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All the Conditions Are Assembled for a New Food Crisis

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Hunger, still and always. And at levels never touched before: Under the impact of the economic crisis, the threshold of a billion people suffering from malnutrition was crossed in 2009. A situation to which the Global Summit on Food Security, taking place in Rome from Monday November 16 to Wednesday November 18 under the aegis of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), will - once again - attempt to bring elements of a response.

United Nations Rapporteur for Food Rights since 2008, Belgian Olivier de Schutter, is alarmed by the situation.

Le Monde: Has the situation improved since the "hunger riots" of 2008?

Olivier de Schutter: No. All the conditions for a new food crisis within a year or two are assembled. The question is not whether it will take place, but when. The structural causes for the 2008 food crisis - an abrupt increase in prices linked to cyclical factors and accelerated by speculation - remain in place. Only a single spark would be enough to relaunch the increase in prices. We have not learned our lessons from the last crisis.

Why are we in this situation?

Since June 2008, food prices have dropped sharply on international markets. But in the local markets of developing countries, food prices remain far higher than they were two or three years ago.

Here's the real issue: Are we going to continue to bet on a small number of big producers or will we buttress the small farmers on whom the majority of developing countries' populations depend?

Even before the 2008 riots, 900 million people suffered from hunger because of the policies effected during the last few decades: government intervention in prices was reduced; the biggest producers were helped to develop export channels and small farmers found themselves marginalized as a result - which produced a massive rural exodus.

Do you feel there has been any change in the attitudes of the elites?

In speeches, people are talking about small family agriculture more, but they persist in export- promoting policies. The prevailing discourse is that more must be produced, but the real problem is that a billion people don't have enough money to buy the food that is available.

When the FAO projects that to feed nine billion people in 2050, an increase in agricultural production of 70 percent will be required and that world meat production and consumption will go from 270 million tons to 470 million, it evades the issue of whether it makes any sense to encourage the perpetuation of modes of consumption with extremely negative impacts.

If the whole world were to imitate the United States' dietary regime, we'd need six planets.

How will the climate change question affect agriculture?

Agriculture is already the victim of climate change, with a drought that reduced harvests by 20 percent this summer in India, with recurrent drought in Central America …

The projections for 2020 are very worrying. At the same time, agriculture is co-responsible for this situation: 33 percent of green house gases are attributable to it.

Bringing agriculture to better respect the environment presupposes a move to agro-ecological modes of production.

May a connection be made between trade liberalization and the environment?

A recent World Trade Organization Report (WTO) concludes that trade and the environment may be complementary: Trade would promote the transfer of clean technologies; and, with climate change, more and more regions are going to find themselves in a food deficit situation and will have to buy more from others to feed themselves.

What's missing is an analysis of the environmental impact of export agriculture. When people produce for export, they revert to large monoculture plantations. They deplete the soil, provoke erosion and demand a great deal of fertilizer and pesticides.

Another aspect which this report deals with very inadequately is an analysis of the distances covered by food products from the places where they are produced to the places where they are consumed.

In the world today, every food product covers between 1,500 to 2,000 kilometers. Shorter supply lines use far less energy and fuel than long ones.

We must give priority to food-producing crops to respond to local needs and disperse food production so that it occurs as close as possible to where it is consumed.

Are you in favor of planting trees to compensate for CO2 emissions?

Among the many factors pushing land speculation are the great tree planting projects linked to the bait represented by the pollution rights market.

I think it's too facile a solution because it spares us from reflecting about the ways to reduce our energy consumption.

 
This article was originally published on Truthout.

Translation: Truthout French Language Editor Leslie Thatcher.

Meat, Culture, and Climate

Monday, November 16th, 2009

In his autobiography, Gandhi relates what he calls a "tragedy." When he was a teenager, his best friend wanted to accustom him to eating meat. Gandhi's family belonged to the Vaishnava Hindu tradition in which vegetarianism is the rule. How to violate a custom all the more accepted in that Gandhi's parents - to whom he was utterly devoted - never imagined moving away from it for a second? "We're a weak people because we don't eat meat," his friend told him. "The English are able to dominate us because they're meat-eaters." Gandhi, who at that time felt puny and was already animated, even though he was not yet conscious of it, by a fierce desire for his country's independence, consequently forced himself to eat meat for a while. He was to liberate himself rather easily from that dependency, so essential was the question of diet - to which he was to give a spiritual dimension far surpassing the health issue - to become for him.
 
What does this story tell us, the week when Claude Levi-Strauss's death reminds us of the imperative necessity of looking at other cultures to understand our own? That what we eat is not a metabolic act, but first of all, a cultural artifact. In other words, that the infinite variety of ways to feed oneself is nothing other than a reflection of the infinite variety of cultures. Gandhi shows that effectively by contrasting the customs of an Imperial England with those of a still-subjugated India.
 
Must we, out of respect for all life, abstain from eating meat as the Hindus do? At the very least, we could remind ourselves of the practices of those Native American peoples who apologize to the animal they hunt for taking its life. Or, at the very least, we could recall that still-familiar French peasant culture which established friendly connections between people and animals, borne witness to by the thread running from the "Roman de Renard" to Marcel Ayme's stories.
 
But what is our culture, our agri-culture, today? It gorges by the millions of tons on the products of immense meat factories where the specific animal is no longer hardly anything but raw material. By denying animals all dignity, our culture flaunts its contempt for the world outside itself, and not only for the natural world.
 
But let's return to a consideration more in accord with the spirit of the times. According to the FAO report, "Livestock's Long Shadow," published in 2006, livestock farms are the source of 18 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. 18 percent! Almost a fifth. To fight climate change, we need not only to use our bicycles, but also to eat much less meat. Yes, it's less exciting than planting windmills and nuclear power plants all over the place. And - horror! - it doesn't create any monetary profit. But it does produce a more reliable result.
 
Translation: Truthout French Language Editor Leslie Thatcher.

This article was originally published on Truthout.

In Spite of Strong Growth, the Country at Present Remains a Model of Energy Sobriety

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

And what if India were a model of energy efficiency? Received wisdom has it that developing countries waste their energy in the absence of adequate technologies, while developed countries supposedly use energy more efficiently. A study by the Indian firm Prayas, presented during the conference of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (FIJE) in Delhi on October 28, shows that's not the case at all.

Entitled, "An Overview of Indian Energy Trends," it reveals that between 1990 and 2005 the country's GDP increased 2.3 times, but its energy consumption rose 1.9 times. Moreover, energy intensity (energy consumption related to production) is much less than China's, but also less than the United States' and comes close to the European level.

A good part of this performance may be explained by the price of electricity to industry - among the highest in the world. In transportation also, India demonstrates great efficiency: India's totalconsumption of gas and diesel in 2005 was less than the simple increase in consumption in China and the United States between 1990 and 2005. The high price of fuel plays a significant role, but so does the density of Indian cities, which limits the length of trips.

Vegetarian Diet

For domestic energy uses, there is better energy intensity by income level than in the United States. That may be explained by the significant use of biomass, but also by the very widespread vegetarian diet, which limits cooking needs: on average, an Indian consumes one twenty-fifth as much meat as an American.

However, India has not succeeded in eliminating poverty. Economic growth has benefited the upper and middle classes primarily, and 40 percent of the population does not have access to electricity.

Solar energy and natural gas seem to be the way of the future, but also adoption of supercritical coal-combustion technology (which improves yield and reduces polluting emissions), as well as reduction of energy losses in the grids.

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Translation: Truthout French language editor Leslie Thatcher.

Cross-posted at Truthout.

Market of the Mad

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Capitalist ideology - according to which the market can resolve all problems - has, in these last few days, reached the apex of the absurd. We have learned, thanks to Green Euro-deputy Claude Turmes, that European Commission President José Manuel Barroso has been blocking a proposed energy-efficiency action plan. This text is supposed to compel member states to reduce their energy consumption by 20 percent and to propose specific measures to attain that objective. Reducing energy consumption is the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The reason for this obstruction by the Commission? The implementation of energy efficiency would bear on carbon market prices. Consequently, there would be fewer "emission rights" on the market. Consequently, their price would drop. Now the European Commission - with Member State approval - has based its fights against climate change on the emissions market.

So they have just rejected the most efficient solution in favor of … a method that has not yet really proven itself. Implemented since 2005, it moves painfully forward, given the drop in prices evading VAT. At this time, the price for a ton of CO2 is 15 Euros - below the energy tax French consumers are going to pay. In fact, the rules of the emissions market's operation, the result of a compromise with the industries it affects, are too lax: in consequence, the price that develops remains too low to stimulate a rapid reduction in emissions.

Moreover, by means of another type of market, the so-called "mechanism for clean development," the European Union means to avoid realizing a big part of its reduction commitment. Indeed, I would need to write ten articles like this one to comprehensively explain how this whole system works. The carbon market is fractionally simpler than the derivatives market, if you see what I mean.

The basic problem is that it amounts to confiding management of the fight against climate change to the financial industry. The latter has, as we know, caused the current crisis and demonstrated its ability to escape all government control. Do you trust Goldman Sachs to act in the interests of humanity in the carbon market? In reality, as long as government - which in principle represents the public interest - has not resumed control over the financial system, we cannot hand over responsibility for the fight against climate change to the market.

In the short term, one thing is clear: the European Union must settle on true energy conservation objectives. If it gives that up, it will lose all credibility with respect to climate change, and, above all, the principal means to confront it.

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Translation: Truthout French language editor Leslie Thatcher.

Cross-posted at Truthout.