31 October 2009

The World Food Crisis

World Food Day, on October 16th, has come and gone. I wonder if anyone remembers this year’s theme: “Achieving food security in times of crisis”. Frankly, I found the theme rather obscure. It was coined by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, whose founding in 1945 World Food Day commemorates. But to what kind of crisis was FAO referring: financial, family or a natural disaster? Perhaps it was referring to a crisis of confidence in the international mechanism of ensuring humankind’s basic right to food? That would certainly be timely.

Thirty-five years ago, Henry Kissinger, the then U.S. Secretary of State declared at the World Food Conference in 1974, that within 10 years no child would go to bed hungry. There are now over 1 billion people around the world that don’t get enough to eat. More than half of them are children who certainly go to bed hungry.

There is nothing obscure about the looming world food crisis. Food production in developing countries will need to nearly double by 2050, if the planet’s 9.1 billion people are going to get enough to eat. And that at a time when global climate change and extreme weather will have profound effects on food production in the world’s most populous countries. The drought in Ethiopia and floods in the Philippines are just the tip of the iceberg.

To address this daunting challenge, the leaders of the G8 countries announced at their meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, in July this year that $20 billion would be contributed to world food security over a period of 3 years. Last week, FAO’s Committee on World Food Security, the CFS, which serves as a forum within the United Nations system for policies on world food security, including it's production, availability and affordability, announced a series of wide-ranging reforms. In addition to broader participation by those UN agencies tackling food security issues, the CFS will now include other international organizations such the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, civil society and non-governmental organizations and private sector associations. It will also receive advice from a high-level panel of experts on food security and nutrition to ensure a scientific basis for solutions to hunger.

Broadening the forum to include the key stakeholders has to be a good move. But don’t expect unanimity of views to emerge anytime soon. President Barack Obama said at the L’Aquila G8 meeting that we need to grow more food and we need to grow it in Africa. But farmers and the agricultural lobby in food producing countries, including the United States, will want to protect their markets. That said, the days of papering over the underlying causes of world hunger with food aid grown in donor countries are over. That certainly doesn’t mean there’s no place for food aid. Were that so, the little Indonesian girl in the photo, who is a survivor of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, wouldn't be getting her free ration of rice in a relief camp. But she’s actually eating rice grown in the USA instead of rice grown by farmers in her own country. The need for food aid will continue for as long as problems of availability and affordability persist. But the conditions on which it is contributed and the way it is managed require attention.

Next month, at the World Summit on Food Security, governments will have an opportunity to say what they think about the new arrangements to address the food insecurity faced by one-sixth of humankind. For 20 years, governments have let their investment in agriculture and food production in developing countries slide dramatically. It’s crucial that they reverse the trend. Agriculture sustains 70 percent of the world’s poor.

17 October 2009

Blowin' In The Wind

Back in the 60s, whilst holidaying in the Greek islands, I was bowled over by the sight of a cluster of windmills on the Lasithi plateau on Crete. How ingenious, I thought, to use the natural energy of the earth to deliver our basic needs. On subsequent visits to Athens, I was also impressed by the growing array of solar panels on rooftops quietly heating water for the populace.

Forty years on, despite the warnings of James Lovelock, Gwynne Dyer, et al, our emulation of the Greek example has been less than spectacular.

Today, wind power accounts for just 1.5% of global electricity usage according to the World Wind Energy Association. But it’s growing rapidly, particularly in Europe, with tiny Denmark now meeting almost 20% of its needs from wind. In Canada, where this photo was taken, only about 1% of electricity needs are generated from wind.

Despite the challenges that the massive wind turbines present to birds and bats, and the constant and nauseating humming noise they produce, the negative aspects of power generation from this source are relatively minor. But power generated from wind is expensive.

Wind farms can co-exist with agriculture, and concerns about aesthetics can be allayed if enlightened and enforceable planning mechanisms ensure that giant turbines do not become the dominant feature of the landscape, or our seascape. Britain seems to have opted to site as many as possible of its wind turbines off-shore, which can’t endear it to the sailing community. Despoiling our wild places with machines must be a last resort. Much more energy and resources should be devoted to curbing the size of the planet’s population, which is the cause of the problem in the first place.

Wind energy is slated to become more important as our supply of oil runs out. Although the values of ancient Greece have long since been swallowed up in the laissez faire of the free market system, it is only we that stand between the corporatization of the countryside and the rapidly disappearing wilderness.

But we need to get organized. The Copenhagen climate change conference that could determine on our very survival is almost upon us. Right now we look rather like a befuddled Don Quixote lunging around erratically at Sancho Panza’s windmills.

15 October 2009


Every blue moon I get restless and am driven to drive randomly across our country looking for pictures and stories. This year it became the West Coast’s turn and from Schoenmakerskop on the east coast I reached as far as Lambert’s Bay on the west coast before turning back.

For the first time I noticed an increase in petty corruption and strangely it was mainly in the tourist mecca of the Western Cape. The nearer you are to a big city the greater the chances you have of being exploited. Something else were the inflated prices at some restaurants and cafes that cater for the international tourists. Do yourself a favour and shop around and look for reasonably priced menus.

I am a natural born cheapskate and spent most nights in caravan parks ranging from those owned and run by municipalities or the South African National Parks Board, the nights I was not camping I was sponging a bed off some unfortunate family member or friend. The municipal caravan parks have a serious problem with late arrivals at camp-sites. Being a photographer I arrive at times that are bad for photography and that is sometimes at noon when I experience the length of country lunch time or the evening after sundown when I get the security guard. In any case you will not get a receipt if you arrive after office hours and whoever is in charge just pockets what you pay. The strangest story was in Simonstown where the books had already been done by 3 pm and there was obviously no receipt book. Insist on a receipt if you pay anything. Camping sites are closing down and it is not because they are not viable but more because moneys end up in private pockets.

Municipalities have their own characteristics and I do not like what is happening at Hermanus, the whale watching capital of South Africa. I sat on a hard rock for a few hours waiting for a whale to do something interesting and eventually went back to the car. As I got in a parking officer came up and claimed some R20 in fees. I don’t mind paying for safe parking but I want to know about it before someone claims money. They need some visible signage. What added to the aggravation is that again I was not offered a receipt and had to ask for one. Irritating too was stopping to look if there were whales and having to tell the parking person that you were just having a quick look. The parking areas around the cliff have been neatened and tidied and are well paved but I get the impression that the number of parking places seem to have shrunk. The last surviving pont in the South Africa has the same receipt problem as the caravan parks have which is a pity. Ask for a receipt!

Also a worry is that local tourists are few in number and I seemingly met more international tourists than locals. It is always interesting to discuss and explain things to non-South Africans. At Hermanus I witnessed an interesting attempted pick-up involving a Spanish tourist and a local. The local was very smooth, wore too much cheap jewellery and was dressed far too fashionably to be convincing. His end-goal was to lure the tourist to a nightclub but luckily he was there with his wife (she was watching whales) and he avoided being lured away. I worry about what the intention was, probably just some serious sponging but one never knows and it does happen that tourists are lead away and relieved if their possessions. Be careful and don’t take chances with strangers.

In one village I saw a white male shout at a beggar who was rummaging through a rubbish bin. Sad when you can not tolerate a poor person looking in the bin for food but racism still flourishes in some small towns.

Traffic on the main roads was terrible with many large trucks. My car is slow and being overtaken by massive trucks carrying shipping containers was particularly scary and irritating. Have our railways collapsed and don’t we have the means of shipping containers between cities?

The good news is that off the national roads the secondary tarred and gravel roads are great. Cutting between Bredasdorp and Riversdale on gravel was wonderful and the snakes (Cape Cobra, Puff Adder and 2 large Molesnakes) were amazing. The Blue Cranes seem to be increasing and it is always great to know that conservation efforts are bearing fruit. It is irritating that camping at De Hoop, a reserve run by the Western Cape Nature Conservation, is so expensive and I just passed by; privatization does not mean cheaper and I am told it also does not mean improved facilities either. My other favourite bit of gravel was between Laaiplek and Lamberts Bay and even though it is a private road (you pay a R25 toll) the birdlife was great with hundreds of flamingos visible through a culvert under the Sishen Saladana railroad was amazing. The West Coast, apart from some ugly new housing developments, seems unchanged.

The seashells on a string sellers of Lamberts Bay are a pain and next year I will bring one from home just to be left in peace. In South Africa it has become a bad habit with many locals to try and sell cheap trinkets and use persistence as their method. Country food is great and the best fish and chips was at Lamberts Bay, the best surfing wave at “Famous Last Words” and the most dramatic wave in Lamberts Bay itself. I like to think that I invented the concept of Post Colonial Seascapes there too.

The best news however is that we still have much undiscovered and unexplored wildlife. To hear the beating of 10000s of cormorant wings in the morning mist was worth all the hassle and stress of the journey and being attacked by a furious shrew was priceless.

Of course I had to buy additional photo storage and now sit with a few thousand images that need sorting and naming and filing and I don’t have time to write anything because the roof still leaks, Frieda’s (my beloved combi) tyres need replacing and the firm that does my tax has screwed up and the lawn needs mowing and the dogs need a walk and the phone is not ringing (work is short)(my recession is bigger than yours) and and and…………..

11 October 2009

World Rainforest Week 12 - 18 October

To celebrate World Rainforest Week I have posted just a few of  images that show the  amazing beauty of  the rainforests. But photographs do not convey the awesome nature of the rainforest - the size and complexity of the vegetation, and the overloading of one's senses from the  cacophony of insects, frogs and birds, the smell of decay, the lack of light  and the humidity that saps your body of energy.

The pressure on the forests continues - oil palm and rubber plantations,  clearance for cattle ranching, oil exploration, mining, quarrying, for timber etc etc. The list goes on and on.  Now the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) are highlighting yet another threat - this time to the temperate rainforests of British Columbia. The exploitation of the tar sand deposits in Alberta continues and a pipeline is proposed to take millions of barrels of oil  to Kitimat on the Pacific coast, from where it will be shipped around the world. I have visited this part of Canada and it is beautiful. I took the ferry along the Inside Pasage where we passed  forested islands separated by narrow channels. The region is rich in wildlife, both in the sea and on the land.

So whats the problem with the pipeline? The tankers travelling to and from Kitimat will have to pass along treacherous shipping routes where accidents are common. A navigation accident with an oil tanker could lead to millions of tonnes of oil pollution the pristine waters. Its not hard to imagine what would happen, one has just to think of Exxon Valdez. To find out more about this threat, read the excellent article on the RAN blog (http://understory.ran.org/2009/10/05/tar-sands-threaten-canadas-rainforests/)

8 October 2009

Eco pic of the week

This image of disposable plates and cutlery collected at the Camden Green Fair caught my attention. The photographer is Pat Tuson.  All of  this waste will end up in landfill where the plastic will remain for many decades. The food waste on the plates will decompose and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Shame the food producers at the fair didn't think about this issue and choose to use biodegradable plates.