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    Mongabay, a leading resource for news and perspectives on environmental and conservation issues related to the tropics, has launched Tropical Conservation Science - a new, open access academic e-journal. It will cover a wide variety of scientific and social studies on tropical ecosystems, their biodiversity and the threats posed to them. Tropical Conservation Science - March 8, 2008.

    At the 148th Meeting of the OPEC Conference, the oil exporting cartel decided to leave its production level unchanged, sending crude prices spiralling to new records (above $104). OPEC "observed that the market is well-supplied, with current commercial oil stocks standing above their five-year average. The Conference further noted, with concern, that the current price environment does not reflect market fundamentals, as crude oil prices are being strongly influenced by the weakness in the US dollar, rising inflation and significant flow of funds into the commodities market." OPEC - March 5, 2008.

    Kyushu University (Japan) is establishing what it says will be the world’s first graduate program in hydrogen energy technologies. The new master’s program for hydrogen engineering is to be offered at the university’s new Ito campus in Fukuoka Prefecture. Lectures will cover such topics as hydrogen energy and developing the fuel cells needed to convert hydrogen into heat or electricity. Of all the renewable pathways to produce hydrogen, bio-hydrogen based on the gasification of biomass is by far both the most efficient, cost-effective and cleanest. Fuel Cell Works - March 3, 2008.

    An entrepreneur in Ivory Coast has developed a project to establish a network of Miscanthus giganteus farms aimed at producing biomass for use in power generation. In a first phase, the goal is to grow the crop on 200 hectares, after which expansion will start. The project is in an advanced stage, but the entrepreneur still seeks partners and investors. The plantation is to be located in an agro-ecological zone qualified as highly suitable for the grass species. Contact us - March 3, 2008.

    A 7.1MW biomass power plant to be built on the Haiwaiian island of Kaua‘i has received approval from the local Planning Commission. The plant, owned and operated by Green Energy Hawaii, will use albizia trees, a hardy species that grows in poor soil on rainfall alone. The renewable power plant will meet 10 percent of the island's energy needs. Kauai World - February 27, 2008.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Food aid, a gigantic waste of money?

Pedro Sanchez, director of the Tropical Agriculture Program of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and 2002 World Food Prize Laureate, has some interesting numbers on the unsustainable costs of food aid. They show that the multi-billion dollar food aid industry is in a crisis because of rising costs. But there is a very positive side to this crisis: it has now become rational and profitable to invest in local farmers in developing countries - something that should have been done ages ago. The food aid industry has always had perverse effects, such as the destruction of local markets and farmers. But now, at last, there is a glimmer of hope that this inefficient and morally questionable industry can be phased out.

This hope is based on Sanchez' key metrics (representing 2007 data):
It costs about $77 in fertilizers and hybrid seed for a smallholder African farmer to produce an extra ton of maize, based on our research at the Millennium Villages. To bring in the same ton of maize into Africa as U.S. food aid costs $670, based on a Government Accountability Office report. Both numbers are as of April 2007, the latest I could obtain. If we assume that the cost of fertilizers, seed and food aid has doubled, then it is about 10 times more expensive to "give people a fish and they will eat for a day" than "empower people how to fish and they will eat for a lifetime." Since it may now cost an African smallholder farmer about $150 in inputs to produce an extra ton of maize, and she can sell it locally for $250 to $300, the farmer will generate income and begin the economic transformation from sub-subsistence into commercial entrepreneurs. [our italics]
The agricultural expert stresses that his positive message is not theory. To demonstrate the revolution that can be brought about, Sanchez refers to the example of Malawi, which we covered before, in-depth.
In 2005, Malawi was facing one of its worst food shortages. Harvest produced only 44 percent of the country's maize requirements, thrusting a third of its population into dependency on food aid. The government made the courageous decision to provide a 75 percent subsidy for two bags of fertilizers and 3 kilos of hybrid maize seed to every farmer. In spite of the daunting logistics of a poor, landlocked African country, the policy was implemented, and the 2006 harvest of 2.6 million tons resulted in an 18 percent surplus.

Malawi did it again in 2007, with a 3.4 million ton harvest, and the surplus increased to 57 percent. This allowed the country to export 300,000 tons to Zimbabwe, and the World Food Program to purchase 900,000 tons for its food-aid efforts to Zimbabwe, Congo and even West Africa. The 2008 harvest just completed is estimated at a 50 percent surplus.

Maize prices in Malawi have been steady; no food riots have taken place. It can be done!
The time is ripe to put an end to the obscene status quo, which forces African countries to import food or become dependent on aid, while in fact they should be major food exporters. Malawi's example, and the rising food prices are the key to this much needed transformation.

As Sanchez notes, the trend towards ever lower food prices has been the norm:
Because of drastic improvements in yields, in 2000 the real price of corn was only 35 percent of what it was in 1961; wheat, 37 percent; and rice, 15 percent. Food became really too cheap.
We have grown accustomed to this dirt-cheap food. But the reversal of this trend is obvious good news for the world's farmers. And ultimately, if we invest in them, rising food prices are also good for the world's poorest people, because 75% of these are small farmers.

American and European tax-payers should no longer subsidize the costly, inefficient and perverse food aid industry. Instead, they should demand that their 'aid' money is invested directly into small farmers and their capacity to supply their countries' populations.
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