Ian Fitzpatrick is an anthropologist, ethnobotanist and freelance researcher on food, farming, and environmental sustainability.

Teaser: 

Ian Fitzpatrick is an anthropologist, ethnobotanist and freelance researcher on food, farming, and environmental sustainability.

Something myth-ing? What they don’t tell us about African agriculture

Cocoa beans

In 2011, cocoa beans were Africa's top export. Francesco Veronesi under a Creative Commons Licence

One of the myths outlined in the report The Poor Are Getting Richer and Other Dangerous Delusions that Global Justice Now (previously WDM) released last week to coincide with the Davos World Economic Forum, is that Africa needs our help. A variation of this myth, that African agriculture needs help from rich Western countries, is constantly spun out by the media, investors, agribusiness companies and other transnationals. It sometimes feels like we’re being forced to participate in a modified version of the BBC Radio 4 show The Unbelievable Truth where panellists have to give a lecture full of lies while smuggling a handful of truths past the other players. In the case of the ‘Africa needs our help’ narrative, the game is played so that a handful of truths are used to smuggle some hugely significant lies past unsuspecting governments, NGOs and civil society.

Take the issue of agricultural production in Africa. The truths that the mainstream narrative pick out are that one in four people in Sub-Saharan Africa are undernourished, and that Africa has the lowest levels of agricultural productivity in the world, with extremely low levels of inputs like fertilizers, improved seeds and irrigation. It is also true that high population growth rates, high levels of poverty, poor infrastructure and low levels of investment have compounded the problem and made food difficult to access for millions of people.

But from these truths, the mainstream narrative moves to a false conclusion: that with the financial and technical help provided by rich countries and international development agencies – such as the $10 billion of ‘responsible private investments’ committed through the New Alliance to date – employment and food production will receive a huge boost and Africa will finally be able to feed itself.

It is certainly true that millions of people in Africa suffer from hunger and malnutrition, but nonetheless this narrative is partial and misleading. It is missing context, crucially failing to ask why this has happened in a continent that used to be self-sufficient in food in the 1960s. There are two main reasons for this, and they point to a very different solution to the problem of African poverty.

Firstly Africa’s agricultural production was designed during the colonial era to benefit rich countries in the North with their enormous appetite for raw materials and luxury (non-staple) foods. In 2011, the top five exports out of Africa (by value) were cocoa beans, coffee, cotton, rubber and tobacco; more useful for satisfying rich consumers than feeding poor communities.

Secondly, African countries have been forced to deregulate their trade by rich countries and financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. These institutions continue to lend money to developing countries while encouraging them to privatize public services and deregulate their economies. So, countries end up importing staple foods like wheat, palm oil, maize, sugar and soya-bean oil – crops largely produced by rich countries in the North, which can afford to heavily subsidize their agricultural sector. They have also opened up Africa to agribusiness companies that are rapidly increasing their control of resources such as land, water and labour.

Mainstream media, transnational corporations and government agencies tell us that Africa needs GM technology and chemical fertilizers to increase crop yields. What they don’t tell us is that the use of GM seeds actually leads to falling crop yields in the long term, and the increased use of pesticides and herbicides.

More and more evidence has been pouring in which shows that sustainable agriculture – or agroecology – can produce yields comparable to, and often larger than, industrial agriculture. But that’s not all. There are also huge positive knock-on effects of agroecology, such as increasing biodiversity, increasing income and employment opportunities, reducing the gender gap, improving health and nutrition, and helping to mitigate climate change.

Whether it’s by practising agroforestry, rice-duck farming or organic farming techniques, the evidence in support of agroecology is now indisputable. What we need is the political will to challenge the myth of corporate-controlled agriculture through reform of the aid system, opposition to unfair trade agreements, and by promoting the principles of agroecology and food sovereignty to help small-scale farmers regain control of Africa’s food system.

Ian Fitzpatrick

In February Global Justice Now will be publishing a report on agroecology in Africa outlining its benefits, the barriers preventing agroecology from being more widely adopted, and a set of policy proposals to overcome these barriers. globaljustice.org.uk

For Dangerous Delusions infographics visit the Global Justice Now website.

Time to slash Europe’s land footprint

woman walking in rice field
A rice field in Indonesia, the world’s most ‘land grabbed’ country Marc Veraart, under a CC Licence

Before Adam Smith penned The Wealth of Nations in 1776, a group of economists known as the Physiocrats laid the foundations for classical economic theory by describing land as the only source of wealth. Smith’s famous work, with its focus on the division of labour and the rise of the industrial economy, swept Physiocracy aside. Yet Physiocracy’s underlying principles – that life is ultimately dependent on the land’s ability to provide materials, absorb waste and renew itself – seem more pertinent than ever today.

Many of us are broadly aware of the damage our economic system is having on the planet and society. We know we are consuming too much and face an obesity epidemic, that we waste a huge proportion of our food, that our ecological footprint is well over the Earth’s biocapacity (it’s ability to provide all we need and absorb our waste), that global biodiversity has declined by 30 per cent since 1970, and, for what it’s worth, that we rank 41st in the Happy Planet Index. But such shocking figures slip in and out of our consciousness like an oil spill.

A combination of population growth, increased demand for food, biofuels, timber, minerals, financial speculation, and fracking has triggered a global rush for access to agricultural land. An estimated 82.3 million hectares has been bought up by foreign investors in developing countries over the last decade, equivalent to about 1.7 per cent of the world’s agricultural area. Meanwhile, the true scale of this land grabbing is unknown due to lack of transparency.

In Indonesia, the world’s most ‘land grabbed’ country, over 7.5 million hectares has been bought up, an astonishing 4 per cent of the country’s total land mass. Most of these land grabs are for export-oriented food and biofuel production, a large proportion of which are directly tied to the country of origin of the investors.

In other words, land grabbing by British businesses (equivalent to almost 3 million hectares) is intimately connected to resource overconsumption in Britain. Our insatiable need for food, energy and textiles, only a fraction of which can be satisfied within Britain, is encouraging businesses to buy land in developing countries.

Hidden Impacts, a new report, published by Friends of the Earth Europe, shows how Britain’s ‘land footprint’ – the amount of land needed to produce all the products and service we consume in a year – is almost twice as large its total land mass. Britain is effectively importing the equivalent of almost 27 million hectares of land (roughly the size of New Zealand’s total land area) to meet its resource consumption needs.

Europe imports the equivalent of around six times more agricultural land than it exports, relying on some 33 million hectares of land in China, 19 million hectares in Brazil and 12 million hectares in Argentina to supply its agricultural needs. It is estimated that if non-agricultural land such as forestry products were included, the European Union’s (EU) total land footprint would more than double to around 600 million hectares (roughly one and a half times larger than the EU’s total land area).

Such dependency on land resources means that the EU is in direct competition with the needs of local people on land elsewhere. As land resources become increasingly limited, competition for resources will no doubt add fuel to the flickering flames of conflict in politically or economically unstable countries which in turn can result in essential supply chains being disrupted.

A coalition of groups including Friends of the Earth, ActionAid, Birdlife, Biofuelwatch, Compassion in World Farming and European Environment Bureau, have united to call for European governments, and the EU as a whole, to reduce Europe’s land footprint.

Based on the findings of the Hidden Impacts report, Friends of the Earth and others are pushing for land footprints, together with carbon footprinting and others calculations, to be the basis for this measurement. They argue that in order for us to reduce the amount of land we depend on for our needs, we need to start measuring how much we use.

Clearer measures of resource use will lead to resource efficiency, reduced wastage, increased resource security and increased jobs in resource efficient industries. The power of land footprints is that they enable us to directly address the imbalance between our (pathological) consumption needs and the (ever decreasing) ability of the Earth to satisfy them.

Read more on this issue in New Internationalist’s May 2013 magazine which will be focused on land grabs.

Honeybees get a helping hand

Photo by James Diedrick under a CC Licence

It’s hard work being a honeybee. Varroa mites and other parasites feed on them and destroy hives; moths feed on wax and destroy honeycomb; bacterial diseases infect larva and damage colonies; fungal and viral diseases affect bees at various stages of their lifecycle; and agricultural pesticides and insecticides, picked up while foraging for pollen, go on to poison bees inside the colony. All of this, coupled with changes in weather patterns, habitat loss and the mysterious colony collapse disorder, has led to the widely reported crisis of the honeybee (see NI 425).

A collapse of the global bee population would be a major threat to food production. It is estimated that a third of everything we eat depends upon insect pollination – around 80 per cent of which is carried out by honeybees.

The plight of the honeybee has led to a resurgence of amateur beekeeping. Backed by research which shows that honeybees in urban areas often have access to more biodiversity than their rural peers, beehives have been set up in the back gardens and rooftops of cities around the world, and interest in beekeeping courses has soared.

The vast majority of beekeepers still use the same rectangular hive box developed by Lorenzo Langstroth in the mid-1800s, along with a set of practices, such as feeding sugar to bees and suppressing bee swarming, aimed at producing larger quantities of honey.

However, many of these practices are criticized by a growing movement of sustainable beekeepers. These ‘barefoot beekeepers’ have developed alternative approaches which emphasize small-scale, low-cost, chemical-free beekeeping with simple equipment and locally adapted bee populations. These bee-friendly methods result in lower honey harvests, but stronger and healthier bee populations. David Heaf, author of The Bee Friendly Beekeeper, explains that although there have been no scientifically conducted studies on natural beekeeping, he has not heard of any report of ‘so-called colony collapse disorder from any natural beekeepers’.

Much like organic farming, which reduces the need for artificial inputs, natural or sustainable beekeeping uses methods which respect the needs of both bees and the natural environment. This low input approach means that sustainable beekeeping can be widely taken up by both hobby beekeepers with spare roof space and small-scale entrepreneurs in developing countries. Such beekeepers can play a fundamental role in helping to reverse the decline in bee populations.

www.biobees.com

Ian Fitzpatrick is a freelance writer and budding beekeeper.

Nestléd in controversy

John Birdsall/Press Association Images

In August 1973, New Internationalist published an interview with leading child nutrition experts who talked of a ‘worrying swing away from breastfeeding’ in favour of commercial breast-milk substitutes. The ‘Baby Food Tragedy’ article, along with a 1974 War on Want report called ‘The Baby Killer’ and the 1975 documentary film Bottle Babies, drew widespread attention to the issue and led to an international campaign that continues today.

Henri Nestlé’s ‘Milk Food’ was invented around 1867 and was soon being exported to European colonies. In the 1930s Dr Cecily Williams described the alarming rise in illness and death amongst babies whose mothers had been persuaded not to breastfeed and by the 1960s Dr Derrick Jelliffe, an expert in infant nutrition, had coined the term ‘commerciogenic malnutrition’.

Launched on 4 July 1977, the US Nestlé Boycott demanded that Nestlé stop promoting infant formulas in developing countries. In 1979, the campaign went global.

That same year, the World Health Organization hosted a meeting to develop a code regulating the marketing of infant formula, and in 1981, 118 countries voted in favour of the International Code – with only the US voting against it. The Code’s aim was ‘to contribute to the provision of safe and adequate nutrition for infants, by the protection and promotion of breastfeeding, and by ensuring the proper use of breast-milk substitutes’. Today, it is national law in over 60 countries. In 1984 Nestlé agreed to abide by the Code and the boycott was called off, but it was relaunched in 1988 with boycott co-ordinators saying the agreement had not been honoured.

Nestlé is the market leader in sales of breast-milk substitutes and controls nearly 30 per cent of the babyfood market. The UK-based campaign Baby Milk Action is currently asking the public to email Nestlé over its latest global marketing strategy: the company has added logos to its packaging claiming its formula ‘protects’ babies and is promoting it to health workers, with claims that it reduces diarrhoea and is ‘the new ìGold Standardî in infant nutrition’. Yet the World Health Assembly reiterated in May 2010 that improved breastfeeding practices could save 1.5 million babies every year.

‘Nestlé is an aggressive company in all areas of its business,’ says Mike Brady from Baby Milk Action. ‘It promises shareholders five to six per cent growth per year and evaluates the profit from pushing its babymilk – in violation of the Code – against how this fuels the boycott, harms its image and loses it sales of other products. Boycotters have forced changes in Nestlé policies and practices – for example, compelling it to add warnings to labels in the appropriate language about the importance of breastfeeding – but more pressure is needed. International Nestlé-Free Week is an opportunity to spread the word. Our aim this year is to have Nestlé remove the claims that its formula ìprotectsî babies, which undermine the message that breastfeeding protects.’

www.babymilkaction.org

'I was in an art class'

The year was 2006. I remember it was the end of April because it happened after my mum’s birthday.

I was the last to be arrested, but my mum told me about her and my grandparents’ arrest. My grandmother had just arrived at my parents’ apartment. The immigration officers knocked on the door and my mum opened. There was a woman and a man outside. They both just burst into the apartment and told my mum to change. The woman even stayed in the room while my mum was changing. They took my mum, grandmother and my sister and went up to the fourth floor where my grandparents lived to take my grandfather, too.

Then they went to the school campus and arrested my brother. He was at lunch. The principal went into the cafeteria and told my brother to pick up his stuff and go with her. She didn’t tell him exactly what was happening because he was with his friends. Later he was told everything and arrested.

From there they went to my campus. I was at art class. They PA-ed my teacher to the principal’s office. After a few minutes my teacher came to the class and told me to pick up my stuff and go to the principal’s office. My friends were all surprised because it was very rare for me to be called up to the principal’s office.

In the office there was a lady with the secretary. I went into the office and the principal told me what had happened and she told me they had been talking to the lady for a while already but they couldn’t do anything. I had to leave. My principal was crying, my teacher was crying and I, of course, was crying.

We went to the detention centre. We all left in the same van: my grandparents, mum, sister, brother and myself. My dad wasn’t arrested. He was working far away, but they were looking for him.

At the detention centre, they interviewed us and told us what was going to happen. They said they needed to find my dad. They asked me if I wanted to ask anything and all I asked was: “Why us?”

At the time it was a really hard question. Why us? We’re a good family, hard-working, studying in school. After that we were separated. My grandfather went where the men were. My brother, my sister and I stayed in the same room with my mum. My grandmother was on the same floor but in a separate room.

I was scared. I didn’t eat breakfast. I didn’t eat lunch. I didn’t eat anything. I wasn’t hungry. My mum wouldn’t eat either; she was pretty broken down. My friends came to visit but it was a 30-minute visit per family.

That same day there were parent-teacher interviews at my school, so my dad went to the school where he talked to the principal. It was then that they contacted the organization No One Is Illegal.

A lawyer from that organization helped us with the case. He was great with us, guiding us through it and helping us with everything. Given what the lawyer told him, my dad decided to go to the immigration authorities so that everything would come to an end, or at least to work things out through lawyers so that maybe we could come to an agreement to stay longer, or stay in Canada as residents. But we were given until 1 July and then we would have to leave.

The lawyer who had followed our case before No One Is Illegal came to our aid had disappeared into thin air. One day we knew where he was, then the next we didn’t have any information about him. He had charged us a lot of fees for work that he had supposedly done. Afterwards we found out that he had never even filed the case with the immigration authorities.

We had a lot of support from certain politicians, and with the media and everyone involved they managed to get my brother, my sister and myself out of the detention centre. People were really helpful and concerned about what was happening.

There were two other Costa Rican girls from elementary school who were arrested that same day. It was different for them because the immigration people went into the school, called the kids into the office and from there they called their parents saying: “If you don’t report to school in 30 minutes, we’re taking your kids.”

The fact that we were given until 1 July, “Canada Day”, was another thing that the media talked about. They said: “How can a Canadian-born citizen be deported on Canada Day?” The Canadian-born was my younger sister. We were given about two months so that we could finish the school year.

Coming back to Costa Rica was difficult. We are Costa Rican born, but we’re Canadian raised. People here are different and we were raised in a different country, with a different culture and with different beliefs. My sister asks about Canada all the time, even though she was two when we left. She wants to go see the snow.

Gone to bidder 70

An environmental activist’s trial date has finally been set by a US district judge. Arrested after bidding – with no intention of paying – on federal oil and gas leases worth $1.8 million, Tim DeChristopher, a 28-year-old economics student, will face a three-day jury trial on 21 June. The two charges could land him in prison for a total of 10 years.

It all began on 19 December 2008, at a protest against an auction by the US Government’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of drilling rights for oil and gas development on parcels of national park land. Environmental groups had earlier filed lawsuits against the BLM to stop the auctioning of public land to environmentally destructive companies. This had helped to defer the auction of about 53,000 hectares of land, but left an estimated 93,000 hectares still for sale. Stephen Bloch of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance had described the auction as a ‘fire sale’ and ‘the Bush Administration’s last great gift to the oil and gas industry’.

On the day of the auction, Tim decided that simply holding up a sign in protest would not be enough. He felt that the auction was ‘a serious fraud against the American people and a threat to our future which deserved greater action’. Tim entered the auction by posing as a bidder, and managed to win 12 bids totaling 9,000 hectares of land – some going for as little as $5.55 a hectare. The auction was suspended midway and Tim was taken into police custody by federal agents who took a statement before releasing him.

On 17 January 2009 a US district court granted a temporary restraining order to prevent the BLM from auctioning the controversial leases, but it was not until the new Obama Administration took office that many of the leases were cancelled altogether. The judge responsible for this u-turn stated that: ‘We need to responsibly develop our oil and gas supplies to help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but we must do so in a thoughtful and balanced way that allows us to protect our signature landscapes and cultural resources for future generations.’

Despite this, in April 2009, Tim was formally indicted for violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and for giving ‘false statement’ by signing the bidder registration form. Almost a year later a judge has denied Tim the ability to use the ‘defence of necessity’ which argues that an action was necessary to prevent greater harm occurring. Tim’s legal team is hoping to make use of the fact that 24 bidders in the past five years have not been prosecuted for leases they won and failed to pay for, and the controversial nature of the original leases, many of which have since been cancelled.

Last February, four high-profile figures in the US – Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Terry Tempest Williams and James Hansen – published an open letter describing Tim’s creative protest as ‘a noble act, a profound gesture made on behalf of all of us and of the future’. They called for people to flood into Salt Lake City on the day of the trial, make their voices heard outside the courthouse and help to prevent ‘business as usual’. Echoing the actions of the environmental saboteurs in Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, Tim’s trial in June will be watched closely by both increasingly courageous environmentalists and ever more devious oil and gas companies.

You can follow the trial at www.bidder70.org