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Thursday:  July 31, 2014

When Will Chile's Post Office's Re-open? 

(PHOTO: Workers set up camp at Santiago's Rio Mapocho/Mason Bryan, The Santiago Times)Chile nears 1 month without mail service as postal worker protests continue. This week local branches of the 5 unions representing Correos de Chile voted on whether to continue their strike into a 2nd month, rejecting the union's offer. For a week the workers have set up camp on the banks of Santiago's Río Mapocho displaying banners outlining their demands; framing the issue as a division of the rich & the poor. The strike’s main slogan? “Si tocan a uno, nos tocan a todos,” it reads - if it affects 1 of us, it affects all of us. (Read more at The Santiago Times)

WHO convenes emergency talks on MERS virus

 

(PHOTO: Saudi men walk to the King Fahad hospital in the city of Hofuf, east of the capital Riyadh on June 16, 2013/Fayez Nureldine)The World Health Organization announced Friday it had convened emergency talks on the enigmatic, deadly MERS virus, which is striking hardest in Saudi Arabia. The move comes amid concern about the potential impact of October's Islamic hajj pilgrimage, when millions of people from around the globe will head to & from Saudi Arabia.  WHO health security chief Keiji Fukuda said the MERS meeting would take place Tuesday as a telephone conference & he  told reporters it was a "proactive move".  The meeting could decide whether to label MERS an international health emergency, he added.  The first recorded MERS death was in June 2012 in Saudi Arabia & the number of infections has ticked up, with almost 20 per month in April, May & June taking it to 79.  (Read more at Xinhua)

LINKS TO OTHER STORIES

                                

Dreams and nightmares - Chinese leaders have come to realize the country should become a great paladin of the free market & democracy & embrace them strongly, just as the West is rejecting them because it's realizing they're backfiring. This is the "Chinese Dream" - working better than the American dream.  Or is it just too fanciful?  By Francesco Sisci

Baby step towards democracy in Myanmar  - While the sweeping wins Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has projected in Sunday's by-elections haven't been confirmed, it is certain that the surging grassroots support on display has put Myanmar's military-backed ruling party on notice. By Brian McCartan

The South: Busy at the polls - South Korea's parliamentary polls will indicate how potent a national backlash is against President Lee Myung-bak's conservatism, perceived cronyism & pro-conglomerate policies, while offering insight into December's presidential vote. Desire for change in the macho milieu of politics in Seoul can be seen in a proliferation of female candidates.  By Aidan Foster-Carter  

Pakistan climbs 'wind' league - Pakistan is turning to wind power to help ease its desperate shortage of energy,& the country could soon be among the world's top 20 producers. Workers & farmers, their land taken for the turbine towers, may be the last to benefit.  By Zofeen Ebrahim

Turkey cuts Iran oil imports - Turkey is to slash its Iranian oil imports as it seeks exemptions from United States penalties linked to sanctions against Tehran. Less noticed, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the Iranian capital last week, signed deals aimed at doubling trade between the two countries.  By Robert M. Cutler

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Entries in agriculture (6)

Tuesday
Sep042012

Guyana, Suriname elected to key UN Committees for upcoming United Nations General Assembly (REPORT) 

(SOURCE: WorldAtlas) (September 4, 2012) - Set to make history, today both Guyana and Suriname were selected to chair two of the most important committees at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly meeting.

Guyana will serve as Chair of the Economic and Financial Committee (Second Committee) of the United Nations General Assembly for the 67th Session, the Foreign Affairs Ministry announced.

In a related development, Ambassador of Suriname to the UN, His Excellency Mr. Henry Mac Donald, was today also elected to chair the Third Committee, making this the first time that two Caribbean Community (CARICOM) representatives will chair Main Committees of the General Assembly during the same session.

The General Assembly body stated:

"The Assembly today elected Guyana's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador George Talbot, by acclamation to chair the Economic and Financial Committee (Second Committee).  Ambassador Talbot is the first Representative of a CARICOM Member State at the United Nations to hold the position."

The Second Committee, which deals with a wide range of development matters, will have a full agenda of issues to consider, among them:  macro-economic policy questions, sustainable development issues, including follow-up to the Rio+20 conference, challenges associated with poverty eradication, globalization, international migration and development, and the situation of countries in special circumstances such as Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries, and Small Island Developing States.

(Video: UN promo for upcoming 67th UNGA meeting, 2012)

Guyana’s priorities for the upcoming session will include a focus on: food security and agriculture, poverty eradication, climate change related issues, and the developmental impact of inequalities both within and across countries as well as on greater effectiveness and efficiency in the conduct of the work of the Committee.

During Guyana's tenure, the Committee will also undertake the first quadrennial comprehensive policy review of the UN's operational activities for development.  Ambassador Talbot was nominated and endorsed for the post by CARICOM and by the Group of the Latin American and Caribbean States (GRULAC) which include 33 countries, equaling 17% of all UN members.

Additionally, Italy, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bangladesh were also elected to the Bureau of the Committee.

Ambassador Talbot, who holds a Bachelor's degree in Modern Languages from the University of Guyana and a Master’s degree in International Relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, is a career diplomat with vast experience in multilateral affairs.

This year's gathering of the UN's world body of 193 nations will is set to convene in New York City on September 18, and will run for two weeks. According to earlier voting, Serbia's Vuk Jeremić was elected president of the United Nations General Assembly; and Jamaica was chosen as the first seat in the General Assembly Chamber meaning they will lead the chamber in order of speeches.

(This article first appeared in Demerara Waves.)

Friday
May182012

#DearG8: Summit must focus on food security (PERSPECTIVE) 

 

(Video: An explanation of food insecurity/British Red Cross)

By Shenggen Fan

As the G8 leaders meet in the United States this week, agriculture and food security must be at the forefront of the discussions, and ways to prevent price volatility, including halting grain-based biofuels production, establishing grain reserves for emergency use, eliminating food export bans and increasing the transparency of food and agricultural market information - should be addressed.

Most importantly, the G8 leaders should fulfill their commitments on global food security.

In 2009, G8 leaders made considerable financial commitments to global agriculture and food security, pledging to mobilize $22 billion over three years through a coordinated, comprehensive strategy focused on sustainable agriculture development. But as of May 2011, it was estimated that only 22 percent of these commitments had been disbursed.

In addition to the G8 leaders, the heads of states from Ethiopia, Ghana, Benin and Tanzania will take part in the summit discussions. The direct participation by these African leaders underscores the seriousness of the food security situation on the continent, where more than 220 million people are undernourished. Millions suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, a total of 100 million women and children are iron deficient, and 33 million children have Vitamin A deficiencies. The 2011 Global Hunger Index, a combined measure of the proportion of undernourishment, child malnutrition, and child mortality, shows that Sub-Saharan Africa is home to all the countries with "extremely alarming" scores and many of the countries with "alarming" scores.

In addition, it is projected that smallholder farmers, particularly those living in the highland areas and semi-arid savannahs in Sub-Saharan Africa, face increasing natural resource scarcity risks, including land degradation, which can cost as much as 10 percent of national GDP. Many parts of the region are extremely vulnerable to both man-made and natural shocks. Last year, more than 13 million people were affected by the drought in the Horn of Africa. This year more than 15 million people across seven countries in the Sahel region are already suffering from severe food insecurity or at risk.

It is crucial that developed countries take action to fight starvation in Africa. The cost of hunger is high, and the damage is irreversible.

For over three decades now, the International Food Policy Research Institute has been engaged in promoting the transformation of smallholder agriculture across Africa through evidence-based research and support to country-driven development initiatives. Priority areas include: building capacity for agricultural and food policy analysis and supporting country-led development strategies; improving nutrition along value chains to increase poor people's access to nutritious foods and increasing the availability, access, and intake of nutrient-rich, biofortified staple foods for the poor; resilience-enhancing schemes such as productive social safety nets, weather insurance index, and other risk management tools that help reduce vulnerability and enhance resilience to shocks and contribute to overall long-term growth and prosperity.

Technological innovations such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and biofortification are crucial to increasing agricultural productivity, building resilience to weather-related shocks, enhancing the nutritional value of food crops, and ensuring food safety. Biotechnology has great potential to improve crop yield, nutrition and resilience to weather, which will be even more frequent in the future due to climate change.

As the world's population increases, there is enormous pressure on the planet's ecosystems. The most reasonable solution to feeding the ever-growing population is sustainably producing more food on the existing land. Scaled-up investments in science and technology and support for improved country capacities are essential to accelerate progress and achieve development objectives. While the governments of developing countries have taken important steps to boost food security-related investments, support from the G8 countries remains critical.

- This commentary first appeared at XinhuaNet

RELATED:

New G8-African Alliance For Food Security And Nutrition Launched

Cash-strapped G8 looks to private sector in hunger fight

Private sector organizations commit to support the G8 food security agenda

Oxfam: G8 Food Security Alliance Answers Question Hungry People Have Not Asked

Thursday
May102012

‘Bitter Seeds’ documentary reveals tragic toll of GMOs in India (FILM REVIEW) 

(Video `Bitter Seeds' trailer)

By Claire Thompson

When home-front battles over GMO labeling, beekeeping, and the Farm Bill get heated, we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that Big Ag’s influence extends far beyond US borders. Micha Peled’s documentary Bitter Seeds is a stark reminder of that fact. The final film in Peled’s “globalization trilogy,” Bitter Seeds exposes the havoc Monsanto has wreaked on rural farming communities in India, and serves as a fierce rebuttal to the claim that genetically modified seeds can save the developing world.

The film follows a plucky 18-year-old girl named Manjusha, whose father was one of the quarter-million farmers who have committed suicide in India in the last 16 years. As Grist and others have reported, the motivations for these suicides follow a familiar pattern: Farmers become trapped in a cycle of debt trying to make a living growing Monsanto’s genetically engineered Bt cotton. They always live close to the edge, but one season’s ruined crop can dash hopes of ever paying back their loans, much less enabling their families to get ahead. Manjusha’s father, like many other suicide victims, killed himself by drinking the pesticide he spreads on his crops.

(PHOTO: GMO global protests/SchoolFood) Why is Monsanto seen as responsible for these farmers’ desperation? The company began selling Bt cotton in India in 2004, after a US challenge at the WTO forced India to adopt seed patenting, effectively allowing Monsanto to monopolize the market. Bt cotton seeds were - and still are - advertised heavily to illiterate Indian farmers, who have bought the company’s promises of high yields and the material wealth they bring. What the farmers didn’t know until it was too late is those seeds require an expensive regimen of pesticides, and must be fertilized and watered according to precise timetables. And since these farmers lack irrigation systems, and must instead depend on not-always-predictable rainfall, it’s incredibly difficult to control the success or failure of any year’s crops.

As farmers bought the Bt cotton in droves, the conventional seed they’d been using -  which needed only cow dung as fertilizer - disappeared in as little as one season. Now, in communities like Manjusha’s, it’s virtually impossible to buy anything but Monsanto’s seed.

Manjusha, the film’s protagonist, goes looking for answers after her father commits suicide.

To pay for seeds, pesticides, and fertilizer, farmers must take out loans, but most banks refuse to deal with them, so instead they turn to moneylenders, who charge exorbitant interest rates. Many farmers have nothing to offer as collateral besides their land. If a crop fails and they can’t pay back the loans, they lose everything.

The film offers a glimmer of hope in Manjusha, an aspiring journalist in a world where farmers’ daughters aren’t exactly encouraged to pursue independent careers. Scenes of her first earnest attempts at reporting are intimate and touching (“I had other questions to ask, but I forgot”), and her commitment to telling the story of her family’s and her community’s struggle always shines through her nervousness. This appealing heroine makes a story of global manipulation more personal, and thus more devastating.

(PHOTO: Nobel Prize recipient Vandana Shiva/DW)Piece by piece, Bitter Seeds lays out the bleak situation in India, using interviews with all players, from condescending seed sales reps and callous Monsanto execs, to activist Vandana Shiva, to farmers, their families, and village old-timers who remember when life as an Indian cotton farmer was not so bitter.

Proponents hail GMO crops as a triumph of science over nature that could provide a solution to world hunger. But this film reveals a society of farmers whose way of life, and very lives, are threatened. If GMOs have any benefits, it would be hard to convince me that they outweigh the human costs portrayed in Bitter Seeds.

-- This commentary originally appeared on GRIST.

Friday
May042012

`Raising Resistance' - telling, exposing and thought provoking
 (FILM REVIEW) 

(Raising Resistance, trailer)

By Grace Philip

Synapsis:  RAISING RESISTANCE is about the fight of the small farmers of Paraguay, South America against the aggressively expanding production of genetic soy in their country. It describes the global impact that the use of most modern genetic engineering in the 21st century has on people, on nature and on our worldwide food supply - a parable about the suppression of life, about the diversity of plants and cultures, and about how resistance arises both in people and in nature.

Over the last ten years, Paraguay has changed dramatically due to the world’s increasing demand for soya. Approximately 80 per cent of the world’s animal feed is made of the crop, while our food is rich in it. The market for soya is set to grow further still with the implementation of bio fuel policies.

(PHOTO: Soya Beans, raw/Wikipedia)The land in Paraguay offers the perfect environment for opportunists wanting to make money from this aggressive, growing industry – cheap property, fertile soil and legislation means there is little to stop soya farmers forever expanding. This is why Paraguay has become the fourth largest exporter of soya, meaning that the world has become dependent on Paraguay to supply the demand for soya, while the economy of the Republic relies on continued investment in the industry. The major problem is that the local communities are resisting, and as `Raising Resistance' shows, they are not prepared to give up.

By weaving us through panoramic views of Paraguay’s soya growing zone and including interviews and scenes of the soya production process, `Raising Resistance' provides a balanced profile of the soya industry and how the small-scale farmers (campesinos) are horribly disadvantaged. The aggressive growth in the soya industry affects every aspect of life – their human rights, environment and society are all damaged and, as `Raising Resistance' shows, they are under-prioritized, sidelined and dismissed.

As part of the farming process, the soya producers spray herbicide on their land once a year (and sometimes more) and shockingly, they are not required to dispose of the agrochemical containers carefully. Instead, they are left in streams where the campesinos bathe. One child interviewed in `Raising Resistance' provides us with his account of how the poison in his bathing water has left him blind - Silvio Peralta has been left scarred by the soya industry, and `Raising Resistance' shows that he is not the only one.

The campesinos are not accepting the costs imposed on them and are standing up against their subordination. 'Raising Resistance' shows how they protest by setting up camps in the soya fields to stall production. The campesinos are committed and prepared to face trouble with the police – a determination that becomes clear at the end of the film. One of the final scenes shows the broadcast of a march in Asuncion, the capital, in which militant-looking police beat protesters to the sound of gunfire, whistles and chaos.

(PHOTO: A recent `Day of Action' against GMO chemical companies in Paraguay/RainForest Action Network) While the desperation of the campesinos is represented, we are also left appreciating a note of irony. The soya producers spray an indiscriminate herbicide on their land to protect their crop from strangling weeds - the soya being safe because it has been genetically modified to become transgenic soya, and is therefore immune to the herbicide. The wind carries these herbicides onto neighboring farms - these crops are not genetically modified to be resistant, leaving farmer, Juana Gonzales, with ‘rotten peanuts’ for her crop.

Ironically, the weeds in the soya fields are adapting and growing resistant to the herbicides that are designed to kill them. The evolved weeds spread across the field in the wind, strangling the transgenic soya plant.

`Raising Resistance' is telling, exposing and thought provoking – the creators, Bettina Borgfeld and David Bernet, force us to appreciate the effect such a powerful industry can have, while portraying the ironic parallels between the resistance growing among the campsinos and the weeds that are becoming resistant to the soya farmer’s herbicides. The film portrays this resistance against the injustice brought on by unchecked growth, both in the fields and in an industrial sense, making the title apt and the message strong.

`Raising Resistance' has been shown at film festivals in various locations around the world - the UK premiere being at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival of March this year – and is available online.

-- This review originally appeared at the ECOLOGIST

Tuesday
Feb282012

Four Years to Doomsday: Checking In on The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (REPORT)

(VIDEO: IlluminatiOrderNWO/YOUTUBE)

By Ross Andersen

For its fourth birthday, Svalbard will receive seeds from war-torn Syria and celebrate years of success preserving our inheritance from Neolithic times.

The world's agricultural hard drive, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, turns four years old today.

(PHOTO: The Svalbard Seed Vault/Richard Wagner) The vault was a media sensation when it first opened in 2008, but it hasn't been in the news much since. I figured it was time to check in and see how these first four years have gone. An awesome technology by any measure, the vault is a steely compound tunneled five hundred feet into an icy mountain in the Norwegian Arctic, just 600 miles from the North Pole.

It is designed to last a thousand years, and to withstand a wide range of global disasters, including climate change, nuclear war, and even an asteroid strike. Over the past four years the vault has amassed some 740,000 seed samples and eventually it may house every crop seed ever used by a human being. 

The vault stores duplicates of the holdings of local seed banks all over the world, insuring against seed loss in the event of a local or global catastrophe. It functions like a safety deposit box; samples can be accessed by their depositing seed banks, but if researchers or plant breeders wish to access the seeds, they must request samples directly from those banks. 

(PHOTO: interestinEngineering.com) Security at the facility is state of the art and fully automated---there is no full-time staff and no single person has all the codes necessary for entrance. Nor is there much traffic inside, for new seeds are only accepted a few days a year. Today's fourth anniversary will bring several new seed shipments to the vault, including an ancient grain called amaranth, a favorite of the Aztecs and Incas, and a malting barley from the Pacific Northwest called "Klages," which is used in many craft beers.

Cary Fowler is the Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which maintains the vault in partnership with the Norwegian government and the Nordic Genetic Resources Center.

I talked to Cary about the vault's anniversary, its importance, and the future of agriculture.

When I think about the seed vault, the first thing that stands out to me is that it's really a technology of deep time, a way of coping with the kinds of events that happen on very broad time scales.

Q:  Do you see any other technologies or institutions outside the world of agriculture as playing a similar role as yours?

Fowler:  I haven't given it a lot of thought, so I guess I would say no. We tried to design this facility to last as far as we could see into the future. We didn't actually plan this to be what some in the media have called it, which is a doomsday vault. We're not people who run around with signs saying "repent the end is near." In fact we realized that unfortunately the vault was probably going to be used sooner rather than later. Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, there was a fire in the national gene bank in the Philippines and two years before that they experienced a flood, so you don't have to have some kind of global catastrophe for this thing to be useful. We're losing biodiversity right now, and it isn't necessarily because of some global catastrophe.

But of course I have to acknowledge that even though we weren't planning for doomsday, the facility is such that it would provide a lot of protection for many large catastrophes depending on where they occurred, but that wasn't the original impetus for the project.

(PHOTO: Cary Fowler, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust/MEMPHISFLYER) Q:  You first opened for seeds in 2008, which means you've been at this for four years now. What's the most surprising thing you've learned in that time?

Fowler:  Things have moved a lot faster than I expected. I think most people thought that the day we opened we would have every seed that we wanted or needed, or that it would come shortly thereafter, but those of us in the field know that that's not the way it happens. The seed banks themselves are typically not sitting on such large quantities of seeds that they can just immediately divide them and send them up to the vault in Norway. Even though it's for safety purposes, they still have to multiply the seeds and clean them and package them up and send them, and that takes time, and so it's been a nice surprise to see how quickly things are moving.

The other surprise is that we've had no bad surprises. When you plan something this  complicated you figure something is going to go wrong. During these past four years we've had seeds come from all over the world and it's been a gigantic coordination process to try to get seed boxes from all of these locations, a lot of which are in developing countries---Africa, Asia and Latin America---and to try to get them up to Oslo and then up to Svalbard on roughly the same day, so you don't have them sitting out on some tarmac in the hot sun. It's also surprising that we haven't lost a single box of seeds in transit. It's a miracle.

Q:  Where does the seed vault rank on the list of agricultural innovations, from the first crude stone sickles to the more sophisticated technologies of industrial farming?

(PHOTO: Inside the Svalbard Seed Vault stacks/WIRED) Fowler:  It's hard to say. What we hope to do is to provide robust and secure conservation for what's left of agricultural diversity. This is the inheritance of the Neolithic times and our time and everything in between, and so I guess I see it as a library, a library of life, that gives the history and culture of agriculture and protects it, but it's also a resource for the future. And so I'm not sure where it ranks, but I do think it's extremely important given the challenges that agriculture is facing right now, but it's not in and of itself a solution to those problems and it's not the only thing we should be doing.

Q:  As you see it what are the biggest challenges agriculture is facing right now?

Fowler:  Climate change is obviously the big one, but there are others; water availability is a big problem, so is nutrient availability, particularly phosphorous. And all of this is in the context of growing demand, both from increased population and from development pressures. As people get wealthier they tend to gravitate towards more meat-based diets, and it requires a lot more agricultural crop production to produce that meat. So we have all of those things happening and at the same time we don't have huge increases in agricultural investments, and so in a way we're really behind the game in terms of producing new crop varieties that are going to be adapted to these conditions. We need our crops to produce more on less land, with less water and less nutrients, and in a changing climate. Any one of those problems could be extremely daunting, but we're facing all of them at the same time. 

Q:  Are there scenarios you can envision that would render the earth's environments entirely inhospitable to seeds?

(PHOTO: Journalists waiting outside the Svalbard Seed Vault/The Atlantic) Fowler:  No. If the projections are correct it's certainly going to get more inhospitable, but not entirely inhospitable. The issues that I mentioned before---nutrient and water availability and climate change---are going to cause some fairly radical readjustments in agriculture if you look down the road any distance. And that's one of the things that differentiates us, the people involved in the seed vault from others, we do tend to have a long view of what's going to happen and we're trying to plan for that.

We expect that agriculture would even survive something like an asteroid strike; after all, plants survived the last one. What we're really trying to do up in Svalbard is preserve options. We're not saying that we have a crystal ball and that we know what's going to happen and we know what's needed, but we do know that the diversity we have represents an immense number of untapped options, and what we're trying to do is keep all of those options. I think it was Paul Ehrlich who said "the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts," and that's what we're trying to do.

Q:  Earlier you mentioned that these seeds represent an inheritance from Neolithic Age, and it got me thinking about a different sort of inheritance. At the seed vault do you also store the intellectual and cultural capital of agriculture?

Fowler:  In a sense we do. We don't have archives at the seed vault, but we do have a record of what is there, and even though in a sense the seed vault is a kind of safety backup for existing seed banks and their collections, you could also look at it the opposite way, which is to say that the seed banks that contribute to the seed vault are actually performing backup for the seed vault. There is redundancy in our system. Everything that's in Svalbard can be found somewhere else, and that somewhere else is the main manager of that particular portion of diversity, and those institutions maintain extensive databases that describe everything they know about the traits and characteristics of every single sample. We link back to those and in that sense we have a very good record.

(PHOTO: Tunnel leading into the Seed Vault/Seed Trust) Also, at the Global Crop Diversity Trust, we're working with some other partners to put together a large international database called Genesys which will essentially unite all of these seed banks around the world so that researchers or plant experts who, for instance, may want to take a look at the whole diversity of rice or wheat can go onto one website and see what's available and where it is and how to get samples of it and things like that. A lot of that information, characteristics and the history and so forth, is missing in some of the seed samples, but for the samples that do have it, it's quite valuable and we try to maintain it.

Q:  Why is it that Norway was chosen for this project? Is it just the geography or is there something particular about Scandinavian culture reflected in the seed vault?

Fowler:  I think it's both. There are a lot of reasons for that particular location. One of them was historical; the Nordic countries, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, were storing backup copies of some of their seeds in an abandoned mine shaft up there, so there was a precedent.

But apart from that, Norway is special. Historically there have been a number of controversies around these genetic resources, questions of ownership and access and so forth, and I think Norway was at the top of the list in terms of the countries that everyone in the room trusted. They didn't have a commercial seed industry so there was no sense of a conflict of interest or of a private interest being involved. Norway is just an unusually generous and collaborative country. When I headed the committee that undertook the feasibility study for the seed vault, and when we presented it to the government, their attitude was "if this is a valuable natural resource and Norway is the place to safeguard it, how can we say no?" And they jumped right in and built the facility at their cost.

(PHOTO: An artists rendering of the vault/interestinengineering.com) Q:  Some of your methods make it clear that terrorism is a special concern for the Seed Vault. I know that new seed shipments are screened with an airport x-ray scanner to make sure that none contain bombs. Is that because you see terrorism as just one of the many contingencies that could occur over the next thousand years, or do think the Vault might be a likely target for terrorism?

Fowler:  I don't think it's a likely target, but of course one can never know. No political or religious group is against what we're doing so I don't think it's a target in that sense. When the vault was being built we performed a security assessment in order to assess the likelihood of it being a target, or the likelihood of it being under any kind of threat, and the Norwegian government deemed the threat to be extremely low. But, at the same time we thought that if we're going to go to all the trouble to build this place in the middle of a mountain in the Arctic then we might as well go the whole distance, and we think that increases the trust and confidence in what we're doing, the fact that we have thought through all of these contingencies even though we don't think many of these things are ever going to happen.

I remember when we were constructing the facility and I was talking to the local Governor in Svalbard who's responsible for security on the island, and he said to me "Cary, if anyone so much as writes graffiti on this thing we'll know who it is." After all it's just a small village there, and really what's neat is that the villagers are remarkably proud and protective of the vault. They know it's there, and they're proud of it and that gives us an extra security blanket out there because the locals see everything that's going on---walking around up there I've had any number of people stop me and say "we're protecting that vault of yours."

Q:  I know that you have some interesting seed shipments coming in association with the anniversary. Are you particularly excited about any of them?

(MAP: Svalbard and Jan Mayen/MAPQUEST) Fowler:  Two of them, actually. There is a very important, very historic dwarfing wheat variety coming from the United States. The short stature of modern varieties of wheat is very important, because it allows the wheat to carry more grain on the top without falling over. That's a huge event in agricultural history that we'll be able to preserve.

The other one we haven't publicized too much, because we didn't want to draw too much attention to what is a very sensitive situation---we're getting a large shipment in from ICARDA, an international agricultural research center in Syria. It's not a Syrian government organization, it's an international center and it's completely independent from the government. Obviously, there are a lot of troubles in that country right now and that center, ICARDA, has been safety duplicating its material all along, as a good professional team will do, but the fact that this shipment is coming up right now in some ways points to the utility and value of the seed vault. One would not expect a seed bank, even in Syria, to be a target, but unfortunately  there is a recent precedent: seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan were destroyed or severely damaged over the course of the wars there, not because they were blown up or anything but because in the context of chaos and the breakdown of law and order, people have come in and looted them. So we're pretty happy to have that collection at the vault.

Q:  There seems to be a real cultural fascination with the vault. Have you had many interesting visitors in the four years it's been up and running?

Fowler:  Oh yeah. The surprising thing about the visitors is how many artists we've had come up and try to take a look at it. I get the sense that the seed vault must be the subject of many different art projects. Now it's not a tourist attraction; we don't just open it up for people all the time. In fact there's no permanent staff there; we only go up to put the seeds in a couple of times a year. We do have a lot of monitoring there with people in the local community going up to check on it daily, but we monitor the facility remotely and they aren't authorized to take anyone in.

(PHOTO: Svalbard Seed Vaault view/SSV) But, given enough advance notice and enough time to see who a person is and if there's a real interest in them seeing it, we do have visitors there. We've had a number of political leaders, including Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations. I think the most interesting tour, and it's one I gave myself, was to former President Jimmy Carter and a group that he brought along, which included Madeleine Albright and a few others. I have a lot of admiration for him after having done that tour. Carter is famous for being a peanut farmer in Georgia, but not a lot of people know that his farm was devoted not just to producing peanuts but for producing peanuts for seed, so he knew the seed business very well. As I was giving the tour people in his group were asking all of these questions, and he was answering half of them.

But as far as visitors go generally, when people go to the vault they seem to get very emotional; people feel something in there, and maybe it's because they're standing in the room with the greatest amount of biodiversity in the world, and the rich human history associated with that, people can feel that something important is happening. It has a big impact on people when they see it. 

----This piece originally appeared on The Atlantic 2.28.12

Tuesday
Aug162011

Malawi Makes, Africa Takes? (COMMENTARY)

Farmer Grace Malaitcha, from Zidyana, near Nkhotakota, Malawi, pictured in 2009 on her maize plot, which she cultivates using conservation agriculture (CA) practices (PHOTO CREDIT: CIMMYI)

by Simone D'Arbreu

In 2005, President Bingu Wu Mutharika of Malawi embarked on an innovative five-year solution to promote Malawi’s agriculture sector by increasing farm subsidies and allocating 10 percent of the national budget to the agriculture sector to help promote infrastructure and farm training. Despite concerns from the World Bank and the UN, President Mutharika promoted Malawi’s agriculture sector and decreased poverty from 52 percent to 40 percent while turning Malawi into a food basket not only for its people but also for export. Malawi produced 1.1 million more ton of maize than the country requires annually and now exports this excess to neighboring countries. Malawi was also able to provide over 200 metric tons of rice to Haiti during the disaster relief.

In 2004 Malawi experienced a famine that threatened one third of the country’s 13 million people -- half of whom live in poverty. Malawi found the solution to its own problem by ignoring pro-privatization advice from experts from the World Bank, the World Food Program, and other international aid organizations. The World Bank also advised Malawi’s farmers to shift to growing cash crops for export and to use the foreign exchange earnings to import food. Starting in 2004, Malawi launched the nationwide Agricultural Inputs Subsidy Program that has provided coupons to roughly half of Malawi’s small farmers to buy fertilizer and seed at a rate below-market prices. Because of its subsidy program, Malawi managed to put aside a supply of food in case of emergency while boosting crop yields and decreasing the cost of food.

Malawi showed the world that it too, like Europe and North America, can effectively subsidize agriculture. Joshua Kurlantzick, author of "The Malawi Model," says Malawi’s approach is worth imitating as a model for agricultural development because it has actually worked compared to the failed privatization models upheld by international aid economists trying to find a “universal response” for a diverse range of countries.

Malawi’s subsidy program has potential drawbacks. Farm subsidy programs have the potential to force farmers to leave the agriculture sector because of decreasing crop prices. On average, Sub-Saharan countries lose 10-15 percent of total agricultural incomes due to farm subsidies. Mutharika’s plan might just be focusing on the short-term impact rather than the long-term. Then there are the political criticisms of Mutharika's authoritarian tendencies. Finally, even if the Malawi model has worked for Malawi, can it work for the many diverse countries of Africa and in such a short time frame?

Exporting the Model

President Mutharika has now proposed a five-year plan to make Africa independent of foreign food assistance. This five-year plan, also known as the African Food Basket project, focuses participating African countries and all cooperating partners on improving agriculture and food security through subsidies, increased budgetary allocations, and affordable information and communications technology. In Africa, only one-third of arable land is cultivated. Mutharika believes that increasing the land cultivation and government spending in the agricultural sector can reduce hunger and poverty by half by the year 2015.

Mutharika’s plan also promotes social development along with infrastructure building. Investments in women, youth, education, and infrastructure development can help build the agriculture sector. In Africa, women provide over 70 percent of agriculture labor, particularly in the production of crops. Yet, women lack the access to information and markets, which can provide them with land, resources, fertilizers, farming technology, and financial support. Because of the influence of traditional cultural roles, men still make the majority of decisions. As a result, women, who do the majority of agriculture labor, do not have say in the decision making despite being more involved in the production.

The African Food Basket project plans to resolve this disparity by empowering women to have control over land, what crops to grow, what farming systems to follow and how to use the income that accrues from farming. This plan relies heavily on education. By educating women, especially in the rural areas, literacy rates will increase, which will directly improve women’s access to information and to markets that promote an increased production of crops. Even though Malawi did not initially use women empowerment during the earlier years of agriculture reform, research has shown that by developing farming skills in women will directly promote sustainable growth. Women generally control the agriculture market and contribute significantly to the informal sector, which is the most booming and vibrant economic sector. 

Young people, too, are a key to agricultural success. According to the African Food Basket project, youth will undergo structured non-formal training on model farms, with graduate students linked to micro-finance institutions through funds like the Youth Enterprise Development Fund (YEDF) in Malawi. YEDF attracts and facilitates investment in enterprises from market stalls to industrial parks beneficial to youth. An increase in farms will lead to an opening in the labor market, which will attract the young and the old to the agricultural sector while increasing the food supply.

Transportation is a third element in improving food security. Approximately 20 percent of crops are spoiled during transport. By improving methods of national and cross border transportation, like roads, railways, ports, harbors, and air transportation, African countries can ship food more effectively and avoid a significant loss in crops. Mutharika is strongly promoting the building of a greenbelt along the Nile River, the Niger River, Lake Chad and the Shebelli-Juba basin in northeast Africa to promote irrigation. Only 7 percent of arable land is irrigated compared to 29 percent in South America and 41 percent in Asia. A Grand Green Belt, connected throughout the continent, could raise the level of irrigation and, by extension, agricultural productivity.

A Feasible Plan?

Livestock farmer Jinny Lemson with her bean harvest in central Malawi (PHOTO CREDIT ILRI) Malawi’s success and Mutharika’s ambition to solve hunger and poverty show the world that Africa has the potential and ability to improve its own food situation. But not all African countries are alike. Some countries are in massive debt. Somalia’s deficit of $3 billion in 2001, for instance, made it difficult for the country to allocate additional funds for agricultural development and continued budget shortfalls continue to plague the country. But outside actors could help countries in deficit. Even Malawi received substantial financial assistance for its agricultural turnaround. Britain’s Department for International Development in Britain contributed $8 million to the subsidy program in 2006.

More challenging, perhaps, are the countries that are not motivated to increase government spending on agriculture. The government of Teodoro Obiang in Equatorial Guinea, for instance, is infamous for corruption and government mismanagement. It recently spent more than $830 million to construct a luxury complex for an upcoming African Union summit to be held outside the nation’s capital in hopes of attracting foreign investment. This sum could have gone a long way toward creating food security in the country.

Even for countries that are willing and able, the five-year timetable of the African Food Basket will be challenging. It took Malawi approximately a decade to establish food independence. Achieving even a measure of that success for the continent as a whole in five years is simply unrealistic.

Daniel Gustafson of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Liaison Office for North American say that the FAO supports the idea of the African Food Basket Project. A 10 percent increase in African countries’ national budget allocations to the agriculture sector is a wonderful idea and there is no reason why Africa would not be able to see advancement on a larger scale. Countries like Ghana, Nigeria, and Malawi have done exceptionally well at becoming independent and investing in food production.

The political situation in Malawi, meanwhile, has become considerably murkier. The government cracked down on anti-government protests in July, killing 19 protestors. The Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. government agency that provides countries that practice good governance with developmental assistance, has placed a hold on its five-year agreement to provided $350 million, among other things, to improve Malawi's agricultural productivity. Despite its agricultural success, Malawi continues to face poverty, illiteracy, and governance issues.

The African Food Basket, in other words, requires not only investments in the agricultural sector but good governance as well. If Malawi can achieve both these goals, then it can really show the way for the rest of the continent.  

- Simone D'Arbreu is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

- This article was originally published by Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.