Quarrels over Quinoa

Quinoa is an iconic crop for this century. It is resilient to salinity in the soil and thus can potentially withstand changes to the climate. It is also highly nutritious thus offering food security in a world that has to ramp up food production three fold in the next 50 years.

Lisa Hamilton, writing in Harpers explores the battle for the right to improve varieties and commercialise quinoa. The following dynamic is playing out. Seed companies want to develop improved varieties of quinoa – this would enable it to be grown more widely beyond the Andes with obvious food security benefits around the world. However, Bolivia, where much of the world’s germplasm is found, does not want to share its genetic material. For Bolivia, it is the property of the indigenous peoples of the Andes. Their fears are also economic, namely that if the US or Brazil were to cultivate the crop on a large scale, Altiplano farmers would face greater competition on world markets and thus lose income.

Seed companies and plant breeders makes several counter arguments:

Wouldnt improvement in quinoa varieties (through releasing germplasm) benefit farmers, including those in Bolivia?

Breeding of new varieties would enable the plant to grow in other countries thus increasing access to food

The author argues that public ownership and storage of genetic material in Bolivia is no safeguard for its future, citing Bolivia’s largest gene bank for quinoa burning down in 1998. She quotes a Bolivian geneticist Emigdio Ballon. He abhors patents but still believes that seed should be shared.

“Quinoa doesn’t belong to the Bolivian government or to corporations. Any food, any seeds, they are very sacred – they are for serving humanity. And if you don’t have their diversity stored in other places, you are in trouble. Because we never know what’s coming tomorrow”.


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The Food Police


One of the main debate in food policy in the last ten years has revolved around what we should eat. Jason Lusk, Professor of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University describes the campaigners, food critics and celebrity chefs who advocate for state support for organic, locally sourced, non GMO food as the “Food Police”. At the heart of his argument in his book is that science and technology should be embraced to improve productivity in food production as it has led to great benefits for the world’s poor in more nutritional and cheaper food. He argue that if foodies want to pay more for higher cost organic food that is fine, but the poor should not be forced to pay for it through their taxes, farm subsidies or mandated school lunch programmes. Here are some excerpts:

On behavorial economics:

“Behavioral economics shows that people are…well, human…(it) suggests we are irrational and biased; that on some level, we are incapable of making coherent choices that serve our best interest. If we cannot act in our own best interest, then the food police believe they can step in and make our lives better”

On the “Food Police”:

“The paradox of the food police is that they have turned food into a status-seeking game while simultaneously asking why the poor don’t have enough nutritious food to eat. Its like the rich kids at school honestly wondering why everyone isn’t wearing the most fashionable jeans”

His chapter on “Locavores” demolishes each of the pro-local food campaigners’ arguments, namely, that local foods are good for the economy, the environment, are a more secure source of supply, they taste better, are healthier, and especially good for kids. He quotes Charles Mann from the New York Times:

“If your concern is to produce the maximum amount of food possible for the lowest cost, which is a serious concern around the world for people who aren’t middle-class foodies like me, (local food) seems like a crazy luxury. It doesn’t make sense for my asethetic preference to be elevated to a moral imperative. “

Note: here is a piece that I wrote on reducing carbon emissions in the food supply chain and why food miles policies are a bad idea. And an ITC review of the policy options around buying local.


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Exporting natural ingredients from the Peruvian Amazon

During the period 2010-13 ITC’s Trade and Environment Programme supported SMEs in Peru to access international markets in natural ingredients. The project focused on plant products endemic to Peru like sacha inchi and goldenberry. This video highlights the ITC approach to supporting the companies and the benefits for communities.


Sacha inchi, a nut endemic to the Peruvian Amazon - rich in omega-3 - a "superfood"

Sacha inchi, a nut endemic to the Peruvian Amazon – rich in omega-3 – a “superfood”


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We are hummingbirds putting out the fire of climate change

The Prince of Monaco, Prof. Jean Pascal van Ypersele a Belgian climate scientist and Sunita Narain an Indian social activist took the stage at the UN in Geneva yesterday to speak about climate change.

The main themes to emerge from the two hour event in the cavernous neoclassical Assembly Hall was how the poor suffer disproportionately and the hard choices that need to be made to stop climate change. A striking metaphor was offered of a hummingbird dousing a fire with water from its beak. It begged the question of whether we are doing enough to stop climate change.

Climate talk at the UN Assembly Hall in Geneva

Climate talk at the UN Assembly Hall in Geneva

Jean Pascal van Ypersele vice-Chair of IPCC gave a briefing on the findings of the most recent IPCC report on climate change. Graphs from the report highlighted the rising temperatures and increasing CO2 concentrations. For 400,000 years, the concentrations varied between 200-300 parts per million (pcm). Now we are at 400 and predicted to reach 900 by 2100.The Business as Usual scenario, that we are currently on, will result in 4.8C average warming. This will be catastrophic in terms of impacts like rising sea levels, heatwaves and lost agricultural productivity but also ocean acidification. Professor van Ypersele showed a slide of the Nile Delta, home to 10 million people. He said that a half metre rise (which is likely) will mean displacing millions of people.

Impact of sea level rise on the Nile Delta

Impact of sea level rise on the Nile Delta

He described how the sense of urgency of each IPCC report has increased. In 1990, he said the first report conveyed that “there might be a problem”; in 1995, “it said that it was definitely a problem”, in 2007 it urged that we “sort it out soon” and in 2013, the report is beginning to “sound like a broken record – we really have checked the science and we are not making this up”.

Van Ypersele finished by quoting a poem by Pierre Rahbi in which a hummingbird starts to douse a forest fire collecting water with his beak. The armadillo mocks the bird “Are you not mad? Do you think you can put out the fire with these drops of water?” The hummingbird answers “I know, but I am doing my part”.

Pierre Rabhi poem on the hummingbird

Pierre Rabhi poem on the hummingbird

When we are old and if the sea levels have risen, the oceans acidified and the glaciers  all gone, can we tell our grandchildren that we did the best we could to stop climate change?

Here are some of the questions that children are already asking. https://invisiblegreenhand.wordpress.com/2013/07/01/children-bearing-much-reality-on-climate-change/


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When lions are just a commodity

Trophy hunting's PR nightmare

Trophy hunting’s PR nightmare

Does it matter if wild animals are treated as a commodity? If farming and hunting animals contributes to their survival, then should we not just regulate the industry so it is done with high animal welfare standards and maximum conservation benefits? Or does trophy hunting actually contribute to the decline of species as some NGOs claim?

Last year, the trophy hunting business committed two PR disasters. Firstly, Michelle Bachmann became an overnight bete noir by posting a picture of herself on Facebook kneeling over a dead lion she had shot on a trophy hunt. The industry then unwisely held an auction in the US instead of Africa for the right to shoot an old rhino, thus drawing the fire of enraged animal welfare groups.

The trophy hunting industry argues that they produce substantial economic and conservation benefits. Animal welfare and conservation NGOs oppose it and are lobbying for lions to be added to the US Endangered Species Act. This protection would ban the import of trophy lions into the US and thus remove a significant source of the industry’s revenue. Presumably there would be negative economic and conservation consequences.

So why does the trophy hunting business attract so much vitriol? Part of the reason is the different views that we take on human utilization of animals. Half the world think it is acceptable to harvest animals for our food and clothing needs (and sport) and the other half think it is unethical and must be stopped.

Here I present two voices for and against trophy hunting. Please feel free to comment.

For: The lion farmer

Driving through the bush, lion farm owner and former vet Piet Venter demonstrates the conservation benefits of trophy hunting to the BBC’s Louis Theroux.

“Its about farming…there are so many people who want to hunt and that is what they like and there is demand for it. All this that you see here was paid for by the Americans…30years ago. We had cattle here, this was orange trees..30 years ago this was all orange trees, now it is all bush and game because they pay us more money than we did with the cattle.”

Standing outside the pen of 6 lions, he explains to Theroux that lions will fight when they are hungry but “…with 120,000 (£10,000) Rand walking around there, why would you allow him to get hungry they will all be hunted”. He asks “what other value is there to the lion”? He says they are like chickens, they have to lay eggs or they will serve no purpose like a barren chicken. Theroux asks if he loves his lions. Venter answers flatly “no…look at his eyes..walk past him and see if you feel any love there”.

After Theroux politely turns down the offer, Venter sums it up by saying “they are just a plain commodity”.

Against: the animal welfare lobbyist

An op-Ed in National Geographic by Jeff Flocken, US Director of IFAW last year makes the following criticisms of trophy hunting:

1. Hunting…” kills healthy members of an imperiled species. The adult male lion is the most sought-after trophy by wealthy foreign hunters. And when an adult male lion is killed, the destabilization of that lion’s pride can lead to more lion deaths as outside males compete to take over the pride.

Once a new male is in the dominant position, he will often kill the cubs sired by the pride’s previous leader, resulting in the loss of an entire lion generation within the pride”.

2. “Trophy hunting is also counter-evolutionary, as it’s based on selectively taking the large, robust, and healthy males from a population for a hunter’s trophy room”

3. Income from hunting does not arrive with the communities but with government and foreign companies

4. Trophy hunting revenue is insignificant compared to safari tourism revenue

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