Posted June 9, 2008 by

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from China through June 14. (Due to internet access problems, Jim sent this blog via e-mail. I am posting it for him - Ben)

Of course, most of Shanghai’s (and China’s) water pollution is not as dramatic as a waste dump at the edge of a water source protection area. But runoff from agriculture is a major form of “non-point source” pollution. The highly intensive vegetable farming practiced here (often in plastic greenhouses, see below) exhausts the soil quickly, so huge amounts of fertilizer are used. And because appearance is so important for these crops, pesticide use is also high.

HoophousesThese are also thirsty crops, so irrigation is nearly universal. The state has traditionally organized irrigation. Much of the land around Shanghai was coastal marsh before being reclaimed for farming and urban development. Now it’s crisscrossed with canals. (See the Shanghai Co-op Watergate below)

Aquaculture requires even more water than vegetable production. With seafood-loving Shanghai nearby, this is a popular activity here. It's also highly polluting. Shanghai_coop_watergate

In my field visit with WWF Shanghai staff, we met a local entrepreneur who claims he will change all that. Allen Qian (in the red shirt below) has a background in fisheries and engineering. He claims to have developed a “green” production system for shrimp and other seafood, using no artificial growth stimulants and returning clean water to the canals that drain the site of his proposed development.

Mr_qian_and_canalThere was an aquaculture expert along with us, so I confess I couldn’t follow all the details of their technical discussion of waste disposal and stocking rates and water treatment, but construction was clearly moving right along. Mr. Qian pointed out several areas that will be artificial wetlands designed to filter organic waste from water as it flows through them. His enthusiasm about developing environmentally-sound production systems (there will also be “ecological” rice production at an adjacent site) was encouraging, given the rest of what we saw that day (see a more typical Shanghai Aquaculture site below).

Aquaculture_shanghaiWhat surprised me the most, however, was the degree to which his costs were being covered by the government. The infrastructure had all been built and maintained by local government, including roads and of course the canal system. His financing will be with a concessionary government loan, which is technically going to a co-operative that Mr. Qian is forming with locals. The land will be rented at a very generous rate from the local village government. And as we were going down the list of costs, I eventually got to the most important factor in his production operation, the priceless substance without which agriculture and aquaculture are unimaginable.

“Water? Oh, that’s free.”

Posted June 7, 2008 by

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from China through June 14. (Due to internet access problems, Jim sent this blog via e-mail. I am posting it for him - Ben)

My last job before joining IATP was at WWF China, (no, not the wrestling federation!) so while I was in Shanghai for the organic conference I gave WWF’s Shanghai office a call. After the obligatory evening of gossip and reminiscence, they offered to take me to the field with them for a day. The Shanghai office of WWF is very focused on water issues. I was interested to learn that they are looking at land use in the areas surrounding Shanghai’s drinking water source in the upper reaches of the Huangpu River. It had not occurred to me that the water source might be nearby, but they assured me that there are intake stations within an hour drive of the city center.

Sure enough, I found myself in front of the map shown below, which shows the borders and main features of the Upper Huangpu River Drinking Water Source Protected Area. This is where 80 percent of the water for Shanghai’s 20 million inhabitants comes from.

Map_2 The sign is on the edge of the Protected Area, next to a bridge over a stream that flows into the Huangpu. The view downstream shows floating garbage and green scum that indicates high levels of organic pollutants.

2 Turning around after taking the last picture, I was entranced by this large, cheerful image of a green and prosperous Shanghai. The slogan is “Together Building a Civilized Home, Together Creating a Beautiful Future.” Note the clear water gushing from the fountain!


Behind the billboard, though, the scene was somewhat different.

I wanted some more pictures of the dump, but the potent blend of chemical and biological odors made it impossible to stand nearby for more than a minute.


Yesterday, China’s Environment Ministry released their estimates of pollution discharges nationwide. Some indicators actually declined for the first time, but the overall picture continues to worsen. Some digging into the Chinese reports shows that rural pollution in particular shows no sign of lessening, as more pesticides and chemical fertilizers run off of fields and massive volumes of animal waste are discharged from factory farms directly into waterways. 

Which brings us back to the challenge China faces in feeding its people. In their attempt to keep farm production ahead of population growth, China’s leaders borrowed the chemical-intensive agricultural approach of American industrial agriculture, instead of seeking to upgrade an indigenous farming system that had persisted for thousands of years. If they had known then the impact this approach would have on their land, water and farmers, I wonder whether they would have still made the same choice.

Posted June 6, 2008 by

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from China through June 14. (Due to internet access problems, Jim sent this blog via e-mail. I am posting it for him - Ben)

Last fall when I was in China, I saw an item in the paper announcing the opening of the country’s biggest “organic food store” in Tianjin, with over 800 square meters of space. Well, that’s not exactly huge, but I figured that if it’s the biggest in a country of 1.4 billion, then it might be a better place than an organic exhibition to learn about how ordinary people feel about this sector. More specifically, I wanted to see for myself the price difference between organic and conventional foods in China.

With a population of around 15 million, Tianjin is another one of those gigantic Chinese cities that no one outside of the country has ever heard of. (In fact, there are over 180 cities here with over 1 million residents.) I was surprised to learn that the Yi Nong Da Supermarket was not located downtown, but in a “Development Zone” called Binhai, about 50 kilometers from the city center. This industrial suburb turned out to be huge though, with a million or so inhabitants, and the store seemed right in place in a commercial street adjacent to some high-density housing.

StoreDespite the name on the sign, however, it took a while to find any organic food in the store. About four-fifths of the floor space was dedicated to instant noodles, Snickers, toothpaste and Chinese convenience store fare like shredded squid (regular, BBQ or Cool Ranch). Along the back wall, the produce section had a sign proclaiming, “Fresh Organic Vegetables,” but for 20 minutes or so none of the few customers ventured anywhere nearby. Finally, a construction worker came in and made a bee line for the bananas. I asked if they were organic bananas and he said they were.

Me:  Why are you buying them?

Him: They taste good.

Me: Aren’t they expensive?

Him: No.

Customer_3Now we’re getting somewhere! If ordinary workers are willing to pay extra for organic food, then maybe there is hope for the domestic market. I followed up with questions about how often he shops here, whether his co-workers buy these products, etc, carefully recording his answers until a clerk came over and said, “The bananas aren’t organic.” In fact, when I started actually checking the labels I found that none of the produce was organic! The fruit was conventional and the vegetables were “Pollution Free” (wugonghai), a uniquely Chinese designation that seems to mean that no more than the recommended amounts of pesticides have been applied.

Since I didn’t have any organic products for my price comparison, I jotted down the prices of some pollution-free veggies. They seemed fairly reasonable, certainly not three times the cost of ordinary vegetables, but in my hour at the store I didn’t see anyone purchase even these less expensive products. The store manager said that usually there are more customers, and that about 20 percent of their customers buy pollution-free food regularly. To assure quality, Yi Ning grows its own vegetables on “bases” in several different provinces, but she said that it’s tough for them to compete because being in the suburbs, they have many vegetable farmers right nearby who claim that their goods are also pollution-free. I asked why she thinks more people don’t grow 100 percent organic, and she said: “If you don’t use fertilizers, they (vegetables) grow very slowly. Since people want to earn money quickly, they feel like they have to use some pesticides and fertilizers.”

VegetablesFrom Yinong, I went to a nearby Tesco, one of the several big box stores competing in China’s retail market. The results of my survey are shown below. (The unit is Chinese yuan per kilogram, and there currently about 7 yuan in a U.S. dollar.)

YiNong pollution free

Tesco Conventional

Tesco pollution Free




















No one seemed to be buying pollution-free veggies in Tesco either, but given their huge mark-up compared to both conventional and Yi Nong pollution free, it wasn’t too surprising. Despite not being a cost comparison with certified organics, this survey showed that the price differentials for “healthier” food are indeed much greater than the 20-30 percent found in U.S. or European markets. And the studious avoidance of these products by shoppers in both stores made it clear that the price difference is indeed a huge barrier to the development of a domestic organic market in China.

SkippyOn my way out of Tesco, I passed people lined up to taste little spoonfuls of Skippy peanut butter being dispensed by a young woman in a mini-skirt, and was reminded of another big challenge for organics in China: marketing. At the BioFach exhibition, more than one vendor had complained that most people have no idea what organic means, so of course they aren’t willing to pay more for it.

Posted June 5, 2008 by

Food security

For those interested, the statements referenced in Carin's last blog by Henry Saragih of La Via Campesina and Ben Powless of the Indigenous Environmental Network before participants at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization summit can be read here and here.

You can read or listen to all the various statements from this morning in Rome at the FAO's web site.

Posted June 5, 2008 by

Food security

IATP's Carin Smaller is blogging from Rome this week at the UN Food and Agriculture High Level Conference on Food Security.

Today, some of the affected communities, including smallholder farmers, indigenous peoples and fishers spoke out. The speakers included Benjamin Victor Powless, from the Mohawk Nation, Herman Kumara from the World Forum of Fisher People, and Henry Saragih from the peasant movement La Via Campesina. They had been participating in a parallel event, the Terra Preta Forum, alongside the FAO summit. And they were not impressed with the outcome. They have been largely excluded from the formal conference, their voices not heard by world leaders. And they have not had a role in the newly formed UN Taskforce on the Food Crisis.

They said the conference promoted the interests of agricultural corporations, including seed, fertilizer and chemical companies, as well as plans for a new Green Revolution in Africa, launched by Kofi Annan's AGRA Foundation. They are furious that the World Bank and IMF are even present, given the central role the two institutions played in undermining local and national capacity for food self-sufficiency, and therefore contibuting to the current food crisis.

In a statement to the UN conference, the social movements and civil society organizations accused conference participants of entrenching the control of corporations and elites over agriculture and the ecological commons. They called some of the actions at the conference an assault on small-scale food providers.

They have three principal demands:

1. That governments pursue justice for the victims of the food emergency by bringing to account, through criminal proceedings, corporations and institutions (including governments) whose actions, such as profiteering from agricultural inputs and products, have denied communities their right-to-food.

2. Set up a Commission on Food Sovereignty under the auspices of the UN.

3. Expand our ability to build collective knowledge, analysis and capacity to make change, and organize ourselves to monitor the outcomes of this FAO Summit.

The strong rejection of the FAO Summit by these social movements and civil society organizations should send a warning signal to governments. While there are some interesting recommendations (I would dare say impressive), they will amount to nil unless there is radical change from past practices. The first step is to integrate representatives of farmers and fishers into the UN Taskforce on the Food Crisis, as well as other governmental initiatives dealing with the food crisis. Second, governments must prioritize work with agencies that have the credibility to work with farmers, like the FAO, IFAD and IAASTD, and to weaken the role of the World Bank, WTO and IMF.

Posted June 5, 2008 by

Food security

IATP's Carin Smaller is blogging from Rome this week at the UN Food and Agriculture High Level Conference on Food Security.

A draft declaration by world leaders on how to resolve the food crisis is circulating. The final declaration will be released tomorrow, on June 5, at the close of the UN's High-Level Conference on Food Security. The draft declaration is impressive. It calls for immediate action to assist countries affected by the food crisis, immediate support to small-scale producers, and the development of food stocks and other risk management mechanisms. The declaration also calls for medium- and long-term measures, including for governments to fully embrace a people-centred policy framework for agriculture, to increase the resilience of food systems to meet the challenges of climate change, and to conduct further studies to ensure that production and use of biofuels is sustainable and takes into account the need to achieve global food security. Obviously, this is no small feat.

Unfortunately, the draft declaration still calls for a rapid and successful conclusion of the WTO Doha Round and for the international community to continue its efforts to liberalize international trade. But I won't go into that again.

In parallel, and possibly even more impressive, are the draft recommendations of the newly established UN Taskforce on the Food Crisis. Once again, the emphasis is on boosting smallholder farmers' food production, increasing social safety nets and strengthening risk management.

So it looks like we will be leaving Rome with some fine-sounding proposals. But what next? There is still a danger that very little will change when it comes time to implementing the recommendations. The proposals on the table will require a radical break from the past and a completely different approach to building food and agriculture systems and supporting rural communities and the urban poor. There are institutions with more credibility to take on the challenge, like the FAO, IFAD, and IAASTD. And others, like the World Bank and the IMF, who are partially responsible for the mess we are in today and who should stay out for now. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen. Both institutions have carefully positioned themselves to play a key role in resolving the crisis and to being a channel for funds.

The next step for world leaders is to go home and talk to the affected communities: smallholder farmers, farm workers, fishers, and the urban poor. If they can listen to these communities, they might have a chance of turning their promises into meaningful solutions.

Posted June 4, 2008 by

Food security

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from China through June 14. Due to internet access problems, Jim sent this blog via e-mail. I am posting it for him - Ben

Yesterday, IATP and the Rural Development Institute (RDI) of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences held a workshop on agriculture and trade. Daryll Ray of the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center and Li Guoqiang of RDI gave excellent presentations, followed by a lengthy and animated discussion that continued through lunch and into the afternoon. Daryll presented a history of U.S. farm policy, and laid out the basic economics of why certain policies succeed and others fail. Central to his argument is the notion that agricultural markets have a strong tendency to fail, and therefore require government action to buffer against volatility and guarantee food security.  He also used USDA data (with a strong disclaimer concerning its accuracy) to show that contrary to conventional wisdom, China’s increased demand for meat has not been a significant driver of the global food price crisis. He makes the same argument in a policy brief that you can find here.

The short version is this: meat consumption his indeed increased a lot in recent years, but instead of importing more grain (or meat) China has been releasing grain from its massive reserves onto national markets. China’s grain market, including its feed market, is therefore effectively insulated from international price fluctuations.

This is, of course, precisely the kind of “market-distorting government intervention” that the World Bank and IMF have argued against for decades. My friend Yoke Ling Chee of the Third World Network said after the workshop that she was sorry it wasn’t a panel at the World Food Crisis Summit in Rome. Instead, the world is being treated to the spectacle of World Bank President Robert Zoellick blaming poor country export bans for skyrocketing prices, bans put into place as a desperate measure in the face of a crisis the Bank helped create.

IATP's Carin Smaller is blogging from the Rome meeting this week on all the happenings at the food crisis summit.

Posted June 3, 2008 by

Food security

IATP's Carin Smaller is blogging from Rome this week at the UN Food and Agriculture High Level Conference on Food Security.

The UN’s High-Level Conference on Food Security got off to a bang today. A flood of world leaders, heads of international organizations, civil society organizations and the private sector descended on the FAO’s headquarters in Rome to identify ways to solve the current food crisis. World leaders have made strong statements for and against biofuels, criticized agricultural subsidies in the rich world, and made accusations about who is and is not to blame for worsening the food crisis. The conference has also received its share of controversy with the attendance of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, accused of starving his own people, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who repeated his call for the destruction of Israel just before arriving at the conference.

But I want to talk about another theme that is being spoken about: the WTO's Doha Round. For months, the heads of the WTO, World Bank, IMF and the OECD, have used every public opportunity (and then some) to push for the completion of the WTO’s trade round to solve the current food crisis. I feel like we are being decieved.

The food crisis is the result of a series of circumstances, including dangerously low stocks for staple foods—wheat, rice, and corn; high oil prices; poor climatic conditions in major food producing areas; and natural resource depletion. On top of this, more and more people can now afford dairy products and meat; and, rich countries have started to use food crops for biofuels to supplement oil consumption.

The WTO has nothing to say about most of these issues. The climate and energy crises are both outside the WTO's mandate and will likely remain that way. The WTO has no control over the oil oligarchy, OPEC, nor over biofuels policies in the U.S. and Europe. Nor does the WTO have a say over how the world plans to address the growing environmental crisis, particularly climate change.

Instead, existing WTO agreements and the proposed Doha reforms are likely to intensify the food crisis. Further deregulation and liberalization will make agricultural markets more volatile and will strengthen the position of dominant players, mainly transnational agribusinesses like Cargill, Monsanto and ADM, in food and agricultural markets.

It is time to build a trading system that cooperates with international efforts to secure food for all. Trade agreements must allow governments to reestablish national and regional food stocks. Global commodity markets must be better managed. And it is time to create international competition laws to prevent transnational agribusinesses from abusing their market power. If world leaders started proposing these steps, we might start getting somewhere in resolving the crisis in our food system.

Posted June 3, 2008 by

Food security

IATP's Carin Smaller is blogging from Rome this week at the UN Food and Agriculture High Level Conference on Food Security.

Terra Preta or “black soil” is the name of a fertile soil created by indigenous people in Central Amazonia, which mysteriously continues to regenerate itself. It is the title of the forum for farmers, pastoralists, fishers, environmentalists, human rights activists and NGO’s being held on the sidelines of the UN’s High-Level Conference on Food Security, June 3-5, at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome.

The forum celebrates the vibrancy of local communities, their struggles against injustice, and the prospect of solving the global food, energy and climate crises through local, community-based and sustainable initiatives. But the forum has been tainted with a deep sense of disappointment because many of the leaders here have been excluded from participating in the High-Level Conference; their voices silenced.

At the outset, the FAO had planned a conference on how to ensure world food security, in light of the threat of climate change and biofuels production: then the food crisis exploded. The FAO meeting was transformed into an emergency gathering of world leaders to create a plan to solve the crisis. With Presidents and Prime Ministers from France, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Egypt, there simply was no space left for leaders representing communities affected by the food crisis.

And so the Terra Preta forum continues in parallel, while world leaders meet at the FAO headquarters. Debates are taking place around three topics: (1) the food crisis and models of production; (2) land, water, energy and agrofuels; and (3) climate change. The participants are preparing a declaration to read out at the end High-Level Conference and a plan of action of their own on how to solve the food crisis. As I sit and watch the events unfold, I am forced to wonder when the international community will stop, take a breath, and realize that finding solutions to the world’s problems, starts with the people hit hardest.

Posted June 2, 2008 by

Food security

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, released an important report last week scrutinizing U.S. based efforts to relieve hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa (a one page summary is accessible here).

The GAO stressed that efforts to tackle the root causes of food security have been “insufficient.” USAID is criticized for having focused most of its efforts in Africa on inefficient food aid practices, but the agency "has not addressed the underlying factors that contributed to the recurrence and severity of these crises." The report also called for greater integration between U.S. government agencies on agricultural development in Africa.

The report comes as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization high level meeting on the food security in Rome is about to begin. Will the FAO meeting result in a larger and more constructive commitment to address food insecurity from the Bush Administration? Judging from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer's comments on Thursday, it looks like a major push for greater use of biotech crops in developing countries will be a big part of the U.S. strategy. This emphasis on costly, patented biotech crops runs counter to recommendations in the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development report issued last month, which have already been approved by 57 governments.

IATP's Carin Smaller will report more on the FAO meeting in Rome throughout the week.

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