Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Meaning more than value is key for our relation with nature

"The public justification for nature conservation currently rests on two pillars: hedonic (instrumental) values, and moral values. Yet, these representations appear to do little motivational work in practice; biodiversity continues to decline, and biodiversity policies face a wide implementation gap. In seven EU countries, we studied why people act for nature beyond professional obligations. We explore the motivations of 105 committed actors for nature in detail using life-history interviews, and trace these back to their childhood. Results show that the key concept for understanding committed action for nature is meaningfulness. People act for nature because nature is meaningful to them, connected to a life that makes sense and a difference in the world." 
 
 
 
I assume this is also key for understanding how indigenous people and people living in more traditional ways relate to nature. I believe this is the reason for why it is so important to bring children out in nature. The research also provides an additional perspective to why it is essential that people experience how to farm, cook and make food.

This is also the reason for why the eco-modernist way of relating to nature, by separating us from the rest of nature is harmful, also for nature itself, something I wrote about recently in How cleanliness and efficiency obscure our relation to nature

The researchers also concludes that the public discourse is completely dominated by rational, economic language and that "we need a public discourse that does not crowd out personal commitments but fosters them, makes them part of public life, and in doing so multiplies them. This will not be easy, and research into the languages used by committed actors in green citizen initiatives will be helpful to get a better insight into the words and languages that foster connectedness and commitment and unlock eudemonic values.
 
Hear, hear!


Riyan J.G. van den Born, B. Arts, J. Admiraal, A. Beringer, P. Knights, E. Molinario, K. Polajnar Horvat, C. Porras-Gomez, A. Smrekar, N. Soethe, J.L. Vivero-Pol, W. Ganzevoort, M. Bonaiuto, L. Knippenberg & W.T. De Groot (2018) The missing pillar: Eudemonic values in the justification of nature conservation, Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 61:5-6, 841-856, DOI: 10.1080/09640568.2017.1342612
 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

How cleanliness and efficiency obscure our relation to nature



Instead of retreating into urban eco-sanctuaries and buying industrial fare in hygienic and eco-friendly packaging, people need to grow, tend to animals, muck, dig, cook and bake. Only then can we expect people to become ecologically literate and realise that we are part of nature. 

After the discovery of ”germs” and their role in disease, humans initiated a war on bacteria for two centuries. It is just the last decades that we start to realize that we are totally dependent on them. There are so many of them inside our body and on our skin that one could almost claim that we are an agglomeration of germs. While we still know that there are the bad ones we should avoid we are also aware of that some dirt is beneficial. Somethings similar need to happen with efficiency.


The realization that there are fairly hard physical limits to our civilization, sometimes called Planetary Boundaries, has made efficient the buzzword of the day. Of course this is hardly nothing new, scarcity was the rule for most of human existence and efficient use of resources was part of the daily struggle. When fossil fuels were systematically put into our service followed a period of assumed limitless growth and limitless waste.

For a long period, efficiency was defined mainly in relation to the use of labour and the silver bullet of enterprise was to substitute nature resources with labour. Which meant more use of energy, more use of minerals, water, rocks and sand; more everything – but labour.  

Now, there are growing insights that nature resources are not as abundant and limitless as we believed and that there are also limits in the receiving end. We can’t just pump our waste into the natural pools be it the oceans or the atmosphere. It is therefore quite natural, and good, that we look for more efficient ways of using resources. But in my view the solutions are often misguided.

Production of algae
Farming is perhaps the best examples of this. Nowadays we are told that we should grow plants or fish indoor with artificial light to save water and land. And the most used argument in favour of a vegan lifestyle is that there I less need for land to grow plants than to grow animals. Lab meats are said to solve our craving for meat in a better way. Efficient use of land is also a major argument for the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and GMOs.

Most urban dwellers have no idea of how food is grown and how animals and plants interact in natural systems and they therefore easily buy into a narrative that goes like this:

“Humans are squeezing out other species, raze the rainforest to feed cattle or oil palm and cut down mangrove to grow shrimp. Agriculture destroys the water and the atmosphere, pesticides kills, it even destroys its own foundation, the soil. Most agriculture land is used to feed cattle which also are most harmful for the climate.”

While there is some merit in all this (with the exception for the blame on grazing cattle) the solution which has gained traction is to withdraw humanity into sustainable cities where the food is grown within city walls. In this way we can leave the rest of nature to all the other creatures in God’s garden.  

Overall, the alleged efficiency of most of these systems is an illusion because land and resources are mostly used to the same extent as earlier – but somewhere else. See example further down.

What worries me a lot more than the miscalculations, however, is the view of our relationship with nature that is reflected in this narrative. The idea that we can save both ourselves and nature by retracting from nature, limit our interaction with nature to watching Animal Planet and going whale watching or gorilla spotting on eco-touristic trips.

For sure, those creatures need all those nature reserves that we have created and we need to expand those in parts of the world, in particular to coastal areas. But, as with germs I am afraid we draw this too far. Many advocate artificial production systems in a similar way as sterility was promoted as an ideal for hygiene. But distancing people more from germs mostly make them much less able to strike a balanced view on the merits of washing their hands or throwing away leftovers.

In a similar way, I think that instead of withdrawing into urban eco-sanctuaries people need to immerse themselves in nature and dirt. They need to grow, tend to animals, muck, dig, cook and bake rather than buying industrial fare in hygienic eco-friendly packaging. Only then can we expect people to appreciate the real work, the resources needed, the interaction between humans, animals and plants. Only then can we expect people to become ecologically literate and realise that we are part of nature.

The saving resources myth

The most flagrant myth is that vertical indoor farms powered by LED lights saves space. When you point out that they require a lot of energy, you are told that that energy can come from solar panels, fully renewable and benign. We can leave the discussion about exactly how benign solar panels are when it comes to resources. We can also leave the discussion how to store solar energy over the seasons in the Northern parts of the globe, and just focus on the area used. Do indoor farms really save space?

Let’s envision a house with a vertical farm in the basement and let us put solar panels on top of the building. The roof is hit by sunlight with an intensity of some 1000 W per square meter. Our solar panels are very efficient and convert 15 % to electricity that will give us 150 W per square meter. The basement is powered by efficient LED lights. If we want to grow lettuce we will need about 250 W per square meter for 12 hours per day. Assuming very small losses in transmission and for the light we can grow 0.6 square meters of lettuce for each square meter of roof area. Each layer of plants in the vertical farm thus needs a much bigger area of solar panels to produce the electricity needed. And this is only growing lettuce. If we were to grow tomatoes, grain, potatoes or cabbage we would need much higher light intensity.

These calculations are in reality extremely optimistic. Of course, in the winter where I live there is almost no solar energy produced at all. To produce food in winter we would need solar panel areas perhaps 25 times as big as each layer in our indoor farm! So for a farm with 10 layers we would need 250 times the area somewhere else, outside of the sustainable city’s walls. 
These are back-of-the-envelope calculations, an art which seems long forgotten. You can read more here

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Food self-sufficiency – does it make sense?



Global food production increased with over 50% between 1986 and 2009. Meanwhile the trade in food for direct human consumption has increased from 15% of total production in 1986 to 23% in 2009, thus about one fourth of food production is traded. Half of the net exports 2010 were originating from just five countries.[i] After the food price hike in 2007-2008 and in a world that many feel is less secure, there is a renewed interest in food self-sufficiency.

Food self-sufficiency is, however, widely critiqued by economists as a misguided approach to food security that places political priorities ahead of economic efficiency. In the paper Food self-sufficiency: Making sense of it, and when it makes sense, in the journal Food Policy, Jennifer Clapp makes the case that policy choice on this issue is more than a choice between the extremes of relying solely on homegrown food and a fully open trade policy for foodstuffs. All countries rely on imports for at least some of their food consumption, including large food exporters that produce far more food than they consume. Even, North Korea, the country with policies that most approach autarky, still imports food and accepts international food assistance. Clapp recommends that we should instead realize that there is a continuum between the extremes and that there is not one correct policy response for all countries at all times. 
Before even discussing food self-sufficiency or not, one have to agree on what it means. There are several definitions and measurements. Some define self-sufficiency such that a country should produce a quantity (or calories) that equals or exceeds the consumption, but food is both imported and exported. Sweden is such a country. In the public debate we are told that half of the food consumed in Sweden is imported, which might be correct if measured in monetary value. Meanwhile, Sweden produces more or less the calories it needs, but it exports a big share of its grain harvest while it imports, soy, wine, vegetables and fruits (just to mention a few important streams). The value of food imports is considerably higher than the value of food exports, so from an economic perspective, Sweden is not at all food self-sufficient.

Self-sufficiency should not be mixed up with food security. Food self-sufficiency does not guarantee food security within a country. Food security as a concept does not distinguish whether that food is imported from abroad or grown domestically A rich country such as Japan is deemed food secure even if they import a lot and there are many food exporting countries that have large food insecure populations. Then there is the concept of food sovereignty that promotes the right of countries and communities to shape their own food policies. The food sovereignty movement calls for a greater reliance on domestically produced foods and is mostly critical to free trade, without ruling out trade as such.

Clapp identifies four arguments often voiced against food self-sufficiency from a food security perspective.

- The first argument is that drought or natural disasters can lead to severe shortfalls in production, leading to periodic episodes of hunger for countries that do not engage in food trade.
- The second argument is the economists’ belief that market intervention designed to insulate domestic markets from competition results in inefficiencies and in lower production and higher food prices, thereby harming long-term food security.
- Thirdly, if farmers are denied the possibility to export, they are deprived of income which could enhance their food security.
- Fourth, not all countries have the natural resource base that would allow them to supply all of their own food needs domestically, sustainably, for instance due to a shortage of water. The former Director General of the WTO, Pascal Lamy, for example, considers food trade to be an ‘‘environmental obligation”[ii]

Clapp, however, identifies that there are many valid reasons for a country to increase food self- sufficiency and decrease its dependency to international trade. In particular, she states that the following groups of countries might benefit from increasing its own production for domestic consumption:

- Poor countries with high levels of food insecurity, as they can minimize risk and costs associated with food price hikes.
- Countries with volatile export earnings, as sudden drops in major export commodities might result in inability to purchase foods.
- Countries that have a sufficient natural resource base to be self-sufficient. Clapp notes that there are some 60 countries in the world which might not be able to produce all the food they need, but most countries can.
- Countries where the main dietary staples are controlled by a handfull of global suppliers. She gives the example of rice which is a very important staple in many countries and only a few major exporters. Problems in one of the major exporters can lead to serious disruptions in supply and rapid price increases.
- Countries with a large population. When very populous nations buy big quantities in global markets the prices and supply will be strongly affected to the detriment both of those nations and all other countries importing the same commodity.
- Finally, Clapp mentions countries at risk of trade disruption because of war or other tensions. Most countries consider the ability to ensure food supplies in times of crisis to be a national security issue. It can be difficult to rapidly increase production when such crisis occur so countries may want to invest in their domestic agricultural capacity.

Clapp concludes that: 

”A more nuanced approach based on the real-world application of food self-sufficiency policies does not view the concept as an either/or proposition, but rather sees it in relative terms. Such an approach could potentially create room for a more productive policy dialogue on this issue at the international level."
In addition to the paper of Ms Clapp, I would add some pertinent drawbacks of international trade in foods.

Europe has let almost 100 million hectares of farm land revert to forest or lying idle, while European farmers buy soy from South America and European food industries buy palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia. Europe could produce those, or equivalent crops, within its own territory, but it is simply cheaper to import it.[iii] Thus, trade has diminished the European production and created a trade dependency. Only a quarter of the trade is with crops which could not be grown in the importing country.[iv] (read more here). The higher proportion of food that is globally traded, the bigger dependencies will be created when regions that could produce their own food cease to do that. More and more people will be structurally dependent on global trade; trade becomes its own justification.

The possibility to move food from areas of surplus to areas of shortage (food aid) should be a backup measure which will not be supplied by the market but by governments. The food security argument for global trade is therefore not valid.

The increasing distance between consumption and production makes it easier for market actors to externalize costs and more difficult to citizens and the political system to influence the way things are produced.[v]

Competition drives farmers in to more and more specialization and larger scale in order to cut costs. This leads to that farms go into mono-cropping and, ultimately, economies of scale will turn whole landscapes to one or a few lines of production/commodities. Which is perfectly in line with the theory of comparative advantage but a disaster fur nature and sustainability of the production system.

The carrot for trade is profit, but the much bigger driver is the stick of competition. On the level of the individual basic actor in the food system, the farmer, the main influence of trade is competition. It is competition that drives mechanization and structural transformation of the farm sector, it is competition which makes it necessary for farmers to externalize costs to the environment, to workers or to livestock. It seems to me that reducing competition would be an important objective for a food trade policy.

Trade without competition, anyone?



[i] D’Odorico, P., J. A. Carr, F. Laio, L. Ridolfi, and S. Vandoni (2014), Feeding humanity through global food trade, Earth’s Future, 2, 458–469
[ii] Pascal Lamy Speaks on the Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People. Speech at The Economist Conference ‘‘Feeding the World”, Geneva, February 8. [iii] Rundgren, G 2014, Global Eating Disorder. [iv] Thomas Kastner, Karl-Heinz Erb nd Helmut Haberl 2014 Rapid growth in agricultural trade: effects on global area efficiency and the role of management, Environ. Res. Lett. 9 (2014) [v] Clapp, J. Distant Agricultural Landscapes, Sustain Sci (2015) 10:305-316