Entries tagged with “adaptation”.
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Sat 23 Nov 2013
There is a lot of hue and cry about the issue of loss and damage at the current Conference of the Parties (COP-19). For those unfamiliar with the topic, in a nutshell the loss and damage discussion is one of attributing particular events and their impacts on poorer countries to climate variability and change that has, to this point, been largely driven by activities in the wealthier countries. At a basic level, this question makes sense and is, in the end, inevitable. Those who have contributed the most (and by the most, I mean nearly all) to the anthropogenic component of climate change are not experiencing the same level of impact from that climate change – either because they see fewer extreme events, more attenuated long-term trends, or simply have substantially greater capacity to manage individual events and adapt to longer-term changes. This is fundamentally unfair. But it is also a development challenge.
The more I work in this field, and the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the future of development lies in creating the strong, stable foundations upon which individuals can innovate in locally-appropriate ways. These foundations are often tenuous in poorer countries, and the impacts of climate change and variability (mostly variability right now) certainly do not help. Most agrarian livelihoods systems I have worked with in sub-Saharan Africa are massively overbuilt to manage climate extremes (i.e. flood or drought) that, while infrequent, can be catastrophic. The result: in “good” or “normal” years, farmers are hedging away very significant portions of their agricultural production, through such decisions as the siting of farms, the choice of crops, or the choice of varieties. I’ve done a back-of-the-envelope calculation of this cost of hedging in the communities I’ve worked with in Ghana, and the range is between 6% and 22% of total agricultural production each year. That is, some of these farmers are losing 22% of their total production because they are unnecessarily siting their fields in places that will perform poorly in all but the most extreme (dry or wet) years. When you are living on the local equivalent of $1.25/day, this is a massive hit to one’s income, and without question a huge barrier to transformative local innovations. Finding ways to help minimize the cost of hedging, or the need for hedging, is critical to development in many parts of the Global South.
Therefore, a stream of finance attached to loss and damage could be a really big deal for those in the Global South, something perhaps as important as debt relief was to the MDRI countries. We need to sort out loss and damage. But NOT NOW.
Why not? Simply put, we don’t have the faintest idea what we are negotiating right now. The attribution of particular events to anthropogenic climate change and variability is inordinately difficult (it is somewhat easier for long-term trends, but this has its own problem – it takes decades to establish the trend). However, for loss and damage to work, we need this attribution, as it assigns responsibility for particular events and their costs to those who caused those events and costs. Also, we need means of measuring the actual costs of such events and trends – and we don’t have that locked down yet, either. This is both a technical and a political question: what can we measure, and how should we measure it is a technical question that remains unanswered. But what should we measure is a political question – just as certain economic stimuli have multiplier effects through an economy, disasters and long-term degradation have radiating “multipliers” through economies. Where do we stop counting the losses from an event or trend? We don’t have an answer to that, in part because we don’t yet have attribution, nor do we have the tools to measure costs even if we had attribution.
So, negotiating loss and damage now is a terrible idea. Rich countries could find themselves facing very large bills without the empirical evidence to justify the size of the bills or their responsibility for paying them – which will make such bills political nonstarters in rich countries. In short, this process has to deliver a bill that everyone agrees should be paid, and that the rich countries agree can be paid. At the same time, poorer countries need to be careful here – because we don’t have strong attribution or measurements of costs, there is a real risk that they could negotiate for too little – not enough to actually invest in the infrastructure and processes needed to ensure a strong foundation for local innovation. Either outcome would be a disaster. And these are the most likely outcomes of any negotiation conducted in blindly.
I’m glad loss and damage is on the table. I hope that more smart people start looking into it in their research and programs, and that we rapidly build an evidence base for attribution and costing. That, however, will take real investment by the richest countries (who can afford it), and that investment has not been forthcoming. If we should be negotiating for anything right now, it should be for funds to push the frontiers of our knowledge of attribution and costing so that we can get to the table with evidence as soon as humanly possible.
Mon 14 Oct 2013
I’ve been off the blog for a while now. OK, about two months, which is too long. The new semester, and a really large number of projects, has landed on me like an avalanche. I have a small lab that I now manage (the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab, HURDL), and while I am fortunate to have a bunch of really good students in that lab, I’ve never run a lab before (nor have I ever worked in someone else’s lab before). So figuring out how best to manage projects and personnel is a new challenge that eats up time. As I told my students, this is not a fully operational, efficient program that they have joined. It’s more like a car that has stalled, and every day I am pushing it along screaming “pop the clutch” at whoever is in the driver’s seat. To follow the metaphor, there are a lot of fits and starts right now, but things are coming together. Among them:
- A report on gender and adaptation in agrarian settings for USAID’s Office of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment and the Office of Global Climate Change which, through both literature review and empirical example, is a first step toward thinking about and implementing much more complex ideas about gender in project design and evaluation. This report will spawn several related journal articles. Watch this space for both activities and publications.
- A long-awaited report offering a detailed, if preliminary, assessment of the Mali Meteorological Service’s Agrometeorological Advisory Program. I started this project before I left USAID, but it is finally coming together. Again, a set of journal articles will come from this – our empirical basis alone is absurd (720 interviews, 144 focus groups, 36 villages covering most of Southern Mali). There are going to be a lot of interesting lessons for those interested in providing weather and climate information to farmers in this report…
- A white paper/refereed article laying out how to implement the Livelihoods as Governmentality (LAG) approach that I presented in this article earlier this year. It is one thing to present a reframing of livelihoods decision-making and the livelihoods approach, and another to make it implementable. One of my students and I piloted this approach over the summer in Senegal, and we are pulling it together for publication now. This will become the core of some trainings that we are likely to be doing in 2014 as we start building capacity in various countries to conduct detailed livelihoods analyses that might inform project design.
Then there is work in Zambia with the Red Cross on anticipatory humanitarian assistance (focused on hydrometeorological hazards), and a new project as part of a rather huge consortium looking at migration as an adaptation strategy in deltas in several parts of the world.
Did I mention that it’s a small lab – me and three other students working on all of this? Yeah, we’re a little short-staffed. I’m supposed to have a postdoc/research associate on board to help as well, but there have been some contract challenges that have prevented me from advertising the position. I hope to have that out some time in the next month or two, ideally to bring someone on for a year, extendable if the funding comes through. So if you are interested in gender and some combination of development, climate change adaptation, and disaster risk reduction/humanitarian assistance, and want to join a really outstanding group of people wired in to a lot of donors and partners, and working on projects that bring critical scholarship to the ground, let me know…
So that’s where I’ve been hiding. I am crawling out from under the rock, and hope to rejoin the blogosphere in a more active capacity in coming weeks. Thanks for your patience…
Tue 28 May 2013
I am in Tromsø, Norway for a workshop on gender and adaptation. The conversation has been very interesting, with a lot of different people bringing different ideas/concerns to the table. As you might imagine, a lot of it has been fodder for thought. But today a comment by Torjer Andreas Olsen, of the Centre for Sami Studies (SESAM) at the University of Tromsø, really stuck with me. In a conversation about business and innovation, he suggested that we face a challenge in the use of the term “innovation” when we talk about indigenous peoples such as the Sami. Because most business discussions of innovation are focused on technological change, they fail to see the development of new forms of knowledge and information as innovation. Therefore, while indigenous peoples (and I would extend this argument to most of the global poor) have the capacity to produce important information and knowledge about the world, this often does not come attached to technological change and therefore goes unacknowledged.
I think Torjer is dead right, and I think I can extend his argument a bit here. By failing to acknowledge the production of knowledge and information as itself an innovation, we basically allow ourselves to write off the global poor as lacking innovation. This enables our usual narratives of development – of a helpless global poor waiting for someone to come save them from their routinized ways. This is enhanced by climate change, as this narrative, run to its logical end, suggests that the global poor have pretty much nothing to contribute in their own efforts to adapt, and therefore require massive interventions from the “innovative north”.
This is a major problem for development, especially as major donor start embracing the idea of innovation. While at USAID, I looked up at the wrong time in a meeting and was tasked with identifying the Agency definition of innovation. My friend and colleague Mike Hanowski kindly threw himself under the bus and volunteered to help me. What followed was a fairly hilarious afternoon where Mike and I called various people in the Agency to obtain this definition. Every person we called passed us to another person, until we were passed back to the first person we had called. Really. So, no formal definition of innovation (maybe this has changed, but I doubt much of the Agency would know if even if it had).
Now, I am a fan of the Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) folks at USAID (a group that was started after the aforementioned story). They do promote interesting, relatively edgy ideas within the Agency. But look at what DIV does – every project amounts to the use of a technology to address a “big challenge” for development. In and of itself, this is fine…but in this focus, DIV (inadvertently) reinforces the trope of the helpless global poor, waiting for the “innovative north” (or ideally an “innovative southerner”, presented as an outlier who can lead the helpless poor in his/her country or community to a brighter future). Even as we find interesting solutions to development challenges, we are reinforcing the idea that such solutions are the Global North’s to give to those in the Global South. As long as this is the case, we will continue to miss the interesting opportunities to address these and other challenges that exist in the minds and practices of the global poor.
Wed 27 Mar 2013
While many paint the combined impact of climate change and global markets as something new, unpredictable, and unmanageable, they fail to grasp that most situations we are projected to see in the next few decades* have been experienced before in the form of previous extremes. Take, for example, the figure below:
This is a graph of the annual rainfall at one rain gauge in Ghana, near where I conducted the research that made up a big part of my book Delivering Development. The downward trend in rainfall is clear (and representative of the trend in this part of coastal West Africa that, according to my colleagues at IRI, continues to this day and is confirmed by satellite measurements). There are complex things happening inside these annual figures, including shifting timing of rainfall, but for the purposes of discussion here, it serves to make a point. While there is indeed a downward trend that continues to this day, there have already been several years where the total precipitation was much lower than the current average precipitation, or the likely annual precipitation for the next few decades.
This means is that the farmers in Dominase and Ponkrum, like so many around the world, have already seen the future – that is, they have already lived through at least one, if not several, seasons like those we expect to become the norm some decades in the future. These farmers survived those seasons, and learned from them, adjusting their expectations and strategies to account for the possibility of recurrence. These adjustments are likely over- or under-compensating for the likelihood of recurrence right now, as livelihoods strategies in these villages are largely reactive, reflecting last season’s events more than the average season. Further, the year-to-year hedging of farms against climate variability can be a costly practice – the likely “insurance premium” of lost production in a good year (due to planting in less-than-ideal, but precipitation-hedged situations like the tops and bottoms of hills – see my discussion in Chapter 4 of Delivering Development) probably eats up somewhere between 10% and 20% of total potential production. So these management strategies are not ideal. But they do reflect local capacities to adjust and account for extreme conditions, the extreme rainfall or drought events out along the tails of historical distributions whose unpredictable recurrences characterize a changing climate regime. Many of these farmers have little or no access to inputs, limited to no access to seasonal forecasts, and live in states without safety nets, yet they have repeatedly survived very difficult seasons. Clearly, their capacity for survival in an uncertain environment and economy is worthy of our respect.
This is not a phenomenon specific to Ghana. For example, the farmers in southern Mali with whom I (and many others) have been working to deliver better and more relevant climate services, such as seasonal and short-term forecasts. Most, if not all, of these farmers are using local indicators, such as the flowering of a particular tree or the emergence of a particular insect, as indicators that help them time various activities in their agricultural cycle. Many trust their local indicators more than the forecasts, perhaps with some reason – their indicators actually seem to work and the forecasts are not yet as accurate as anyone would like. But these indicators work under current climate regimes, and these regimes are changing. At some point, the tree will start to flower at a different, perhaps less appropriate time, or simply cease to flower. The insect will emerge at a different time, or perhaps be driven away by the emergence of new predators that can now move into the area. If the climate continues to change, local indicators will eventually fail.
I humbly suggest that instead of reengineering entire agroecological systems and their associated economies in the here and now (a fairly high risk enterprise), we should be building upon the capacities that already exist. For example, we can plan for the eventual failure of local indicators – we can study the indicators to understand under what conditions their behaviors will change, identify likely timeframes in which such changes are likely to occur, and create of new tools and sources of information that will be there for farmers when their current sources of information no longer work. We should be designing these tools and that information with the farmers, answering the questions they have (as opposed to the questions we want to ask). We should be building on local capacity, not succumbing to crisis narratives that suggest that these farmers have little capacity, either to manage their current environment or to change with the environment.
Farmers in the Global South have already fed the future. Perhaps they did not do it all that well, and all they managed was to stave off catastrophe. But given the absence of safety nets in most places in the Global South (see Theme 3, points 2 and 3), and the limited access so many farmers have to inputs and irrigation, avoiding catastrophe is an accomplishment that warrants study and serious consideration. We should build on that capacity, not blow it up.
The key principals and points:
1) A future under climate change is not a great unknown for farmers in the Global South. Most farmers have already managed several seasons as difficult, or more difficult, than what we project to be normal in the next few decades. Presuming these farmers are facing a catastrophe they cannot see coming fails to grasp the ways in which these past seasons inform contemporary planning.
2) Farmers have already developed strategies for addressing extreme seasons (i.e. drought or excessive precipitation). We should start with an understanding of what they already do, and why, before moving in with our interventions, lest we inadvertently undo otherwise functional safety nets.
3) Existing indigenous strategies for managing climate variability are not perfect. They tend to overestimate or underestimate actual risks of particular weather and climate states, tend to magnify the importance of the previous season (as opposed to historical averages, or current trends) when planning for the next season, and tend to be very costly in terms of lost potential agricultural productivity.
4) Current indigenous tools for making agricultural decisions, such as local indicators, are likely more robust than any climate product we can deliver right now. Just because this information comes in the form of a plant or animal behavior does not make it any less valid.
5) Current indigenous tools for making agricultural decisions will likely start to fail as climate regimes change. This fact presents an opportunity for development organizations to start working with farmers to identify useful information and ways of providing it such that this information is available when local indicators fail.
*Given the propagation of uncertainty in models of the global climate, global water availability, global land cover, the global economy, and global population (all of which, incidentally, impact one another), I don’t pay much attention to model results beyond about 2040, with 2030 being the really outer threshold of information that might usefully inform planning or our understanding of biophysical process. On the 100-year scale, we may as well be throwing darts at a wall as running models. I have no idea why we bother.
Sun 24 Mar 2013
In the world of food security and agricultural development there is a tendency to see market integration as a panacea for problems of hunger (see Theme 2, point 4). There is ample evidence that market integration creates opportunities for farmers by connecting them to the vast sums of money at play in the global food markets. But there is equally ample evidence pointing to the fact that markets are never just a solution – negotiating global markets from the position of a small producer presents significant challenges such as the management of commodity price instability (without meaningful market leverage). The academic side, and much of the implementation side, of the food security world already recognizes this issue, driven by (repeated) studies/experiences of food insecurity and famine showing that markets are nearly always the most important driver of this stress on the global poor. Planning for the benefits of market integration without serious thought about how to manage the potential downsides of markets is a recipe for disaster.
For example, simplifying one’s farm to focus on only a few key crops for which there is “comparative advantage”, and then using the proceeds to buy food, clothing, shelter and other necessities, works great when the market for those crops is strong. But what happens when the food you need to buy becomes more dear than the crops you are growing, for example through food price spikes or a shift in markets that leave one’s farm worth only a fraction of what is needed to feed and clothe one’s family? In the world’s poorest countries, where most food security and agricultural development work takes place, there is little capacity to provide safety nets to vulnerable citizens that might address such outcomes.
This is not a call for the provision of these safety nets (microinsurance is very interesting, but a long way from implementation). While useful and, in some contexts, critical, they are, in the end, band-aids for a larger conceptual problem – the framing of market engagement as a panacea for the problems of agricultural development and food security. Often, such programs also presume a lack of existing safety nets at the community or household level – a sort of “we can’t make things worse” mentality that marks much development thought. However, farmers in these countries have long operated without a state-level safety net. They hedge against all kinds of uncertainties, from the weather to markets. For example, one form of hedging I have seen in my own work is an emphasis on growing a mix of crops that can be sold or eaten, depending on market and weather conditions. If, in coastal Ghana, you are growing maize and cassava as your principal crops, you can sell both in years where the market is good, and you can eat both in years where the market turns on you. I have referred to opting out of markets as temporary deglobalization, where people opt in and out of markets as they gauge their risks and opportunities.
Forcing farmers away from this model, toward one that focuses on enhancing the economic efficiency of agricultural production by reducing the focus of a country and its farmers to a few crops that are their “comparative advantage”, and which they should sell to purchase the rest of their dietary needs, removes the option of turning away from markets and eating the crops in conditions of years where the markets are not favorable. This is even more true when some of that newly reduced crop mix only takes value from sale on global markets (i.e. cocoa) and/or which cannot be eaten (i.e. cotton). In short, such restructuring in the name of economic efficiency makes people dependent on the political structures of the state that govern the markets in which they participate. Most of our work takes place in the Global South, where the state rarely has the capacity to step in and help in times of crisis. It is pretty easy to do the math here: done wrong, food security programs principally framed around ideas of economic efficiency can enhance state capacity to extract value from farmers without a comparable improvement in the delivery of services or safety nets. This is an acceptable outcome if you are trying to compel people to submit to the state and the markets the state regulates, which is one way to boost measurable GDP and state revenue. However, it is really bad if you are actually trying to improve people’s food security.
The key points and principals here:
1) Are you addressing food insecurity or strengthening the state’s capacity to raise revenue and measure economic activity? These are not the same thing – generally, they are at odds with one another, as making agricultural practice easier to see and measure only serves to improve the capacity to extract revenues from farmers, without any guarantee of improved services proceeding from those revenues.
2) Economic efficiency is a desirable characteristic of agricultural livelihoods, but in the absence of safety nets cannot be the organizing principal of food security interventions. All else being equal, it is better when farmers use their scarce resources as efficiently as possible. However, the measurement of efficiency must take place within an assessment of the various risks currently managed through “inefficiencies” – as many such inefficiencies are in fact parts of robust, community- and household-level safety nets.
3) Food security programming should be able to identify the difference between an inefficiency and a critical part of a community- or household-level safety net. Regardless of the consequences for economic efficiency, programs and projects should not destabilize these until such time as new, reliable safety nets exist to take their place.
4) Opting out is OK. Farmers should be allowed to structure their farms such that they can opt out of markets if things turn bad, even if this limits their total incomes in “good”/optimal years. This should not be assessed in terms of the average outcome, when best and worst cases are averaged. Your best case is some more money. Your worst case is severe deprivation and death. These are not equal. Averting the latter is more important than achieving the former.
Tue 19 Mar 2013
If food insecurity is not about global food shortages, what is it? Following the a vast body of literature and experience addressing food insecurity, it is the outcome of a complex interplay between:
- locally-accessible food production
- local livelihoods options that might provide sufficient, reliable income or sources of food
- local social relations (which mobilize and create social divisions by gender, class, age, etc.) which shape access to both livelihoods opportunities and available food within communities and even households
- structures of governance and markets in which that production takes place
- global markets for food and other commodities that can impinge on local pricing.
Changes in the natural environment play into this mix in that they generally impinge upon locally-accessible production and on global markets. The experience of the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS-NET) provides evidence to this effect. FEWS-NET builds its forecasts through a consideration of all of these factors, and as it has gained resolution on things like local livelihoods activities and market pricing and functions, its predictive resolution has increased.
Despite decades of literature and body of experience to the contrary, it seems that the policy world, and indeed much development implementation, continues to view issues of hunger as the relatively straightforward outcome of production shortfalls that can be addressed through equally straightforward technical fixes ranging from changed farming techniques to new agricultural technologies such as GMOs. This view is frustrating, given its persistence in the face of roughly five decades of project failures and ephemeral results that evaporated at the end of “successful” projects. More nuanced work has started to think about issues of production in concert with the distribution function of markets. However, the bulk of policy and implementation along these lines couples the simplistic “technical fix” mentality of earlier work on food security with a sort of naïve market triumphalism that tends to focus on the possible benefits of market engagement with little mention or reasonable understanding of likely problematic outcomes. Put another way, most of this thinking can be reduced to:
increased agricultural production = increased economic productivity = increased food security and decreased poverty
The problem with this equation is that the connection between agricultural productivity and economic growth is pretty variable/shaky in most places, and the connection between economic growth and any specific development outcome is shaky/nonexistent pretty much everywhere unless there has been careful work done to make sure that new income is mobilized in a specific manner that addresses the challenge at hand. Most of the time, the food security via economic growth crowd has not done this last bit of legwork. In short, the mantra of “better technology and more markets” as currently manifest in policy circles is unlikely to advance the cause of food security and address global hunger any more effectively than prior interventions based on a version of the same mantra.
These issues present us with several key points about the problem we are trying to solve that should shape a general approach to food insecurity:
1) Because food insecurity is the outcome of the complex interplay of many factors, sectoral approaches are doomed to failure. At best, they will address a necessary but insufficient cause of the particular food insecurity issue at hand. However, in leaving other key causes unaddressed, these partial solutions nearly always succumb to problems in the unaddressed causes.
2) Production-led solutions will rarely, if ever, address enough significant causes of food insecurity to succeed. Simply put, while production is a necessary part of understanding food insecurity, it is insufficient for explaining the causes of particular food insecurity situations, or identifying appropriate solutions for those situations.
3) Increased production is not guaranteed to lead to economic growth. The crops at hand, who consumes them, the infrastructure for their transport, and national/global market conditions all shape this particular outcome, which can shift from season to season.
4) Economic growth does not solve things magically. Even if you can generate economic growth through increased agricultural production, this does not mean you will be addressing food insecurity. Programs must think carefully about where the proceeds from this new economic growth will go in the economy and society at hand, and if/how those pathways will result in greater opportunity for the food insecurity.
5) Embrace the fact complexity takes different forms in different places. In some places, markets will be a major cause of insecurity. In other places, environmental degradation might play this role. In still other places, failed governance will be the biggest issue driving food outcomes. In nearly all cases, though, all three of these factors will be present, and accompanied by others. Further, the form this insecurity takes will be highly variable within countries, provinces, districts, communities and even households, depending on the roles people play and the places in which they play them. There is no good template in which to fit a particular case of food insecurity, just a lot of causal factors that require extensive teasing out if one hopes to explain food outcomes and therefore address the problem.
Sun 17 Mar 2013
There is no global crisis of food production. There is no neo-Malthusian reality that we are just now crashing into. Every year, the Earth produces roughly twice the calories needed to feed every single human being. This is why food insecurity and famine are such horrible tragedies, and indeed stains on humanity. There is no unavoidable global shortage that creates famine and hunger.
Nor, in fact, are we likely to be looking at a global food shortage any time soon. There is no doubt that climate change will present challenges to our food system. The combination of changing temperatures and precipitation regimes will challenge existing crops in many parts of the world, and benefit the crops in other parts of the world. Further, the global markets for food have created substantially tighter interconnections between places than ever before, and there is less excess marketable supply than ever before. Note that there is less excess marketable supply – this is the amount of food we produce that actually reaches market, not the total amount of food grown and raised each year. As I will discuss later (point 4: The Future is Already Being Fed), these trends are not as terrifying as some might paint them. The simple point here is that these trends are manageable if we can get over the idea of food security as a question of production.
The idea of scarcity is perhaps the biggest challenge we face in addressing the world’s food needs. As long as food security policy and programs remain focused on solving scarcity, food security will remain focused on technical fixes for hunger: greater technology, greater inputs, greater efficiency. This narrative of scarcity has trumped any reasonable effort to measure actual levels of production in the world today, the return on greater technological inputs versus solving the causes of waste in existing systems, and even served as a useful foil through which to obscure the deepening unsustainability of the very agricultural systems that are often treated as a model, those here in the United States and Europe.
Simply put, it is cheaper and easier to enhance agricultural extension to improve local food storage techniques, build and maintain good roads, and improve electrical grids and other parts of the cold chain that preserves produce from farm to market than it is to completely reengineer an agricultural ecology. It makes far more sense to make basic infrastructural investments than it does to tether ever more farmers to inputs that require finite fossil fuel and mineral resources. It makes more sense to better train farmers in storing what they already produce in a manner that preserves more of the harvest than it does to invest billions in the modification of crops, especially when the bulk of genetic modification in agriculture these days is defensive – that is, guarding against future yield loss, not enhancing yields in the present.
This is not to say that there is no place for agricultural research or technology in achieving food security. There are places in the world where the state cannot provide services, or maintain the basic order necessary for functional markets, that would enable the movement of food are reasonable prices, and where the local environmental conditions are such that new and innovative technologies will be required to make them productive. Here, new agricultural technologies might have a place. But these places are few and far between, and so we should put the push for ever-more agricultural technology into its place as but one of many possible solutions for food insecurity. When a problem has many causes, it requires many solutions. But this requires understanding that the problem has many causes.
This points to several key points/principals:
1) When confronted with an instance of food insecurity, program/project/policy folks must suspend all assumptions about food supply until they can be validated by empirical evidence.
2) Any initial arguments that define the causes of a given situation as scarcity should be assessed in terms of understanding why this has come to be the explanation. Since scarcity is rarely the actual cause of food insecurity, explanations that hinge on scarcity alone are deeply suspect and should be critically evaluated before they are used to shape responses. For example, are there local misperceptions of markets at play, or are there those with vested interests in particular solutions trying to drive the response?
3) Any assessment of the food security of a population should account not only for the amount of food they can access and are entitled to, but also the total food produced both by that population and within that population’s market-shed. This allows for a greater understanding of the causes of food insecurity, such as waste caused by insufficient infrastructural quality or inappropriate on-farm practices, or the failure of the state to provide the necessary structures for functional markets. There is little point to bringing new genetically-modified crops to populations whose real problem is not production, but an inability to get their existing harvest to market.
Mon 1 Oct 2012
Friend/colleague/journalist Keith Kloor has a very interesting piece about the problematic character of some research that recently purported to cast doubt on the health safety of GMOs. The piece is an excellent effort to push back against crap science and crap evidence in the GMO debate, and stands as an interesting example of a general need to critically evaluate “scientific” claims about any number of issues from the harmful character of vaccines to those would deny anthropogenic climate change. However, the piece, in making a strenuous argument for evidence, overreaches in its conclusions and too-quickly dismisses the ecological issues associated with GMOs – exactly the opposite outcome Keith was seeking.
In general, I agree with Keith that the screaming about the health impacts of GMOs has greatly outstripped the evidence, but I take issue with the idea that GMOs have been largely proven safe all around. There remain significant questions about ecological impacts that have not attracted a solid scientific consensus (i.e the impact/cost/tradeoffs of gene flow between GMOs and the surrounding ecology, pest resistance, etc. –. The evidence base in this area is pretty small, and ecological systems are very diverse and complex, so the levels of uncertainty here are fairly epic (Pamela Ronald, whose article Keith references approvingly, even notes that the ecological impacts of GMOs are still an open issue). Honestly, Keith is too dismissive of this challenge:
Some of these folks are worried about new genes being introduced into plant and animal species. But humans have been selectively breeding plants and animals pretty much since we moved out of caves, manipulating their genes all the while. The process was just slower before biotechnology came along.
Modern genetic engineering does not have all that much to do with selective breeding. We are doing things in GMOs that could not occur in nature, which is rather different then applying what amounts to a modified evolutionary force (human selection of seeds to plant the next season or animals to breed) in the selection of traits within certain crops.
Another big concern that has been widely reported is the “rapid growth of tenacious super weeds” that now defy Monsanto’s trademark Roundup herbicide. That has led farmers to spray their fields with an increasing amount of the chemical weed-killer. Additionally, some research suggests that other pests are evolving a resistance to GMO crops. But these problems are not unique to genetic engineering. The history of agriculture is one of a never-ending battle between humans and pests.
Again, this is a bit off to one side. Yes, agriculture has always been about the radical simplification and management of ecosystems in a complex world, and therefore is indeed an endless battle for control between farmer and surrounding ecology. What this elides, though, is the fact that some of these GMOs have made things harder for us in the long run. It is hard to sell this as a good, or even neutral, outcome.
I raise this issue because of its implications for conversations about food security. People (some, but not all) working in food security tend to be a bit dismissive of the ecological concerns surrounding GMOs, loosely equating them with the human consumption concerns that have largely been disproven at this point. The response to insistent questioning about ecological impacts is the argument that, on balance, GMOs have done more good than harm and/or that GMOs are necessary for global food security going forward. The “more harm than good” argument seems to me based on evidence that is hardly complete, and often references a glowing, startlingly unproblematic vision of the Green Revolution. The “we need GMOs” is a crisis narrative of food production that drives current and future claims about their value. At the moment, much of the food security world is arguing that there is a dire food production crisis either coming or just arrived (embodied in the 2008 and 2011 food price spikes), and therefore we cannot wait for the burden of proof surrounding any issue associated with GMOs – we must act now! This crisis narrative effectively reduces anyone who raises objections to an all-out push for more production to some sort of monster who would rather let innocents starve than engage with the messiness of the real world. Basically, precaution is conflated with timidity, making those who show concern over the ecological impacts of GMOs into the food security equivalents of Neville Chamberlain.
This would perhaps be true…if, in fact there were a global production crisis and we needed GMOs to feed everyone. This is a much harder thing to sell, however, when one realizes that the world produces roughly twice as much food as needed to feed everyone adequately each year. There isn’t a global production crisis (though there are local production crises that arise from complex causes and need to be addressed in locally-specific ways). I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: globally, there is plenty of food. Now, and likely for quite some time. Period.
In the twitter conversations that emerged around Keith’s article, Robert Wilson, a mathematical ecologist, argued for “an adjusted precautionary principle where we consider the risks of inaction, as well as action.” This strikes me as both reasonable and necessary when discussing food security policy and programs these days. If we did this, though, I think we would find that the risks of inaction are, in fact, substantially smaller than the risks of action – this is not to say there are necessarily huge risks to action, just that when you are producing twice the calories needed already, the risk from doing nothing is, at least in the short term, pretty small. There is time to test more crops, more widely, under more conditions, before we arrive at any production crunch. There is no need to rush.
In short, we need to be sure that our efforts to push back against crap science (which is really what Keith was doing in his article) don’t overreach and inadvertently empower narratives and arguments that are not supported by the evidence – exactly the opposite outcome Keith sought.
Thu 9 Aug 2012
So, I’m finally back in academia, with some time to start writing again…and able to do so without worrying about who I might annoy. Ah, the joys of tenure. Actually, I shouldn’t make that sound so glib – the fact is, this is what tenure is for: it allows people like me to argue about important ideas and take politically challenging positions without having to worry about our incomes.
Quickly, then, I would like to make a point about a Nick Kristof column that appeared back in early July (but I had to shut up about at the time). In it, he talks about some USAID-funded food security programs that work “with local farmers to promote new crops and methods so that farmers don’t have to worry about starving in the first place.” Nothing wrong with that – this just makes good sense, really, given the dramatic economic and environmental changes that so many folks must address in their everyday lives and livelihoods. But then Kristof describes the program via an anecdote:
Jonas Kabudula is a local farmer whose corn crop completely failed, and he said that normally he and his family would now be starving. But, with the help of a U.S.A.I.D. program, he and other farmers also planted chilies, a nontraditional crop that doesn’t need much rain.
“Other crops wither, and the chilies survive,” Kabudula told me. What’s more, each bag of chilies is worth about five bags of corn, so he and other villagers have been able to sell the chilies and buy all the food they need.
“If it weren’t for the chilies,” said another farmer, Staford Phereni, “we would have no food.”
Er, this is not resilience. Sure, it is a different crop, with different biophysical needs than maize…but they still have to sell it to get the money to eat. Chilies are, in the end, seasoning – in economic terms, there is a lot of price elasticity in there, as people can just choose not to season their food if they run out of money. So, when all hell breaks loose in a country, such as when a drought compromises the principal food crop, a large percentage of the people who would buy chilies (other farmers) cannot do so, depressing the price and lowering the relative value of the chilies versus needed food items (the prices of which are likely rising as demand for alternatives to maize kick in) – in short, your cash crop buys you less food than it did under good conditions. You end up just as screwed as everyone else, albeit a few weeks later. Further, this all presumes that markets are functioning at anything like regular levels, which is a bad bet when things really get stressed. Basically, this program gets resilience wrong because it fails to capture all of the things that people are vulnerable to: it isn’t just the climate, it is also the market. Yes, you’ve addressed at least some of the climate vulnerability…by pushing people onto a precarious market likely to be upset by the very climate conditions you are trying to address in the first place. Oops. More income is not necessarily more resilience if that income can be destabilized by the very thing it was meant to help address.
Given all of this, it seems to me that Kristof has missed the really important issue here: if this actually worked for this farmer, we need to know why it worked given all that could go wrong, and build on that. However, he doesn’t dive into that, at least in part because I think he sees the project success in this case as an expected outcome, the sort of thing that “should happen” because more income means more resilience and therefore less vulnerability to climate change and food insecurity. And that has everything to do with how we in development talk and think about vulnerability and resilience. While Kristof does not use these terms, they are implicit in his thinking about how this program helped this farmer – the farmer had other options that allowed him to address a climate-related challenge by increasing his income (or at least holding the line in bad situations), making him more resilient/less vulnerable than his neighbors in the face of this challenge. However, this example in this column is an argument for why we should be worried about the ways in which development has started slinging these terms around of late. It is unclear to me how this program can really address vulnerability or build resilience because it seems that it does not really address some significant factors shaping local vulnerability, nor has it really identified why those who display resilience in the face of a climate/food security challenge really are having better outcomes.
Granted, I am griping about one part of the program (the others actually sound quite interesting and reasonable), but this part just trips my vulnerability/resilience switch…
It comes down to this bit of bad news: until we come to grips with how we understand and define vulnerability and resilience, and do a better job of grounding these concepts in place, we will continue to design programs and projects that just trade one risk/vulnerability for another. That’s no way to get our job done.
Mon 16 Apr 2012
Posted by Ed under Academia, Adaptation, Africa, Climate Change, Delivering Development, development, environment, globalization, Livelihoods, policy, research
I will be speaking about my book and research at the University of Florida on Friday as part of the Glen R. Anderson Visiting Lectureship. Poster here:
Hope to see folks there!