At a recent Crossroads Lecture, energy policy expert Daniel Kammen spoke about Energizing the Low-Carbon Future. His presentation is timely – climate change has been on the public mind as hurricane superstorm Sandy devastated New York, New Jersey, and beyond. Though we would all agree that energy is an essential part of our daily life, Americans spend more money on potato chips than on energy research and development. Dan has a deep nuanced understanding of where we are at, and where we need to go, to build a clean, sustainable energy future.
In the presentation below, Dr. Kammen explores innovations in, and barriers to, building renewable energy systems worldwide – from villages to large regional economies. He discusses tools already available, and others needed, to speed the transition to a sustainable planet. Daniel Kammen is Professor in the Energy and Resources Group (ERG), Professor of Public Policy in the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the founding Director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL). Kammen advises the World Bank, and the Presidents Committee on Science and Technology (PCAST), and is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Working Group III and the Special Report on Technology Transfer).
Dan spoke for about an hour, followed by a 35 minute question and answer session. The Q&A session has some great questions and discussion.
Dan talked about cleantech jobs, the economic benefits of transitioning to renewable energy, climate change, coal, natural gas, arctic sea ice loss, peak oil, the real cost of coal and other high-carbon sources of energy, solar energy, and energy storage. One of my favorite quotes:
When you are spending your funds buying fuels as a fraction of the cost of the technology, it’s a very different equation than when you are investing in people, training, new companies, and intellectual capital. [And so, for example] if you buy a gas turbine, 70 percent of the money that will go in to that, over its lifetime, is not going to be for human resources and hardware, it’s to buy fuel. If you buy renewable energy and energy efficiency, while we have a problem of needing to find ways to amortize up-front costs, you are investing in people, companies, and innovation.
Jobs created, per dollar invested, are consistently higher for cleantech jobs versus old fossil fuel based energy sources. Economist Robert Solow, in his Nobel prize winning work on the drivers of economic growth, demonstrated that about 75 to 80 percent of the growth in US output per worker was attributable to technical progress and innovation. Transitioning to renewable forms of energy will provide strong stimulus to our economy, while reducing public health and environmental costs associated with dirty coal and oil pollution.
After Dan Kammen finished overviewing climate change and energy issues, he highlighted several case studies that featured renewable energy and low-carbon energy production implementations for small (personal), medium (community) and large (national) installations. Watch the video above for more.
Veteran investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Hedrick Smith’s new work, Who Stole the American Dream?, steps back from the partisan fever of the 2012 campaign to explain how we got to where we are today — how America moved from an era of middle class prosperity and power, effective bipartisanship, and grass roots activism, to today’s polarized gridlock, unequal democracy and unequal economy that has unraveled the American Dream for millions of middle class families.
On 22 September 2012, Hedrick Smith spoke at the Parish Hall on Orcas Island, WA, as part of the Crossroads Lecture Series. He spoke for about an hour, followed by a 20 minute question and answer session. His book is available on Orcas Island at Darvill’s Bookstore (a signed copy), or at Amazon.
Smith’s book is brimming with fascinating insider stories that detail the shift from a strong middle class of the 50s and 60s, to the current weakened middle class, with an income inequality that is at an all time high, ranking with that of Rwanda and Uganda.
This didn’t happen by accident. Smith details how, beginning in the 1970s, corporate attorney Lewis Powell sparked a political rebellion with his call to arms for Corporate America. Like a gripping detective story, Smith follows the trail through to present day. Chronicling a stunning shift in power, away from a healthy growing middle-class, toward a superPACed, lobbyist fueled, special interest driven, well oiled, corporate powered, political machine.
Over the past decade, at the center of the machine, stands the “Gang of Six” and Washington insider Dirk Van Dongen, the man behind the curtain, who coordinates very effective lobbying of our elected officials. The Gang of Six include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Restaurant Association, and Van Dongen’s own National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.
Who Stole the American Dream? makes for compelling reading, and at the end, Smith offers up a grassroots-centered strategy for reclaiming the dream – restoring balance to our economy and re-building a healthy middle-class. The video above will give you a summary understanding of what is well detailed in his book.
Corporate lobbyists funnel billions of dollars to our elected officials each year. Recent studies show that for every dollar spent lobbying, business receives over $220 back in legislation that favors the business.
On climate change alone, 770 companies hired 2,340 lobbyists, up 300% in past 5 years. Most of those companies have vested interests in fossil fuels and benefit from delay of legislation that would speed the transition to clean energy.
In 2011 private companies and special interest groups spent $3.32 billion lobbying their agendas. In 2010, they spent even more at $3.54 billion. From 2008 to 2010, 30 Fortune 500 companies spent more money on lobbying than they did on taxes.
In an unusual moment of candor, here’s what Senator Dick Durbin had to say about corporate money and politicians:
“I think most Americans would be shocked, not surprised, but shocked if they knew how much time a United States Senator spends raising money. And how much time we spend talking about raising money, and thinking about raising money, and planning to raise money.” Dick Durbin, 30 March 2012
Depending on status and influence, our elected officials in Congress typically raise about $5,000 to $30,000 per day. They spend a good part of each day dialing for dollars, asking businesses to send them money. It is against the law (the Hatch Act) to make those calls from government property, so they walk to call centers located conveniently just a few minutes from Capitol Hill.
Money in Politics
For more on how corporations and our elected officials are joined at the hip, see the excellent series on Money in Politics. Here’s an excerpt from that series:
So senators and congressmen go across the street to private rooms in nongovernmental buildings, where they make call after call, asking people for money. In other words, most of our lawmakers are moonlighting as telemarketers.
“If you walked in there, you would say, ‘Boy, this is the about the worst looking, most abusive looking call center situation I’ve seen in my life,'” says Rep. Peter Defazio, a Democrat from Oregon. “These people don’t have any workspace, the other person is virtually touching them.”
There are stacks of names in front of each lawmaker. They go through the list, making calls and asking people for money.
The fundraising never stops, because everyone needs money to run for re-election. In the House, the candidate with more money wins in 9 out of 10 races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics. In the Senate, it’s 8 out of 10.
It’s not uncommon for congressmen to average three or four hours moonlighting as telemarketers. One lawmaker told me if it was the end of the quarter and he really needed to make his numbers, he’d be there all day long.
The fox is in the hen house. Time to get the big money out of politics. Surely our elected representatives don’t want to do this demeaning begging for money. Surely they would like to start making laws and setting public policy based on the merits of an issue. Right?
Subsidies and tax breaks are a tried and true way of helping a developing industry get up on its feet.
One of the strategies to accelerate a transition to cleaner greener renewable energy sources is to subsidize research development, and production of renewable energy sources, such as wind power, solar power, geothermal, etc.
Free market advocates often say that the emerging renewable energy industry should not be subsidized. What is not widely know though, is that subsidies for well established fossil fuels exceed renewables by almost six to one.
Research by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Environmental Law Institute reveals that the lion’s share of energy subsidies supported energy sources that emit high levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The study, which reviewed fossil fuel and energy subsidies for Fiscal Years 2002-2008, showed that the federal government spent about $70 billion on the fossil fuel industry, and about $12 billion on renewables. As the report points out:
Moreover, just a handful of tax breaks make up the largest portion of subsidies for fossil fuels, with the most significant of these, the Foreign Tax Credit, supporting the overseas production of oil. More than half of the subsidies for renewables are attributable to corn-based ethanol, the use of which, while decreasing American reliance on foreign oil, has generated concern about climate effects.These figures raise the question of whether scarce government funds might be better allocated to move the United States towards a low-carbon economy.
N.B. Carbon capture and storage is a developing technology that would allow coal-burning utilities to capture and store their carbon dioxide emissions. Although this technology does not make coal a renewable fuel, if successful it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to coal plants that do not use this technology. The production and use of corn ethanol can generate significant greenhouse gas emissions. Recognizing that the production and use of corn-based ethanol may generate significant greenhouse gas emissions, the data depict renewable subsidies both with and without ethanol subsidies.
Fossil fuel extraction is increasingly toxic (e.g. fracking poisons public water systems) and environmentally destructive (e.g. gulf oil “spill”). And fossil fuel production seems to be hitting a Peak Oil wall. As production lags demand, we should expect oil and gas prices to rise precipitously. Subsidizing oil keeps us addicted to it.
Three of the top 5 biggest companies in the world are oil companies (Exxon, BP, Royal Dutch Shell). Rather than subsidize Big Oil profits and foreign oil nations, we should be taxing fossil fuels to reduce their use. Tax what we want to reduce, and subsidize what we want to increase. Tax what harms us, and subsidize what helps us. Use the taxes to fund R&D and development of a world class alternative energy industry.
Obviously, that means politicians will need to resist the monied special interests of the Big Oil lobby.
The most read article at the NY Times online yesterday was The U.S.S. Prius by Thomas Friedman. The thrust of the article centers around two brutal facts – we are fighting wars for oil, and wars consume a lot of oil. One of the tidbits mentioned toward the end of the article is that a gallon of gas costs up to $400 per gallon by the time it reaches the front lines. Moving beyond the economics, getting fuel to the front lines also costs lives. The U.S. military loses one soldier for every 24 fuel convoys it runs in Afghanistan.
Friedman observes “at a time when a fraudulent, anti-science campaign funded largely by Big Oil and Big Coal has blocked Congress from passing any clean energy/climate bill” the U.S. Navy and Marines are spearheading a strategy to make the military much more energy efficient. Friedman adds, “Unlike the Congress, which can be bought off by Big Oil and Big Coal, it is not so easy to tell the Marines that they can’t buy the solar power that could save lives.”
Ray Mabus, the Secretary of the Navy, has crafted a strategy to shift from oil to alternative energy, including, solar and biofuels. On Earth Day this year, the Navy flew a F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet powered by a 50-50 blend of conventional jet fuel and camelina aviation biofuel made from pressed mustard seeds.
And while congress favors boondogles like corn ethanol, which uses almost as much energy producing it as it yields:
The Navy will use only “third generation” biofuels. That means no ethanol made from corn because it doesn’t have enough energy density. The Navy is only testing fuels like camelina and algae that do not compete with food, that have a total end-to-end carbon footprint cleaner than fossil fuels and that can be grown in ways that will ultimately be cheaper than fossil fuels.
Mabus has also set a goal for the Navy to use alternative energy sources to provide 50 percent of the energy for all its war-fighting ships, planes, vehicles and shore installations by 2020.
About 60% of the oil we consume is imported from foreign nations – many of those nations are petro-dictatorships. As we shift to alternative fuels and energy, we can reduce our dependance on foreign oil.
Though many people are familiar with solar energy, innovations in the field of biofuels are less well known. Most vehicles run on liquid fossil fuels – gasoline and diesel. Biofuels, such as camelina, provide a cleaner greener alternative to fossil fuels. Camelina Sativa is a member of the mustard family, a distant relative to canola. Camelina can grow on land unsuitable for most food crops, especially arid lands. It has yields that are roughly double that of soy. Camelina can be grown in a rotation with wheat crops. Farmers who have followed a wheat-fallow pattern can switch to a wheat-camelina-wheat pattern, and produce up to 100 gallons of camelina oil per acre, while growing up to 15 percent more wheat. And once the oil is pressed from the seed, the leftover “mash” can be used as nutritious livestock feed.
We consume more oil for transportation than anything else. Innovations in transportation fuels will have the most impact on global energy consumption and associated emissions of climate-changing CO2.
Oil production is peaking and will become increasingly expensive. It’s time to support our transition to a cleaner, greener alternative energy.
The U.S. spends more money on potato chips than energy research and development. To restore US scientific and technical leadership, Congress needs to stop bashing science and taking money from Big Oil, and start investing in our energy future.
Keywords: Masdar, zero carbon city, UAE, United Arab Emirates, peak oil, climate change, global warming, electric cars
Masdar, the world’s first zero-carbon city, pokes a sustainable finger in the eye of the oil-addicted west. Masdar, created by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government, is an ultra-sustainable city growing up in the desert outside of Abu Dhabi.
The irony of this:
The oil-addicted west consumes vast amounts of oil, funding the middle east’s oil-free sustainability initiatives.
As the US contines the love affair with gas guzzling SUVs, Masdar outlaws combustion-engine vehicles, replacing them with a network of electric cars.
As western powers bicker over global warming details, Masdar shades itself from the warming world with rooftop arrays of solar panels.
Partnering with MIT, Masdar’s Institute of Science and Technology offers programs in science and engineering with a focus on sustainability and renewable energy.
The Masdar development (detailed below) is designed by the British architect Norman Foster. In an interview with Time’s Bryan Walsh, you can feel Fosters frustration:
“It shows there is another side of this place that is totally unexpected. I think that as you read about some of this in Western newspapers, you’ll be shocked. Your immediate reaction would be, Why aren’t we doing this? We’re expanding London, and we’re just repeating the old model of sprawl. Why elsewhere is there not one experiment like this? Why not in the U.S., with its total dependence on oil? Why can’t this collective of European wisdom and power create a similar initiative? I have to ask myself, Why is this initiative, which in urban terms is the most progressive, radical thing happening anywhere, happening here?”
The oil-rich UAE isn’t doing this because they can – they are doing it because they must. Masdar is a model city for the hotter, less secure, walled-city future of a post-petroleum climate-changed world.
The UAE, with just 4.5 million people, but billions in oil money, has funded a rapidly expanding infrastructure. As a country matures, their social complexity increases, along with energy consumption. It takes vast energy to build and operate cities. And Dubai, at the heart of the UAE has become an icon of conspicuous consumption. They already consume more natural gas than they can produce, becoming a net importer to feed the need for electricity. Hence Masdar’s emphasis on solar power.
Using GapMinder’s Trendalyzer with energy consumption data from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2010 and income data from the IMF, we can see some powerful trends unfolding in the UAE. (N.B. data presented for 1965 through 2008, 1 year steps, circle area proportional to population size, per capita energy use in tonnes of oil equivalent).
Note UAE’s (the green line) stunning near vertical increase in per capita energy consumption over the past 20 years.
With an eye to their future, as global oil production peaks (middle east oil experts predict 2014), the UAE is laying the foundation for a sustainable future.
Highlights of In Arabian Desert, a Sustainable City Rises
Architecture critic Nicolai Ourousoff reports on Masdar in the New York Times:
Designed by Foster & Partners, a firm known for feats of technological wizardry, the city, called Masdar, would be a perfect square, nearly a mile on each side, raised on a 23-foot-high base to capture desert breezes. Beneath its labyrinth of pedestrian streets, a fleet of driverless electric cars would navigate silently through dimly lit tunnels.
Norman Foster, the firm’s principal partner, has blended high-tech design and ancient construction practices into an intriguing model for a sustainable community, in a country whose oil money allows it to build almost anything, even as pressure grows to prepare for the day the wells run dry. And he has worked in an alluring social vision, in which local tradition and the drive toward modernization are no longer in conflict — a vision that, at first glance, seems to brim with hope.
But his design also reflects the gated-community mentality that has been spreading like a cancer around the globe for decades. Its utopian purity, and its isolation from the life of the real city next door, are grounded in the belief — accepted by most people today, it seems — that the only way to create a truly harmonious community, green or otherwise, is to cut it off from the world at large.
He began with a meticulous study of old Arab settlements, including the ancient citadel of Aleppo in Syria and the mud-brick apartment towers of Shibam in Yemen, which date from the 16th century. “The point,” he said in an interview in New York, “was to go back and understand the fundamentals,” how these communities had been made livable in a region where the air can feel as hot as 150 degrees.Among the findings his office made was that settlements were often built on high ground, not only for defensive reasons but also to take advantage of the stronger winds. Some also used tall, hollow “wind towers” to funnel air down to street level. And the narrowness of the streets — which were almost always at an angle to the sun’s east-west trajectory, to maximize shade — accelerated airflow through the city.
With the help of environmental consultants, Mr. Foster’s team estimated that by combining such approaches, they could make Masdar feel as much as 70 degrees cooler. In so doing, they could more than halve the amount of electricity needed to run the city. Of the power that is used, 90 percent is expected to be solar, and the rest generated by incinerating waste (which produces far less carbon than piling it up in dumps). The city itself will be treated as a kind of continuing experiment, with researchers and engineers regularly analyzing its performance, fine-tuning as they go along.
But Mr. Foster’s most radical move was the way he dealt with one of the most vexing urban design challenges of the past century: what to do with the car. Not only did he close Masdar entirely to combustion-engine vehicles, he buried their replacement — his network of electric cars — underneath the city. Then, to further reinforce the purity of his vision, he located almost all of the heavy-duty service functions — a 54-acre photovoltaic field and incineration and water treatment plants — outside the city.
It’s only as people arrive at their destination that they will become aware of the degree to which everything has been engineered for high-function, low-consumption performance. The station’s elevators have been tucked discreetly out of sight to encourage use of a concrete staircase that corkscrews to the surface. And on reaching the streets — which were pretty breezy the day I visited — the only way to get around is on foot. (This is not only a matter of sustainability; Mr. Foster’s on-site partner, Austin Relton, told me that obesity has become a significant health issue in this part of the Arab world, largely because almost everyone drives to avoid the heat.)
The buildings that have gone up so far come in two contrasting styles. Laboratories devoted to developing new forms of sustainable energy and affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are housed in big concrete structures that are clad in pillowlike panels of ethylene-tetrafluoroethylene, a super-strong translucent plastic that has become fashionable in contemporary architecture circles for its sleek look and durability. Inside, big open floor slabs are designed for maximum flexibility.
The residential buildings, which for now will mostly house professors, students and their families, use a more traditional architectural vocabulary.
What Masdar really represents, in fact, is the crystallization of another global phenomenon: the growing division of the world into refined, high-end enclaves and vast formless ghettos where issues like sustainability have little immediate relevance.
The world’s farmers need a pay rise – or, come the mid-century, the other 8 billion of us may well find we do not have enough to eat.
True, this assertion flies in the face of half a century of agricultural economics orthodoxy – but please bear with me as I explain.
Globally and especially in developed countries, food has become too cheap. This is having a wide range of unfortunate – and potentially dangerous – effects which include:
Negative economic signals to farmers everywhere, telling them not to grow more food
Increasing degradation of the world’s agricultural resource base
A downturn in the global rate of agricultural productivity gains
An ‘investment gap’ which is militating against the adoption by farmers of modern sustainable farming and other new technologies
A deterrent to external investment because agriculture is less profitable than alternatives.
The decline and extinction of many local food-producing industries worldwide
A disincentive to young people (and young scientists) to work in agriculture.
Loss of agricultural skills, rural community dislocation and increased rural and urban poverty affecting tens of millions
Reduced national and international investment in agricultural research and extension
Lack of investment in water, roads, storage and other essential rural infrastructure
The waste of up to half of the food which is now produced
A pandemic of obesity and degenerative disease that sickens and kills up to half of consumers of the ‘modern diet’, resulting in
Soaring health costs causing the largest budget item blowout in all western democracies
The failure of many developing countries to lay the essential foundation for economic development – a secure food and agriculture base – imposing direct and indirect costs on the rest of the world through poverty, war and refugeeism.
From this list it can be seen that low farm incomes have far wider consequences for humanity in general than is commonly supposed.
Indeed, in a context in which all of the basic resources for food production are likely to become much scarcer, it may be argued that, indirectly, they imperil every one of us.
A Market Failure
This aspect of future global food security is primarily about a market failure.
At its ‘How to Feed the World’ meeting in October 2009 the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation stated that investment of the order of $83 billion a year was needed in the developing world alone, to meet the requirement for a 70 per cent increase in food production by 2050. (source: ii) However, almost in the same breath, it noted “Farmers and prospective farmers will invest in agriculture only if their investments are profitable.” (My emphasis).
The logic is unassailable. Today most of the world’s farmers have little incentive to invest in agriculture because the returns are so low. This applies as much to farmers in developed countries , as it does to smallholders in Asia or Africa.
Reasons for the low returns are not hard to find: farmers are weak sellers, trapped between muscular globalised food firms who drive down the price of their produce, and muscular industrial firms who drive up the cost of their inputs. This pincer movement not only discourages ‘developed’ agriculture but also prevents undeveloped agriculture from developing.
Nothing new here, you may say. So what has changed? The growing imbalance in power between farmers and those who dominate the food supply chain is what has changed.
Two decades ago most farm produce was largely sourced from local farmers by local buyers for local markets and consumers, as it was through all of history. In the 21st century there has been a massive concentration of market power in the hands of a tiny number of food corporations and supermarkets sourcing food worldwide. These are – quite naturally – doing all they can to reduce their input costs (farm prices) as they compete with one another. This is not a rant about globalisation: it’s a simple observation about one of the facts of global economic life.
The power of the farmer to resist downward price pressure has not increased. Indeed it has weakened, as the average producer now competes against some struggling farmer in a far away country, rich or poor, who is also simply trying to survive by selling at the lowest price.
The power of the global input suppliers – of fuel, machinery, fertilizer, chemicals, seeds and other farm requirements, has also grown as they concentrate and globalise. This makes it easier for them to raise the cost of their products than it is for farmers to obtain more for their wheat, rice, livestock or vegetables or to withstand input price hikes.
As a consequence of this growing market failure, the economic signal now reaching most of the world’s farmers from the market is “don’t grow more food”.
Its effect is apparent in the fact that world food output is now increasing at only about half the rate necessary to meet rising global demand, and that yield gains for major crops have stagnated.
While some will argue such cost/price pressures make for greater economic ‘efficiency’, the logical outcome of unrestrained global market power will eventually displace around 1.5 billion smallholders out of agriculture, with devastating consequences for the landscapes they manage and the societies most affected. Putting one in five of the Earth’s citizens out of work and destroying the food base is not a strategy any intelligent policy or government would advocate, one hopes. But it is one of those ‘externalities’ which classical economics sometimes omits to factor in – and is happening, nevertheless.
In a recent satellite survey, researchers working for FAO reported 24 per cent of the Earth’s land surface was seriously degraded – compared with 15 per cent estimated by an on-ground survey in 1990. The FAO team noted that degradation was continuing at a rate of around 1 per cent a year. (source: iii)
Every agronomist and agricultural economist knows that, when farmers are under the economic hammer, a good many of them will overstock and overcrop in a desperate effort to escape the poverty trap leading to severe resource degradation. In drier, more marginal country, cost/price pressures can devour landscapes – and this is undoubtedly a major factor (though not the only one) in the degradation of land and water worldwide, especially in the world’s rangelands.
If we continue to sacrifice one per cent of the world’s productive land every year, there is going to be very little left on which to double food production by the mid-century: crop yields in 2060 would have to increase by 300 per cent or so universally, which is clearly a tall order.
Much the same applies to irrigation: “In order to double food production we need to double the water volume we use in agriculture, and there are serious doubts about whether there is enough water available to do this,” is how Dr Colin Chartres, director general of the International Water Management Institute summed it up recently. (source: iv) Dr Chartres estimates that doubling world food output could require up to 6000 cubic kilometres more water.
Solutions to land and water degradation are reasonably well known, and have been shown to work in many environments – but are not being adopted at anything like the rates necessary to double world food production or even to conserve the existing resource base. One reason is that farmers, in the main, cannot afford to implement them, even though many would like to do so. The economic signal is wrong.
As a result, world agriculture is today primarily a mining activity. We all know what happens to mines when the ore runs out.
There is also persuasive evidence that world agriculture is dropping off the pace – that it is no longer making the yield advances and total productivity gains achieved in the previous generation. In a recent paper Alston and Pardey (source: v) documented this decline both in the US and globally, attributing it significantly to falling investment worldwide in agricultural science and technology and extension of new knowledge to farmers.
The role of low returns in discouraging farmers, in both developed and developing countries, from adopting more productive and sustainable farming systems cannot be ignored. While a few highly efficient and profitable producers continue to make advances, the bulk of the world’s farmers are being left behind. Since small farmers feed more than half the world, this is a matter for concern.
One of the indirect effects of the negative economic signal for agriculture can be seen in the growing reluctance of governments to invest in agricultural research and development, and their increasing tendency to cut ‘public good’ research. This has happened in most developed countries and even in places such as China the level of ag R&D support is falling as a proportion of the total science investment. With agricultural R&D comprising a mere 1.8 cents of the developed world’s science dollar in 2000, one has a very clear idea how unimportant most of the world’s governments now consider food production to be. (source: vi)
The fact that agriculture appears perennially unprofitable and suffers from continuing social malaise probably contributes, subliminally, to a view among urban politicians that society ought not to be wasting its money funding research for such a troubled sector: there are a thousand other more attractive and exciting fields for scientific investment. This negative (and false) image of agriculture is an unspoken driver behind the reduced global R&D effort.
Today the world invests around $40 billion a year in agricultural research – and $1500 billion a year in weapons, as if killing one another were forty times more important than eating.
Is food too cheap?
For affluent societies at least, food is now the cheapest in real terms it has ever been in human history.
Back in our grandparents’ time, in the early part of the 20th century, the average western wage earner devoted about a third of their weekly income to food. Rent was relatively cheap, people didn’t have cars, iPhone bills, plasma TVs, facelifts or overseas vacations – and food was essential. By the 1970s the amount of household disposable income spent on food was down to 20 per cent. Today it is around 11-12 per cent in Australia and similar in other western nations. As incomes rise in China and India, the proportion is falling there too.
When something is too cheap, people do not value it as they should. This produces a lack of respect for the product itself, for the people and industries involved in its production – farmers and scientists – and for the places it is produced and for the resources of land, water and human skills that produce it. This is one explanation for the negative image held by governments, businesses and most societies towards agriculture and its investment needs.
In an age where 3.5 billion humans have only the dimmest notion where their food comes from, lack of respect for the main thing that keeps them alive is coming to be a predominant ‘value’ in the human race and this is a potential danger.
A Culture of Waste
Food is now so cheap that developed societies such as the US, Britain and Australia throw away nearly half, while developing countries lose nearly half post-harvest. (source: vii)
Societies that pay their farmers such low returns, have found they can afford to send nearly half of the farmers’ efforts to landfill. Or burn in an recreational vehicle enough grain as biofuel in one week to feed a poor person for a year.
Where our ancestors stored, conserved and recycled nutrients, humanity now appears to waste 70% -90% of all the nutrients used to produce food. On farm, up to half the applied fertiliser does not feed crop or pasture but escapes into the environment. Of the harvested nutrients, some are lost post-harvest, in transport, processing and cooking – but more than 30 per cent are simply discarded, in the shops and in the home. Then we dump around 90 per cent of our sewage nutrients in the ocean.
In short, the modern food system has established a culture of absolute and utter waste, sustained only by the mining of energy and nutrients (from rock or soil), which will eventually run out or become unaffordable to most farmers.
The universal practice of recycling, in use since agriculture began more than 6000 years ago, has broken down. The planetary nutrient cycle is now at risk from the colossal nutrient pollution now occurring.
This situation cannot persist more than a few decades. We will need to recycle and invest in new systems – but for that to occur, farm incomes and the incentive to invest in food production must rise and the economic signal to invest in agriculture must change.
An Unhealthy Situation
Cheap food is at the root of a pandemic of disease and death larger in the developed world than any other single cause of human mortality, and spreading like wildfire in the newly-industrialised world. Cheap, abundant processed food is a driver for obesity, which now affects one in five humans, and plays a significant role in the society-wide increase in cancers, heart disease, diabetes, stroke and bowel disorders.
Cheap food, in other words, is an economic invitation to consumers – including millions of children – to kill themselves prematurely through overindulgence.
Cheap food is the chief economic driver of the greatest budget blow-out in all western democracies: healthcare.
Solving the Food Challenge
The purpose of this essay is to call attention to the effect a never-ending reduction in farmers’ incomes will have on world food security at a time of rising physical constraints to production, including scarcities of land, water, energy, nutrients, technology, fish and stable climates.
At the very time when most experts agree we should be seeking ways to double food output sustainably over the coming half-century, the ruling economic signal is: “don’t do it”.
Of course, we can simply obey the economic signal and allow agricultural shortfalls to occur – but that will expose 8 or 10 billion consumers to massive unheralded price spikes, of the sort experienced in 2008, which have a dire impact on the poor, start wars and topple governments – and will not benefit farmers as much as a stable, steady increase in their incomes.
Most of the world’s poorest people are farmers, and it follows that one of the most effective remedies for world poverty is to increase the returns to agriculture. True, this will involve raising food prices for the urban poor but they are less numerous and can more easily be assisted by other government measures. At present rural poverty is maintained throughout the world largely by the economic policy of providing affluent city consumers with cheap food.
It is necessary to state this essay does not advocate a return to agrarian socialism, protectionism, commodity cartels or an end to free markets. In fact, we probably need to move much faster and further towards totally free trade in agricultural products in order to encourage efficient producers – large and small – around the world.
But it does hold up a warning flag about the universal dangers of underinvestment, negative signals and sentiment, resource destruction and rural dislocation caused by the undervaluing of the one commodity humanity absolutely cannot do without, as we approach the greatest demand for food in all of history.
There are numerous ways this issue might be addressed. Here are a few:
Price: through an educated “community consensus” that results in willingness on the part of consumers, supermarkets and food processors to pay more for food so as to protect the resource base and enable farmers to invest in new technologies (source: viii)
Subsidy: by the payment of a social wage to farmers by governments for their stewardship on behalf of society of soil, water, atmosphere and biodiversity, separate from their commercial food production
Regulation: by limiting by law those practices or technologies which degrade the food resource base and rewarding by grant those which improve it
Taxation: by levying a resource tax on all food which reflects its true cost to the environment to produce, and by reinvesting the proceeds in more sustainable farming systems, R&D, rural adjustment and enhanced resource management.
Market solutions: by establishing markets for key farm resources (eg carbon or water) that result in higher returns for farmers from wise and sustainable use.
Public education about how to eat more sustainably; industry education about sustainability standards and techniques.
A combination of several of the above measures.
The technical solutions to most of the world’s food problems are well-known and well understood – but they are not being implemented as widely as they should because of a market failure which prevents their adoption. To avoid grave consequences, affecting billions of people, this failure needs correction.
It also needs correcting because, as long as world food production remains an undervalued activity, then so too will investing in the research essential to overcome future shortages –crop yields, water use, landscape sustainability, alternative energy, the recycling of nutrients and the reduction of post-harvest losses. To satisfy a doubling in demand for food over the coming half century calls for at least $160 billion in worldwide agricultural R&D activity a year – equal to a tenth of the global weapons budget. However this would leave the world both more peaceful – and better fed.
It is not the purpose of this essay to solve the issue of how to deliver fairer incomes to farmers worldwide, but rather to foster debate among thoughtful farmers, policymakers and researchers about how we should go about it.
However it does question whether some of the ‘old truths’ of the 20th century still apply in the 21st, or whether the era of globalisation and resource scarcity has changed the ground rules.
It also asks whether the unstinted application of overwhelming market force against farmers is the act of a sapient species – or a mob of lemmings?
Over to the sapient ones among you.
–– Julian Cribb FTSE
Julian Cribb is Founding Editor of Science Alert, and is the principal of Julian Cribb & Associates, specialists in science communication. He is a fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.
i. Sources for this essay are those cited in Julian Cribb's book The Coming Famine, University of California Press, 2010. Since they take up 24 pages, we have not reproduced them all here. See the book at Amazon or UC Press for full reference listing.
ii. FAO High Level Export Forum, How to feed the World: Investment, Rome, October 2009. http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/wsfs/docs/Issues_papers/
iii. Bai ZG, Dent DL, Olsson L and Schaepman ME 2008. Global assessment of land degradation and improvement 1: identification by remote sensing. Report 2008/01, FAO/ISRIC – Rome/Wageningen
iv. Chartres C, World Congress of Soil Science, Brisbane, August 2010
v. J. Alston, J.M.Beddow, P. Pardey, “Mendel versus Malthus: research, productivity and food prices in the long run,” University of Minnesota, 2009. http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/53400/2/SP-IP-09-01.pdf
vi. Pardey P et al, Science, Technology and Skills, CGIAR report, October 2007.
vii. See for example Lundqvist, J., C. de Fraiture and D. Molden. Saving Water: From Field to Fork – Curbing Losses and Wastage in the Food Chain. SIWI Policy Brief. SIWI, 2008.
viii. In case this should raise a sceptical eyebrow, the recent stakeholder report by Woolworths Australia “Future of Food”, 2010, suggests at least some of the major players in the food game have a dawning grasp of the consequences of their actions and are now looking to invest in (mainly non-income) ways to support farmers.