Wednesday 23 April 2014

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Agriculture & Food

 

UK Government agency lacks resources to do its basic job

Posted by on 17/04/14
By Chris Whitehouse Staffing crises and soaring workloads at a UK Government Agency have forced it to throw up its hands in bureaucratic despair, a bizarre email acknowledgment suggests. Two main causes come straight to my mind...

Social and economic costs of malnutrition

Posted by on 14/04/14

Malnutrition is defined as undernutrition, micro-nutrient deficiency and overweight. Unfortunately, it causes high economic and social costs to society in almost every country.  According to FAO’s latest estimates, 12.5 percent (868 million people) of the global population is undernourished. Still, 26 percent of the world’s children have child growth retardation (stunting); 2 billion people suffer from one or several micro-nutrient deficiencies. On the other hand, 1.4 billion people are overweight, including the 500 million who classify as obese. All these nutritional disorders, with more than one form, can be found in every country. A small table has been arranged with a few samples to clarify the importance of nutritional disorders in the world (see Table). Some countries are suffering terribly from child stunting (an indicator of undernutrition), whereas others struggle with iodine deficiency or anemia (often caused by iron deficiency, increases the risk of women dying in childbirth). Iron is an essential metal micronutrient for human health; its deficiency in the human diet contributes to high rates of mortality in developing countries. More than 125 million children under five years of age suffer from vitamin A deficiency (VAD) in the world. More than half of the children who lose their sight because of VAD die within a year. The above table shows how high the VAD is in developing countries. Iodine is another essential, a non-metal micronutrient for human health (its deficiency impairs thyroid functions). When severe deficiency occurs, fetal development can be affected with consequent irreversible brain damage and mental retardation. Interestingly, iodine deficiency seems to be an overlooked issue in the developed world.

Malnutrition may affect economic development by limiting productivity and human capital accumulation. The decline in productivity beyond the social cost of malnutrition and treatment expenditures is equal to 5% of the annual world gross national product (GNP) 3.5 trillion US$ (equal to 500 US$ per capita). The full breakdown of the amount in question has been estimated in 2010 as 1.4 trillion US$ globally, which includes the risk factors of overweight and obesity.

Studies show that reduction of such malnutrition disorders is economically possible. Research results from Ethiopia, India and Nigeria show that every US$1 invested in reducing child stunting generates between $12 and $34 in economic returns[1].

To reduce the cost involved and to provide better nutrition food systems, the solution begins with agriculture. It is, beyond being a source of livelihood, a source for food production. Therefore agriculture is the most significant sector to minimize eating disorders. Bio-fortification is possible in every stage ranging from production, processing, storage, and transport to marketing. So beside the pharmaceutical and food industries, agriculture could also serve to enrich food in some cases, with the insertion of micro-nutrient genes into regarded plant genomes and it would be affordable, especially in developing countries. Actually, the lack of trace elements had been covered by currently commercialized new genotypes in a few food sources, like fatty acid omega-3 enriched rapeseed, antioxidant enriched likopen tomato and folic acid increased lettuce.

The importance of the subject brought the World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization and the CGIAR (Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research) together as the top organizations on this issue, to step up to a more serious level of cooperation in 2004. Starting an international program, namely the “HarvestPlus Challenge”, they have begun with classical plant breeding and transferred genes into the most consumed local plants which did not contain enough vitamins or micronutrients. New genotypes were able to store vitamin or micro-elements in plant leaves, roots and seeds. Let’s take a look at some of the newly commercialized cultivars in some countries:

  • In 2011, vitamin A-enriched cassava varieties in the Congo;
  • In 2012, iron-enriched bean varieties in the Congo;
  • In 2012, vitamin A-enriched maize varieties in Zambia;
  • In 2012, iron-enriched maize varieties in India;
  • In 2007, agricultural vitamin A-enriched sweet potato varieties in Uganda and Mozambique;
  • In 2013, zinc-enriched rice in India and Bangladesh;
  • In 2013, zinc-enriched wheat cultivars in India and Pakistan.

Not every plant has a donor genotype to be enriched with the above mentioned items. So to enrich the rice plants with vitamin A, biotechnology stepped in. The globally recognized GOLDEN RICE project was started in1999. The different forms of Golden Rice contain between 1.6 and 35 µg β-carotene per gram of rice. A recent study with children has shown that the bio-availability of pro-vitamin A from Golden Rice is as effective as pure β-carotene in oil, and far better than spinach in providing vitamin A to children. A daily intake of 60 g of rice (half a cup) would provide about 60 per cent of the Chinese Recommended Nutrient Intake of vitamin A for 6–8-year-old children and be sufficient to prevent vitamin A malnutrition[2]. But it has been blocked by some GOLDEN RICE opponent group, so it has not yet reached to farmers’ field. Economic evaluation of such delay has been estimated with a mathematical model by two scientists (Wesseler J. And D. Zilberman 2014)[3] in a peer reviewed article (The economic power of the Golden Rice opposition) and come to a remarkable conclusion: “Despite Golden Rice being available since early 2000, this rice has not been introduced in any other country. Governments must recognize additional costs that over-compensate the benefits of the technology to explain the delay in approval… The model has been applied to the case of India. Results show the annual perceived costs have to be at least US$199 million per year approximately for the last decade to explain the delay in approval of the technology. This is an indicator of the economic power of the opposition towards Golden Rice resulting in about 1.4 million life years lost over the past decade in India”.

Agriculture can create more than we, the global population receives today. Not only is this true with routine food, but also in terms of bio-fortified products that the global population will need in the future. We have to improve agricultural research strategies to create more sustainable production systems. Orienting existing manpower to agricultural research and giving political priority to agricultural research should be considered an important issue for policymakers.

Nazimi Açıkgöz


[2] Tang G, Hu Y, Yin S, Wang Y, Dallal GE, Grusak MA & Russell RM (2012). ß-carotene in GE ‘Golden’ rice is as good as ß-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 96: 658-664.

 

CAP reform process comes closer to completion

Posted by on 09/04/14
by Dr Alan Bullion, Principal Analyst, Informa Agra /// The adoption of five EU regulations last December marked the end of a two-year decision-making process on reforming the Common Agricultural Policy. But that was still not the end of the story, as they did not clarify how all of the requirements would be implemented at farm [...]

Error in legislation kept in place for four years as no alternative could be found!

Posted by on 09/04/14

It seems common sense that, if an error is found in legislation, then this law should be immediately amended; at the very least, the erroneous provision should not be allowed to influence the course of a related court proceeding. This is not, however, how some EU Member States seem to view such a scenario.

Three years ago a company called me up with quite a technical problem relating to import duties on whey protein products. In essence, this company was being faced with a very large demand of back duty from the UK tax authority, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, based on the results of a test for milk fat provided in EU legislation. It rapidly became apparent that this test was faulty and gave wrong results when applied to whey protein products – this placed the products in a category for which higher duty was demanded.

This should have been an easy case to solve: since the test had been proven to throw up results that were wrong, the UK authority should have withdrawn its demand, whilst asking the European Commission to amend its legislation.

Instead, however, the case escalated to the tax tribunal and ultimately required a three year long lobbying campaign just to ensure that a responsible company was not penalised on the basis of an erroneous provision. Who is to blame is hard to say, as all authorities involved had their reasons – some reasonable, some less so.

The UK tax authority was bound to apply EU legislation (even if erroneous); the European Commission could only amend the rules on the basis of an independent scientific analysis (itself quite time consuming), and any resulting amending legislation could only be adopted if approved – or a at least not opposed – by the EU Member States (who, for their own reasons, didn’t support the solutions presented by the Commission).

The issue was a drain on the time and effort of virtually everyone involved. Without the assistance of Members of the European Parliament, national Parliamentarians, the US authorities and a strong EU wide public affairs campaign continually pressing for action form all involved, the issue could still have dragged on into the next European Parliament, requiring even more time and effort to brief new MEPs.

We are now hopefully only a couple of weeks away from a provisional solution that will ensure that a responsible business is not penalised until an alternative scientific test for milk fat is proposed and adopted at the EU level. The Commission now needs to formally adopt its proposed amendment that was debated – at length – by the then 28 EU Member States, who all had different views as to how the issue is to be tackled.

This issue has not shown the European Union at its most dynamic, even despite the Commission being very helpful and proactive. What the three-year-long saga has shown, however, is the value of a consistent and informed lobbying campaign. Only a campaign that harnesses specialist knowledge of the European decision-making process and the bodies involved can give one company a chance, in the face of institutional sluggishness, of fairly resolving a complicated tax case such to nearly everybody’s satisfaction.

Chris Whitehouse is Chairman of leading public affairs consultancy ww.whitehouseconsulting.co.uk whose Food Regulation Team advise many organisations and businesses in the specialist food product sector. He is also Director of Strategy of consumer organisation Consumers for Health Choice www.consumersforhealthchoice.com and of the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance www.essna.com.

 

Climate change will leave Europe and world hot and hungry

Posted by on 25/03/14

by Lies Craeynest, Oxfam EU’s climate change expert

Climate change is the biggest threat to our chances of winning the fight against hunger. As governments gather in Japan to agree a major new scientific report, which is expected to highlight the grave dangers climate change presents to food production, a new report from Oxfam demonstrates how the world is woefully underprepared for it for the impacts.

Worryingly, the impacts of climate change on food are likely to be far more serious and hit much sooner than previously thought. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Fifth Assessment Report, due to be published on 31 March, is expected to warn that climate change will lead to declines in global agricultural yields of up to 2 per cent each decade at the same time as demand for food increases by 14 per cent per decade.

Hunger is not inevitable. If the EU wants to play a serious role in eradicating hunger in the next decade, it should start with taking a pioneering stance in the fight against climate change. We will only have a chance to stop the worst climate impacts on hunger if the EU steps up its global leadership ahead of the climate negotiations in Paris next year. That means agreeing as soon as possible to cut greenhouse emissions by at least 55% by 2030, as part of the EU’s new climate and energy package. Anything less does not give us enough of a chance to keep global warming below the dangerous 2 degree limit and will not give a strong enough signal to governments and business across the world that climate change needs to be tackled and that it can be done.

Food production is already being hit in Europe. In the UK earlier this year over 5,000 properties and thousands of hectares of farmland were submerged beneath floodwaters. Meanwhile, the 2003 heat wave saw EU countries lose more than €13 billion worth of produce as crops were unable to grow. If the impacts on domestic production weren’t serious enough, Europe also imports more than 70% of its food from developing countries, many of which are at great risk of climate impacts.

Oxfam’s new briefing paper, ‘Hot and Hungry: How to stop climate change derailing the fight against hunger’ analyses ten key factors that will have an increasingly important influence on countries’ ability to feed their people in a warming world. Across all ten areas, Oxfam found serious gaps between what governments are doing and what they need to do to protect our food systems.

The ten gaps, “failing” policy areas that will undermine the world’s ability to feed itself in a warming world, are depicted below:

Without urgent action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the impacts will become more serious. It is estimated there could be 25 million more malnourished children under the age of five in 2050 compared to a world without climate change – that’s the equivalent of all under-fives in the US and Canada combined.

Oxfam is calling on governments and business across the world to act now to stop climate change making people hungry by building communities’ resilience to hunger and climate change, slashing greenhouse gas emissions and securing international agreements to tackle climate and hunger.

Individuals can join the global campaign to stop climate hunger at www.oxfam.org/foodclimatejustice

Will we have enough food in 2050?

Posted by on 16/03/14

A recent article (literature) mentions that by 2050, the per capita daily calorie consumption will increase 11% as a result of increased wealth. Also per capita food consumption of some food categories might increase dramatically:  14% for sugar, 15% for legumes, 33% for vegetable oil, and 26% for meat, % 19 for milk and dairy products. On the other hand no such increase is expected for cereals. National and international

researchers as well as investment strategists are surely starting to warn policy makers of these changes. The article also draws attention to the disorganized structure of the agricultural research institutions and recommends the collection of these institutions under one umbrella.

How were we able to feed the doubled world population from 1960 to 2010, despite no major changes incultivated agricultural land?  Above graphic explains the phenomena (Graphic): Improved crop varieties with agronomic innovations performed three to four folds in every corner of the world. This is a result of increased agricultural research and development investments of the public and the private sector.

Can we apply the same successful efforts to meet the 70%[1] increase in food production that will be needed in the 2050s? According to a report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) report, we can. Research suggests that we can produce more than expected consumption if we sophisticated research and development studies in all agricultural ecologies and ensure the results are leveraged by farmers. There are a number of ways to expand the agricultural production facilities:

  1. 1. Increased productivity by investment in R&D. Breeding new crop varieties which are adaptable to every existing ecology and various conditions with heat, drought, biotic (disease-pests) and abiotic (salinity, heat, cold, drought etc.) resistance, improving effective use of nitrogen varieties;
  2. 2. Application of research results to every agronomic production option, such as no-till, precision agriculture and second crop application which would aim to ensure the efficient use of existing or possible resources  conducted for every production area;
  3. 3. Increased investment in irrigation techniques, including water conservation, the most effective way to use limited water resources to determine the systems, like drip and sprinkler irrigation.

A simulation study has been conducted using these techniques for the three basic crops (corn, rice and wheat) and some of the results are summarized below (table).

Technologies Corn(%) Rice (%) Wheat (%)
Nitrogen-efficient varieties 11 20 6
No-till 16 - 16
Heat-tolerant varieties 16 3 9
Precision agriculture 4 9 10

Simply using nitrogen-efficient varieties might increase rice yield 20%. Heat-tolerant varieties boost corn yield %16 adding other alternatives like new genotypes that are resistant to diseases and pests can help achieve the 70% increase needed.

A number of the mentioned technologies have already been implemented. For example Argentina gets second crop (soybean after wheat) in its cropland over million hectares by using the “no-till” method in conjunction with biotech varieties, Such applications are need heavy R&D in every soil. Their significance stands out especially due to climate changes. However the very first thing needed is public (and political) awareness of an effective agricultural system. Unfortunately not all countries unite their manpower and financial infrastructure together like the BRIC[2] countries. Brazil has already established its EMPRAPA (Brazilian Enterprise for Agricultural Research) for all future national research activities by bringing together their federal and state experiment stations, including universities; Brazil is now the second country after the USA in agricultural biotechnology. India’s recently established ICAR (The Indian Council of Agricultural Research) with 99 institutes, 69 Agricultural Universities and 636 experiment stations is one of the largest national agricultural research systems in the world (Literature). Here are too many other countries following suit!

Nazimi Acıkgoz


[1] consumer demand will be for meat  %80, for grain % 52

[2] Bric countries and biotechnology, http://blog.milliyet.com.tr/bric-ulkeler…

 

Food labelling row shows no signs of abating

Posted by on 11/03/14

Italy and the UK are at loggerheads over the latter’s voluntary front of pack “traffic light” food labelling scheme, and the Commission is caught in the middle.

Ever since its introduction in June 2013, the British Government’s Front of Pack nutrition labelling scheme proved controversial and generated tensions among other EU Member States. The voluntary scheme, which has been adopted by all major UK retailers, introduced a so-called ‘hybrid’ system based on a mix of traditional guideline daily amounts (GDAs) and traffic light labelling. The centre of the controversy is precisely the traffic light system, which allocates red, yellow and green colours for total fat, salt, saturated fat, sugar and calories per 100g/ml, in an attempt to provide an easy visual system for assessing the nutritional properties of a food.

When the scheme was introduced last summer, British MEP and Member of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) Glenis Willmott argued that traffic light labelling should be made mandatory across Europe. After only a few months of implementation, stakeholders seem to be thinking that this outcome is being achieved through the UK voluntary scheme, and some of them are not happy. During the last Agriculture and Fisheries Council of 2013 the Italian Government, supported by a number of delegations including the French, Spanish and Greek, presented its concerns regarding the scheme and argued that it has the potential to affect the free movement of goods and harm traditional regional food products, which cannot be reformulated.

On that occasion, the Commission played down the concerns aired by the Italian and other delegations by highlighting that the UK scheme is voluntary and mentioning the possibility of preparing a report on all the labelling systems put in place by Member States. This clearly was not enough to placate the Italian industry, which took the opportunity of the Competitiveness Council at the end of February to present its case again.

A comprehensive briefing, similar to that prepared in advance of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in December was presented by the Italian delegation, outlining the potential impact of the scheme on the internal market, health and consumers, and agriculture, and urging the Commission to assess its effects on the internal market; the competitiveness of the European food industry; the provision of correct health information to consumers; and the safeguard of traditional regional food products.

Once again the Commission, led in this occasion by the Italian Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship Antonio Tajani, stressed the voluntary nature of the scheme. However, officials went a step further and said that, taking into account the “vivid reactions” triggered by the introduction of the British nutrition labelling scheme, they will examine the requests made by the Italian delegation “paying attention that the scheme respects the principles of functioning of the internal market.”

It is unclear what the Commission’s examination can achieve, other than delay. In the meantime, the contenders remain entrenched on their positions, with the Italian industry forecasting a fall of up to 11% in Italian exports to the UK, and the British Department of Health determined that the implementation of it flagship scheme will continue.

There’ll be several more rounds to go before this fight is settled one way or the other.

Chris Whitehouse is MD of leading political consultancy www.whitehouseconsulting.co.uk whose Food Regulation Team advise many European food companies.

What’s behind the brands?

Posted by on 26/02/14

by Lies Craeynest, Oxfam’s EU climate change & food security expert

Food is power, in Europe and around the world. As one of the largest importers of food in the world as well as home to some of the most influential food companies, the industry in the European Union touches upon the lives of millions of people in many, often underplayed ways.

It might not come as a surprise, therefore, that with this power, companies such as Unilever, Mondelez and Nestle have the potential to change not just the practices of their own business, but set the standard for the way in which the rest of the industry approaches major global development challenges such as climate change, land rights and water scarcity.

This is why a year ago today Oxfam introduced “Behind the Brands”, a unique project aimed at influencing the “Big 10” global food companies into adopting more ethical practices. By ranking companies ranging from Coca-Cola to General Mills on factors including women and worker’s rights to climate change, Behind the Brands has opened up the way food companies operate to the public, but more importantly shows them where they have to improve.

Although some leading companies have made major strides in the right direction, the “Big 10” have moved too slowly as a group. Whilst the likes of Nestle (ranked 1st), Unilever (2nd) and Coca-Cola (3rd) all improved their scores by 10, 14 and 13 percent respectively, General Mills actually dropped to the last place.

Despite the lacklustre improvements from companies further down the table, Behind the Brands has seen some high-profile victories in the fight against inequality. A campaign in March saw Oxfam push for the chocolate giants Mars, Mondelez and Nestle to commit to eliminating inequality for cocoa women farmers – which they did. Work with the sugar giants Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and ABF have seen progress made to wipe out the practice of land-grabs.

What the Behind the Brands campaign has demonstrated however is that business as usual is no longer an option for many food companies. Investors controlling trillions in assets have been demanding changes in practices which has seen a number of companies actively signing onto progressive pledges:
Of the “Big 10”, six have instituted new policies that endorse the principle of Free Prior and Information Consent that help ensure communities are consulted before their land is used. Seven companies have signed up to the UN Women’s Empowerment Principle commitment in order to improve the lives and opportunities of women impacted by its business.

On climate, eight of the “Big 10” have pledged to improve their actions on climate primarily through better disclosure of their emissions and risks related to global warming. With the food industry one of the world’s ‘most at risk’ businesses from climate change, stepping up action on this issue is not just good ethics, but good business sense.

As the Behind the Brand campaign celebrates its first anniversary, the biggest lesson learned is that companies do respond when consumers push them toward more responsible methods of production. But it is also time to reflect on those refusing to adapt to a changing world.

Here is where regulation comes in, and the role of the EU as one of the world’s largest food markets. Progressive companies should not just continue to improve their own practices, but also ensure that through EU regulation, the bar is lifted for everyone else in industry. Improvements in European legislation, whether to do with tax transparency, biofuels or more ambitious climate policy, will have positive repercussions across the world. Smart food companies will understand that it is in their interest to work towards a future which is beneficial for people, the planet and business, and do everything in their power to help build support for better social and economic governance.

“Some companies showed courageous leadership but it appears others need to be pulled along kicking and screaming. It will take time for them to reverse a 100-year history of relying on cheap land and labour to make mass products at huge profits but at high social and environmental costs. The race to the top is underway and there are clear leaders and laggards.”

Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International’s Executive Director

Scorecards: then and now

February, 2014

February, 2013

Ecuador: Bananas over trade

Posted by on 26/02/14

Bananas over trade

International trade talks are usually so jargon-filled that it can make your head spin and very few can actually make sense over what this gobbledygook entails for a country’s economy. It’s therefore easy to get lost in translation when you read about TRIPs and TRIMs during TPP and TTIP negotiations. And when ordinary people don’t understand how such an agreement will impact them, they tend to take matters into their own hands and head for the streets in protest.

Take Ecuador for example. Ten years ago Ecuadorians vented their anger in public squares over a proposed free trade agreement with the United States, because of the perceived belief that their country won’t be able to compete with US exports. The claim proved to be wrong and after intense negotiations, the agreement was signed. Exports are now up 335% from 2000 and Ecuador enjoys a year-on-year bilateral trade surplus of $3.6 billion with its North American partner. Roses for instance, have become a highly prized ware with over two-thirds of Quito’s indigenous production ending up in American markets.

Now a new deal is on the horizon in the form of a tailored trade agreement with the European Union that could bring a new twist to Ecuador’s already dynamic economy. Officials met in January for the first round of talks and pen proposals on issues such as agricultural and industrial goods, services and public-sector purchases. According to Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s firebrand president, “there are practically no disagreements”, but that some details still need to be hashed out before he will sign the deal. Analysts point out that difficult chapters to close will be those referring to intellectual property rights and patents, access for European corporations to Ecuador’s market and the chemical industry.

Bilateral trade is already considerable and would go up considerably. Ecuador sends about 30% of its non-oil exports to the EU, mainly to Spain, Holland, Germany and Belgium, totalling $2.45 billion. The major staples are bananas, shrimp, cocoa, tuna and (of course) roses.

Signing this agreement is now more important than ever. Bilateral trade is presently regulated under yet another acronym, called the GSP+ regime, which offers preferential tariffs for a wide array of goods. One of Ecuador’s most sought after exports is the banana, that has a lower import tariff than would otherwise be applied. Unfortunately for the country, this system is set to expire on the 1st of January 2015, following the Union’s overhauling of the GSP+ system. What this means is that Ecuadorian products will lose competitiveness on European markets, being forced to pay supplementary tariffs of 2% to 40% to gain access. Hence it is vital that Ecuador negotiates a replacement for this regime in order to preserve its advantages.

The history of bilateral relations with the EU is a bit more convoluted than it seems at first. Taking a walk down memory lane, we will see that in 2007 the Andean Community of Nations, of which Ecuador is a member, started regional bloc talks for a comprehensive free trade agreement with the European Union. However, they broke down in 2008 in the face of disagreements over the major elements of the deal.  The agreement was buried, and Peru and Columbia went on to sign bilateral FTAs with the Union, leaving the other countries behind.

Ecuador was reluctant at first to engage in a similar direction, fearful that a full-blown FTA would spell “suicide” for the Andean economy. Ecuador has no independent monetary policy, having adopted in 2000 the US dollar as its currency in the wake of a disastrous banking crisis. It is for this reason that the country is not seeking an FTA-type agreement, but a more limited trade deal that will give it sufficient leeway in protecting its own economy.

Correa, an economist by profession, is known for his left reformist tendencies and has been a staunch critic of free trade. He has been quoted saying that, “We trust in free trade, but in trade for mutual benefit; bad trade can break a country”. It can be expected that the final form of the agreement will be very cautious in managing the potential negative impact that SMEs could incur as a result.  On the up side, the country has the fastest growing economy in the region, which would generate an additional $327 million in the first three years after the entrance into force of the agreement. This will have real effects for the regular citizen, creating jobs and increasing consumer purchasing power.

The morale of the story is that even if free, unrestricted trade may not be as successful a recipe for some countries as is for others, progressive liberalization can have transformative effects. As the FTA with the US has shown, all those obscure acronyms, correctly understood and negotiated, have translated into better living conditions for both consumers and producers alike. It’s fair therefore to go a bit bananas when it comes to trade. As long as its for the right reasons.

 

‘Water is a Human Right!’ campaign: will it shape the EU?

Posted by on 25/02/14
By Zoltán Massay-Kosubek We, EU citizens, definitively made history when we have collected first in the EU history more than 1 million signatures to ensure that water will be provided on a human rights basis to everyone. But will it be enough to reduce the EU’s democratic deficit?

Pioneer 1507: Is it a sci-fi toy or is it food?

Posted by on 25/02/14

Last week a majority of EU member states voted against an extension of GMO food in the EU but it is the Commission that will make the final decision. Which way will the Commission swing?

EU Perspectives investigates.

The decision to approve Pioneer 1507  rests no longer with the Member States or the Parliament. It now rests with the European Commission who have been ordered to make a decision one way or the other by the European Court of Justice. The European Commission has been trying to pass the buck on this one for over ten long years hoping that the problem will simply evaporate. And, who can blame them.

The debate surrounding GMO products is as divisive as it is polarised.  Supporters of GMO products are quick to provide a host of scientific studies to justify the existence of food produced in a lab. Six from the EFSA no less. According to the agri-lobby their scientific evidence points to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Anyone who challenges their studies are either ignorant dullards, unreasonable opponents, hysterical Luddites with their feet in the past, or individuals with a penchant for consulting the Oracles and prone to reading Runes before making a sensible decision. Theirs, par contra, is the voice of reason, forward thinking and innovation.

Not so says the opposition who have produced a wealth of scientific studies supporting their case, which “proves” that GMO products are unsafe, undesirable and dangerous.

For any outsider there is only one thing to conclude. There is no point trying to figure out whether or not to allow Pioneer 1507 onto EU soil based on science alone. For every study that proves “x” an opposing study will prove “y”.

Into the thick of this debate wades EU Perspectives, which humbly proposes that since there is no scientific consensus as to the safety of GMO products, on this occasion at least, the science should be disregarded.

The key criteria for approving Pioneer 1507 should be – is there a need for Pioneer 1507?

The question of necessity could be addressed by asking and answering the following:

i)              In the absence of Pioneer 1507 is the EU at risk of imminent famine? No.

ii)             Do farmers need Pioneer 1507 in order to run a successful, profitable farm? No. To date there are no reports, of angry farmers protesting that they can not run their outfit without Pioneer 1507. No reports of farmers abandoning their lands because of a lack of Pioneer 1507.

iii)           Do consumers need Pioneer 1507? Ditto to the above. Most EU consumer seem perfectly happy with the huge array of food choices currently on offer. No mass protests on the streets of major capitals bemoaning a lack of Pioneer 1507. No reports of mass immigration to lands that do grow Pioneer 1507.

iv)           Will Pioneer 1507 improve the diversity of EU farming? No.

v)             Will Pioneer 1507 encourage a form of mono-agriculture? Yes.

vi)           Who is going to benefit most from Pioneer 1507? The farmers? No. (see above) Consumers? No (see above). The agri-business? Yes. Today no market. Tomorrow the open plains of the EU are theirs for the taking.

vii)          Is Pioneer 1507 going to improve the quality of food on offer in the EU? No. Pioneer 1507 was developed by scientists in a lab – hardly a key criteria for defining real food.

EU Perspectives does not envy Tonio Borg the European Health Commissioner – caught as he is between a lab technician in a white coat and an angry organic farmer – but a decision must be made one way or the other. But what, one wonders, will the decision rest on? Science on which there is no consensus or need?

 

“The Right to Food” What it’s like in North Korea!

Posted by on 22/02/14

The United Nations recently released a report highlighting the systematic human rights abuses that regularly take place in North Korea. The controversial report states that murder, slavery, torture, starvation and executions routinely take place in the country, and has been termed by the authoritarian regime as a “political plot and nothing more than creating room for more free and fair”.

The report, although largely, accurate, should be taken with a pinch of salt because the investigators were not given access to the country, to begin with. The United Nations for its part stated that it had continuously asked North Korean representatives to take part in public hearings and question witnesses and the sources of the interviews come primarily from South Korea, Japan and the United Kingdom.

Commissioned by retired Australian judge, Michael Kirby, some of the atrocities reported include a woman forced to drown her own baby, children imprisoned from birth and starved, and families tortured for watching a foreign soap opera.

Although many of the testimonies come from South Korea, where they choose to migrate to through China, in recent years there has been a significant drop in the number of North Koreans allowed access to the country. The North Korean refugees denied access to their first pitstop, China, return them to their country of origin or another country where they are likely to be persecuted, terming them as economic migrants.

The United Nations said that it would refer its findings to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the possibility of persecution. A letter of warning was also dispatched to Kim Jong Un outlining that he could face persecution for crimes against humanity, and one of the options being taken into consideration is an ad hoc tribunal by the United Nations.

Gratefully, China, a strong ally of North Korea, has already stepped in to state that it would not permit human rights charges to proceed to the ICC. Both the United States State Department and Human Rights Watch have expressed support for the report, but refrained from placing their full weight behind the recommendations, stopping at only bringing to full attention the plight of the North Korean people, the present human rights situation in North Korea is having.

Confucian social structures and the troubling experiences of the Japanese colonial occupation influences the country’s political and social hierarchy which has been attribute as the main cause of the human right violations. Human rights violations in the country range from an abhorrence of the idea of freedom of thought, opinion or expression to discrimination based on the citizens social status determined at birth.

Although the state has been addressing all of the issues at stake here, as the country continues to make socio-economic progress, what is particularly worrying is the impact it is having on the allocation of food resources to North Koreans.

Because the country practices an unjust system of cherrypicking the candidates it seems fit for certain professional roles, the sort of accommodation they will receive, and the kind of schools they will attend, and even if they are capable of attending schools to begin with, the system has opened itself up to abuse.

The report highlights that there has been discrimination of the diaspora of people that will receive food over the others, and this is just after the country recently recovered from widespread famine. The state prefers to prioritize Pyongyang over the others, and because state-controlled efforts weren’t sufficient to provide food assistance to the nation’s peoples, international assistance was requested, but this was denied by both United States and South Korea over marine issues.

The United Nations report fails to acknowledge this and instead states that the reason food assistance wasn’t provided was merely because restriction of movement amongst North Koreans, in search for food and trading or working in informal markets, prevented from news breaking out of the dire situation in the country.

The report highlights that humanitarian agencies did not receive full co-operation on the matter, when they did agree to supply food  assistance to North Koreans, but there needs to be a better understanding of the plight of the state here. It was only recently, July 2013 to be precise, that United Nations agreed to embark on shelving food aid to North Korea, in the midst of growing international political unrest involving the country’s nuclear aims.

The World Food Programme (WFP) approved $200mn worth of food aid for almost all of the nation’s children, pregnant and nursing women. The food is manufactured in the North but through the help of imported ingredients, and this was done to address the WFP’s concerns over the apparent risk of malnutrition for young children, and their intellectual and physical development as well, owing to a diet lacking in key proteins, fats and micronutrients. The last time that the United States had provided food assistance to North Korea was from late 2008 to March 2009.

Pig farms in Ukraine: quantity over quality for EBRD

Posted by on 19/02/14

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development praises its own achievements in the agricultural sector. A look at Ukraine, however, reveals how sustainable food provision, local communities and the quality of soil are falling by the wayside with the bank’s focus on big industrial operations.

by Natalie Kolomiets, cross-posted from the Bankwatch blog

Over the last years, the EBRD has put increasing attention to food security. In 2010 it adopted an agribusiness sector strategy (pdf) – which unsurprisingly focuses primarily on the private sector – followed by the launch of the Private Sector for Food Security Initiative to lead the bank’s operations in the sector.

While the second annual report (pdf) of the Initiative, published two weeks ago, praised the bank’s achievements in the agricultural sector, the bank’s focus on quantity and volume turns a blind eye on the quality and sustainability of food provision.

In its work, the bank frequently grants support not to small and medium private farms, but to industrial farms. Such agricultural giants, in their strive to harvest high profits, tend to leave people and the environment behind, especially in transition countries where landownership and consumer rights are traditionally less pronounced. Their intensive farming results in higher resource depletion and significant social impacts and thwart efforts towards secure and sustainable food production.

The sow stall of Europe

One of the recent examples for said pitfalls can be found in the EBRD’s operations in Ukraine. The country that is often referred to as one of the milestone countries for food production received USD 238 million in 2013 for agriculture-related projects. [1]

Among the EBRD beneficiary companies was Danosha, with a loan over EUR 35 million approved last year. The company, a subsidiary of the Danish Axzon Group, has been focusing on industrial pig farming in Ukraine since 2004. It owns five industrial pig farms in the Ivano-Frankivsk region with a total capacity to host 128 500 pigs. Two additional pig farms are under construction at the moment. Danosha’s crop production, mostly for pig fodder, is part of its full-cycle pig breading.

However, the operations at Danosha’s pig farms are associated with adverse environmental and social impacts. Local communities, suffering under Danosha’s farms have started organising themselves. (Read for example the unlikely story of 83 year old retired teacher Maria Vasylivna Antoniv.) Their long list of complaints regarding the company’s performance includes:

  • Danosha does not publish environmental information, in particular environmental impact assessments of its facilities even though these should be disclosed upon request.
  • Danosha did not implement adequate mitigation measures to protect the health of locals who still complain about headaches, loss of appetite and malaise which they say are caused by gases from the farms.
  • Danosha did not pay for lease agreements in time. In the village Sivka-Vojnyliska Danosha leased around 200 ha of lands from around 50 farmers in 2005-2012. Lease agreements are terminated at the moment, but Danosha still has not paid land use compensations to the owners.
  • Danosha’s manure management system is feared to be unsafe and may result in manure leakage. This is most worrisome in the case of Danosha’s Lany farm, located only a few metres from to the Galuch national nature park with extremely sensitive wetlands that is habitat to a number of endangered species.

For a complete list of concerns, see NECU’s letter to the EBRD (pdf) from February 5, 2014.

Danosha’s Lany farm (left) and just across the small glade the territory of National Nature Park begins (where the trees start on the right)

Like in many EBRD projects that Bankwatch monitors, the bank was informed in a letter from November 27, 2013 (pdf) about problems with Danosha’s performance before the loan was approved (December 17) – to no avail. The EBRD decided to finance Danosha’s activities regardless. And sure enough, just one month after the loan agreement was signed, locals affected by the impacts of Danosha’s farms filed a compliant to the independent recourse mechanism of the International Finance Corporation, another multilateral funder of Danosha. (Find more information in the letter from February 5 (pdf).)

Instead of targeting its efforts towards more sustainable small and medium scale farms, the bank finances farm factories that may secure food supply at a faster rate, but that result in significant social and environmental problems in the future. (The Danosha loan is not an isolated case. In October the EBRD approved support for another Ukrainian client that causes similar distress – MHP. Again, the EBRD had been informed beforehand.)

Avoiding responsibility

Not only does the EBRD prioritise private agribusiness giants involved in unsustainable operations, the bank also poorly acknowledges its responsibilities towards affected communities.

The EBRD filed the Danosha project under the environmental category B, claiming that “potential impacts are site specific and readily identified and addressed through mitigation measures.” This, however, is not the case when it comes to factory farms.

The EBRD’s reasoning for this classification (pdf) is that the loan’s purpose is not the construction of pig farms, but other activities – increase in feed mill capacity, agricultural machinery, construction of two bio-gas plants, etc. Yet, all of these activities are an integral part of Danosha’s bigger investment plans for Ukraine that aim at the expansion of activities and include the construction of the two mentioned factory farms. Had the company asked directly for a loan for the expansion of its facilities – each farm factory under construction will host more than 10 000 sows – the project would have been be classified as A, the highest category of environmental risk, and treated by the bank correspondingly.

Instead of acknowledging these connections, the EBRD washes its hands clean of the significant environmental and social impacts of Danosha’s factory farms and does not assume adequate responsibility.

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With the EBRD’s preferred support of large agribusiness corporations I expect the development of large factory farms only to pick up speed. Unfortunately, striving for food security with unsustainable business practices will inevitably lead to increased environmental and social insecurities and will in the long term likely result in damages to the soil that made Ukraine the breadbasket of Europe.

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1. This number includes a project to increase debt exposure to the Ukrainian MHP group which involves operations in Ukraine and Russia and is therefore classified as a regional project.

GMOs, water grab and ice cream for the masses

Posted by on 13/02/14

by Sophie Delaval, cross-posted from the Bankwatch blog

The EBRD’s board of directors yesterday approved a USD 20 million loan for the expansion of Nestlé Egypt food production company. Leaving aside the question whether Nestlé – one of the world’s largest companies from one of the world’s richest countries – really qualifies for multilateral development finance, there are several reasons why this decision is problematic.

Nestlé is the largest artificial baby milk producer with 40 per cent of global market share and has been operating almost everywhere in the world under the label of “good food, good life”. But what about the highly questionable practices Nestlé has been implementing across the world for the past decades?

GMO

Nestlé openly acknowledges the fact that it uses genetically modified foods. Since 2009, Egypt has banned the import and export of GMOs.

While the country is seeking a way out of a difficult transition period, the regulatory framework on the use of GMOs or products deriving from GMOs has been the subject of a court order (released all in Arabic) and grassroots organisations have been fighting the work of GMO giants such as Monsanto for a few years. How can the company ensure that it is only using ingredients allowed for sale in Egypt? Does it even label products containing GMOs?

Let them eat ice cream

Finally, according to the EBRD,

“The operation will enable the Company to finance foreign currency working capital needs and investments into the expansion of the Company’s food production capacity (ice cream, confectionery) to meet the growing demand [...]” (emphasis added)

But what sort of priority is that? The majority of Egyptians cannot afford to buy the Nestlé and Movenpick ice cream produced by the company. Only the upper middle and high classes can afford this luxury whereas most Egyptians struggle just to afford bread, eggs or drinkable water.

If the EBRD can’t do better than financing Swiss multinationals in its new countries of operation, I’m not sure that the people of Egypt are going to be too convinced about its development impact.

Artificial milk

Nestlé, who has been operating in Egypt for more than a century, has been repeatedly criticised for unethical marketing practices of its infant formula milk. In addition, the artificial Nestlé milk sold in emerging countries is so expensive that mothers dilute it with water usually unfit for human consumption to make the artificial milk last longer. Unfortunately, these practices have led to fatal diseases and malnutrition when mothers should be supported and encouraged to breast feed their babies whenever possible. The baby milk scandal created such an uproar that a network was created in response to this, the Baby Milk Action who called for a boycott on Nestlé’s products “because it contributes to the unnecessary death and suffering of infants around the world by aggressively marketing baby foods in breach of international marketing standards.”

Water grab

Unfortunately, there is something much uglier about Nestlé and its practices, and it has to do with one of the most basic human rights, the right to water. Surprisingly, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Chairman and former CEO of Nestlé has on numerous occasions declared that “one opinion, which I think is extreme, is represented by the NGOs… As a human being you should have a right to water. That’s an extreme solution.” According to him, water is a commodity, just like any other commodity such as food, and therefore should have a market value. Nestlé is the biggest producer of bottled water worldwide so it seems obvious that the company has a major interest in privatising water supply. I suggest you watch journalist Abby Martin debunk Nestlé’s water rhetoric as it is quite edifying.

It is clear to me that Nestlé puts the profit of the world biggest food producer before basic human rights and basic health. I would be very curious to know what are the EBRD’s views on this specific topic and the EBRD’s true motivations to assess Nestlé as a suitable candidate to benefit from such a loan.

How will food consumption habits change by 2050?

Posted by on 28/01/14
By Nazimi Açıkgöz It is expected that, world will need 50%-70% more food by 2050. The main reasons are global warming, increasing population and much more daily calories due to raising welfare. The question “how will we make up the gap?” is not answered easily. Will yield increase per unit area be a solution? Don’t we need to increase or decrease cultivation area some of basic crops? Here, agriculture strategists are obliged to know the expectation, which products at what quantity or in which ratio will be consumed in future.

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