FEATURED PHOTOS AND STORIES

Wednesday:  October 1, 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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Tuesday
Oct162012

High food prices top UN agenda on World Food Day (REPORT) 

(Video: World Food Programme)

Rome: Global governance of food security and a so-called new world food order were on the table at World Food Day talks held by the United Nations on Tuesday in the face of drought and high prices.

The United Nations focused the talks in Rome on lowering food prices which have been pushed up by droughts in Australia and the United States and a drop in harvests in Europe and the Black Sea region.

A meeting at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization chaired by French Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll brought together ministers from 20 countries including major producers and import-dependent developing countries.

“The key is to ensure global governance on food issues,” Le Foll said.  “Discussions were held on transparency in agricultural markets, the coordination of international actions, response to the global demand for food and the fight against the effects of volatility,” he added.

FAO chief Jose Graziano Da Silva said: “Food prices and volatility have increased in recent years. This is expected to continue in the medium-term.”

He said new mechanisms for stronger global governance of food security that are being set up were part of “a new world order that needs to emerge.”

(PHOTO: YemenFoxNet)But there were divisions among participants at the meeting, with the United States voicing strong opposition to the proposal of setting up strategic food reserves in particularly vulnerable countries, to be tapped when prices spike.

Graziano Da Silva said establishing reserves could be “an instrument to avoid poor countries paying the price” of price rises — although FAO’s official position is only in favor of setting up “small emergency stocks”.

“If you bolster the size of the stocks, you increase difficulties in terms of costs and management,” said FAO’s David Hallam, who is in charge of markets.

Millions go hungry

Around 870 million people in the world suffer from hunger, even though gains have been made in recent years when the United Nations estimated 1 billion people on the planet were not getting enough to eat. Still, the number is troubling.

FAO said the talks were aimed at boosting “the effectiveness of measures to address food price volatility and to reduce its impact on the most vulnerable.”

Global food prices rose by 1.4 per cent last month, after holding steady for two months, as cereals, meat and dairy prices climbed, the FAO said earlier.

The food import bill for poor countries is therefore estimated to rise by 3.7 percentage points from last year to $36.5 billion.

The FAO estimates that about 870 million people in the world - or one in eight humans - suffer from hunger, saying the figure is “unacceptably high” even though it has gone down from more than a billion in the early 1990s.

The UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, said that figure rises to 1.5 billion people if you include malnourishment which hampers the physical and psychological developments of children.

(PHOTO: Agriaim)When global food prices rise as they are doing now “it is not just that there are fewer meals but the meals are also less varied,” De Schutter said, adding: “This threat is not really seen as a priority but it should be.”

Graziano Da Silva said it was vital to help small farmers as a way of combating hunger and World Food Day events highlighted the crucial role played by farming cooperatives in the developing world.

He underlined the fact that the figure of the number of people suffering from hunger had stopped going down over the past five years.  “The numbers are increasing in Africa and the Middle East,” he said.

“We cannot tolerate this in a land of plenty where production is sufficient for everyone,” he said, adding that the funds for aid and agriculture budgets had gone down over the past three decades, stranding small farmers.  “They have had to fight to adapt,” he said.

Graziano Da Silva added that promises made by governments to eradicate hunger made when prices hit record highs in 2007 and 2008 had not been kept.

The non-governmental group Action Against Hunger said that “some 100 million more people have become under-nourished” due to the price rises of 2008.

In a message to mark World Food Day, Pope Benedict hailed cooperatives as “an expression of true subsidiarity” and urged the international community to come up with legal and financial mechanisms to strengthen them.

The pope also emphasized the “vital role” played by women in cooperatives.

- This article appeared in GulfNews.

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

Sunday
Jul242011

Horn of Africa Famine 'Immoral' - UN (REPORT - UPDATED)

A Somali woman arrives at a refugee camp with her infant. UNICEF has called the ongoing famine and drought as a children catastrophe. CREDIT: FAO(HN, - UPDATED July 25, 2011) - A senior UN official has described the ongoing famine in parts of Somalia as "immoral."

Cristina Amaral, the head of emergency operations in Africa for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), who has been raising the alarm on the spreading drought in the Horn of Africa since last November, is calling for long-term investment to help farmers resist droughts and international intervention to bring peace to war-torn Somalia.

"When we have a declaration of famine in the 21st century, we should consider this immoral," Amaral was quoted as saying in an interview.

She made the remarks on the eve of an emergency meeting today (Monday) in Rome to address the escalating crisis in the Horn of Africa and mobilize international support. FAO's 191 member countries, other UN agencies and international organizations, development banks and non-governmental organizations are attending.

Livestock carcasses mark turn of this drought from bad to deadly in Wajir, Kenya. Credit: Josette Sheeran/WFPAccess to war-torn Somalia is crucial to dealing with the crisis, Amaral said.  "Without access to south Somalia, we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg — those refugees arriving in Kenya and Ethiopia," Amaral said. "There are many more — we estimate 3.7 million — that need emergency assistance," she added.

Last week, the UN declared a famine in two parts of southern Somalia: the Bakool agropastoral livelihood zones and all areas of Lower Shabelle.

This morning (Monday), FAO chief, Jacques Diouf, said nothing short of "massive" action will save the millions of people at risk.

"The catastrophic situation demands massive and urgent international aid," he said.

The head of the World Food Programme (WFP), Josette Sheeran, who just visited three drought-affected countries, including Somalia, said the Rome-based agency is currently reaching about 1.5 million Somalis with emergency food assistance, including several hundred thousand in Mogadishu, the capital. However access is still difficult: WFP alone has lost 14 staff since 2008 in the war-torn country.

Sheeran said the long, dangerous trip out of the famine regions in southern Somalia is claiming many lives, particularly of children too young and weakened by malnutrition to survive the journey. She described the condition of children as "the worst I have ever seen."

She said: “Over half the women I talked to had to leave children to die, or had children die” during their journeys, Sheeran said.  “These are becoming roads of death.”

“In the Horn (of Africa), we could lose a generation. Those that survive could be affected deeply,” she said.

According to the FAO, famine is classified using a tool called the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification. according to three main criteria: severe lack of food access for large populations, acute malnutrition rates exceeding 30 percent of the population and Crude Death Rate exceeding 2 people per 10,000 population per day. Currently in some parts of Bakool and Lower Shabelle acute malnutrition tops 50 percent and death rates exceed six per 10,000 population per day.

A rare combination of conflict and insecurity, limited access for humanitarian organizations, successive harvest failures and a lack of food assistance have jeopardized an entire population in southern Somalia, FAO says. The country has suffered war on and off since 1991.Innovation on the front-lines of hunger: Somali NGO brings water to displaced people in donkey-cart. Credit: Josette Sheeran/WFP

The international community requires around $1 billion to deal with the crisis. The FAO is appealing for $120 million to respond to the drought in the Horn of Africa and provide agricultural emergency assistance.

The current crisis affects the whole Horn of Africa region including the northern part of Kenya and southern parts of Ethiopia, Djibouti and the Karamoja Region of Uganda where large areas are classified as in a state of humanitarian emergency.