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Friday, October 20, 2017

Water and food security should be at the heart of transforming to a low carbon economy

Posted by steve on January 24, 2010

With energy availability peaking and demand still rising, many are promoting the idea of transitioning to the low carbon economy. But what are the priorities? Light bulbs? Ethanol cars? From my perspective we should be concentrating on that which we need everyday and that takes at least one quarter of our weekly budget: food and water. Food and water security should be the cornerstone of sustainable development. Already the system is failing and one billion of six billion go to bed hungry of an evening. How can we expect to support a growing population on less fossil fuel that costs more? We should start now, we have little time to loose.

Let me start with a few key concepts and then go on to explain why NOW is the time to work to create water and food security globally, and to set up the provision of water and food up so it is not fossil fuel dependent.

Key concept – Water and food security

Water security is closely linked to food security: During the second half of the 20th century, world population had a twofold increase, agriculture doubled food production and developing countries increased per capita food consumption by 30 percent. However, while feeding the world and producing a diverse range of non-food crops such as cotton, rubber and industrial oils in an increasingly productive way, agriculture also confirmed its position as the biggest user of water on the globe. Irrigation now claims close to 70 percent of all freshwater appropriated for human use.

Source: Land and Water Division FAO

Food security is one of the cornerstones of society for health, peace and prosperity. People who are well fed are also people with the means to change their situation.

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Household food security is the application of this concept to the family level, with individuals within households as the focus of concern. Source: FAO

Key concept – sustainable development

The Bruntland commission defined sustainable development thus: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

A more detailed model describes the dynamic balance between factors balance to ensure future generations the fair chance to a standard of living.


Key concept – Ecology

From an ecological point of view, a sustainable condition in an area is very much like an area of ecological maturity. Left alone, living systems tend towards ecological maturity. Key characteristics of mature ecosystems include:

• Very little leakage of mineral and biological nutrients

• High degree of capture of energy from the sun

• Retention, of especially of phosphor

• Water flow from the system is minimised, water is held as long as possible before being released as evaporation and transpiration.

• Animal populations in balance with the plant and tree population.

Mature eco-systems are able to provide a wide range of ecological services, like food, timber, firewood, water purification as well as recreational services.

Key concept – Resilience: the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks

Resilience is perhaps a more useful concept than sustainability. It describes the ability of our society to withstand outside pressures.

Systems for water and food provision need to be resilient, to be able to deal with among other things, climate change, populations pressure and fossil fuel depletion. Applicant’ solutions are judged on the resilience of their solutions. The higher the resilience, the higher the ranking of the application.

Key concept – That the right to water and food is part of human rights

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. ARTICLE 25. PARAGRAPH ONE OF THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS.

“The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights” THE UN COMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS

Food and water security are precursors of peace and thereby prosperity.

The state of sustainable development in the world today

The ambitions of sustainable development stated by the Bruntland Commission (above) and today’s situation in the world do not match. In fact, many factors indicate that societies are developing in a worrying counter-sustainable direction.

Inability to feed inhabitants


FAO estimates that 1.02 billion people are undernourished worldwide in 2009. This represents more hungry people than at any time since 1970 and a worsening of the unsatisfactory trends that were present even before the economic crisis. The increase in food insecurity is not a result of poor crop harvests but because high domestic food prices, lower incomes and increasing unemployment have reduced access to food by the poor. In other words, any benefits from falling world cereal prices have been more than offset by the global economic downturn.

Destruction of ecosystems’ ability to provide services

Initiated in 2001, the objective of The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) was to assess the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and the scientific basis for actions needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of those systems and their contribution to human well-being. Some key messages of this United Nations-backed study:

Among the outstanding problems identified by this assessment are the dire state of many of the world’s fish stocks; the intense vulnerability of the 2 billion people living in dry regions to the loss of ecosystem services, including water supply; and the growing threat to ecosystems from climate change and nutrient pollution.

? Human activities have taken the planet to the edge of a massive wave of species extinctions, further threatening our own well-being.

? The loss of services derived from ecosystems is a significant barrier to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty, hunger and disease.

? The pressures on ecosystems will increase globally in coming decades unless human attitudes and actions change.

Lack of self sufficiency, use of ghost and fossil acres in the developed world

The diagram above (courtesy of Transition training UK) shows how food security is achieved in England.

Clearly, all three means create environmental challenges as well as challenges of food distribution equity.

By importing food from other countries, taking from future generations by over-harvesting and by depleting non-renewable energy sources, the UK is living with a counter-sustainable system of food provision.


Vulnerability to fuel prices

Even if food is available, the present system creates inequalities, especially because of price. As fossil fuel is non-renewable, sooner or later demand will exceed supply and prices will soar.

“This (commenting on food price rises due to oil price hikes) is the new face of hunger. There is food on shelves, but people are priced out of the market. There are food riots in countries where we have not seen them before. We will have a significant gap if commodity prices remain this high, and we will need an extra half billion dollars just to meet existing need.” Josette Sheeran, Head of the UN’s World Food Programme February 2008

Lack of resilience in food and water provision systems

Of concern too, is that the arrangements for food provision that have developed over the recent decades lack resilience.

The following comes from Rob Hopkin’s keynote article in the magazine Resurgence No. 257 November/December 2009

Let’s take a supermarket as an example. It may be possible to increase its sustainability and to reduce its carbon emissions by using less packaging, putting solar photovoltaics on the roof and installing more energy-efficient fridges. However, resilience thinking would argue that the closure of local food shops and networks that resulted from the opening of the supermarket, as well as the fact that the store itself only contains two days’ worth of food at any moment – the majority of which has been transported great distances to get there – has massively reduced the resilience of community food security, as well as increasing its oil vulnerability. One extreme, but relevant, example of where sustainability thinking falls short was Tesco’s recent ‘Flights for Lights’ promotion, where people were able to gain air miles when they purchased low-energy light bulbs!

The turning points

Several turning points that impact food provision have happened during the last few decades.

Carbon Dioxide concentrations pass 350 ppm in 1990.

Some climate scientist, including NASA’s own expert James Hansen, believes that levels of carbon dioxide over 350 ppm (part per million) put the climate system in danger of becoming unstable, with uncontrollable warming as one possible result. Already, climate change is forcing many farmers to leave what were once fertile areas. Massive Australian rice farms, that could supply millions with rice, have been forced to close because of drought.

Fossil fuel use in developing countries surpasses that of the OECD in 2005. Competition for fuel is likely to grow, raising prices.

As much as one quarter of the world fossil fuel use is for food provision, food prices are likely to rise too.

The peak of oil production

According to some experts, including Prof. Kjell Aleklett of Uppsala University, Sweden , the peak of oil production is near or been reached already. Again, as populations increase and countries force ahead with their plans for economic development, demand pressures will raise prices, raising food prices in turn.

Agreements to limit fossil fuel use

The recent COP15 Copenhagen Accord sets the stage for reductions in fossil fuel use, which potentially reduces the amount of fuel available for food provision.

The need for true innovation

(The British department of food, DEFRA) … will discover (not so surprisingly) that real food security and real sustainability are in fact one and the same thing. JONATHON PORRITT, FOUNDER DIRECTOR OF FORUM FOR THE FUTURE WWW.FORUMFORTHEFUTURE.ORG, AND CHAIRMAN OF THE UK SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT COMMISSION

There is, therefore need for true innovation to provide solutions to the three challenges to increasing food insecurity:

• Effects of climate change

• Population pressure

• Fossil fuel dependence

The solutions need to be innovative rather than narrow technical solutions as they must work for those who are poor, in areas where fossil fuel may not be available, and where the climate is ever more unpredictable.


Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future

For more information on Ecological maturity,, see System Ecologist Folke Gunther’s website

Transition Towns founder Rob Hopkins discusses resilience in relation to the UK government’s plan for a low-carbon society in Resurgence No. 257 November/December 2009

Uppsala University:

the UK Sustainable Development Commission

Please consider signing the hunger petition by the United Nations FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization)

Posted by steve on November 13, 2009

Please consider signing the hunger petition by the United Nations FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization), which they will show to government delegates at their big Food Security conference next week 16-18 November 2009.


Info on Food Security conference:

The director of FAO is also calling for people to hunger strike, i.e., fast for 1 day this weekend (Saturday or Sunday) as a sign of compassion for the 1,000,000,000 people who are hungry right now.

One speaker I heard recently said: Today’s 1 billion hungry is the greatest calamity ever in human history! It bears reflecting upon.

Me to climate deniers: we need to talk, like, now.

Posted by steve on October 22, 2009

By cmgramse/Flickr

photo: cmgramse/Flickr

I have been following the debate from the climate denier side for a few weeks, mostly in fascination of how you can, in contrast to being a sceptic, go ahead and categorically deny the possibility that emissions into the atmosphere could create a climate system collapse.  So I figured that to be a denier you must have some pretty solid science behind you. That’s fascinating. In a spooky way, as I personally am seriously worried that we have not passed a tipping point already.

Anyway, having learned to be sceptical about being sceptical, I was keeping an open mind about where my investigations could lead me.  And I got more than I bargained for. That’s why we need to talk.

What follows is what I would like to say to you – if you are a denier – and if you are not, I’d like you to be in on the conversation. This is serious stuff, hard to express, and to get to the heart of the matter I might have to ramble around it. So bear with me.

To get to a stage where you deny anthropogenic climate system impacts you have to first reject the position of an established group of scientists. In fact this is nothing unusual, established groups have been wrong before.  You also get into an explanation as to why so many rational men and women could get it THAT WRONG. And at the same time, explain how a number of equally rational men and women could stand up to conventional wisdom.

One explanation offered by deniers is one of money and security – follow the accepted line and you keep your job, one of the most powerful motivators around.

So let me paraphrase the way I understand deniers think  – and this is one of the reasons why we need a long serious talk – I need to know if I am right.

The theory (that climate change is being accelerated by man), is being supported by a cadre of scientists who are, consciously or unconsciously, following this line because it suits their own interests  and the interests of trade and industry owners who pay them. They put their own needs above the needs of the general public. This is in contrast to the few who have the moral courage to stand for their opposite position. The position  – of anthropogenic global warming – is detrimental to societal development as, if followed, will result in fuel restrictions that harm economic growth.

The thing that gets me about this is that if we accept the denier’s position, then it could well be true for other areas. Why stop at climate change? I have to admit that I myself and suspicious of what we could call established economic truths. Suppose I substituted my ideas about economy in the paragraph above?

The theory (that economic growth driven by free markets will create better standards for all), is being supported by a cadre of economists who are, consciously or unconsciously, following this line because it suits their own interests  and the interests of trade and industry owners who pay them. They put their own needs above the needs of the general public. This is in contrast to the few who have the moral courage to stand for their opposite position. This position of infinite economic growth is detrimental to societal development and, if followed, will result in continued ecological destruction and environmental degradation and ultimately create a humanitarian catastrophe.

So where does the discussion lead? The climate deniers I have read want us to continue to release CO2 into the atmosphere. They do, however, recognize that there is a global fuels shortage ahead, and many of them argue for nuclear power. In this case they agree with a large body of established scientists that nuclear power is safe. And they seem to agree with the established view that economic growth should prevail.

For me it doesn’t add up. How can you so categorically believe that a group is acting against your interests in one case but so altruistically for you in another?

Which brings me to why we need to talk. Look. We are all in the same boat, a planet under pressure, an economy in serious debt and no sensible way forward. A system which is slow to change, being held back by the fear of the very people who have been trained and educated and employed with public money to serve us. It is a crisis of faith in each other. We are never going to get anywhere if we let this continue.

Arguing about the science is a waste of time at this stage, as we are discussing the same outcome – restrictions on fossil fuel – which anyway are the same restrictions Peak Oil protagonists, civil liberties and alternate economists are talking of. It is small change in comparison to the crisis of faith in leaders and civil servants we are facing. This crisis is dangerous, as people could be opened even more to manipulation, looking for strong leadership and guidance.

So we need to talk, and we need to find a way forward together to a society with more people, more peace more prosperity and more equality but with less fossil fuel. Or?

BBC picks up perfect storm warning from top scientist

Posted by steve on August 27, 2009

A perfect storm of shortages is what the BBC calls its series, inspired by the warnings from no other than John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, of a possible crisis in 2030. See his entire speech here.

This perfect storm is one where factors combine to present challenges to the world’s population as yet unheard of.  Population pressure on land and water, combined with declining fossil fuel extraction means rising food prices. Coupled with the negative effects of climate change, we may be seeing migrants fleeing the worst-hit regions.

My comments

The vision of A Very Beautiful Place is that we CAN live well on less, that we CAN adapt, and that it  probably leads to a nicer life anyway.

It starts with food and water security. Organisations like the Humanitarian Water and Food Award are urging governments, industrialized nations and developing alike, to put this issue at the top of the agenda. If you are well-fed you have the possibility to use all your human ingenuity to solve other problems. If you are hungry you cannot think straight, you cannot work, you cannot even fight.

Food security is the base of prosperity. The recent attempts to create growth by stimulating  financial markets only serves to illustrate how far people’s thinking has come from the idea that we can live well in a very beautiful place – if we take care of it and each other.

Quote: enjoying this beautiful life is about who we are

Posted by steve on August 17, 2009

There are people who like to point out all the problems, and in a way, I’m glad they do. But I think there should be some people who point out the good, the beautiful, because this life, despite all the problems, is beautiful. And sometimes, caught up in our troubles, our turmoil, our ideas, our concepts, we forget what we have been given. Who are we?

Prem Rawat

Connecting peace and sustainable development

Posted by steve on April 27, 2009

Sometimes I can’t get things out of my head. It felt like a long shot, but as I stepped onto the plane to Berlin to attend a Words of Peace conference with Prem Rawat, I couldn’t ignore my intuition telling me that peace and sustainable development were linked somehow and that maybe the journey and time with him was going to provide some insights.
Berlinfor the first time in my life, old images of the war, the division of the two countries and its uniting cropped up. But there was no wall, no division. I strained to work out if I was in the East or West, but no. Just people. This is the way it should be. No divisions. No wars. WAIT! There is more to read… read on »