Tag Archives: food policy

Climate Change and Food Security for All: Is it Possible?

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This week most of us felt hopeful as we heard President Obama announce new measures to respond to climate disruption. Although we have been hearing the discussion on climate change for a while, most people think of it as something that might unfold in the future. The fact is that climate change is here and is already altering the world as we know it.

Consider the case of the puffin: parents of baby puffins are bringing in food for them that they are not physically capable of ingesting. Why? Because the fish they usually feed on, hake and herring, are no longer found in the waters around them: the water is simply too warm for the fish to survive. So fewer baby puffins are surviving into adulthood. Their life patterns are also changing and the are coming in late this year to their summer habitats.

Meanwhile, humans too are faced with the challenge of feeding 9 billion people in a time of uncertain climatic conditions. The melting ice in the Antarctic could raise sea levels to an extent where China, India,Bangladesh, and Vietnam would lose millions of hectares of arable land and food production would fall. At the other extreme, higher temperatures threaten crop yield in the USA. A warmer climate also means an increase in disease and pests. The cloud of grasshoppers gathering in New Mexico is not from some movie set in the future, but happening right now.

The challenge is not just to create a more productive, climate resilient agriculture sector but also to ensure that all of our food is produced in a way that reduces pressure on a planet where everything is interlinked. If we look at discrete solutions we risk generating more problems: the effort to limit over fishing in the ocean by raising fish in farms, for example, has resulted in the destruction of mangroves and zones algae blooms that suck up oxygen and kill the fish.

The need is to consider the whole problem: whether we live in the Maldives or Mexico, on a farm or in the city, our lives are about to go in a direction different from what we known for centuries and the solutions we devise must take into account the needs of all the whole planet; humans, puffins and all.

And all this, without some coffee to help us along, because that too is likely to disappear as the climate changes.

(Image Courtest: Freedigitalphotos.net)

Will There Be A Second Green Revolution?

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Last week, The Economist published a piece on the possibility of a second Green Revolution on rice fields in Asia and Africa. The possibilities outlined in it make one hopeful for the future, at a time when stasis on climate change and polarization among the players in the food system usually make for a grim outlook.

The second revolution, if it comes, will be crucial in feeding the growing population as current yields are dropping off from previous levels. And what is remarkable is that the increase in yield required to meet demand can be obtained almost entirely from areas missed by the first Green Revolution. This is because, the green revolution took off in irrigated areas while passing by the rain dependent regions. These areas fall in the marginal category where harvests are often disrupted by drought or floods. Now, the International Rice Research Institute is  offering farmers a rice variety that stays dormant during long periods of flooding and then resumes growth. This would be an invaluable trait for dealing with the possibility of increased rainfall and  flooding due to climate disruption. And, because this offers the possibility of increased production on marginal lands, the impact in terms of greater income would go to the most vulnerable sections of the rural poor whose impoverishment is a result of their dependence on unproductive land.

But how was this new strain of rice developed? The scientists at IRRI had identified a rice strain from Odisha, in eastern India, as having a high flood tolerance. This was then crossed with other rice varieties but the experiments were not successful. Finally, the scientists identified the gene that enabled flood tolerance, and spliced into other rice varieties, to achieve more than a dozen varieties of rice , all flood tolerant and collectively known as “Sub 1″.This is what was so striking for me: decades of traditional breeding saw no success, yet once the genetic sequence of the rice from Odisha was marked, it took only four years for flood tolerant seeds to be produced!

This presents a promising option for making agriculture resilient to future climatic uncertainties in a short period of time, in addition to increasing production on marginal lands and providing income opportunities for the rural poor. This would be a revolution indeed! The article is here and an interesting account of the farmers growing Sub 1 rice in Odisha is here.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

 

Food Prices on the Rise

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So food prices are on the rise …again! And it looks like they might continue on that path given the pessimistic outlook for wheat in the US given the dry growing conditions. In addition, the situation in Ukraine spells uncertainly for the world wheat market. As I read more about this I also discovered the interesting fact that farmers in Ukraine have apparently breached a ban on GMOs and are growing GM soy and corn in response to market demand!

How Math Predicts Revolutions Based on Food Prices

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The point about rising food prices being a factor in social unrest has been explored before but now there is a model that can predict when and where revolutions will occur based on food prices. According to this, when the FAO food price index reaches 210, social unrest is triggered. Among the list of countries are some where this has happened on a large scale(Venezuela is a current example), some where it is still contained (India) and also some surprises (Sweden?!). The author of the study, Prof. Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute , points to two major causes for rising food prices: the rise of biofuels and speculation in commodities. And what happens to these two variables will determine if prices will be lower this year. Ethanol mandates are being debated in the US and EU, but speculation is another matter. It is spoken of much less than labeling, or any other food issue of the day.

Consider, also, the impact of climate change. (This was an important factor in the case of Syria, for instance.) Unpredictable weather events, a sudden drought or flood may result in a below average harvest; but higher prices in the global market (fueled by speculation) provide an incentive for exporting most of the crop. This would mean less is available for domestic consumption and  prices would rise for whatever is on the market. If prices were to rise to critical levels, as predicted by this model, social unrest would follow. 

What are the chances of regulating commodity speculation, proposing , for example, some limits for trading? It is difficult, perhaps, to be optimistic on this issue but it has to be highlighted in any conversation on the food system.  Food is a commodity, yes, but it is not like any other commodity. If trading in future, hypothetical, stocks of grain  means people are starving in the present then that is not an acceptable situation and efforts to correct it should not be blocked by purely financial interests.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

Can a Rice Gene Save the Banana?

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Can a gene from rice help combat the pathogen that threatens the extinction of bananas? That was just one of the many interesting issues featured in Dr. Pamela Ronald’s lecture at the SAIS Global Issues in Agriculture series. Dr. Ronald is a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis. Many of us following the debate on GMOs  might have read her book, “Tomorrow’s Table”, co-authored with her husband, Mr. R.W. Adamchak, who is an organic farmer.

Speaking to a (mostly) non-scientific audience, Dr. Ronald explained in clear terms that growers have been trying to enhance desirable traits in crops forever. The older method of simply crossing Type x with Type y and waiting to see whether the hybrid plant had the desired trait . This method focused on the outward result but modification at the genetic level did take place but was unobserved. Genetic modification today is precise,  and efficient and enables quick and accurate results. In addition, it is backed by years of research data.

Why do we need genetic modification anyway? Consider, Dr. Ronald said, the case of the GM papaya. The papayas grown in Hawaii were attacked by the ringspot virus which devastated the crop, even moving the crop to another island did not help. Ultimately, the plants were “vaccinated” with a dose of the virus which enabled them to resist when the virus actually attacked. And so it is that we still have papayas in Hawaii. Perhaps a similar solution could be found for coffee rust? We will never know if we cannot try this option in the real world. Dr. Ronald spoke of her own work with rice: how a rice gene could possibly be used to battle the pathogen which threatens  bananas with extinction.

One possible application of genetic modification could be in building climate resilience in crops.Dr. Ronald shared her work on building flood tolerance in rice. In many parts of the world rice is grown in flood prone areas and with increased flooding possible from climate change; the development of a strain of rice which can stand water logging for up to 17 days as compared to the current maximum of 3 days is great news. But all these wonderful possibilities would take years to negotiate the stringent regulatory process and even then be opposed due to fear mongering. In that context, I was hoping to ask Dr. Ronald for her views on labeling of GMO products. But , sadly, there was not enough time; most of the discussion was taken up by two journalists from Germany, which, given that country’s staunch opposition to GMOs was interesting….

The main point to learn from this lecture was that the seed (around which so much of the storm is swirling) is but a small part in the whole process of growing food and we need to incorporate all options, technology and good agro-ecological practices to achieve sustainable development.

While I was learning all this; with ease, I would like to add, as Dr. Ronald is great at making all this scientific information accessible to those not from a science background; I wished more people could hear her, instead of being bombarded by myths of “dangerous farming” and GMOs killing bees.

Non-GMO Cheerios: Something to Cheer About?

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The news that General Mills is going to eliminate genetically modified elements from their line of Original Cheerios was greeted with cheers by many. If true, it would represent a big change in the way the cereal is produced. But how big is this change, I wondered.  Reading closely we find that the main ingredient, oats, were not GM anyway, it is the corn starch and sugar that are being sourced differently and this will only happen for the Original line not for others like Honey Nut, Fruity Cheerios , Apple Cinnamon etc. It is, then, only a small tweak in only one cereal, right. Wait, there is more: on her blog, the Farmer’s Daughter  USA quotes Margaret Smith, Professor of Plant Breeding at Cornell University.

“In reality, Cheerios isn’t changing at all. Margaret Smith, professor of plant breeding at Cornell says:

Corn starch and sugar are highly refined products, so they contain no DNA (which is what is introduced into a genetically engineered organism) and no protein (which is what the new DNA would produce in a genetically engineered organism). Because of that, corn starch and sugar from a genetically engineered corn variety are nutritionally and chemically identical to corn starch or sugar from a non-genetically engineered variety.

It is the exact same cereal.”

The statement from the company seems to indicate that the corn and sugar General Mills uses in future will be conventional, non-GMO (there is no mention of use of organic crops). The main reason for using GM corn is to prevent crop loss to pests,  not world domination ,as so much of anti-GMO propaganda insists. So, how are the pests going to be dealt with? Would this mean increased pesticide use to prevent crop losses? Everyone agrees this is not such a good thing: for the farmers who have to handle and apply the stuff, for the consumers or for the planet. The use of non-GMO crops involves a real cost in terms of crop loss which in turn would impact prices of these crops and the quantities produced, more here.  For example, if in a given year,  x hectares of corn was planted with the expectation of a yield of  y tonnes, and the yield is lower due to crop loss to pests; global demand for corn stays ahead of global supply, next year the farmers might respond by growing x+some hectares by cutting down forests. That is not a great outcome. Would it be better to switch to organic corn and sugar? There are doubts about organic cultivation bringing in the required yields . Besides, organic farming also uses pesticides, just different ones from those in conventional farms.

So far, none of this is positive. And the question remains, why this decision now? What does the producer get out of this?  Well, the company can, for example, put on a big label on its package saying “No GMOs Used” (or something to that effect). This highlights exactly my misgivings with the labeling issue. Basically  a label can obscure as much as it reveals. Consumers, overwhelmed with all the fear mongering on the GMO issue might be persuaded to buy more of what they think is “safer” for their families. This means more sales and more profits, good news for the company.While General Mills has a big chunk of the market, its share has slipped in 2013 (by a tiny bit) and this would be a good time to bump up the numbers.

Just as the insistence on a tortuous and long drawn out approval process for GMO crops tips the balance in favor of big corporations; the clamor for labeling can also have unintended consequences. It will make a difference , yes, but to the big  producers and not to the consumer. Not much to cheer about, after all.

Does Reading Blog Posts Change Your Mind?

 

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A bit of introspection brought about by the cheery wishes from WordPress because Thought+Food had completed another year. Even  with the stats and the kind comments, sometimes one  does get the “shouting into the wilderness” feeling. Who is reading this and do they keep any of it with them once they are done?  Hopefully , they do! even if for a short while. One would have to be Michael Pollan to leave an impact that lasts for a year, apparently.

And while food policy in this country and the world continues on its  incomprehensible way, there will be a huge motivation to write about it in the hope of bringing some change. Thanks for joining me on this journey!

GMOs: The View From Italy

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Absorbed as we tend to be in our own food system battles: food safety, labeling, etc; we tend to forget that similar struggles are taking place elsewhere. I always tend to think of Europe as solidly anti-GM although, there is a lively debate on right now in the UK, for example, on the adoption of GM technology. So, this piece on the import of GM corn by Italy was illuminating. First, the elaborate dance around growing/importing GM corn even when the current corn crop has been devastated by pests is entertaining to read. Also, I learnt that several countries in the EU do grow or import GM crops, somehow working through loopholes in the regulations banning this technology. And, finally, a familiar picture: no one is listening to what the farmers have to say. The final scene in the drama played out thus: Italian pigs will be fed GM corn imported from the US (but what will this mean for future prosciutto?!), while Italian farmers are left to deal with the consequences of a failed harvest. Too bad they cannot blame it all on Monsanto!

Drought, Hunger and Syria

 

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Looking at the news these days, it seems that the world is just coming apart and understanding all of this is impossible. But it is also difficult to turn away from, so I started reading this piece to learn about the situation in Syria. And when I came to point 6, I had to stop and read it again. How did I not know this already?

There was a severe drought in Syria from 2006 to 2011 which disrupted the rural economy. Lack of water meant that farmers lost their livelihoods and migrated to the cities to get whatever jobs they could, to keep their families from starving. The Syrian government, meanwhile, decided to sell off the grain reserves.  Already unsuccessful in dealing with the drought crisis, it now had no food to offer its citizens and had to import food. This, obviously, was not a viable solution and it is easy to see why violence, fed by this and other factors, has broken out.

Two things come to mind here: the issue of climate change and the breakdown of Syria’s food production system has largely remained invisible in the discussions on military action. How could a calamity that resulted in an estimated 2 to 3 million people being reduced to “extreme poverty”, have remained unnoticed?  And, for the future: as the impact of climate change on our food system becomes more intense;  this situation ,with minor changes in variables, could be repeated across the globe. What will we do then?

It is time to put the food system at the center of any debate on the future. If we talk of dealing with climate change, let us start by recognizing its crucial impact on how we grow food, if we want a more equal world, let us ensure that its roots lie in a just and fair food system, and if we want a secure world, food security needs to be the first step.

Another Green Revolution in India?

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In the 1960s, India was facing  a severe food shortage. The Indian economy was decimated by 200 years of colonial rule and the 3 wars fought after gaining Independence in 1947. The country was struggling to grow enough food to feed its people and did not have the resources to import food either. Finally, it was food aid under the US PL480 program that enabled India to to stave off the threat of starvation for millions.  It was in this situation that India decided to adopt Dr. Norman Borlaug’s newly developed variety of medium wheat and what is known as the Green Revolution got its start. As productivity increased, so did rural incomes and many lives that might have been lost to famine were saved.

Despite the criticisms that have since been directed at this program, the enormous good that it did cannot be denied. This video captures the sense of what the adoption of this technology meant to India. While it highlights Dr. Borlaug’s efforts, what struck me most was the enthusiasm of the farmers for innovation, the openness to technology and the unsettling awareness that the path to adoption of technology today may be more difficult. Fifty years ago the decisions about farming were the domain of the farmer who had the knowledge to make those decisions, today the scenario is fraught with those who trust neither science nor those who have grown our food for years (in the case of Indian family farmers, this would mean over centuries!).