Edward B. Barbier

This summer, I completed with a graduate student of mine a major report for the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative, which is entitled Land Degradation, Less Favored Lands and the Rural Poor: A Spatial and Economic Analysis.  This study had three objectives:

  • To determine the spatial distribution of global rural populations on less favoured agricultural land and in less favoured agricultural areas from 2000 to 2010;
  • To determine the spatial distribution of global rural populations on degrading and improving agricultural land from 2000 to 2010;
  • To analyse how these spatial distributions affect poverty in developing countries.

The table below summarizes our findings over 2000 to 2010 for the distribution of rural populations on less favoured agricultural land (LFAL), in less favoured agricultural areas (LFAA), degrading agricultural land and improving agricultural land.

A sizable proportion of the rural population in developing countries is concentrated on LFAL, which are subject to low productivity and degradation due to steep slopes, poor soil quality or limited rainfall.   In 2000, over 1.3 billion rural people in developing countries, representing almost 36 per cent of the rural population, were located on these lands, and their numbers increased to 1.5 billion in 2010 (35% of the rural population).

Summary of spatial distribution of global rural population, 2000 to 2010

Developing countries are all low and middle-income economies with 2012 per capita income of US$12,615 or less (World Bank 2014).

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Sunita Narain

What should I eat now? Is there nothing that is safe?” This is what I am asked every time the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) does a study on toxins in food. It is a fact that our food is becoming unhealthy—not because of deliberate adulteration but because we are choosing to produce it in unsafe ways. India is at the beginning of industrial food production focused on efficiency and profits, and not on consumer safety, so it still has a choice to get it right. Why should the country not exercise its right to food that secures livelihoods and nutrition?

This time CSE has looked at antibiotics in chicken. Its laboratory bought 70 samples of chicken from different markets across the National Capital Region. It analysed each animal for six antibiotics: oxytetracycline, chlortetracycline and doxycycline (class tetracyclines);enrofloxacin and ciprofloxacin (class fluoroquinolones) and neomycin, an aminoglycoside. All these antibiotics are critical for humans. These are the same medicines we are prescribed when we are taken ill. These are life-saving drugs.

Today we know antibiotic resistance is almost a health pandemic. It is said that humans are headed towards a post-antibiotic era, where these miracle medicines will not work. No new class of antibiotics has been discovered for the past 20-odd years, so what we have is what we should keep for critical treatment. It is well known that resistance is growing because of our overexposure to antibiotics. A drug is no longer effective for treatment when microbes become resistant to it.

But we do not realise that our overexposure to antibiotics is also growing because of the food we eat.

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Sara Hsu

A farmer works the land in Southern Guangxi Province.  Source: Author.

China’s National Audit Office, under the direction of the cabinet, recently launched an audit to review funds from land sales obtained between 2008 and 2013. The audit is part of the government’s fight against corruption.  Local governments have often used land sales to increase revenue, at times under dubious circumstances, taking land from farmers at extremely low prices and selling the land to developers for a tidy profit.  The audit brings to light ongoing issues with local government revenue and rural land use rights.

Local governments receive a portion of value added and corporate taxes collected in their region, as well as all personal income and business taxes, but this has proven insufficient to generate a steady rate of GDP growth.  In order to combat this problem, officials have used rural residents’ land both as a source of revenue and as collateral in taking out loans via local government financing vehicles.  In this way, they have access to a major asset, unimproved land that promises to gain in value.

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Timothy A. Wise

Can land grabs by foreign investors in developing countries feed the hungry? So says the press release for a recent, and unfortunate, economic study. It comes just as civil society and government delegates gather in Rome this week to negotiate guidelines for “responsible agricultural investment” (RAI), and as President Obama welcomes African leaders to Washington for a summit on economic development in the region.

At stake in both capitals is whether the recent surge in large-scale acquisition of land in Africa and other developing regions needs to be better regulated to ensure that agricultural investment contributes to food security rather than eroding it by displacing small-scale farmers.

The recent study paper will not advance those discussions. It is the kind of study that gives economists a bad name. Economists like the one in the oft-told joke who, shipwrecked on a deserted island, offers his expertise to his stranded shipmates: “Assume we have a boat.”

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GDAE’s Timothy A. Wise and Jeronim Capaldo wrote the following op-ed for Al Jazeera, based on Wise’s work on the WTO’s conflict over food security (see articles hereherehere, and here) and Capaldo’s work on the exaggerated gains from trade facilitation (see articles here and here). See GDAE’s other work on the WTO.

Timothy A. Wise and Jeronim Capaldo

The General Council of the World Trade Organization begins a two-day meeting in Geneva today, with India and other developing countries threatening to block implementation of an agreement on trade facilitation. They would be justified in doing so.

The potential gains from that agreement, reached last December in Bali, Indonesia, are vastly overstated, and they flow primarily to rich countries and private sector traders. Meanwhile, the United States and other developed countries have made little effort to resolve the legitimate demands that developing country food security programs be exempted from archaic stipulations of the WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture (AoA).

India has threatened to withhold its support for trade facilitation, which would effectively scuttle the deal in the WTO’s consensus-based process. The Indian government charges that there has been no serious movement on a re-tabled proposal from the so-called G-33 group of developing countries (which now includes 46 nations) to renegotiate parts of the WTO’s agreement on agriculture so that government efforts to buy and distribute food to the poor are not treated as illegal agricultural subsidies.

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Sasha Breger Bush, Guest Blogger

Passed in 2012, Colorado’s Amendment 64 legalized the growing and selling of marijuana on a recreational basis. With medical marijuana, recreational marijuana has helped lift the people of Denver out of the Great Recession by inspiring leagues of new small businesses, creating new jobs, boosting commercial real estate values, and increasing state and local tax revenues. It turns out that the local marijuana market is fairly recession-proof and is actually bolstering local resilience to global crisis.

As I’ve watched this novelty unfold over the past couple of years (with considerable delight, to be frank) and witnessed first hand the important benefits for our local economy, I’ve grown increasingly concerned about the possibility of legalization on the federal level. While state level legalization has—for all of its still considerable problems—motivated economic recovery and helped working and middle class folks earn more income, get better jobs and enjoy more robust public services, federal legalization risks these benefits leaking out of local economies into the pockets of Big Business.

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Timothy A. Wise

Triple Crisis contributor Timothy A. Wise’s analysis of genetically modified maize and the risks to Mexico, the world’s cradle of maize cultivation, continues. His previous posts on the topic can be read here and here.

I had come to Mexico to investigate the ongoing controversy over the proposed introduction of genetically modified (GM) maize into the birthplace of this important global food crop. The issue was hot, because last October a Mexican judge had issued an injunction halting all experimental and commercial planting of GM maize, a process that was well underway in six northern states. The ruling cited the need for precaution to ensure that Mexico’s rich diversity of maize varieties were protected from inadvertent “gene flow” from GM maize.

As I began to investigate this most controversial of biotech initiatives, the question that most puzzled me was: why anyone in Mexico thinks the country needs anything that transgenic maize has to offer?

Monsanto, of course, had an answer to that question. I met with a group of company officials in their high-rise offices in Mexico City’s transnational business district of Santa Fe. They offered their “Vision 2020,” in which transgenic maize is key to feeding the world. In Mexico, they argued, it would help double Mexican maize production, reduce persistent rural poverty among the country’s small-scale maize farmers, restore the country’s self-sufficiency in its key food staple and reduce the negative environmental impacts of maize farming. They even used the term “food sovereignty” to describe their goal for Mexico. This was more than a vision; this was a hallucination.

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Sylvia Kay, Guest Blogger

Sylvia Kay is a researcher at Transnational Institute (TNI). She works on a wide range of issues including land grabbing, water, and agricultural investment.

South Africa’s most famous cleric, Desmond Tutu, in his inimitable style, once said, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” His blunt speaking has particular relevance to important negotiations taking place in Rome this week at the United Nations Committee on World Food Security, which will define principles for “responsible agricultural investment” (known as RAI) in the context of an ongoing food crisis and an unprecedented wave of land grabbing.

When it comes to agriculture and food, the elephant is agribusiness. Just three companies control 50% of the commercial seed market; only four companies control 75% of the global trade in grains and soya. Their argument is that the state’s role should be that of a neutral broker, encouraging primarily private investment in agriculture. They are willing to accept guidelines for “responsible investment,” but within a model that sees ever increasing levels of foreign direct investment and the deepening and further integration of national agricultural sectors into global commodity chains and markets. Theirs is essentially a business-as-usual approach which seeks to retrofit the RAI principles to existing agribusiness initiatives.

While such principles will boost the profits of some corporations, the evidence shows that it will not deliver on the CFS mandate to realise the right to adequate food for all. One in eight people in the world are currently undernourished—and this has worsened in recent years. In fact, reliance on global markets led to global food prices in 2007 rising to levels in real terms not witnessed since 1846. This has not only added between 130 to 150 million people to those living in extreme poverty, it has also fueled an unprecedented wave of land grabbing across the global South by governments seeking security from food riots and corporations seeking profits from perceived scarcity.

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Timothy A. Wise

Regular Triple Crisis contributor Timothy A. Wise leads the Globalization and Sustainable Development Program at the Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE), Tufts University. This is the second installment in his series on Mexico, genetically modified organisms, and genetic contamination of native maize. See his earlier post on the subject here.

To listen to the current debates over the controversial requests by Monsanto and other biotech giants to grow genetically modified (GM) maize in Mexico, you’d think the danger to the country’s rich biodiversity in maize was hypothetical. It is anything but.

Studies have found the presence of transgenes in native maize in nearly half of Mexico’s states. A study of maize diversity within the confines of Mexico’s sprawling capital city revealed transgenic maize in 70 percent of the samples from the area of Xochimilco and 49 percent of those from Tlalpan.

Mexico is the “center of origin” where maize was first domesticated from its wild ancestor, teocinte. The country is arguably the last place you’d want to risk the possibility that its wide array of native seeds might be undermined by what indigenous people have called “genetic pollution” from GM maize.

Last October, a judge issued an injunction putting a halt to all experimental and commercial planting until it can be proven that native maize varieties are not threatened by “gene flow” from GM maize. The precautionary measure comes more than a decade too late.

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Timothy A. Wise

On April 21, a Mexican judge dealt a blow to the efforts of agricultural behemoth Monsanto and other biotech companies to open the country to the commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) maize. The ruling upheld the injunction issued last October that put a halt to further testing or commercial planting of the crop, citing “the risk of imminent harm to the environment.”

In a fitting tribute to Mexican surrealism, Monsanto had accused the judge who upheld the injunction of failing to be “impartial.” I don’t know if the presiding judge smiled when he denied Monsanto’s complaint, but I did.

I had just arrived in Mexico to look at the GM controversy, and I could tell it was going to be quite a visit.

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