poverty, Agroecology and Gobalised Food

If current population trends increase, global production of food will have to increase by 70-100% by 2050.

With current food production practice, meeting this demand is highly unlikely and yet the UN Millennium Development Goals (UN MDG) seek end poverty and extreme hunger. The  humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa (in July 2011 the UN declared a state of famine in Somalia, the first in the 21st century) is testament to three things:

  • Poverty reduction is currently one of the most pressing global issues;
  • Food production systems need to be overhauled in order to promote equal distribution of food; and
  • Food sovereignty should be strongly encouraged in all countries.
poverty
The first UN MDG is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. It’s currently 2014.

A possible way to address the above points is encouraging the growth of agroecology.

If there are any doubts regarding the need for countries around the world to independently source their food, one story from the 2007-2009 global recession will remedy this.

In late 2007 food prices rose dramatically around the world and the price of staple foods such as maize and rice almost doubled, causing food riots in more than 20 countries. This wasn’t because of drought or poor crop yields – there was plenty of food for sale – but because food has become a product on the global market and so is subject to fluctuations in the world economy.

prices
In 2007 global food prices rose dramatically…
oil and food
… but not because of a lack of food.

So although there was enough food available few could afford it due to the collapse of the worldmarkets. The food sovereignty offered by agroecology would go a long way buffer this by the strengthening of local markets; food prices in Africa and Asia would no longer be intrinsically linked to the prosperity of banks in America.

Agroecology is a more sustainable agricultural system than conventional ones as positively it address three big drivers of change: climate change; biodiversity; and food security. The system is also more resilient to change, needs less human input, has more stable net productivity, and are better equipped to take full advantage of the ecological services in place.

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The triple bottom line is the point of agroecology. I really could just picture this one photo and do away with all the hundreds of words of explanatory text.

The best examples of working agroecology systems can be found in Latin America and the practices there can be used as examples of how to implement this system.

Movimiento Campesino a Campesino (MCAC)(Farmer to Farmer Movement) is a movement that has established itself in Central America over the last three decades. It promotes farmers learning from other farmers, sharing information between them in order to find the best possible ways to produce food. This has been found to be the most effective way of communicating sustainable practice quickly and on a large scale, and it offers good results small landholders are more likely to listen to and connect with their peers.

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Flowcharts are nice. Information flows in conventional vs campesino systems.

For example, when soil conservation practices were introduced into Honduras through MCAC yields for hillside farms rose from 400kg per hectare to 1,200 – 1,600kg per hectare due to healthier soils. This easily accessible network of information is a central part of agroecology as currently one of the biggest barriers to food production in developing countries is a lack of available knowledge/technology.

As an agricultural system, agroecology should be broadly implemented on a global scale to stabilise food security, use natural resources sustainably, protect biodiversity, and alleviate poverty through the formation of stable markets.

To do this, governments must take responsibility in engaging with farmers, research facilities, NGOs and industry to ensure that the system works in the most efficient way possible. Several recommendations have been made on the subject;

  • Governments must put in place mechanisms to empower small farmers (such as partnerships and financial aid). This also ties in with article 1(B)(6) of the International Food Security Agenda (1993).
  • Current subsidies on conventional agriculture must be dismantled so agroecology becomes more economically rational on an industrial scale than conventional systems
  • Equitable markets should be developed, emphasising fair trade to create both income for farmers and sustainable food supplies for their regions.
fair trade
Of course, it’s not all up to governments. As a consumer, you can chose what you buy and therefore what kind of industry and philosophy you are supporting.

Sustainable agriculture should be developed with emphasis on local knowledge and involving farmers directly in formulating research agendas and technological innovation. Solutions must be site-specific be focused on information systems rather than capital.

For this, systems thinking must be used in order to ‘work smarter, not harder’ using practices like agroforestry and polycropping in order to boost yield with minimum input. Most recommendations focus on policy change  which could be difficult to implement in capital focused countries like Australia. This is because of three things;

  • Agroecology has often be branded as anti-capitalist by supporters of an entirely unregulated market
  • Implementation would require an overhaul of current food production systems in Australia
  • Demand for food that cannot be produced locally is high; would require a large social shift in ways of thinking.

Agroecology should be encouraged and supported in developing/more socialist countries with current knowledge and understanding while more research is needed to develop a viable way for industrialised/neo-liberal countries to do the same.

Climate Change and Policy … It’s Crazy

So I just finished up doing a third year course called Climate Change Science and Policy and I want to reflect a bit on it all, so here goes.

I’ve done a little bit of climate science before, with the same lecturer, but that was more about the hard science; more physical geography in that it was just telling us how our interactions with the climate system are going (tldr: not well). This course, however, was several levels up the evolutionary ladder in that it was more about human geography, telling us about the health impacts of climate change; about how agriculture is having to adapt; about the future of water resources under climate change; and a brilliant guest lecture by someone from the university’s Law school about adaptation.

malaria
I live in the red bit on Australia’s east coast. Can’t say I’m too keen to get malaria.

This lecture was different to others as it presented me with a real challenge to the way I usually think of climate change.

It was all about adaptation and who bears responsibility for it, who pays the cost, who reaps the benefits. In my volunteering life as a climate activist I’m all about mitigation but this course, emphasised very strongly in this lecture, made me realise how important it is to have the tricky conversations about adaptation. In that lecture we spoke specifically about building codes in coastal areas but in the rest of the course we tackled much larger questions in our mock CoP.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have this thing called the Kyoto Protocol and ever year all the Parties to the Protocol go to a Conference; the Conference of the Parties (CoP).  You probably heard about the 2009 one in Copenhagen that was meant to be the silver bullet of climate change but actually went up in flames (as we’re talking climate change this can be taken literally). In it, Tuvalu didn’t sign on because an item they’d had tabled for six moths was ignored. A similar thing had happened two years earlier at the Bali CoP; basically America couldn’t agree on anything at all,  and the Secretariat was bullied by China and left crying. Dang.

obama
This was a year after Obama got the Peace Prize just for *not* being GW Bush. Then at Copenhagen America held the negotiations hostage while they got their Senate sorted out. Not sure how much of that is Obama’s fault but it sure is a chilling image.

CoPs are crazy. Ian Fry, a long time CoP attendee, gave us two lectures on CoPs that can basically be summed up thus: for two weeks everyone only sleeps about three hours a night; everyone is too busy protecting their own interests to think about anyone else; big countries like the US and blocs like the EU often dominate discussions; it doesn’t matter how high your ambition is at a CoP if you can’t pass anything in domestic law.

hoax
Classic.

So we did a mock CoP and this whole process really did my head in. I’ve always been very, The rich countries whose fault it is should take responsibility!, but that’s not fair. It won’t even work;  if only Annex I countries (Australia, England, Germany, the US etc.) mitigated it wouldn’t really get us anywhere as they’ve already done all their hard yards in the serious emitting stage of development.

That’s another thing that struck me. In the mock CoP I was Tuvalu, a tiny Pacific Island nation that has fewer than 12 000 people on 26 square kilometres on six islands.

Tuvalu
Clockwise from left: the country of Tuvalu extends from roughly 5 to 11 degrees South; the capital is on Funafuti, an island no more than 600m wide; the region of the South Pacific with Tuvalu highlighted.

When researching for the CoP I read this article (Connell, 2003) that said the people of Tuvalu are much less interested in climate change than one would assume; they’re far more concerned about developing their small and fragile economy. This is something one can call the climate/development nexus: even though developing countries (especially small island states like Tuvalu) are the most vulnerable they don’t have  the resources to deal with it. So do we get everyone out of poverty first? No, there’s not enough time for that. We just have to balance on that nexus and try to do what’s best. And it’s SO DIFFICULT.

Living in Australia and caring about climate change is really difficult. I did this course because I wanted to learn more about the effects of climate change and the international process but so many people in this country know so little about it, or worse: they think they know about it but are actually on a scale of being confused to being drastically misinformed. I want to be a high school science teacher and this course really highlighted for me how important it is to teach kids these things early and correctly. Then, hopefully, we’ll have a better informed public leading to better informed politicians and better international outcomes.

crazies
A picture from our dear friends at the Heartland Institute. Let’s keep the crazies away from the kids, eh?

And that’s my theory of change.

At the end of the course we had a 40% report. I did the assignment with sincerity and quite a bit of effort but I was one stupid climate change denier or irritating news article or picture of  our (climate change idiot) PM away from just handing this in, centred on a single sheet of paper:

 Absurd arbitrary arithmetic actually affecting all Aves, animals and agriculture. But bulging behemoth businesses bemoaning bumbling bystander bureaucracies: curse callous corporations, craven countries; casual collusion causing climate change! Development’s dogmas determinedly damning delicate  developing democracies – every extra economically enthralling emission eradicating ethical entreaties, eroding entire ecosystems. Fuck fossil fuels.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Connell, J 2003, ‘Losing ground? Tuvalu, the greenhouse effect and the garbage can’, Asia Pacific Viewpoint, vol.44, no.4, pp. 89-107.

5 Things I have Learnt from studying Environmental Science

I’m currently doing a BSc at the Australian National University, double majoring in Environmental and Landscape System Science and Geography. Internet was asking me what I’ve learnt so far, so I made a list!

Although I still have a semester to go (and Honours!), here the five most important things to know about environmental science, brought to you by the Fenner School of Environment and Society and Internet’s questions.

5. Environmental Science is a Fashion Victim

There are fashion trends in everything and environmental science is no different. Back in the 90s the Big Thing in international environmental talks was sustainable development, with all all-star cast of the Brutland Report, Limits to Growth and the 1992 Earth Summit – the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio. Agenda 21 was born, nations who were at war with each other sat down and talked about sustainable development, Severn Suzuki was the *coolest person ever* and the triple bottom line was the new creed;

sustainable

But today we all know that the Big Thing is climate change. Divest! Emissions trading schemes! Carbon dioxide! Fossil fuels! REDD+! Ice caps! More buzzwords!

One of my lecturers often laments this dramatic shift in focus; she argues that just looking at climate change is too simplistic as it doesn’t fully capture our degraded relationship with our home planet. How do we solve this problem? We study geography! Yay!

In a more physical geography sense, back in the 90s and early 2000s the Big Thing in land management in SE Australia was salinity. Salinity was set to become the Armageddon, the end of days, the Battle of Hogwarts. Salinity was It. However, the drought broke in the late 2000s and salinity never became the disaster it was meant to be. Lucky!

Now the big thing that everyone is researching and talking about and pulling their hair out about is overgrazing.

roos
In Australia roos contribute to the overgrazing problem, necessitating culls. Picture: the ABC

See Internet? Fashion victims.

4. Environmental Science will shift your World View

Especially if you study the more ‘society’side of it; human geography, human ecology,  stakeholder based qualitative things, sustainable development etc. You will see our society in a new and increasingly complex way that will force you to realise the incredible inter-connectedness of it and, ultimately, the fragility of our inter-dependant gloabalised Western hegemony. Nowhere is this more evident than when considering the global food market.

In short, this will happen to you:

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Picture courtesy of the Fenner School Society.

3. Stakeholders

You can boost your marks by about 5 points by having a version of this paragraph in an assignment;

“There needs to be a strong emphasis on stakeholder collaboration and resilience building in light of a rapidly growing population and increasing threats from climate change.”
2. People don’t like anything that doesn’t fit their worldview
This makes point four harder to accept. The obvious example here is climate change; Australia being the intellectual backwater that we are, the media and politicians still talk like climate change is a debated idea, and still act as if it’s just a quite theory of little real world impact.
I experienced this first hand a few weeks ago when I was talking to a third year economics student whose father is a contractor. We were on an hour long bus trip and she was telling me how her father is contracted by farmers to put fertilisers on pasture and crops. I said something about paddock trees and how there aren’t enough of them to stop erosion and do all the great things they do and she launched into a tirade about those ‘bloody greenies’ who ‘don’t know anything about agriculture’ and are trying to ‘driver farmers into the ground’.
Yep, totally. Sorry if my three years of studying environmental science doesn’t quite fit in with your economics world view of ‘Cut down all trees, ???, profit!’.
‘Bloody greenies’? Seriously? Yes, I absolutely want to drive farmers into the ground. Because, you know, I find food overrated and I don’t actually want employment when I graduate after doing HONOURS IN SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE. (At this point Internet would like you to know that she hates those people. She said it, not me.)
treessalt

Turns out trees do help with salinity! Picture: The Australian Academy of Science (but what would those bloody greenies know? They don’t study economics; their dads aren’t contractors!)

1. Goats and Fire

The most important thing I have learnt in the last three years is that if you have a problem – any problem – it can’t be solved by grazing it with goats, setting fire to it then grazing it with goats again.

Any problem. Ever.

goat1fire

2, 565, 2795

If there are three numbers in climate change you should know, they are 2, 565, and 2 795.

Let’s talk about math, baby.

In July 2012 climate stalwart Bill McKibben wrote an extremly popular article in Rolling Stone called ‘Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math’.

Basically, the international community has set a (slightly arbitrary) target of a 2’C rise in temperature by the end of the century. This is the first numer.

2’C was the limit set as it is seen to be the uppermost limit of warming under which most socities can continue to operate as they currently do. Anything above 2’C is seen as ‘catastrophic climate change’ and there is no gaurantee at all that our current society can survive that.

2
2’C has been agreed upon as the ‘safe’ limit for climate change. Current understanding puts us at about 0.8’C.

 

Why do I sound so cynical about the 2’C?

Because it’s too high.

It was chosen because it’s (in theory) a politically fesiable target, not because it actually means anything. At 2’C you can say goodbye to countries like Tuvaulu and Kirabati. At 2’C you can say goodbye to the Great Barrier Reef. At 2’c the Arctic will look less like a wild and beautifully desolate ice desert and more like a bit of coolish water with some ice cubes sadly floating in it.

The next number is 565 gigatonnes. Basically, to stay under that 2’C limit we can’t emit more than another 565 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. That’s fine, right?

We emit nor more than that 565 and then the inertia of the oceans will catch up (basically we’re not feeling the true impacts of cllimate change at the moment as they store heaps of carbon dioxide, but when they reach saturation point all of that will go into the atmosphere) and it will get crazy for a while but we might be okay.

Well, not really because (and this is where the ‘terrifying’ comes in) there is currently 2 795 gigatonnes on the books.

That is roughly five times the amount we have in our carbon budget, but it’s being traded and included in market anaylsis and market forecasts already.

2795
This slide from Bill McKibben’s ‘Do the Math’ tour says it all really.

It’s written into multi billion dollar deals such as the mining of the Galliee Basin in Australia and the extraction of tar sands in the US.

Doesn’t sound great, does it? 

Lukily, there are thousands of dedicated, talented, optimistic and downright brilliant people working on this, notably through the global Fossil Free divestment campaign being run by 350.org. They are truly fantastic people.

Tomorrow, when the IPCC releases their fifth report on climate change we’ll see how it’s all going.

In the meantime, let’s play with the math. We need to diminish that 2 795 to 565 or, frankly, geography won’t be so awesome anymore and that would be terrible.

Climate Change Week

Afternoon all!

I have officially and arbitrarily decided that this week on GiA will be Climate Change Week.

fox
“Stop melting my home!” PHOTO: National Geographic

 

I’m assuming that everyone has a pretty good understanding of the science, so I’ll skim over that before delving into the depths of international climate change talks, where it gets seriously complicated.

The science is easy; it’s the politics of it that’s nuts.

First off though, we’ll start with this, a counter that shows you the atmosphere’s current and past carbon dioxide concentration in parts per million (ppm).

It’s a crazy graph and as you can see, we cracked 400ppm earlier this year. The international community has agreed that we need to stay below 2’C of warming above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid a climate that most societies won’t be able to function in.  To stay below this 2’C, we’d need to get carbon dioxide levels down to or below 350ppm.

The 2’C is in itself a bit arbitrary (I’ll explain that in a bit), but it provides a good indicator of how we’re going.

I realise this is pretty sad, so to cheer you up, here’s a video of a baby panda sneezing.