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Rosamond Naylor on Global Food Security
David Zaks, 13 Mar 07
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Rosamond Naylor is the Julie Wrigley Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and is an Associate Professor (by courtesy) in Economics at Stanford University. Dr. Naylor's research focuses on the policy and environmental implications of the global food system. She visited Madison last week as part of the Weston Global Distinguished Lecture series sponsored by the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment.

David Zaks: As reported by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, services such as crops, livestock and aquaculture have increased while many other services we depend on have decreased. How do we manage these trade-offs to provide both an adequate amount of food and services like clean air and fresh water?

Rosamond Naylor: The trade-off is inevitably there, but it doesn't have to be as great as it is, and I think a lot of agriculturalists have promoted the development of crops and agriculture and aquaculture without really thinking about the external costs which are not paid by producers. Without an appreciation of how fundamentally important water is, the types of development path that we have been on have been fundamentally flawed. If the integration of ecosystem goods and services and agricultural development were improved, some of the implication of that would be to have agricultural systems that were much more water efficient. Agriculture is the biggest water user, because we use water recklessly without having to pay a price for it. Water use could be improved in virtually every system on the planet except for the very highly tuned drip irrigation systems that already exist, and then it is a matter of cost and incentive.

In livestock, a lot of improvements could be made; for example, the efficiency of waste versus intake in the types of livestock and how they are raised. And with regard to demand for livestock, we need to ask whether people really need to eat this much meat. We're not expecting or demanding vegetarianism, but I think there needs to be some fundamental change. The challenge on livestock is going to be that most of the demand, particularly for pork and poultry, is coming from the developing world, where increased protein intake is seen as a very good thing.

Other services, such as pest control are often ignored in agricultural systems, assuming you can use chemical pesticides instead of having natural pest and predator interactions. Costa Rica's environmental policies have really helped to stimulate the kind of pest - predator interactions [to reduce pesticide use].

If I had one overarching gleam of hope, it would be in diversifying agriculture more than just having for example, a corn-soy rotation in the Midwest. It is possible, agroclimatically, to have a much more diverse system that would depend on much less chemical pesticide and fertilizer because the diversity of the system itself could support the kinds of ecosystem services needed. The same thing goes in the developing world; rather than just base things on the staple cereals of rice, wheat, corn, can't we think of a much more diversified system that is actually much more nutritious as well?

DZ: Payments for ecosystem services is one mechanism that has been discussed for valuing the true cost of the systems that we depend on. What steps are needed to integrate ecology into the economy and what successful models are working now?

RN: The best model is the emergence of the global carbon market, and tradable carbon is a great example of being able to capture a commodity that is very important for the health of the planet's climate regulation, and is also fundamental to agriculture. Water resources being such an important ecosystem service, markets for those can be fundamentally transformed in every country in the world. Historically they have been set up without having any bounds on agricultural use, but could those be reformed over time to have more efficient use in agriculture? With some of the other kinds of ecosystem services you have to think of the pressures of a regulatory system that prohibits the use of certain chemicals versus an incentives-based system that encourages people to do the right thing.

In countries that can afford it, like the United States, our farm bill has opportunities to address a number of these issues that many countries without the financial capital would be hard pressed to define. Some of the programs, like programs that pay producers to clean up their waste, are examples of the kinds of programs that could be introduced initially to reward the right kind of behavior. So, a system of rewards and punishments needs to be part of this, at least in countries that can afford to do it.

DZ: From E.Coli to bird flu, the global food system is coming under attack from many fronts. How can the global food system become more resilient in the face of these threats?

RN: In terms of some of the pathogens and diseases, bird flu is a great example. For better or for worse, one of the responses is to have more industrial livestock, because being able to control animal health through the entire production chain from birth through the slaughtering process and sale is the best way for companies to control the health issues as opposed to companies having broadly distributed livestock systems. One way that society is dealing with these problems is to try to control animal health throughout the system, and the implication is much larger systems -- and fewer of them -- and they are much more industrially based. That is an issue that I think we need to reconcile: how do you take these big systems and make sure that they are operating in the most environmentally and ecosystem friendly way possible. This is something that we are seeing that is fairly new, and the people in this field are recognizing that this is an 800 lb. gorilla, not just a trend. What does it mean for the well-being of individuals and the environment?

Other threats like climate change are really urgent issues to get on. There are very rarely agriculturalists in the climate community, and likewise rarely climate scientists in the agricultural community. The integration of those two communities is really key at this stage of preparing in an adaptive sense for climate change, because both climate variability and level of change are going to have a huge impact. Some of the boundaries need to be broken in terms of understanding how these systems work.

DZ: What role is aquaculture going to play in a sustainable global food system? What are the risks and opportunities?

RN: The aquaculture sector is growing very rapidly all over the world. We can understand it in places like North America, where we can see it, but it's hard to imagine in places like China, which now accounts for over 80% of global aquaculture. Much of aquaculture all over the world is low-value species in ponds, and has a fairly low impact on ecosystems, like carp in backyard ponds that have been around for hundreds of years. Those systems are probably good for food security in rural areas, but the real growth is in high-value systems that are mainly being delivered to rich countries like the United States and in Europe. Ranching everything from bluefin tuna to salmon has expanded and you can probably buy fresh salmon at any time of the year. People now perceive a health benefit from eating fish as opposed to eating meat, and so there is a large switch there.

I think that aquaculture is going to rise very rapidly over a long period of time especially as wild fish stocks continue to decline. In some sense we can't continue to fish the ocean any more, it is just too difficult to put any more pressure on it than we already are putting on those systems, but we will continue to put those pressures on it regardless of aquaculture because there are still policy incentives to fish the oceans. Very rarely do you see marine aquaculture being encouraged by policy to follow a sustainable path. There are producers who are trying to operate on a more sustainable basis, but as they go down this path and there are problems in farmed fish that are exotic to the natural ecosystem and transfer disease and other pathogens. The industry will claim that they are on a learning curve and things will get better, but the problem is that the curve is so great that and we are already intruding in ecosystems that are so vulnerable to collapse.

There are several initiatives going on right now that involve certification of more sustainable systems, and some of these are better than others. The Global Aquaculture Alliance is an industry based group that has their own certification where the bar is quite low, particularly for salmon. It just says that if you follow government rules you basically fine. But in most countries there are no government rules to monitor sustainability, so that is not going to work. There is pressure on that group to improve the standards, but they want at least 60% of the industry to be involved, and that requires drawing the bar low. There are other certification programs that the World Wildlife Fund are involved where they are in dialogues with producers and all stakeholders, and if they can ever reach an agreement before all these ecosystem impacts have occurred, that would be great, but it is taking a long time. There is no Marine Stewardship Council certification yet for farmed fish, there are no organic standards for farmed fish, things are moving slowly but some of these standards will help consumers decide, if they are at all environmentally minded.

Finally, there is technological improvement occurring every day in aquaculture. This includes better uptake of feeds, and although technology for fish improvement continues, the volume of fish is continuing to grow at a much faster pace. Technology is operating at several scales to improve things, but I would say that the largest environmental risks are going to be from the marine side and the side of fish that consume other fish as an input for feed, not on the shellfish side.

DZ: In the next couple of years, we are going to go through a transition to a less carbon intensive energy economy. Biofuels are poised to become a substantial part of this transition. An increasing amount of agricultural resources are dedicated to fuel production like oil palm, corn and soy. What impact is this going to have on the food system, and how can we ensure that there are both more sustainable sources of fuel along as well as an adequate food supply?

RN: The biofuel future is very uncertain and we are all looking at it with anticipation. There are at least five issues that I think are critical to be watching and to understand as fast as we can. The first is that as we wean off fossil fuels we need to be sure that biofuels are really going to relieve the stress on greenhouse gas emissions. The evidence is somewhat sketchy on that, even for corn that requires a lot of fertilizer inputs and transportation, but some studies say that there is a net gain. On the other hand oil palm is being developed by clearing rainforest that in some cases is on peat soil with enormous losses of carbon to the atmosphere, and so the net loss is quite high on those. Also, is it less polluting or not? There are a lot of aerosols and other atmospheric pollutants that are still a problem, as well as nitrates and other issues from fertilized fields.

Another question is can we move to the goal of cellulosic fuel basis as opposed to crop based fuel? What is that really going to require? On the energy side, it is much more energy intensive to reduce those sugars down to a useful form. Right now it is not efficient to do that at all. Colleagues of mine in this field estimate that it will be 4-5 years before any of that will likely come online, at which time we might have created more damages than we would have alleviated.

Finally, what are the impacts on food security? How will it effect prices, as you have seen with the immediate impact of tortilla prices in Mexico City going through the roof, and the government having to step in. For other countries that rely on staples such as corn, palm oil and soybeans, these questions will become more critical. It is promising that we are looking toward renewables, but I don't think we can say that agricultural land is the most promising root given all its impacts as a trade-off with ecosystem services.

DZ: As we at Worldchanging see it, sustainability should be a global security priority. From disease and hunger to poverty and environmental degradation, these complex issues require dedicated people in the areas of science, economics, business and policy working in their own areas, but also working together to tackle some of these sometimes unfathomable problems. Your career has touched on many of these issues. What are some lessons that you have learned that have resulted in Worldchanging outcomes?

RN: There is more recognition that security shouldn't be defined as national or international security in terms of conflict of terrorist threats, but should be defined as human security and the secure healthy environment and the secure physical environment in which to grow food and to lead a productive life. Kofi Anan at the UN recently redefined his concepts of food security to really capture human security as a major goal. This was really evident in his conversations in the developing world where human security issues were much more important than conflict issues. What I have learned in my career is that having conversations across disciplines is probably the most fruitful thing that can occur. New ideas emerge almost instantaneously when you have a good interdisciplinary conversation, and solutions that a single discipline couldn't imagine evolve very rapidly when you start talking across borders. From the very fundamental ways of restructuring our educational system to having more interdisciplinary opportunities, to somehow within government systems breaking the borders between health, environment, forestry, and fisheries and recognizing that they are all interconnected. A coordinating agency almost needs to exist in all cases and to be directly integrated into an international regime. In all cases it means breaking down those borders.

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Stephen L. Tvedten
2530 Hayes Street
Marne, Michigan 49435

"All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence." – Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader

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Posted by: anonymous on 14 Mar 07



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