On January 19, Deutsche Bank (DB) issued “Questions and Answers on investments in agricultural commodities”. The DB stated that after an internal examination, it was resuming investments in agricultural derivatives contracts that it had suspended since March 2011. Nongovernmental organizations had successfully pressured the DB and a few other European banks to “stop gambling on hunger” due to the banks’ concern about risk to their reputations. The World Development Movement had organized an October 2011 letter signed by 450 economists to the Group of 20 (G-20) demanding an end to bank speculation on agricultural contracts, so the DB was an early adopter of the investment moratorium.
The derivatives contracts include both the regulated futures and options contracts that farmers and food manufacturers use to protect against price decreases and increases respectively, and the unregulated over-the-counter (OTC) contracts. The DB’s internal investigation, bolstered by non-cited studies of unnamed agricultural economists, found “there is little empirical evidence to support the notion that the growth of agricultural based financial products has caused price increases or volatility.”
Writing in National Geographic in December 2012 about “small-scale irrigation techniques with simple buckets, affordable pumps, drip lines, and other equipment” that “are enabling farm families to weather dry seasons, raise yields, diversify their crops, and lift themselves out of poverty” water expert Sandra Postel of the Global Water Policy Project cautioned against reckless land and water-related investments in Africa. “[U]nless African governments and foreign interests lend support to these farmer-driven initiatives, rather than undermine them through land and water deals that benefit large-scale, commercial schemes, the best opportunity in decades for societal advancement in the region will be squandered.”
That same month, the online publication Market Oracle reported that “[t]he new ‘water barons’—the Wall Street banks and elitist multibillionaires—are buying up water all over the world at unprecedented pace.” The report reveals two phenomena that have been gathering speed, and that could potentially lead to profit accumulation at the cost of communities and commons —the expansion of market instruments beyond the water supply and sanitation to other areas of water governance, and the increasingly prominent role of financial institutions.
The 18th annual climate negotiations of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) just ended Saturday night. These government officials had a historic and an urgently critical task at hand: how to effectively address the increasing climate chaos characterized by extreme storms like Hurricane Sandy, Typhoon Bhopa (which recently just devastated several islands in the Philippines), droughts, floods and eerily erratic weather before it’s too late.
The “Doha Climate Gateway,” as the outcome is being called, resulted in a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol (the KP) and built the “gateway” for a new climate treaty that is supposed to come into force by 2020. In three year’s time, governments will have to finalize this new treaty that will now be negotiated in a track they call the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP).
Hard on the heels of Oxfam’s Food and Gender Discussion Blog, in which ten experts provided ten views over ten days intended to reframe food security from the perspective of women’s rights and women’s agency comes another Oxfam online forum for debate on agriculture called "The Future of Agriculture."
The series will explore four issues:
As with the series on food and gender, the discussion aims to generate bold proposals, in this case to meet increasing world demand for food in a way that eradicates hunger and preserves the environment.
I had the privilege to contribute to the debate, and my essay (one of twenty or so to be featured over the next two weeks) has been posted as one of two to kick off the discussion. Below are some excerpts from my contribution—I do hope you will find time to read and respond as the debate unfolds.
Agriculture is a risky business. At the mercy of inclement weather and pests, a frequent casualty of war, and subject to its own particular demand constraints and market failures, agriculture merits a branch of economics all to itself. The risks are not just economic: they also link to biological diversity and natural resource management, to culture and social relationships.
The theme of the day, "Solving for Pattern," comes from the Wendell Berry essay of the same name. Berry talks about apparent solutions that in fact either make the problem they are intended to solve worse, or solve one problem but in the process create a whole set of other problems; “as when the problem of soil compaction is solved by a bigger tractor, which further compacts the soil, which makes a need for a still bigger tractor, and so on.”
Berry tells the story of Earl Spencer’s dairy farm, which was on the conventional path of increasing scale, commercialization, debt, specialization and disconnection with the land; until he decided that he needed to operate in balance with nature. Spencer said his farm, “had been going at a dead run, and now he would slow it to a walk.”
Berry is a farmer talking about farming in his essay, but as usual, he also has bigger fish to fry. He tells us what study after study has since confirmed that we need to move away from agriculture modeled on industrial production. And importantly, he recognizes that this is not just because of its dependence on unsustainable technologies and inputs, but because of its business model, because the profitability of industrial farming depends on ignoring many of the very things that we care about most, such as human health, animal welfare, community and the environment.
This is the pattern I think we all need to see and solve for.
To its most dedicated proponents at the U.N. climate talks in Doha, “climate-smart agriculture" (CSA) is the fairy tale success story on agriculture and climate change. To the World Bank, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and several agriculture-focused NGOs, it provides a win-win on mitigation and adaptation: Carbon is supposed to be sequestered in soil based on a set of practices that a project manager puts in place and farmers implement, and that sequestration is measured and recorded as carbon credits. The carbon credits are then supposed to be traded on an international market. The practices used to store carbon are also supposed to build resilience, so farms can adapt to the changing weather they are starting to face.
At COP 17 in Durban, South Africa, parties agreed to have an “exchange of views” on agriculture under the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA); “mitigation adaptation synergies,” (read: climate-smart agriculture) were one of the main, and most contentious, issues on the table during those and previous talks. At the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where entire sentences can be composed of acronyms and agricultural discussions are mostly limited to 45-minute sessions that are closed to observers, it is easy to forget that the decisions countries make have significant and nuanced impacts on real people living in very different local contexts. As a student and activist following the climate negotiations at the international political level, it is always both painful and refreshing to see non-governmental organizations working to infuse the talks with the effects they may have on the ground.
One of the many fierce debates at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties (CoP), which opened this year on November 26 in Doha, Qatar is about climate finance. How should the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and the adaptation to climate change’s effects, both slow-onset, such as drought, and suddenly catastrophic, such as Hurricane Sandy, be most effectively financed?
According German Watch’s latest Global Climate Risk Index, “More than 530,000 people died as a direct consequence of almost 15,000 extreme weather events, and losses of more than USD 2.5 trillion (in Purchasing Power Parity) occurred from 1992 [the first year of the UNFCCC negotiations] to 2011 globally.” To that toll, among other extreme weather events, can be added Sandy’s cost of at least 121 lives and $71 billion in repairs, most of which will be paid for by the U.S. federal government.
Among the many contentious issues to be debated at the CoP, perhaps none is less likely to be resolved than the issue of how to pay to adapt to climate change and to reduce GHGs. This debate goes beyond the question of whether payment should come from the industrialized countries that bear the historical responsibility for the majority of GHG production, or whether payment also should come from those developing countries that will, in the words of U.S. negotiator Jonathan Pershing, bear “future responsibility” as major GHG emitters. The question is not even how much of a share each should pay, but whether any significant funds will be committed at all.
The biggest threat for agriculture at the 18th Conference of Parties (COP) of the UNFCCC is the certain likelihood (oxymoron intended) of “non-decisions” for setting ambitious emissions reduction targets for the post-2012 period, when the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period expires. Bill McKibben’s widely circulated article Global Warming's Terrifying New Math tells us in starkly clear terms what we need to do to set things right:
We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We'd have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.
McKibben lays out in simple terms what we policy advocates and scientists have failed to do thus far: convince the average citizen in the industrialized world why immediate, ambitious and drastic cuts in our fossil fuel use is necessary to prevent the deadliest impacts of global warming, not just for future generations, but for this generation. Yet, government representatives will be going to the climate talks prepared to take years to cobble together a legally binding deal to cut emissions worth the paper they sign.
The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) has long prided itself as being on the cutting edge of identifying and addressing global issues that affect our daily lives. We analyze complex challenges, bring people together, and work to shift power in our quest for a more democratic, sustainable and just world.
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Soon you will be on your way to the Group of 20 finance ministers meeting on November 4–5 in Mexico City. To judge by what has been posted at G-20 websites, you will have reviewed many reports that indicate progress towards fulfilling the Heads of State commitment in September 2009 to place all “standardized Over the Counter derivatives” (OTC) on regulated trading venues “as appropriate” by the end of 2012. However, as the Financial Stability Board has reported to you, this goal will not be met in 2012. Unfortunately, if and when that goal is achieved, it may have small relevance to the broader goal of regulating OTC derivatives, to achieve more transparent and stable markets.