Water -> Food

As a follow-up to the look at water in the previous post, last Tuesday, October 16th was World Food Day. I know it lacks the alliterative appeal of World Water Day, but as they say here, asi es.

Turns out World Food Day has been going on since 1945. This is the first I knew of it. It’s probably hard for the UN to find ad space.

One of things that caught my eye when I was reading through some of the statistics for the water post, was a section about sustainable agricultural practices and their importance in water conservation. For example the 1500 liters of water it takes to produce 1 (that’s right one!) kilo of wheat. Or the 15,000 liters of water it takes to produce a single kilo of beef. I feel like in the States people of my age have grown up with the concept of environmentalism and environmental stewardship all around us (choosing to partake is a whole other issue) – campaigns to save “the rainforest” or against littering or to recycle or images of mustached sea otters reminding us of the importance of clean waterways. The idea of preserving the environment has always been there in the background. More recently the sustainability movement and with it the idea of green everything has become not only en vogue, but also gone from being a mark of corporate savviness to an essentiality.

Agriculture has never been able to reach the level of hipness as environmentalism. Probably why we didn’t know it was World Food Day but all know for sure when Earth Day falls on the calendar. It’s a shame because they’re one in the same. Sustainable agriculture is the cornerstone of a sustainable future – especially in environmental terms. When will it get its Kermit the Frog?

So the World Food Day alarming stats say one in seven people suffers from undernourishment; 3.5 million children die every year from under-nutrition – one every six seconds.

What does this possibly have to do with Paraguay that I’ve taken the time to write about it? Small farmers. As impressive as Iowa is, it’s small farmers who are going to have to feed the bulk the rest of the world’s growing population over the next fifty years. The same small farmers that a very meager amount of Peace Corps volunteers around the world are working with demonstrating techniques on how to be more sustainable producers. The best argument for doing so isn’t even the environmental benefits – it’s that it works, is cheaper and in the long run easier. None of that though makes the effort less difficult.

In the early nineties, right around the time some of us in elementary were peddling those tee shirts in the name of endangered species, there was a brief period where we had these little white cardboard cubes, of some sort of origami construction, to collect change for the famine in the horn of Africa. We all know how that turned out. Ridley Scott jogged our memory and tired to open some eyes about a decade after the fact with Black Hawk Down. It’s a perfect reminder that the problems faced with thirst and hunger and extreme poverty don’t happen in a vacuum. They just don’t happen under our noses.  Or they do and we chose to smell brighter stuff.

I reckon to say we’ll hear a lot about Iraq and Iran in the final presidential debate on foreign policy tomorrow, but not a word about the larger scale issues standing to pose much greater problems and in desperate need of greater advocacy – everywhere.

We’ll see.



More on Beans and Government

A great piece was recently published, in the New York Times, by the director of Oxfam International, highlighting the role of that damned little bean we keep discussing, in the recent ousting of Paraguay’s president, Fernando Lugo.

Soy is neither a new or small topic in Paraguay. I often tell people that any work you’re doing in this country can be related to agriculture. By that standard I suppose it also wouldn’t be too far to say that nothing here is ever that far separated from the soybean. I can’t understate this relationship enough, which is why I’ve written here about it so many times. (You can find my previous ramblings on soy here, here, here, and here).

The Times article succinctly covers many of the ideas I’ve tried to touch and even comes pretty close to capturing some of the ridiculousness of the situation. I hope you’ll all read the article, but some of it bears repeating:

  • Paraguay is the world’s 4th largest exporter of soy in a time when there seems no limit to how much of the legume the world insists upon consuming
  • In the past 16 years, just short of 3 million acres have been deforested here in order to plant soy instead of something edible
  • Close to 9,000 rural families a year are evicted by soy production in Paraguay
  • 1.2 million acres of land are turned into soy monocultures in Paraguay each year
  • And one billion people – one-seventh of the world’s population – goes to bed hungry every night

I’m not a vegetarian, but one comes pretty close to a convincing argument when you look at how the world’s hungry aren’t being feed because soy is being planted instead of food. The argument has some virtue but needs a little duct tape to keep it afloat. There is currently a market for soy. There isn’t one for feeding the world’s poor. There’s no money in it. Rest assured, if there was, than people would be feeding them. While this is all very true, it’s still worth pointing out that if we didn’t all have such a hunger for grain-feed beef and fish (two species that don’t even naturally eat grain) than we wouldn’t need all this soy. Remove the market, the soy goes away. The idea is the conflict will too.

It would be nice if simple economic theory could be applied to such a complex problem and yield such a pleasant outcome. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem anywhere close to happening. People want land reform – that’s why they vote for people who promise it to them. Governments want development – which at this point is measured by GDP. The two are at odds and the common ground it would seem is shrinking for the landless and disenfranchised, while growing wider for governments and agribusiness. Wide enough to plant a sea of something no one even needs in order to line pockets and hold on to power. You can’t help but wonder when a government’s overthrow is not meet with anything more than a whimper by the very people it’s designed to protect, until you realize just how disconnected they feel from that government. Separated by so many things, including a desert of soy.


Trust market forces

I heard a statistic last month that I finally got around to confirming – if typing a few words into Google counts as confirming.

US economic growth (in real GDP) for 2010 was at 2.83%. No real surprise there. I’m guessing it felt about like that – or lower.

The People’s Republic of China (that’s the big one, usually painted red on the map, not the island one most of us call Taiwan) in contrast was at 10.3%. Ranking sixth highest in the world. Again, no real surprise there – we’re all pretty used to hearing (or reading on our cheap electronics) about the rising monster in the east the will one day consume us all. Although sixth seems a bit lower then all the hype would have us believe.

The spot of third highest was reserved for a special contender. Any guesses? Weighing in with 14.4% economic growth in 2010 – more then 4% higher then China and 3.2% higher than its next nearest competitor, India – that’s right, Paraguay.

Only Qatar and Singapore (ranked higher at 1 and 2 respectively) out grew, I would say, little, Paraguay, but by the company it’s keeping here that hardly seems appropriate.

Strong beef and cereal exports are cited as the reasoning for this anomalous (I can’t believe that’s a word, or that I’m using it) growth. Seems strange to me.

Until you consider two things. First how small the Paraguayan economy is to begin with. I’m not an economist, but I think that’s a factor. And second, the topic that won’t seem to go away in these parts: the soy.

Just walking and riding around, no measuring tape, no GPS, just plain old visual observation, I’d say it’s easy to see at least – the very least – a 20% increase in the amount of land used to cultivate soy (and wheat in the off season) in the 30 kilometer stretch of highway I travel regularly. This is land that wasn’t being used previously to plant these crops and this type of visual observation does nothing to account for increases in productivity on existing parcels.

It’s almost like watching an agricultural revolution in fast forward – or a train wreck in slow motion. Fascinating, but slightly terrifying.

A few people stand to benefit greatly (a strange concept I know) while the rest of the country enjoys a falsely inflated sense of prosperity (the President here referring to the country as an “economic champion”) and only the residual benefits of any actual growth. Something tells me that when things flatten out – sooner then later on any type of scale – any sense they’ll be feeling will be neither false nor residual, but very real and very immediate.

It’s a topic I see us revisiting.