I have just read “Man’s search for meaning“. It is about survival in the concentration camps during WW2, about how mankind deals with extreme situations and the intrinsic wish for survival. It is how meaning in life brings meaning to life.
This book is difficult to digest and speaks of atrocities that someone, who has not lived through the same, most likely can never fully grasp or comprehend. One passage drew my attention, where Viktor E. Frankl writes about how the prisoners dealt with the insufficiently small food rations: “There were two schools of thought. One was in favor of eating up the ration immediately. This had the twofold advantage of satisfying the worst hunger pangs for a very short time at least once a day and of safeguarding against possible theft or loss of the ration. The second group, which held with dividing the ration up, used different arguments.” This reminds me of why I support Bjørn Lomborg‘s insistence on reducing hunger and poverty now, rather than looking into, or working on, reducing the impacts of future climate change. But it also gives rise to some difficult questions:

If our current actions are to significantly change the environment of planet earth, and if mankind cannot fully adapt to this, then should the suffering of some of the current generation outweigh the potential suffering of many future generations? In a previous post I had written that some economic models (like Nordhaus’ RICE model) try to predict consumption for the next 100 years and come to the conclusion that it will increase across all continents. But there are clearly going to be significant local climatic changes whose impacts, which are driven by our current climate-changing actions, may outweigh even current suffering. Furthermore, those integrated assessment models only take consumption into account. While consumption increases happiness, it is certainly only one of the many aspects that does so.

Or should we not only focus on mankind but also take a holistic approach, with our welfare calculations taking animals and ecosystems into account – not because they provide services to mankind, but because they have rights of their own? If we were to do this, then we would have to seriously reconsider our lifestyles and consumption habits, our values and social norms.

In my opinion, it is important that people like Bjørn Lomborg emphasize the focus on the basic needs of the current generation. But it is also negligence if one ignores the needs of the future. I believe the most important aspect to know is that we actually do have the ability NOW to do both: we can easily minimize current suffering of the world’s starving poor, but we can at the same time also shape our values and lifestyles directed towards a holistic approach that incorporates all life on planet earth – not because this provides a benefit to mankind, but simply because of the intrinsic value that life holds by itself. While technical change certainly aids in decoupling economic growth from the environment, it is cultural change towards a holistic world view that may solve a good amount of our troubles at the same time. And this cultural change may just bring back the meaning in life that is needed to bring back meaning to life.

So here is an interesting concept in times of governmental debt crises and environmental problems: Debt-for-nature swaps (thanks for pointer to Professor Müller-Fürstenberger, Trier).

What is it?Debt-for-nature swaps involve the exchange of a debtor country’s external obligation for that country’s agreement to use local currency instruments to support a specific environmental project, such as development of conservation management plans, training of park personnel, or environmental education activities. These agreements are often described as deals where everyone benefits : the debtor country reduces its external debt, the environmental group can leverage its original donation amount, and banks profit from selling their debt on the secondary market or from the publicity value of donating the debt to the environmental group.” (source: WPS 393)

Is it a win-win situation? Hell yes! well, if cleverly done, yes. Take a country with both an environmental problem (e.g. deforestation, ecosystem destruction) and an unsustainable government debt, take an environmentally-concerned investor with too much money in his hands (Hello Mr Bill Gates, wink wink), get them sit together at the secondary debt market, and voilà:
Mean debt behold and be a goner!
My money is clearly stronger.
With this debt-to-nature swap,
I make your sorrows drop!

Does it work? Like always there are problems. E.g. deforestation in Brazil occurs to some extent illegally. If Mr Bill Gates does not prevent this additional deforestation even though he obtains the rights to a certain area of tropical rainforest due to the debt-for-nature swap, then nothing much is going to change. So there local institutions either need to be already in place or need to be put in place that also protect the endangered natural sites from illegal activities. Often, this is very difficult to control.

Check out a report on this by the World Bank on this HERE.

Food waste: Surplus tomatoes are dumped on farmland in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain

Surplus tomatoes are dumped on farmland in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain.
Photograph: Sally A. Morgan/Ecoscene/Corbis
Today I give some thoughts on the Installment 2: Reducing Food Loss and Waste, the second report by the WRI. Up front I have to say it is a very well done, interesting piece, definitely worth taking a close look at. What is especially good about these reports by the WRI is that they are concise, precise, and still contain a lot of information. Now some snapshots and thoughts:
The problem:
  1. “When converted into calories,global food loss and waste amounts to approximately 24 percent of all food produced.”

So this should really slap you in the face. 1/4 of all food produced is lost or wasted.

How does the WRI define food loss and food waste?

Food loss is the unintended result of an agricultural process or technical limitation in storage, infrastructure, packaging, or marketing.”

Food waste is the result of negligence or a conscious decision to throw food away.”

So, I guess, what the report is trying to get at is that food loss is a result of inefficiencies on the producers’ side, while food waste is the due to consumer behavior and demand. For example, consumers prefer nice, good looking apples of the same sizes instead of mishaped ones with brown bits. At least, if they have the choice, then they will only buy those that look nice, while those other, “faulty” ones will not be bought and eventually will be thrown away. Thus, this is food waste. Food loss occurs, for example, because the apples need to be transported from Italy to Germany, and on the way a part of it gets crushed.

However, the distinction between food loss and food waste is not always necessarily clear, since obviously the producers’ and the consumers’ sides interact on the market. So, if German consumers demand apples from Italy and a part gets crushed on the way, then the WRI defines this as food loss. While if German consumers demand local apples then maybe none gets crushed. So is it now negligence (and thus food waste) from the consumers’ side if they buy apples from Italy and a part gets squashed? They could have bought these apples from a German producer instead and thus prevented the squashing of the apples. Or is it food loss and should be attributed to inefficiencies on the producers’ side? What I am suggesting is that the distinction between food loss and food waste needs to be treated carefully, otherwise one closes doors for potential policies that only address the one or the other, for maybe the false reasons.

In terms of regional distribution, the WRI report notes that “[t]he total share of food lost or wasted ranges from 15 percent to 25 percent across most regions (Figure 6). The oneexception is North America and Oceania, where loss and waste is approximately 42 percent of all available food.” In terms of calories per capita per day, North America and Oceania lose or waste twice as much as Europe or Industrialized Asia, and around three times as much as the rest of the world. It would really be interesting to know precisely why food loss is so much higher in North America and Oceania than in the ROW.

The implication:

  1. “Economically, they represent a wasted investment that can reduce farmers’ incomes and
    increase consumers’ expenses.”
  2. “Environmentally, food loss and waste inflict a host of impacts, including unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions and inefficiently used water and land.”
  3. Obviously, a greater food loss or waste will imply that it is more difficult to feed the expected 9.3 billion people in 2050.

Food loss is likely to waste farmers’ income, but food waste not necessarily. The food loss, as discussed below, occurs mostly in LDCs – they are unlikely to have the money to improve efficiency. Thus, it may very well be the case that only rising income in LDCs will have the desired effeect on food loss. Food waste is a consumer side problem, and occurs mostly in rich countries. Thus, if the rich throw food away simply because they can afford to do so, then this increased consumers’ expenses is not really a problem for them. The poor cannot afford to waste food so do this very little. Also, food waste is not necessarily a problem for the poor and may even raise farmers’ incomes! Farm revenues are (price x quantity), and if the increase in quantity that goes to food waste is sufficiently larger than a (possible) price reduction due to the additional amount produced, then this raises farmers’ income. Furthermore, if demand increases further with a given quantity produced, then this may even raise prices and thus lead to an increase in farms’ income. Thus, food loss is a problem for farming incomes, but food waste largely a problem only for creating a sustainable food future.

A discussion of some of the solutions suggested:

  1. food redistribution –> “This strategy applies at the production stage with crops that otherwise would go unharvested, at the manufacturing stage with overproduced products, and at the distribution and market stage with food left unsold at stores and markets.”
  2. Food date labelling –> The “use-by” labelling is the “the last date recommended for the use of the product from a food safety perspective.” One suggestion here could be to adopt the “minimally-conservable until” labelling that is used in Germany. It is a less restrictive labelling in the sense that “use-by” is a hard constraint that basically says: Use latest until expiry date, because on the expiry date the food will not be edible anymore. In contrast, the “minimally-conservable until” label suggests: Ok, you should start thinking about eating this sooner rather than later. It provides a less rigid constraint on the date of consumption.
  3. Reduce portion sizes (in restaurants) –> this is unlikely to happen. Think about it – take two identical restaurants, one with a small portion and the other with a big one – which one would you go to? Another issue here is culture: In many Asian countries it is rude to leave an empty plate behind, as then this means that the person who invited could not feed everyone sufficiently. Changing this attitude in restaurants from the consumer side and the restaurant owner side will be extremely difficult.

Some more random points: Quite interestingly, food waste seems to be positively correlated with income (see Figure 6 in report), while food loss is negatively correlated with it. Thus, food loss is likely to be a problem of storage costs, transportation problems, inefficiencies in the production-to-consumption chain. Clearly, assuming the causality runs from income via technology/management/infrastructure to food loss, then improvements in income for the LDCs should yield a double divident: poverty reduction and reductions in food loss. In contrast, since food waste seems positively correlated with income (which should be clear: if you have little money to buy food, then you are going to be much more careful with it), then simple increases in income are likely to only lead to a re-distribution of the problem – from food loss to food waste. Thus, both for developed countries and for LDCs that are growing quickly, a strong focus should be placed on the consumer side.

Just a note: I find the focus on gender in the WRI report a little too restrictive. Why not child poverty and child health? Why not social security? Why really gender? In my own opinion, gender problems tend not to be overcome by simply increasing wealth. For example, “Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States, more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. (“Violence Against Women, A Majority Staff Report,” Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 102nd Congress, October 1992, p.3.)” See also a WHO report here. I would suggest to focus more closely on poverty and not be “distracted” by gender issues. Also, because the two points raised in the report,

  1. “Reducing food losses increases the return on investment of time spent farming and could reduce the total time needed to work in fields”
  2. “Reducing food waste could reduce total household expenditures on food, freeing up resources for health, education, and other household benefits”,

are really not gender oriented but instead are household oriented or poverty alleviation.

How about economic incentives?

  1. Tax the amount of food loss. This should increase efficiency at the production/transportation/marketing stage. An obvious problem is that this will be less effective in poor countries where producers simply cannot afford the expensive technologies or management options. 
  2. Ask for significantly higher insurance rates for overweighted people. Just like it is the case for someone undertaking a dangerous sport, smokes or has a family history of specific diseases, the insurance industry could also raise insurance costs for overweighted. I think all this discussion about fairness is surprising. Obviously, there are some diseases or medication that lead to overweight. In these cases, insurance rates could be adjusted accordingly.
  3. Consumer attitudes: could be changed via implementing a sort of sport-oriented society, like it is the case in many European countries now. Sports, physical fitness starts to be a trendy thing. Overweightness less so. Relaxed living, taking time to dine out, reduces both stress and junk/fast food intake.
  4. giving incentives to the old local small stores: if you only need a minute to walk to your next bakery or local shop, then one will buy more on a need-for basis and not this bulk shopping. Less things will be pushed to the back of the refrigerator where it is only found because it already starts to walk by itself…..

The World Resource Institute is currently working on a report entitled “Creating a Sustainable Food Future”. Its adequately-chosen subtitle is “The great balancing act”. Here are the issues:

The problems:

  1. by 2050, “available worldwide food calories will need to increase by about 60 percent from 2006 levels if everyone is to be sufficiently fed.”
  2. “the world needs agriculture to contribute to inclusive economic and social development.”
  3. “the world needs to reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment and natural resources.”

The reasons:

  1. higher demand: Population is going to increase from currently 7 billion to 9.3 billion in 2050. and obviously currently poorer regions get richer and thus want to shift to from a cereal to a meat diet, e.g. China does this already now.
  2. Growth in the agricultural sector would drive employment of a potentially substantial part of society, and can generate benefits for women.
  3. we should all know why: water stress, ocean dead zones, etc.

The observations/suggestions/lessons:

It is basically the objective of the report to try and find a solution to all three problems. A first (utopian) observation of the report is that, even if all food currently produced was to be distributed evenly across the expected 9.3 billion people in 2050, then still everyone would fall short of the required daily calories intake by 200 kcal, around a tenth of the necessary, daily calories. Consequently, in order to cover the basic needs of all, society has to produce more food. How much? The report’s “projection implies a 63 percent increase in required crop calories from 9,500 trillion kcal per year in 2006 to 15,500 trillion kcal in 2050. The result is a 6,000 trillion kcal per year “gap” between production in 2006 and the need in 2050.” This requires the same increase in crop production during the next 40 years as we have seen during the past 40 years.

So first thoughts here are already troublesome: It is extremely doubtful that the objective of the report, namely the creation of benefits for women, is really achievable. The report notices this itself. Since women already make up the majority of agricultural workers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, it is unlikely that there will be the significant positive impacts for women that the report talks about. Where should they come from? And clearly, the main problem is that in sub-Saharan Africa there is already significant water stress holding up the growth in the agricultural sector, and this will only increase substantially during the next years. In a recent article, Luca Marchiori, Jean-Francois Maystadt and myself have shown that there is already national and international migration in many sub-Saharan countries as a result of weather variations that affect agriculturally-dependent countries the most. Food production is only expected to worsen in those countries according to studies by Eric Strobl and his co-authors.

Then, it is unlikely that yields in the agricultural sector increase like they did during the past 40 years- fertilizers are already used nearly everyone and in may places to a maximum. In addition, a chunk of the recent increase in agriculturally-used area (mostly grazing area) has come from cut-down tropical rain forests. The reason for using those areas for cattle or agriculture is obviously that they hold higher yields than other areas. Given the need to significantly reduce the destruction of the rain forest, and also the need for re-forestation in order to curb CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, it is also unlikely that we will see a similar increase in agriculturally-useful area as we had during the past 40 years.

So let’s discuss some possible solutions advocated by the WRI: They suggested a good, exhaustive list of clearly well-thought options that each adds little by little to improving the expected food shortage in 2050. My favorites:

  • “REDUCE OBESITY: In most of the world except sub-Saharan Africa, consumption of animal products is already high and leads to more protein intake than is necessary for human health” –> basically, everyone is getting fatter! Obesity is a serious social health problem nowadays, strongly associated with diabetes, heart failures, and also mental issues like depression and lost working hours. The WHO called it a “global epidemic”, with around 10% of the world population being obese. Social costs for these are enorm. Curbing obesity could be a double-divident policy: reducing social costs and increasing food for the rest of world.
  • “EAT FEWER ANIMAL PRODUCTS: Reduce the share of animal-based foods in a person’s daily diet”. Once you have read books like Animal Liberation, you might want to reduce meat intake for ethical reasons, too. (It’s just really difficult during summer BBQs…)
  • “REDUCE BIOFUELS” This obviously allows for more food production, and immediate basic needs should have preference over a small increase in climate change from reduced biofuels. Biofuels are currently losing out anyway, as impact on food prices and availability was considerable. Sort of reminds me of Mao’s problem with the Great Leap Forward…

Then there is a new report out, the “Reducing Food Loss and Waste” report. That seems to be a good report, too, well-done. Going to look into it, but not tonight…

After going through the UN report today, I am still somewhat astonished by the happy-spirited nature of this report. And yes, some goals were reached, but in many aspects we fell far too short of the targets developed in 2001. These goals, in my understanding, are based on a basic need notion of justice. I am wondering about the following, and maybe someone has given this some thought and came up with answers to these questions:

Did the MDGs actually help? Was there a clear change in international or national policy in response to the MDGs in 2001? Did the development aid increase in response to the MDGs?

For example, it could entirely be the case that international capital markets, economic growth and national policies improved some of the basic needs of the poor without any impact from the MDGs themselves.

So, what I am saying is that, at the moment, there is a positive correlation between some MDGs and the fulfillment of basic needs, but is there real evidence for a causal effect from MDGs to the fulfillment of those basic needs or not? For, if there is no causal effect from MDGs to basic needs, then either they a) are unncessary; b) or the wrong approach; c) or, far worse, policy in general has little impact and the “only” thing that really “works” is something else (economic growth ?; international capital markets ?; national policies ?; or what?).

Somewhat surprising, the new UN report on the post-2015 development agenda talks of “remarkable achievements”, “remarkable success”, “given this success”, etc… It then discusses potential new development goals to be achieved for 2030.

So check this out, too:

Millenium Development Goals – 2012 Progress Chart

If for more than half of the targets the progress is insufficient and for some targets there is even no progress or deteriotation, then the words used in the report should not be “remarkable achievements”, “remarkable success”, “given this success”. So let me provide you – for your convenience – the UN-into-plain-english thesaurus:

“remarkable achievements” – “unfortunate, significant shortfalls”
“remarkable success” – “big failure”
“given this sucess” – “given these problems”

Look, while there are certainly some achievements, it seems surprising to try to set new goals when most of the old ones have not been met yet.

Also, I wonder how the crisis is going to impact the achievements made so far. Anyone?

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