Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Detecting climate change

Today it is snowing outside my office in Geneva, thus lulling me into a false sense of wellbeing about climate change. What is really happening?

The UN reports this week that 2008 was the 10th warmest year on record. Temperatures for 2008 are estimated at 0.31 degrees Celsius (C) or 0.56 Fahrenheit (F), above the 1961-1990 annual average of 14C, or 57.2F, while the Arctic Sea ice volume during the melt season was its lowest since satellite measurements began in 1979.

0.31 degrees Celsius does not seem very much but the World Meterological Organization explains what this means in the Arctic.

"A remarkable occurrence in 2008 was the dramatic disappearance of nearly one-quarter of the massive ancient ice shelves on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic. Ice 70 metres thick, which a century ago covered 9,000 square kilometres, has shrunk to just 1,000 square kilometres today, underscoring the 30-year downward trend in Arctic sea ice".

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Cheating offsets

As we hurtle towards climate change catastrophe (experts are now saying a 6C rise in on the cards), we are told that we achieve carbon "neutrality" by "offsetting" our carbon usage through paying an agency to plant trees in developing country. This we are assured will capture the equivalent amount of carbon we just expended flying to see a friend for the weekend. Thus allowing us to continue carbon rich lifestyles at no cost to the planet. If you think this idea is dubious check out

The corollary of carbon offsets is that if one cheats on a friend or your wife you can offset this activity through buying a cheat offset. Just as buying cheat offsets will not save a marital relationship, carbon offsetting will not save the planet. It may even encourage us to damage it...

Monday, 22 December 2008

Organic fraud

With organic premia riding high the last few years, the temptation to make false claims about how green a product must be pretty strong.

This picutre is from a UK music festival I went to in 2007. I have my doubts that the vendors of this pizza really had organically certified ingredients (flour, tomatoes, olives, anchoives, pepperoni etc.) Just seems far fetched...I am not always convinced by street markets selling organic unless they are the producers themselves...even then it must be tempting to pick up a tray of produce from a wholesaler on the way to the market and mix it in with the good stuff.

Having said that very little fraud has ever come to light, suggesting that little relatively little takes place out of the US$50 billion market.

Feeling sick over Christmas

If you have eaten too much or going crazy with too much domestic life over Christmas, I recommend this shop in downtown Santiago de Chile. It has "Everything for the Sick Person".

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Poor cows

In 2008, SUVs (or 4x4 as we say in Europe) were the main target for climate change campaigners' ire.

A main target of choice for climate campaigners in 2009 looks likely to be cows.

Whereas SUVs survived attempts by road safety campaigners and environmentalists to get them off the road (until the global recession swiftly dealt with the monster cars), cows now face the twin headed attack of government regulators and vegetarians. This unlikely alliance has honed their sights on the cow each for different reasons.

The regulators, to reduce methane emissions (20 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide) and the veggies for obvious reasons but using global warming as the hook. The veggies ran a "Silent but Deadly" campaign in 2007 (supported by Sir Paul McCartney). The animal welfare lobby in the UK even had head of the UN climate chief Dr Rajendra Pachuri address their meeting in 2008, at which he suggested people eat less meat.

The alternative to voluntary environmental measures is to introduce environmental taxes, in this case on methane. Taxes (called Pigouvian taxes by economists) are generally more effective than just appealing to our common sense and our better natures. I am sure meat demand continued despite the veggie campaign.

This month, the NY Times report that the Environmental Protection Agency have proposed a "cow tax" - US farmers fear it may reach US$175 per cow and have reacted strongly to the proposal. This proposal is part of an EPA consultation on the idea of regulating greenhouse gas emissions from cars and "stationary sources", which would include cows.

Given that cows produce gases damaging to society it seems fair than the price of producing meat and dairy products should reflect that cost. A tax is an efficient way to deal with the "externality". However, selling the idea to industry, particularly small producers will be difficult. As the NY Times reported, New Zealand proposed this idea but were shouted down.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Hand painted signs

Home made or artisanal shop signs have disappeared from European and US towns. Businesses in developing countries hire local artisans to brighten their shop fronts and advertises their wares. There is therefore alot more diversity between how shops look than in a US shopping mall or UK high street. From Uganda, here is a shop selling milk. In Mexico, these sign paintings are called rotulos. The artisans are called rotulistas and there is concern that this art is dying out. I guess as economies develop and businesses consolidate and become more capital intensive, firms will no longer need hand painted signs.

From southern Chile where fishings is still small scale, a sailor has livened up his fishing boat with dreams of New York.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Carbon labels - impact on African exporters

There a many labels to choose from when shopping for food. Organic and fair trade are most prominent but there are others particularly for coffee (utz kapeh, rainforest alliance, bird friendly etc.). Another one emerging on the horizon is carbon labels. These will inform the consumer about how much carbon is "embedded" in a product, i.e. how was used in making the product from production (running a tractor, seeds, fertilzers, heating a greenhouse) through processing, transport and delivering to the supermarket. Measuring all this is very complicated and expensive but a couple of big retailers, principally Tesco in the UK are having a go and even have a dozen or so products with the label. One sticking point might be how consumers react to this. Will they know what the label means? How can they compare with other labeling scheme or products without labels?

There is also a development dimension. Will exporters of fruits and veg from Africa lose market share? A new paper from Gareth Edward Jones and his team at Bangor University examine this question in more detail. It is entitled "Vulnerability of exporting nations to the development of a carbon label in the UK". To be printed later this year in Environmental Science and Policy, it highlights how countries like Kenya are highly vulnerable to loss of fruit and veg export markets to the UK as they have high export value in proportion to their GDP. Spain by contrast has a small proportion of its GDP derived from horticulture. Furthermore, their products like oranges can not be substituted by the northern European producer. Another interesting point raised by the paper is that it is unclear how consumers will trade off their preferences between different attributes of food, e.g, organic (no pesticides), fair trade (social benefits) and now climate impact.
For exporters carbon labels are likely to mean they have to think more about investment in climate mitigation technologies and measuring their emissions and so satisfy buyers in the north using carbon labels on these imported products - more costs for exporters, potentially driving out more small and medium enterprises from the export market - just as what happened with the food safety supermarket standard Eurepgap (now called Global Gap).

Friday, 12 December 2008

Stopping organic cotton in Uganda

An article from a newspaper this week in Uganda reports that President Mseveni has "banned" organic cotton from northern Uganda. In the last few years, organic cotton production has grown rapidly there due to overseas buyers clamouring for the stuff. According to Uganda's President, the main cotton buyer Dunavant has failed to provide the organic growers with sufficient organic pesticides making them vulnerable to crop failure. The government has zoned areas where organic must be grown. If cotton production takes place outside these areas, they will be declared "illegal". It is not clear exactly what support the government of Uganda provides to cotton farmers either in the zone or without. In general developing countries have very low levels of support for agricultural extension particularly since structural adjustment programmes began in the 1990s. It is therefore unclear why a government providing so little in the way of agricultural extension would discourage the private sector in this way.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Soil conservation 2

Covering soil is a major preoccupation for organic gardeners and farmers. Just as an organic garden in Europe will have green manures to protect soil and add fertility, this pineapple field in Uganda has mulches in between the rows. The farmer below hasnt put down a mulch as he hasn't found time. As a result he has loads of weeds to deal with which will reduce his yields. Because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in his locality, labour is sparse and high cost.

Soil conservation and painful weeding

Soil conservation is very important! Without it, farmers on the steep slopes of Ugandan mountains will have nothing but rock to farm on. Organic does encourage soil conservation but not require it which seems a weakness to me. Here above Kesese, farmers dig gulleys to trap rainwater. This stops soils running away in the torrential rains. The pineapple farmer takes the same approach. He has seven children and is buying more land from his neighbour to plant more pineapples. He remarks that weeding is painful as he get spiked by the leaves and so asks for gloves and boots.


Organic involves a fair amount of paperwork. This means recording the names of all the farmers and mapping out the area. This process is called establishing an Internal Control System. Along comes the inspector and samples a small percentage of the hundreds of farmers in the ICS to check they aren't spraying chemicals. The ICS also gives a degree of traceability to the supply chain which buyers in Europe like...

Monday, 8 December 2008

Uganda - coffee and widows

Whereas pineapple farming seems pretty much in the hands of men (and their kids), women appear more prominent in coffee farming at least on the slopes above Sesese next to the Queen Elizabeth National Park. These ladies are widows - their men mostly died shot by park rangers for poaching.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Uganda - pineapples and poverty

Uganda is full of organic farms thanks to rich soils and direct airlinks to European markets. One of the most popular cash crops are pineapples. They are grown by smallholders with as little as one acre of land. These farmers face many challenges including pests and disease, drought, floods, declining profit margins and productivity. Organic farming requires farmers not to use agrochemicals and to build soil fertility with manures and intercropping. However, this can mean more labour, often in short supply in this one farm following an HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 80s and 90s. Knowledge about good agricultural practice is also in short supply not least due to a non functioning extension service in rural areas (like most of Africa). This has left barren hillside churning out cash crops with insufficient soil conservation measures. These measures include shade tree planting, manuring, intercropping and mulching. The organic encourages but does not require soil conservation measures - perhaps an achilles heel of organic?