Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Trading away our future?

Early trade was about ecological adaptation, transporting essential food or other essential goods to a places where they were lacking. Very little in present international trade is based on that. Instead, trade in itself creates shortages. Today, Sweden only produces half the beef it consumes. This is not because there is no land or resources available in Sweden. On the contrary, the country has let a million hectares of meadows revert to forest and a lot of arable land is idle – or grazed by horses that people keep for a hobby. International trade can be a safety valve for food shocks by moving food from one part of the world to the other. Yet it has dramatically reduced each region’s self-sufficiency and made all of us dependent on global supply chains for our daily food. Some of the trade is really difficult to understand or justify. More or less identical products are exported and imported by the same countries. As the ecological economist Herman Daly points out: “Americans import Danish sugar cookies and Danes imports American sugar cookies. Exchanging recipes would surely be more efficient”.[1]
It is a mistake to conclude that there is a linear process driving farmers into increased levels of commercialization. In times of collapsing markets, natural disasters, unrest or war, self-sufficiency and non-market exchange is bound to play a bigger role. The Roman peri-urban sprawl with agricultural estates, villas, engaged in intensive commercial production went the same way as the Empire. At the fall of Rome the area fell into neglect and finally reverted to extensive pastoralism.[2] The pastoral beauty of this Roman Campagna inspired the painters who flocked into Rome in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was the most painted landscape in Europe.[3]
We can also see the same patterns today. In banana-producing Jamaica food prices soared in the mid 1970s as a result of the first oil price shock. But banana prices were not keeping pace with the cost of food. This resulted in many smallholders reverting to subsistence farming, growing for themselves, or growing food crops for the local market. Interestingly, this coincided with improvements in their children’s nutritional status.[4] When the Soviet Union collapsed, farming in many parts of the fallen empire reverted to self-sufficiency. During Soviet times Armenian producers had supplied the Union with brandy, grapes and fruits, but when the Union crumbled and war broke with Azerbaijan, people ripped out the vines to grow wheat.[5] Commercialization in reverse can also be observed recently in Argen­tina during the economic crisis 2001 and presently in Euro debt ridden Greece, Spain or Portugal or in Detroit where urban farms are being established on the ruins of the automotive industrial culture.
The commercialization of agriculture and food has had profound implications for how we view food and what we eat. As historian B.W. Higman notes in How Food made History: “Only in recent time have consumers in some countries come to think of food as a packaged good, to be obtained almost exclusively by purchase, and come to regard anything taken directly from the well as potentially danger­ous”.

We cannot deal with food mainly as a marketable commodity – very few societies ever have. If things get rough, governments, civil society and groups of people will step in and regulate, distribute and produce outside of the market system. The market system also has very few levers that guide it to supply food that is nutritious.
The market in food is totally dysfunctional for shaping the farming system in the best way for its role of planetary stewardship, a role that is increasingly important as agriculture occupies more and more of the surface of the planet and natural resources are under immense pres­sure. There are almost no market mechanisms in place for undertaking this important task, and there is a limited potential for them to emerge. Even if they did they will never reach the extent required, considering that the value of agricultural ecosystem services might well be as high as the total value of agricultural production. At present the market is still driving farmers the other way; into more and more specialization and monocultures and less stewardship of nature resources. Already today massive government interventions are directed to compensating for market failure. We need to look in other directions if we wish to sustainably manage the agriculture landscape.
‘Agriculture and food systems, with their associated nature and landscapes, are a common heritage and thus, also a form of common property’ according to Professor Jules Pretty[i] at the University of Essex. Stepping away from market imperatives frees our minds and thinking about food and farm production. This of course has implica­tions for land and other resources needed for farming and food production. The more food is viewed as a public good, the less appropri­ate it is that the productive factors needed to produce foods, seeds, land, water etc, are provided by the market. When food is a right, and the production and distribution of food takes place in the commons instead of in the market, new ways of addressing the unfair distribution of food can emerge.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 already defines food as a human right: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control” (Article 25). The right to food has been re-asserted ever since, for example at the 2009 World Summit on Food Security in Rome. There, world leaders agreed on ‘the right of everyone to have access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food’.[ii] The new constitution of Kenya, approved by a popular referendum in 2010, states the right of every person “to be free from hunger and to have adequate food of acceptable quality” and imposes a duty on the State to respect, protect, promote and fulfill that right. A study in 2011 identified twenty-four countries in which the right to food was explic­itly recognized, many of them in Latin America.
Of course, it is one thing to proclaim a right and another one to enact it. Rights need a guarantor, duties and obligations, and an enforcer of some kind. Increasingly courts are using the constitutions or international treaties as a basis to safeguard people’s right to food.[iii] The Special Rappor­teur on the Right to Food for the United Nations, Olivier De Schutter, writes in the report to the General Assembly in August 2013: ‘The right to food has come to the fore as Governments realize that their efforts to combat food insecurity and hunger have been failing and realize the urgent need to strengthen national legal, institutional and policy frameworks’.[iv]
Brazil has been successful in the fight against hunger and in pro­moting the right to food. The Fome Zero (zero hunger) program was initiated during Lula’s presidency. Its most important component is Bolsa Família, whereby poor families get a basic income tied to condi­tions such that the children go to school and are vaccinated. The cost of the whole program is just 0.5% of Brazilian GDP but it reaches 44 million people, more than a fifth of the population. Malnutrition in Brazil decreased from 13% to below 2% between 1994 and 2006. The program also includes the purchasing of local food, often organic, to schools and other support measures to small farmers.[v]
Rethinking food as a right, farming as a management system of the planet and the food system as a commons necessitates the building of new institutions fit for these purposes; Jose Luis Vivero Pol, a food governance researcher describes these as “a third force of governance and resource management by the people as a compliment to the market and the state”.[vi] This will require experimentation at the personal, local, national and international levels. This doesn’t rule out markets as one of several mechanisms for food distribu­tion, but does it reject market hegemony over our food supplies, and rejects the view that market forces are the best way of allocating food producing resources, such as land, water, knowledge and seeds.

The texts above are extracts from Global Eating Disorder 

[1]           Daly, H. 1993 ‘The Perils of Free Trade’ Scientific American Magazine November 1993.
[2]           Morley, N. 1996 Metropolis and Hinterland Cambridge University Press.
[3]           Wikipedia 2014 ‘Roman Campagna’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Campagna.
[4]           Pelto, G. H. and P.J. Pelto 1983 ‘Diet and delocalization: Dietary changes since 1750’. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol 14 No 2, pp. 507-528.
[5]           Rundgren, G. 2011 Organic Agriculture, A step towards the green economy in the Eastern Europe. Caucasus and Central Asia region. United Nations Environment Programme.

[i]            Pretty, J. 2002 Agri-culture: Reconnecting people, land and nature Earthscan.
[ii]           United Nations General Assembly 2013 The Right to Food, Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, 7 August 2013, A/68/288
[iii]           Ibid.
[iv]          Ibid.
[v]           Sanchez-Montero, M. and N. S. Ubach 2010 ‘Undernutrition, What Works?’ ACF International Network.
[vi]          Vivero Pol, J.L. 2013 Food as a Commons: Reframing the narrative of the food system 23 April 2013 Centre for Philosophy of Law, Université Catholique de Louvain.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Confused indeed

Comments to the report Grazed and confused from the Food Climate Research Network.

I had high expectations on the report Grazed and confused, developed under the lead of Tara Garnett from the Food Climate Research Network. I have been impressed by her previous research on many aspects of the food system and her capacity to go further than using lifecycle analyses to provide the Truth. Unfortunately this report doesn’t live up to my expectations. At all.

By and large, the conditions differ so much in different parts of the world, that the kind of generalisation this reports tries to make is rather pointless. It is like making a global report for “arable farming” and drawing general conclusions that farming is good or bad.

The introduction of the report is quite promising and balanced, but that balance is unfortunately lost in what follows. The authors state in the introduction that the report will only focus on the effects on the climate and not other aspects, good or bad, of livestock or grazing. Fair enough, but they mostly forget this when they report something slightly positive about grazing animals. That is often dismissed or relativized with other arguments about alternative land use or something else.

In the report one can read statements such as “while well-managed systems that are not implicated in deforestation certainly exist….” giving the impression that deforestation would be the norm. Such statements must be considered extremely biased since most grasslands are not the result of deforestation at least for hundred years.  

Admittedly definitions are difficult, and the report tries to clarify some things reasonably well in the start. But later on, the report is not helping with a clear line, but mixes discussions which are relevant for grass grown in croplands or dramatically altered pastures with native grasslands. They are very different and what is correct for one is not necessarily correct for the other. Grasslands in crop rotations (with grains etc.) can only meaningfully be discussed as part of such a cropping system.

The nature of grasslands differ enormously. By and large, most grasslands are located in places where the natural conditions are harsh. And a lot of the grasslands of the planet are not even grazed by domestic livestock. The alternative use of this grassland is not obvious. A recent assessment found that 2 billion hectares, i.e. less than 60% of the world’s grasslands, are grazed by domesticated livestock. Meanwhile there are certainly examples of very productive and very intensively used grasslands.

While this report has already been used by advocates as a support for that carbon sequestration in grassland is negligible, it is worth noting that the report clearly states that carbon sequestration can be significant, that grazing can increase sequestration and that under certain conditions grazed lands may sequester more carbon than forests.


Now to the more disturbing “facts” in the report.

The methane calculations don't consider the research of the Oxford colleague Myles Allen (2016)[i] which shows very clearly that the calculations for expressing methane in carbon dioxide equivalents hides a lot of information. For short-lived greenhouse gases the comparison with carbon dioxide based on a pulse of emissions gives a reasonably correct result only in a time span of a few decades. In the longer term (which this is all about), the more correct comparison is between a pulse of carbon dioxide and a constant rate in methane emissions. This means that “to achieve a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases in the very long term, net emissions of cumulative pollutants such as CO2 need to be reduced to zero, while emissions of SLCPs [of which methane is one, my comment] simply need to be stabilised.“ (quote from the research of Myles Allen and colleagues).  The authors do acknowledge this in the report, but they don’t seem to consider it in most parts of the report where they just use the extremely simplified ways of expressing methane in carbon equivalents.

This should be combined with

- that pastures are not expanding on the planet, as a matter of fact they have decreased last fifteen years (FAOSTAT).

- the number of grazing cattle have most likely also not increased. 

- the carbon sequestration In grasslands have most likely taken place over hundreds of years and even much longer. For example the prairies was converted from mineral gravel to thick fertile soils over a period of 10 000 years.  A lot of the stable carbon in grasslands is many thousand years old.[ii]

The analysis in the report of the balance between carbon sequestration and methane emissions is based on that there is a (ungrazed) grassland and now let us put a cow that didn't exist before on that grassland. Then we add methane emissions into the calculation and now we start to measure carbon sequestration. But the reality is that the cow was there before and its "pulse" of methane emissions already has happened; the same number of cows over a period of several decades don’t add methane to the atmosphere as equal amounts are released and broken down every year. And the carbon sequestration has been ongoing for hundreds of years.  Those things together makes the calculations in Grazed and confused -- just confused.   

In addition, the discussion on carbon sequestration is based on two other dubious and unsubstantiated assumptions.

A central argument in the report, and the basis for a most of the subsequent calculations, is that over time carbon sequestration will diminish and reach an equilibrium after “perhaps 30-70 years”. It does seems like a plausible assumption that sequestration will diminish over time, but the hard evidence of this is lacking (only one example is cited and this example has not even measured the actual carbon content), and even more so that the decline in the rate of sequestration would be so rapid as claimed. The report also contradicts itself by claiming that observed rates of carbon sequestration could be legacy effects of the lands much earlier conversion from arable to grassland. “Much earlier” must be a lot more than “perhaps 30-70 years”.

The report makes a big issue of the fact that carbon can be lost from the system if exposed to draught, fire or flooding. Of course it can, but this can happen regardless of if there are cows grazing or not. As a matter of fact, grazing animals can very often reduce the incidence of wildfires in dry landscapes. Many (also this report) suggest that grasslands can and should be converted to forests, but forests are certainly exposed to even more such events with fires and storm felling (75 million M3 of trees fell in the storm Gudrun in Sweden 2005). The fact that grasslands today have such great pool of carbon, more or less the same as forests[iii], shows that this objection carries little weight.

The calculations of carbon sequestration in the report are based on several weaknesses.

- Measurements of “carbon” are mostly only in the upper layer of soil, often the top 30 centimetres and sometimes as little as the top 10 cm. Most studies which have supplied the data for the report have been interested in changes in soil organic matter as a measure of soil fertility and not the potential for carbon sequestration. For that purpose the shallow measurements are quite OK. But the stable carbon fractions which can be stored over a long time are found deeper down. Admittedly the carbon content deeper down is lower, but it is a lot more stable. Grassland has a very high proportion of belowground biomass and deep roots, therefore the carbon stored by grasslands is likely to be distributed deeper than in arable land. According to Jackson et al 2017[iv], native grasslands allocate around 60 % of primary production to roots, croplands 10 % and forests 20 %.  

- Measuring carbon content in a specific layer of the soil and using that as a measure of carbon sequestration, omits what happens with the soil in total. Soil can grow “deeper”, by root activity and “higher” by accumulation of litter and dust on the top. This is how “soil” is made in the first place. One can very well sequester a lot of carbon in a soil while the carbon content 0-30 cm remains constant.  

- Measurements are mostly on “carbon” not differentiating between different forms of carbon the soil, while it is well known that there are only some fractions of carbon (humic acids) which are stable.

- The authors claim that carbon sequestration is most likely to take place in degraded soils, but the evidence for this is not at all conclusive. Many of the best soils in the world have been accumulating carbon for a very long term, and many of the poor soils have been poor for a very long time. From a practical farming perspective the experience is rather the opposite. A good soil can go on accumulating carbon for ages, while it is a lot harder, but not impossible, to increase soil organic matter in poor soils in poor climates. 

- Carbon sequestration is often, and by the authors, seen as having a direct relationship to nitrogen (N) availability. For instance, the data in figure 7 is calculated from N values and not from actual measurements of carbon. This assumption of some kind of simple relationship between N and C fluxes is unsubstantiated. For example, in analysing total N and C fluxes over 75 year Sochorova et al (2016) found that C content in soil in unfertilized hayfields was significantly higher than in plots where N fertilizer had been used.[v] In general, while N stimulate growth, it also stimulate above ground growth at the expense of below ground growth, and carbon below ground is much more likely to be stable in the long run. Increased N availability can also stimulate decomposition of carbon rich materials, something everybody making composts can easily witness.


The report deals very lightly with the topic of ruminant/grass interactions and gives the impression that the existence of ruminants in grasslands has little significance compared to non-grazed grasslands. The role of the manure falling on the field is mostly seen as a potential source of pollution. But this is a far too simplistic view of the very complex interactions in nature. For example, dung beetles and mycorrhiza play an important role, “In pastured livestock operations, particularly in the tropics, dung beetles help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and aid carbon sequestration in part by increasing grass growth, aerating soil, and delivering manure carbon to mineral surfaces (Slade et al. 2016)”[vi].

The figure 10 shows the theoretical relationships between stocking rates, methane emission and carbon sequestration. It shows that with a stocking rate of 0,5 cows long term net sequestration is possible (also with all the limitations discussed above), while it is impossible for higher stocking rates of 1 and 2 animals per hectare. If we divide the global grazing livestock (say of half a billion livestock units, which is probably a big exaggeration) with global grasslands of say 2.6 billion hectares, we get a stocking rate in the range of 0.2. Such low stocking rate would, with the authors own calculation, have the potential to sequester more carbon than the methane emissions. The authors include no such graph but instead shows the result for 0.5, 1 and 2 livestock units per hectare. But 2 livestock units per hectare is a density ten times higher than even a high estimate of average global grazing intensity.

The report claims that most extensive grazing systems are important sources of fossil fuel derived CO2 emissions. There are pastoralist systems that use no fossil fuel derived inputs whatsoever, apart from the odd veterinary medicine. Of course there are others which use fences and motorcycles. But it is hard to imagine that this could have any significance compared the massive amounts of fossil fuel used in agriculture for machinery, pumps, fertilizers, dryers etc.


We live in a world where the whole agriculture system is unsustainable, including the production of staple foods such as wheat and potatoes. By and large the whole system is driven by global markets and competition, massive use of chemical fertilizers, fossil fuels and pesticides, which in turn has created an enormous overproduction of agriculture crops. This unsustainable system is driving deforestation for palm oil, cattle grazing, cocoa, coffee or soybean cultivation. This unsustainable system is driving enormous waste, a rapid increase in chicken and pork consumption and obesity. This unsustainable system leads to massive emissions of greenhouse gases, massive pollution and loss of bio-diversity.

Grazing animals are not the big problem in the food system. As a matter of fact, grazing and other forms of traditional livestock management are endangered forms of agriculture in many parts of the world, simply because they can’t compete with industrial farming practices.  

A sustainable agriculture and food system will look different in different locations; after all, local adaptation is a key characteristic of any sustainable system. Therefore, the number of livestock and the ways they are integrated in the food system (and how much animals products that can be consumed) will differ enormously in the same way as it has done historically. Trying to conclude that pasturing is “bad” or that eating meat is “not sustainable” is pointless on a ´global level.

Both grasslands and forests can play an important role for carbon sequestration. Even arable land can sequester carbon, but currently they are mostly doing the opposite. There are big knowledge gaps about which methods work under which conditions, even if there are many pointers as to which processes are most efficient. There are also most likely trade-offs where carbon sequestration in the soil will be in conflict with carbon for use as food, paper, timber, feed. I wish the Food Climate Research Network would direct its energy into looking into how to improve carbon sequestration while enhancing bio-diversity without reducing the carbon available for use by human kind.  

[i] Allen MR, Fuglestvedt JS, Shine KP, Reisinger A, Pierrehumbert RT, Forster PM 2016:
New use of global warming potentials to compare cumulative and short-lived climate pollutants. Nature Climate Change  doi: 10.1038/nclimate2998

[iii] Harden, Jennifer W. et al. Networking our science to characterize the state, vulnerabilities, and management opportunities of soil organic matter, Glob Change Biol. 2017;1–14.

[iv] Jackson B. Jackson et al, The Ecology of Soil Carbon: Pools, Vulnerabilities, and Biotic and Abiotic Controls Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 2017. 48:419–45

[v] Sochorova et al,  Long-term agricultural management maximizing hay production can significantly reduce belowground C storage, Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 220 (2016) 104–114

[vi] Jackson B. Jackson et al, The Ecology of Soil Carbon: Pools, Vulnerabilities, and Biotic and Abiotic ControlsAnnu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 2017. 48:419–45