Invest in Rehabilitating Land, not in Rockets
There have always been madmen, dictators, and despots. But given the volatility, insecurity, and interdependence of all of us on our global food system, their impact on humanity seems somehow more outsized than ever before.
As the saying goes, may you live in interesting times. Well, all signs suggest that we’re living in “interesting” times. When we work together we know that we can solve most problems even if it takes a while. Today, however, we’re not working together. More people and countries are on their own. We’re not playing with a full deck. I don’t want to romanticize the past, but it seems that we formerly developed stronger alliances than we can now.
Here are some examples of the dysfunction that exists today, when we need to be working closer than ever before:
Human ingenuity is amazing. Unfortunately, we are being distracted by too many voices, issues, and crises. It’s about time we start focusing on what’s most important — protecting the biodiversity and all the natural resources that are essential for all life on Earth. – Jason
- Some of the best soils on the planet are being poisoned by the war in Ukraine, and others have been deliberately mined so that it will take a decade or more to clear them — and even then, more will be killed.
- As food becomes scarce, people and countries hoard it. This happened a decade ago when Russia stopped wheat exports, contributing to the Arab Spring. Today it is happening with rice and even onions.
- The US Congress killed a bill that would provide farmworkers a path to citizenship. Every year the issue of illegal labor grows in the US food system. The longer this continues the more difficult it will be to address. Every year more people will be displaced and will enter the country, legally or illegally.
- North Korea is facing a severe famine. The last one, in the 1990s, killed 3-5% of the population. For the last 7 years, the number of malnourished in the country is estimated at more than 40% and is increasing — yet Korea spends more on producing missiles than food.
- Latin America exports a quarter of its food while many in the region don’t have enough to eat. Just a generation or two ago the region was dominated by dictators. How long will it take for the conflict between exporting food and reducing malnutrition to undermine today’s democracies?
Indonesia Shows It’s Possible to Tame Rainforest Destruction — The Wall Street Journal
Forest destruction in Indonesia is at its lowest pace in two decades. The rate of forest loss fell by more than half in Indonesia from 2015 through 2021, while it worsened in Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, homes to two other vast rainforests. It is a turnaround with lessons for policy makers, businesses and environmentalists.
JC: What Indonesia has done is remarkable. Just a decade ago its rate of deforestation was greater than any other country. But in the last decade while Brazil and Democratic Republic of Congo continued to deforest at an accelerating rate, Indonesia did not. The WSJ suggests the reasons were government orders, consumer product boycotts, and environmental activism. Of these, I would say the last was the trigger. Without that activism, consumer product companies wouldn’t have been aware of the issue, much less have acted on it. And the government has long had regulations but rarely enforced them. It was the activism that got government’s attention. Some credit goes to Malaysia, the No. 2 palm oil producer. It has been better positioned in the market without the same levels of deforestation. Also, Unilever and WWF successfully launched the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in 2004, a voluntary certification program that showed producers, companies, and countries what they could and should be doing rather than telling them what not to do. Unfortunately, even all of this is not a magic recipe for success. Every country, commodity and market is different. If solutions were easy, we’d be in a different place now.
Hoarding Onions Threatens a New Chapter in Global Food Crisis — Bloomberg
The costs of wheat and grains have fallen in recent months, easing concern over access to some staples. But a combination of factors is now shaking up the vegetable market. And at the sharp end of that is the humble onion. Prices are soaring, fueling inflation, and prompting countries to take action to secure supplies.
JC: This will not be the last time that there are shortages of highly valued vegetables caused by climate change and its impacts on weather. For many cultures, the full range of products in the onion family are in many if not most of their favorite foods, and when there are shortages people will begin to hoard products. In fact, governments, anticipating shortages, are competing with each other to line up suppliers to avoid shortages and any related social unrest. Months ago, I read about the onion shortage in the Philippines, where the price had increased 10-fold or more, but it seems that that was a precursor to reduced production and higher prices in several other countries. Some of these shortages will be traced to specific weather events, but it is likely that as climate change causes production shifts, other favorite foods will also become more scarce. Now we have to figure out how to deal with it. Imagine some of your favorite dishes without onions.
Congress Killed a Bill to Give Farmworkers a Path to Citizenship — Civil Eats
The legislation got as far as it did, and ultimately failed, because it represented a major compromise between farmworker advocates and the agricultural industry—two groups with very different needs. As a result, neither side liked the whole package very much. And from the get-go, there was fierce disagreement within groups on both sides.
JC: Last week an article showed how immigrant children work illegally under dangerous conditions. Those unaccompanied children were “legal.” They were awaiting hearings about their status. They were doing illegal work, however, and without a pathway to citizenship they will become illegal. As a child, my family sang while driving to visit other families. My sisters learned one song at summer camp. The words were, “If I get to heaven before you do, I’ll drill a little hole and pull you through.” I remember that we improved the song by changing the phrase at the end from “pull you through” to “spit on you.” And here we are as a nation of immigrants refusing entrance to others. The current situation isn’t new, but it won’t get any better until we fix this problem. The food we eat will be produced illegally. We would not accept food produced like our own is if was from another country, so it’s interesting that Congress can look the other way. When will we start to pay the true cost of food? Apparently not any time soon.
Soils of War: The Toxic Legacy for Ukraine’s Breadbasket — Reuters
Scientists looking at soil samples taken from the recaptured Kharkiv region in northeastern Ukraine found that high concentrations of toxins such as mercury and arsenic from munitions and fuel are polluting the ground. Scientists estimated that the war has degraded at least 10.5 million hectares of agricultural land across Ukraine so far.
JC: If there were ever a time not to degrade some of the richest soil on the planet. Ukraine is where much of agriculture now appears to have started. And, unlike the Tigris-Euphrates, the Indus valley or the lands near Carthage that were salted by the Romans, it is not only still farmed but quite productive. There is a long history of the demise of societies that degrade their natural resources. Several are described in Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse. Unfortunately, today every country, including the poorest, depends on other countries for food. The percentage of global food that is traded across international borders was about 6% in the late 1990s, 12-15% by 2012 and 20% or more by 2019. We can’t afford to destroy one of the best food producing areas on the planet. We must all depend on it and others similar to it if we are to meet the food needs of everyone.
North Korea’s Kim Orders ‘Radical Change’ in Agriculture Amid Signs of Famine — Al Jazeera
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has called for a “radical change” in agricultural production amid concerns over reported food shortages. In a report last month, the US-based think tank 38 North said that North Korea’s 2020-21 harvest cycle had “probably failed to satisfy minimum human needs,” and the country was now teetering on the brink of famine.
JC: Many farmers around the world speak of being only one harvest away from failing. But this issue is much more real for North Korean farmers. They are more marginal every year, with famines coming more often. This reality could be exacerbated because of climate change. But, in the meantime, I have often wondered how much food could be produced in North Korea if the money used to produce and test rockets over the last decade instead had been invested in rebuilding degraded farmland, rehabilitating soils that have been mined for decades, and expanding coastal aquaculture production.
Latin America’s Food Paradox — Food Tank
The most biodiverse region on the planet, Latin America is an agro-industrial superpower that exports fully one-fourth of its total production. By contrast, another agricultural superpower, Asia, exports only 6 percent of its production. Still, Latin America has never succeeded in tapping into its agricultural wealth to adequately feed its population.
JC: Latin America has a few other characteristics that set it apart from Asia. The colonial period in Latin America saw many of the lands, and certainly the best farmlands, carved into large estates, with the indigenous occupants often dying of diseases, put into slavery, killed, or required to work on the estates of the wealthy or in mines. A lucky few were able to hold on to their own lands or remained isolated until government policies became more favorable. Today, 70% of the farm and ranchland in Latin America is owned by 10% of the people. Brazil is perhaps the worst, with 10% of the people owning more than 80% of the privately owned land. Since the colonial period began, Latin America has tapped into its natural resources and agricultural potential. The goal, unfortunately, was to produce wealth, primarily through exports, for a few rather than food for everyone — a reality that continues to this day.