I think the main issue facing agriculture is…

Old MacDonald had a farm, but what will Young MacDonald have?

A fine life as he or she adapts the old man’s farm to new markets and growing demand for rural amenities?

A barren field poisoned by overuse of chemicals?

Constant worry climate change will provoke drought or flooding or bring a new pest?

An enviable bank balance after selling the farm to a real estate developer?

A thriving business supplying feedstock to the local biofuels refinery?

The satisfaction of supplying high-quality organic produce?

Take the poll and tell us what you think the main issue for agriculture will be over the coming decades. You can choose more than one answer.

Agriculture ministers from OECD and non-OECD countries are meeting in Paris on 25-26 February. You can find meeting documents and information here.

The Recession: Routes, Reach, Responses

By way of introduction …

In Macon City, Iowa, the McMillans are coping with some new realities. In late 2008, Dennis lost his job as a saw operator after almost 15 years with the same company. “It was October 30,” the 61-year-old told the Globe Gazette newspaper. “Some dates you never forget.” Eight months later it was his wife’s turn: After working for 20 years in a hospital, Melody was let go. Today, she’s still looking for work: “I really thought I’d get a position. But I’m overqualified for some jobs because of being a specialist and underqualified for other jobs …”

In Dublin, Kelly Lynch is coming to terms with the sudden death of the “Celtic Tiger” – the booming economy that transformed Irish expectations. “Our generation never experienced anything but the Celtic Tiger. We heard about the [recession of the] 1980s, but it was all just whispers and ghost stories. Now it’s come back and, yeah, it’s a bit of a shock,” the 24-year-old told The Irish Times.

In Bangkok, Witaya Rakswong is learning to live on less. He used to work as a sous chef in a luxury hotel in Thailand. Then he worked in a bar in Bangkok until its customers stopped coming. Now he’s cooking in a cafe on the outskirts of the Thai capital, earning 60% of his hotel salary. “If you spend it wisely, you’d be able to get by,” the 37-year-old told World Bank researchers. “Getting by” has meant cutting his mother’s allowance by a fifth. “It hurts everybody,” he said. “Even if you’re not laid off, you’re still affected by the crisis, because you’re stuck with more work to do for the same or less money. It stresses me out sometimes … ”

Different stories, different cities, but all united by one thing: The recession. After the financial crisis of 2008 came an economic downturn that saw world GDP fall by an estimated 2.2% in 2009 – the first contraction in the global economy since 1945. Even more striking was how it hit so many of the world’s economies. While the extent to which economies slowed varied, most suffered some sort of setback, making this truly a global crisis, perhaps the first of its kind.

►              This chapter looks first at some of the routes the recession took through economies and then at its global reach: The recession may have its roots in the financial centres of developed countries, but its impact stretched far beyond to include emerging and developing countries. Finally, we’ll look at how governments moved to tackle the crisis.

Hunger is a problem of poverty, not scarcity

You can’t expect the public to stay interested in hunger for more than about 40 days. That’s what experience had taught the impresario in Franz Kafka’s The Hunger Artist. Getting the media along and a couple of pretty girls to hold the starving man’s hand helps to get attention of course, but the fact is, after a while, people lose interest completely.

Kafka’s short story has sinister echoes today, except that 40 days is far longer than any story stays on the front page now. The last time hunger hit the headlines was in 2007-2008, with food riots in a number of countries because of sudden price rises.

Prices have since fallen, but the benefit was wiped out for millions of people by the crisis, and the number of hungry people in the world grew from around 850 million before the food crisis and recession to a billion today.

There is no such thing as an apolitical food problem

There are fears that hunger will never be eradicated and that the situation will continue to get worse, with demand for food commodities accelerating while the increase in per capita food supply slows.

It’s true that several factors are combining to boost demand.

For a start, there’s the mechanical effect of population growth. Output will have to double over the next 40 years to feed a world population of 9 billion in 2050.

Added to that, although there will be crises and recessions in the future, the trend is for the world to get richer, and for more people to adopt Western-style diets rich in meat, dairy and other foodstuffs that demand higher inputs than diets based on cereals or tubers.

Food production is facing competition for land from other uses, including biofuels.

Finally, environmental pressures on agriculture are growing, with climate change introducing a number of uncertainties, and expected to have the worst impacts on countries least able to cope.

Yet, when you look at the facts, there is no “agricultural” reason for hunger today. Global food production has increased more quickly than population over the past half century, and the EU and USA even had to bring in policies to get rid of “mountains” and “lakes” of food and drink.

If people are hungry, it’s because they can’t afford to buy food, not that there is no food to buy. There are many reasons for this. Politics, policies and poverty all intertwine, and as Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen said “There is no such thing as an apolitical food problem.” 

Useful links

Food security is one of the issues on the agenda at this week’s meeting of agriculture ministers at the OECD. You can find a background note prepared for ministers on markets and food security here.

Again the phantom city burns

This post contributed by John Mutter, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences/Professor of International and Public Affairs and Director of PhD in Sustainable Development, Columbia University, NY and Elisabeth King, a political scientist researching conflict, peacebuilding and development in Sub-Saharan Africa and postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

How much do the tent cities forming around Port-au-Prince remind us of the camps set up to shelter those who have fled the violence of civil war?  How much do the ruins in the streets of that city remind us of the destruction of violence?  The scope of the casualties, perhaps more than 200,000 (we’ll never know the true figure), certainly echoes numbers we hear from war zones. To the Haitian President René Préval the similarities are stark.  A few days after the earthquake he said “The damage I have seen here can be compared to the damage you would see if the country was bombed for 15 days. It is like in a war.”   Such similarities between disasters and violent conflict are often noted superficially, especially by the news media in the immediate aftermath, and this has certainly been the case in reports about Haiti’s earthquake.

Perhaps we might expect remarks of this sort in reference to places like Haiti that have a history of conflict but such analogies are common, even in places that do not have a history of violent conflict.  In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many reporters commented on how that scene appeared like a war zone.  When the National Guard arrived in New Orleans, the disaster relief operation transformed into the military operation of restoring and maintaining order and images of soldiers in armored vehicles with weapons at the “ready” position were indistinguishable from those we commonly associate with peacekeeping in conflict situations.

The analogy ought not to be taken too far and certainly, there are very important differences between disasters and violent conflicts.  Natural disasters are generally portrayed as the result of a capricious act of nature, perhaps made worse by human agency, while conflicts are usually thought of as acts of one group of people against another.  Nature is rarely invoked as a cause of conflict despite a growing recognition that environmentally driven scarcity could enhance social stresses and raise tensions.  With the exception perhaps of extended periods of drought, most natural disasters are shorter duration events than conflicts and none match the extended civil conflicts in Sudan or Colombia.   There are no obvious analogies to war crimes or war crime trials and no equivalents to truth and reconciliation efforts though there is little doubt that there is opportunistic criminal behavior during disasters and legal actions sometimes follow.  Nor is there an equivalent to a negotiated ceasefire or victory by one party over another.

Yet there is more at work here than the somewhat gratuitous media comparisons between disasters and conflicts might suggest.   (more…)

Cashing in on cows

cow picture
“Cows are amongst the gentlest of breathing creatures; none show more passionate tenderness to their young when deprived of them; and, in short, I am not ashamed to profess a deep love for these quiet creatures.” Thomas de Quincey

“Nowhere is the cow so feeble, and her yield so little as in India. Nowhere is she so badly treated as she is today in India by the Hindus.” So said Mahatma Gandhi in 1925, in a speech to the All-India Cow-Protection Conference.

Being holy comes with more duties than privileges. Hindus don’t kill or eat their cows, but Gandhi’s speech underlines the fact that apart from milk, a live cow can provide fertilizer, fuel and building material from its dung, as well as traction power and maybe even another cow. And it can do this by eating grass and parts of plants that are of no use to humans.

It also provides an ultimate safety net when times are really hard, but killing a cow provides only a one-off benefit that may prove disastrous to a poor family in the long run. As Marvin Harris points out in Cows, pigs, wars and witches,  a taboo against killing cows can have practical benefits beyond its religious and moral meanings.

Today, there are more cows in the world than Indians, and the livestock sector is one of the fastest growing parts of the agricultural economy. According to the FAO’s latest State of Food and Agriculture report,  livestock accounts for 40% of the global value of agricultural production and supports the livelihoods and food security of almost a billion people. Worldwide, livestock contributes 15% of total food energy and 25% of dietary protein. Products from livestock provide essential micronutrients that are not easily obtained from other plant food products.

Rising incomes, population growth and urbanisation are pushing up demand for meat products in developing countries. Global annual meat production is expected to expand from 228 million tonnes at present to 463 million tonnes by 2050, with the cattle population estimated to grow from 1.5 billion to 2.6 billion and that of goats and sheep from 1.7 billion to 2.7 billion.

All these animals need food and drink too. To produce a kilo of boneless beef takes about 6.5 kg of grain, 36 kg of roughages, and 155 litres of water for drinking and servicing. Producing the feed requires about 15300 litres of water on average.

We look at the “water footprint” of everyday products in the Insights on Sustainable Development, while food production and environmental questions are among the issues discussed in the forthcoming Insights on food and agriculture.

Useful links

Agriculture ministers from OECD and non-OECD countries will be meeting at the OECD on 25-26 February. On this page you’ll find information about the meeting as well as a series of background notes covering the issues ministers will be discussing.

We’ll also be discussing some of these issues in a series of posts next week.

I’d like to be a dancer or a doctor, but I won’t

It’s OK to punch a woman in the face if she’s having an affair according to children interviewed by Nancy Lombard of Edinburgh Napier University as part of a study on children’s attitudes to violence against women.

Dr Lombard’s research included questionnaires and in-depth interviews with 89 pupils aged 11 to 12 years old at schools in Glasgow.

Most of the children thought it was wrong to be violent, but also agreed that if a wife didn’t have the dinner ready it might be acceptable to push her. Only 20% suggested the husband could have made it himself.

Violence is the main focus of the study, to be presented today at a conference organised by Scottish Women’s Aid, but it also gives some indications as to how the children see their prospects.

“At the moment I want to be a dancer or a doctor. When I grow up I’m going to have two babies and work part-time in the shop down the road” said one girl.

The fact that at 11 or 12 years old she already thinks that moving up the social ladder is only a dream is sad. The fact that she lives in the UK means she has less chance of escaping from a dead-end job than a child from a similar socio-economic background in other countries.

It is easier to climb the social ladder and earn more than your parents in the Nordic countries, Australia and Canada than in France, Italy, Britain and the United States, according to a new OECD study, Intergenerational Social Mobility: a family affair?

The study finds, as you’d expect, that there is a “virtuous circle” in which the children of better educated parents in higher earning jobs do well.

It also finds that increasing the social mix within schools appears to boost the performance of disadvantaged students without any apparent negative effects on overall performance.

Segregating pupils too early on the basis of academic ability undermines social mobility. By delaying selection until age 16 instead of 10 as is currently the case in some countries, the influence of the school socio-economic environment on academic performance could be reduced by as much as two-thirds.

The study also finds that social mobility between generations tends to be lower in more unequal societies. Tax and benefit policies aimed at providing income support or access to education may reduce the handicaps of a poorer or less well educated background.

Like father, like son? The higher the bar, the more likely are a son’s earnings to reflect his father’s


Useful links

Chapter 3 of the OECD Insights on Human Capital discusses children and families 

OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs

OECD Directorate for Education

We are a bit bemused, Part II

We reported last year that no less a figure than the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II had admitted to bafflement about the financial crisis. “ … She asked me: ‘How come nobody could foresee it?,” Professor Luis Garicano of the London School of Economics (LSE) told reporters back then.

The professor and his colleagues later wrote to the Queen to try to answer her question, blaming in part “a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people”. Now, they’ve sent another letter to Her Majesty, suggesting she could actually play a role in helping to avoid the next crisis.

The academics’ idea is that the Queen should request a monthly briefing on the state of the economy and – crucially – what may lie ahead. This would go beyond forecasting, which is an attempt to say what will happen; instead, the aim would be say what could happen under a variety of different possible outlooks – so-called horizon-scanning.

As The Guardian  reports, the economists’ letter “explained the need for less complacency and more horizon-scanning, during which various scenarios are thought through, however unwelcome their outcomes might seem.”

Interestingly, this idea is not dissimilar to OECD proposals on financial reform, which include the idea that government figures and regulators in every OECD country –not just the UK – “should publish annual reports that give an overview of developments in the financial system, identify key risks and explain how they are addressing them.”

We asked Tim Besley, one of the signatories of the letter and a professor of economics at LSE, to explain a little bit more about the proposal, which came out of a forum organised by the British Academy.

“It’s difficult to get busy people, whether they’re ministers, senior civil servants or even academics to take their eyes off their desks, look into the future and say, ‘what are the bigger-picture issues we should be worrying about?’,” says Prof. Besley. But, he adds, if we’re to develop a proper system for spotting risks and vulnerabilities “we have to institutionalise this more long-run, horizon-scanning focus.”

Prof. Besley admits that creating such a committee would carry its own risks, including the danger of it getting stuck in a rut: “I think there’s a sort of tendency for people to get bogged down in their own thinking about their own issues,” he says. It would also be hard “to get anyone to take any notice of the output of this institutionalised committee.”

Which is where the Queen comes in: While providing a report to the head of state wouldn’t be the main function of the committee, it would, Prof. Besley believes, be a useful catalyst – focusing minds on the need to communicate clearly and to keep on thinking the unthinkable: “The idea would be to keep the thing fresh and really try to find the key issues every month.”

Useful links OECD

The OECD International Futures programme carries out horizon scanning

The OECD Horizon Scan was part of the Danish government’s Forsk2015 strategic planning exercise

OECD Insights: From Crisis to Recovery (forthcoming)