Sunday, May 8, 2011

Regional Food Security 1

Xinhua News, on their English news site, is reporting that "China, South Korea and Japan will each provide up to 200,000 tons of rice for a contingency plan of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) plus three, out of total allocation of 787,000 tons" destined for an ASEAN +3 stockpile. The idea is to manage price volatility and ensure emergency stocks of rice. Indonesian Agriculture Minister Suswono said "We will propose that it wouldn't be only for emergency situation but also for price stability. It means that we should increase the reserves in case of price volatility so that we could conduct market operation." 
It's interesting that  ASEAN has taken this action now, as International prices, Thailand: Bangkok, Rice (Thai 100% B) , Export, US Dollar per Tonne have dropped considerably since peaking in 2008 (peaking at $962.60, prices have since dropped to $507.25--which is still double the 2000 price of $243.50/ton according to the FAO). It means that the collective governments of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (+3, of course) are concerned about continued price volatility in their collective markets.
The FAO is also showing that, worldwide, prices are climbing again, after having spiked in 2008 and dropping last year. Meat and dairy products have either almost recovered or have (in the case of meat) exceeded their 2008 price highs. Cereals are still down--lower than last year, even--but oils and fats have showed increases. All in all, this brings the global food price index to 164--the second highest point it's achieved this century; having started at 90 and peaked at 191 in 2008.
We can expect continuing volatility over the next several decades; global climate change has shown us increased agricultural impacts in (for example) Australia with drought, flooding, and brush-fires, and according to a recent report [.pdf] (reported by the CBC) expected sea level rise on the BC coast of a half metre by 2050, which will put a great deal of our local agricultural land at risk.  If in fact the report is correct when it says: "At the present time, scientific information on the expected changes in storms approaching British Columbia coastal waters and their characteristics, specifically on the intensity of the storms, their related wave conditions and the associated storm surges in the future, is only starting to emerge. Based on the available information it appears reasonable to conclude that no significant change is expected in coastal BC waters," one would expect that if sea levels have increased by a half-metre, any storm activity will have greater effect on coastal areas.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Having A Hard Time Facing The Future

Report on Business Magazine (May 2011) is running an article this month called “How Do We Feed Seven billion People—and Counting?” In it, reporters interview various people, looking for their take on what is evolving into an international food crisis.
The range of opinions and suggestions is much broader than expected—mostly because several of the interviewees are pushing for more of the same discredited policies that we've been pursuing. Sometimes dressed in new rhetorical clothes, but the same solutions nonetheless.
Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the Earth Institute and special adviser to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, takes on one of the elephants in the room by saying simply that we can't afford to reach nine billion. And its true, we can't. We could, if we took agriculture and feeding people very seriously indeed, manage—just!—to feed nine billion. But it would be incompatible with the international economic order as it is currently constituted. And, as Sachs is quoted as saying:
“This crisis cannot be solved just by food aid or short-term tricks. We have to look at the basic issue: that politicians are locally oriented and cynical, that they make announcements they don't follow through on, and that they're in the pockets of lobbyists intent on preventing solutions.”
As long as the focus is on maximizing return on investment, and not on farmers making a living by feeding people, we will continue to starve both poor people and poor nations. It will be a brutal way to keep population pressure under control—after all, we are increasing by 80 million people a year at this point—but famine will be a very effective method of international social control. But famine does appear to be the weapon of choice at this time.

Abby Abassian is the senior grains economist at the FAO in Rome, and he mentions the other elephant in the room—if only obliquely. When asked “What caused the latest surge in food prices?” his reply is “In one word—weather. This is not like 2007 and 2008, where we had so many other factors mixed in.”

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

One Reason Our Oceans Are Empty

Just reading in The Guardian that the European Union is finally trying to deal with the issue of by-catch. By-catch (or "discards" in the article) are the fish discarded by fish boats because the fish are of low commercial demand or the boat has no quota for catching the species. It is one of the unintended consequences of the quota system of fishing: no quota, you don't land the catch.
This is not to say that the fish are in any way no good or inedible. It is simply that if you are fishing, say, halibut, you don't want to land other fish with your catch; you only have quota to catch halibut. Rockfish, ling cod, whatever else gets swept up in your nets gets tossed back overboard.
The volume of by-catch is large--often up to fifty percent of the catch. We might like to think that if you're fishing coho, that coho is all you catch, but it's simply not the case. The problem is particularly difficult with trawlers--the nets tend to sweep up everything they can, leaving the sorting for the men on deck.
European Union commissioner Maria Damanaki brought forward a plan [.pdf] earlier this year to ban discards. Speaking in Brussels 03 May 2011, she said ;
"Legislators must establish a new legal framework that removes all compulsory discarding. We also need clear objectives and time limits. And the fishing industry should devise ways in which the fish they don't want, is simply not caught in the first place. Or if it is caught we can help them to build storage mechanisms, to wait for a better price."

The fishing industry is not onside. Anything that means landing less than the highest-priced catch means difficulty for the industry. The problem is, the public is no longer buying the reasons for by-catch. As Ms. Damanaki says:
"We live in a hungry world and we cannot keep a policy that obliges fishermen to throw away perfectly good food. Just look at the picture behind me showing fishermen throwing away big cod, because they ran out of quota. There is no way that we can explain this to the people on the street."
 In the UK, the arguments against by-catch disposal are being led by chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall , who has signed on over a half-million supporters to change the by-catch rules. And it's having an effect--sales of sustainably-fished varieties are up in the UK.

Here in North America, we too have similar rules about by-catch and also waste enormous amounts of fish.And in a world where the once full oceans are being rapidly converted into deserts--much like farmland is rapidly being converted to desert--we really can't afford this. As Greenpeace pointed out in 2008:
Bycatch also undermines the recovery of protected species. In the North Atlantic trawling is netting huge numbers of juvenile cod, undermining efforts at rebuilding decimated Atlantic cod stocks. For example on the Grand Banks, cod fishing is banned but in 2003 an estimated 90 per cent of the biomass was caught as bycatch in other groundfish fisheries. Our wild king salmon populations in the northeast Pacific are also suffering with about 160,000 fish being caught as bycatch in the Alaskan pollock fishery last year. This mass incidental catch resulted in a collapse of a subsistence fishery because not enough fish returned from the ocean to spawn.

The World Wildlife Fund is also concerned.  The Fisheries Council of Canada seems to think that things are well under control [.pdf], but How We Fish offers a .pdf brochure on all the things we don't know. And with our new government here in Canada, don't expect to see conservation on the agenda--which baffles me. One would think Conservatives would be wanting to conserve resources, it being right there in their name. Instead, look for maximum exploitation to be the order of the day.