Thursday, February 23, 2012

Oxfam's Discussion Paper on Sustainability: A Critique

Kate Raworth,
Senior Researcher,                                                                              

Hi Kate!

There is a lot of hysteria going around that planet's ecosystems are in terrible shape which in turn is widely believed to have negative consequences for humanity. We are being repeatedly warned of an ever expanding list of tipping points, whereby things seem to be always crumbling slowly until suddenly, rapid and potentially irreversible shifts take hold.
And yet, at the same time, human well-being has never been better. People by and large are living longer, healthier, and richer lives. If you could rev up a time machine and choose to be plopped at any point in history, 2012 would probably be a sound choice. Of course, there's still widespread inequality, poverty, starvation and disease, but on the whole, the trend's up and up. 

At no point in the history of humankind however were the scourges of inequality, poverty, starvation and disease completely eliminated. Utopia is generally defined as a place of ideal perfection in all aspects of existence. It was the prospect of injecting a tinge of utopia to the real world that perhaps spurred many of us to join the NGO sector. This is my thirty-second year in the NGO sector and I believe I too had contributed my mite towards advancing social justice and environment causes during this period.

But in recent years, I find these causes had been hijacked by eco-fascists and eco-imperialists. Worse still, the label “green” has been associated to causes that have nothing remotely  to do with environment, with a lot of pseudo-science bandied around. 
Yet, Climate Dumb Agriculture (CDA) remains Climate Dumb Agriculture (CDA) no matter if it is cleverly packaged as Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA). Similarly, what is called “sustainability” is not even sustainable, not by a long shot. How could it be when formulations are based on a set of flawed axioms and assumptions, primarily designed to spew out imaginary doomsday predictions? And if formulations are based on a set of flawed axioms and assumptions then the solutions espoused, if translated into policies, will needlessly make life more difficult for everyone.

In your report (download) you requested feedback to be send to you, and accordingly here is mine in the form of an open letter to both you and Oxfam. This is from the perspective of a NGO activist; a livelihood and PM&E consultant.
Due to lack of time, a full critique could not be attempted here but rather a few major issues are identified for detailed critique as discussed below.

Yours sincerely.

Rajan Alexander
Development Consultancy Group
43, Da Costa Layout, II Cross
St Mary’s Tow, Bangalore 560084

Biggest Source of Planetary-Boundary Stress

“In fact, the biggest source of planetary-boundary stress today is excessive resource consumption by roughly the wealthiest 10 per cent of the world’s population, and the production patterns of the companies producing the goods and services that they buy:
·    Carbon: Around 50 per cent of global carbon emissions are generated by just 11 per cent of people;
·    Income: 57 per cent of global income is in the hands of just 10 per cent of people;
·    Nitrogen: 33 per cent of the world’s sustainable nitrogen budget is used to produce meat for people in the EU – just 7 per cent of the world’s population”
The central question is who are responsible most for over-consumption and pollution? Your paper identifies the primary culprits as the more developed nations with a relatively smaller population, but who uses at least 50-100 times the resources the poorest of the poor economies consumes. If the biggest source of planetary-boundary stress today is excessive resource consumption in Western countries, then why focus at all on developing and emerging economies for reduction of their consumption levels? This makes absolutely no commonsense. Logically the biggest impact would be for INGOs like Oxfam to concentrate exclusively on Western countries if result based management (RBM) systems are to be followed.

There can’t be genuine equity without equalization. Accordingly, for ensuring an equitable world then there should be parity among all countries in the world in terms of common development indicators and living standards. For this, developing and emerging economies who presently are under-consuming should be enabled to increase their consumption levels while those in western countries facilitated to brought down til a level of equalization is brought about. But what we find is the exact opposite - INGOs like Oxfam primarily target the South to reduce further their abysmally low consumption levels while they do practically nothing of significance in countries in the North to reduce their over-consumption notwithstanding offering some lip service to this objective. The net impact widens social disparities even further.

Hypocrisy according to dictionaries is defined as the act of persistently professing beliefs, opinions, virtues, feelings, qualities, or standards that are inconsistent with one's actions. The question is whether NGOs and environmentalists can be accused of hypocrisy? Today, the NGO world has been swamped with “professionals” armed with development and environment degrees from the world’s most elite institutes, who expect to work in a more corporate-like environment, complete with vending machines, air-conditioned conference rooms and plush offices. Glossy yearbooks, conferences, business-class air travel and fancy accommodation have all added to the rising budgets of NGOs.

Their compensation packages however reflect their height of hypocrisy. Why do they need such high packages if they are walking their talk of creating a world where consumption is based on need and not greed? For example, the Richard Telofski blog did an investigation study of the salaries of Greenpeace, US and focused their attention on those of their former Chief Operating Officer (COO), Daniel Mc Gregor. The latter’s salary as declared to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was as follows: 
    -   Fiscal 2007 Total Compensation – $104,462
    -   Fiscal 2008 Total Compensation – $123,303
    -    Fiscal 2009 Total Compensation – $128,117
    -    Fiscal 2010 Total Compensation – $155,675
      Now, here’s the 2010 percentage scale of American income earners. This information comes from the U.S. IRS via

      Top 1%: $380,354
      Top 5%: $159,619
      Top 10%: $113,799
      Top 25%: $67,280
      Top 50%: >$33,048
      As observed in the  the above table,  $155,675 compensation falls somewhere between the Top 5% and 10%!  Gregor’s annual salary increase as compared to Consumer Price Index (CPI) makes even more interesting reading:
      • Compensation Increase for 2008  +18%        Change in US CPI for 2008   +3.8%
      • Compensation Increase for 2009  + 3.9%      Change in US CPI for 2009    -0.4%
      • Compensation Increase for 2010   +21.5%    Change in US CPI for 2010   +1.6%
        Richard Telofski comments on this data:
        2007 wasn’t a great fiscal year for many organizations, but yet Greenpeace boosted their COO’s compensation by 18% for the next year. 2008 was the worst financial year of those studied in this series of numbers, but yet even when that bear of a year is considered; the following year Greenpeace increased their COO’s compensation by almost four percent. 

        And certainly in 2010 the economy was far from normal, but yet this NGO sees fit to increase the compensation of this Greenpeace executive by 21.5% while the US CPI, inflation, increased by an average of only 1.6%.
        In short, it is evident from this case study that advocating that the poor reduce their already abysmally low consumption levels appears an extremely lucrative career for NGOs and environmentalists. It exposes them as having absolutely no empathy for the poor in contrast to the public image they portray as the champions of the poor. It is bad enough that NGOs and environmentalists live lavishly off poverty aid like social parasites. It is much worse when they arrogate themselves the right to prescribe what lives, livelihoods and lifestyles the poor should lead!

        Stable state Climate: Holocene

        “Crossing such thresholds could lead to irreversible and, in some cases, abrupt environmental change, effectively moving Earth out of the stable state of the past 10,000 years – known as the Holocene – which has been so beneficial to humankind”
        Holocene?? This should surely go down as a Freudian slip for an organization like Oxfam who plays as a major pivot in the global warming scam. Why? It at once draws attention to the geological climate timeline of Planet Earth. Once anyone understands the wide temperature fluctuations that Earth had undergone over time and how frequent and violent it was, then they are bound to ask why all the fuzz today about any temperature rise less than a fraction of 1 deg C?.

        Earth is currently in the Holocene Epoch. In geologic time, the Holocene Epoch represents the second epoch in the current Quaternary Period (also termed the Anthropogene Period) of the current Cenozoic Era of the ongoing Phanerozoic Eon. See graph, courtesy, NASA

        The Oxfam paper estimates the Holocene Epoch being around 10,000 years in Earth’s history. Actually, Holocene Epoch started more than 11,500 years ago. In fact, most estimates suggesting a start between 13,000 - 10,000 years BP (before present).

        What’s more important is Earth’s age? The answer eludes a consensus. According to the Bible, it is less than 3,000 years. Other creationists say it is 10,000 years, roughly the age of the Holocene Epoch. The evolutionist consensus is however that the Earth is a whopping 4.6 billion years! So if the evolutionists are right, then global temperatures have waxed and waned during these 4.6 billion years. Our planet have warmed or cooled within the range of 10 deg C as seen in the graph. And 10 deg C accordingly is the range of Earth’s natural variability of temperature fluctuations!

        Sea levels were initially about 350 to 400 feet (100 to 150 meters) lower than it is today. It rose rapidly until about 8,000 years ago and more slowly since. For example, during the last glacial maximum, about 20,000 years ago, sea level is estimated to have been 120 meters lower that it is today. During the peak of the last interglacial epoch, about 125,000 years ago, sea level was about 6 meters higher than it is today (and even then not nearly all of the ice was melted). During an even warmer interval 3 million years ago, sea level was approximately 25 to 50 meters higher than it is today.

        When most of us think about Ice Ages, we imagine a slow transition into a colder climate on long time scales. Indeed, studies of the past million years indicate a repeatable cycle of Earth’s climate going from warm periods (interglacial) to glacial conditions.

        The period of these shifts are related to changes in the tilt of Earth’s rotational axis (41,000 years), changes in the orientation of Earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun, called the “precession of the equinoxes” (23,000 years), and to changes in the shape (more round or less round) of the elliptical orbit (100,000 years). The theory that orbital shifts caused the waxing and waning of ice ages was first pointed out by James Croll in the 19th Century and developed more fully by Milutin Milankovitch in 1938.

        The history of the Earth accordingly tells us that the climate is always changing; from warm periods when the dinosaurs flourished, to the many ice ages when glaciers covered much of the land. For much of Earth's history, the world has been ice-free (even at the poles) but these iceless periods have been interrupted by several major glaciation periods (called glacial epochs) and we are in one now. Each glacial epoch consists of multiple advances and retreats of ice fields.  Each advance of ice is popularly known in the press as an "ice age" but it is important to note that these multiple events are just variations of the same glacial epoch.  The retreat of ice during a glacial epoch is called an inter-glacial period and this is our present day climate system. It is important to note that the inter-glacial climate is the exception, not the rule during a glacial epoch.

        The Holocene Epoch is accordingly an inter-glacial period within the present Ice Age. The typical inter-glacial period lasts around 12,000 years though there is a one or two that lasted around 28,000 years. Since the Holocene Epoch is estimated as over 11,500 years, it’s anyone’s guess whether it is nearing its end or there is much more miles to go for its end. So is the speculation that if the recent global warming, whether man-made or not, would it end up delaying our return to the ice age as it is a good thing for humankind.

        Your paper chose to describe the Holocene as a “stable state” within Earth’s geological timeline. But this description needs to be qualified why it is considered as so. Since Oxfam often tend to quote the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), let us then see why they consider the Holocene Epoch as a “stable state”. Here are some extracts from their report (Read here):
        “Interestingly, the Holocene appears by far the longest warm "stable" period (as far as seen from the Antarctic climate record) over the last 400 ky, with profound implications for the development of civilization (Petit et al., 1999).”
        So Holocene period is considered “stable” by the IPCC in a very limited context viz. it is the longest warm period within Planet Earth’s geological timeline.  This Epoch also coincided with the optimal blossoming of life and bio-diversity in Earth’s entire geological timeline. Though the Holocene Epoch had been a remarkably stable period this is only relative to the Pleistocene glacial and interglacial periods where extremes and fluctuations rising or falling temperatures were much more frequent. Nevertheless, the Holocene has been, and still is, a time of wide fluctuating climate as could be observed from the graph below:

        Following the sudden ending of the last Ice Age - Younger Dryas, about 11,500 years ago, forests quickly regained the ground that they had lost to cold and aridity. Ice sheets again began melting, though because of their size, they took about two thousand more years to disappear completely. The Earth entered several thousand years of conditions that were much warmer and moister than today; the Saharan and Arabian deserts almost completely disappeared under a vegetation cover, and in the northern latitudes forests grew slightly closer to the poles than they do at present. 
        The 'Holocene Optimum’ that occurred sometime between 9,000 and 5,000 years ago was also a period much more warmer than the present.  The Earth came out the freezer quite rapidly and temperatures reached its peak about 8000 years ago. Northern Europe went from mile-deep glaciers to sub-tropical conditions. Sea levels rose very rapidly, by approximately 300 feet. This may account for the destruction of many species, mammoths probably being the most prominent loss to the ecosystem. Masses of mammoth bones and tusks have been dredged from the middle of the North Sea, which suggests that they were wiped out in a rapid and catastrophic flood during the Holocene Maximum. Claussen et al writes in the Greening of Africa:
        “Palaeoclimatic reconstructions indicate that during the so-called Holocene climatic optimum, the summer in the Northern Hemisphere was warmer than today. North African monsoon was stronger than today .... Moreover, palaeobotanic data (Jolly et al., 1998) reveal that the Sahel reached at least as far north as 23oN. (The present boundary extends up to 18oN.) Hence, there is an overall consensus that during the Holocene optimum, the Sahara was much greener than today (e.g., Prentice et al., 2000)”
        The 'optimum' was however punctuated by a severe cold and dry phase that affected climates across north Africa, South Asia, Europe, the Americas and Antarctica about 8,200 years ago, perhaps lasting for a century or two before a return to warmer and wetter conditions (Stager & Mayewski 1997). In Africa at least, the climate does not seem to have returned to the moist warm 'optimum' state that prevailed before this sudden drought, but it was significantly moister than at present. 

        After about 5,000 years ago, there was a further cooling and drying in many areas and conditions became more similar to the present-day. A particularly widespread cool event associated with relatively wet conditions seems to have occurred in many parts of the world around 2600 years ago (van Geel et al. 1996). 

        It seems that at least in the North Atlantic region, and possibly globally, there was a warm-cold cycle with a periodicity of around 1500 years (Bond et al. 1997). In the north Atlantic region, and probably adjacent oceanic areas of Europe, the change from peak to trough of each period was about 2 deg.C , a very substantial change in mean annual. The cold phases seem to have been relatively abrupt, and each lasted several centuries before an apparently rapid switch back to warmer conditions at some sort of regular periodicity. 

        Even the IPCC admits “The early Holocene was generally warmer than the 20th century”. In fact during the last 1,000 years, the Roman and Medieval Warm periods are similarly acknowledged by the IPCC as being warmer than the present period. During the Medieval Warm Period, the Vikings colonized Greenland, gave up warring and started farming and dairying. Further, as observed from the graph, the Holocene Epoch has been interspersed by a few mini-ice ages, the last being the Little Ice Ages, where it was so cold that Viking kingdoms virtually collapsed.

        As Earth continues to emerge from the Younger Dryas (Last Ice age) and Little Ice Age (LIA) it is only expected that global temperatures continue to rise. If the temperature increase during the past 130 years reflects recovery from the LIA, it is not unreasonable to expect the temperature to rise another 2 to 2.5 degrees Celsius to a level comparable to that of the Medieval Warm Period about 800 years ago or rise even higher to match those seen during the Holocene Optimal. The maximum temperature positive anomaly seen during the last 160 years had been less than 0.8 deg C, well within Earth’s natural variability of temperature. In January this year, global temperature anomaly even slipped into negative terrority. Despite this, the climate hysteria and talk of tipping points continues.

        Not knowing of the Holocene or Earth’s geological timeline and creating global warming hysteria may not make Oxfam complicit in any scam on the grounds of ignorance. But being fully knowledgeable of the Holocene Epoch and yet creating global warming hysteria is another matter!

        Nitrogen Pollution
        “Researchers in China, for example, found farmers using up to three times the required amount of nitrogen fertilizer, bringing no increase in their harvests, but resulting in 20 to 50 per cent of the nitrogen applied leaking into the air and polluting the groundwater”
        From these extracts, the contribution of nitrogen to the so called planetary stress is confined by Oxfam to the mainly overuse of nitrogen fertilizers that could increase acidity levels of soils and thereby reduce crop yields besides create pollution of waterways; coastal zones and terrestrial bio-sphere. It is a matter of relief to notice that Oxfam has not embraced the claim of some sections of eco-fascists that atmospheric nitrogen levels are getting depleted - yet another tipping point for the planet.

        Till the Holocene Epoch, our species were hunter-gathers of food. The era brought global warming that enabled man to supplement their food supply by actually growing crops from which they had so far only collected. And as they did, by trial and error they realized that not all plots were equally fertile.
        But even on the most fertile soils, yield tended to decline after years of continuous cultivation, the reason being that constant removal of plant nutrients from the soil with the harvest. In the fertile basin of Mesopotamia for instance history tells us that wheat yield dropped from 2t/ha to 0.8 t/ha over a period of 300 years of cultivation. So they instinctly developed two coping mechanisms. The first was shifting cultivation, in which fields were abandoned after some years of cultivation and virgin land occupied instead. The second was farming in the valleys of rivers where major annual floods deposited nutrient-rich sediments to replace the nutrients removed with the harvest.

        And as civilization evolved further and population increased, these two coping mechanisms started losing their utilities. This situation led to the introduction of the fallow system where land is left idle in-between cropping seasons. This system not only halved the stress put on the reserves of plant-available nutrients in the soil, but supplied additional nutrients by the break-down of organic and mineral soil particles.

        But this practice too lost much of its practicality. As population grew; it did not make sense to leave half the arable land fallow. Here entered the introduction of the rotation system where lesser nutrient depleting crops and/or nitrogen-fixing leguminous crops were grown. While the legumes left some residual nitrogen for succeeding crops, their small share could not really improve the nutrient status of the soil. But total harvest was higher from a rotation system. Due to intensification of agriculture, the nutrient depletion of soils was accelerated by the system. The net supply of nitrogen was improved by growing leguminous fodder crops or clover grass mixtures on the fallowed land. This not only increased the residual nitrogen left in the soil by the root system of the legumes but also resulted in more farm-yard manure which was also richer in nitrogen. As the nitrogen supply was partly improved, other nutrients, particularly phosphorus and potassium, became limiting. So the growth of the nitrogen-fixing clover and leguminous fodder crops was hampered by the availability of other non-nitrogen minerals.

        Together with these developments were the demands of population growth whose combined impact was to spur expansion of arable lands at the cost of forests; wetlands etc. However productivity remained more or less constant even as arable land expanded. Till pre-industrial times accordingly farmers developed three main ways to channel plant nutrients to the arable land to help to maintain its fertility:
        Recycling as much as possible of the nutrients originally taken up by the crops from the arable soils as farm-yard manure and crushed animal bones
        • Adding nutrients to the manure by using roughage and litter collected from meadows and forests, but thus impoverishing other natural ecosystems,
        • Fixing additional nitrogen from the air by growing leguminous crops as part of the rotation.
        While together it might have been enough to stabilise yields, it would never have been sufficient to increase yields to the extent that the continuing growth the population demanded. Even the most intensive use of these practices in areas whose climate allowed year-round cropping could not supply more than 120–150 kg N ha yr. 

        The vast majority of the suitable land had already been cleared so the prospect of further growth of the arable area was limited. An increase in yields could only be achieved when the nutrient concentration in the soil was raised; enabling the plants to take up more in the limited time of their growing season. Synthetic nitrogen filled this need. Nitrogen was the most commonly yield-limiting nutrient in all pre-industrial agricultures. Only the Haber-Bosch synthesis of ammonia broke this barrier. Norman Borlaug summed up the importance of synthetic nitrogen in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970:
        “If the high-yielding dwarf wheat and rice varieties are the catalysts that have ignited The Green Revolution, then chemical fertilizer is the fuel that has powered its forward thrust…"
        The rest was history, agriculture made quantum leaps in productivity gains in a space of a few decades which centuries of agricultural practice could not accomplish.

        In affluent nations synthetic nitrogen helps to produce excess of food in general and of animal foods in particular, and it boosts agricultural exports. But for at least a third of humanity in the world’s most populous countries the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers makes the difference between malnutrition and adequate diet.

        And yet, NGOs like Oxfam through their GROW programmes claim that agricultural productivity can increase from present by going back to  pre-industrial practices. Of course it can but organic methods require about twice the acreage to produce the same crop, thus directly resulting in the destruction of forests. So one hand, NGOs and environmental organizations claim they want to feed a growing population and eliminate hunger. On the other hand they want to preserve the rain forests and other biospheres. The result is creation of more hunger and destruction of biospheres as they unable to resolve this basic contradiction. Prof. Vaclav Smil, University of Manitoba, Canada puts this in perspective:
        In 1900 the virtually fertiliser-free agriculture was able to sustain 1.625 billion people by a combination of extensive cultivation and organic farming on the total of about 850 mio ha. The same combination of agronomic practices extended to today’s 1.5 billion ha of cropland would feed about 2.9 billion people or about 3.2 billion when adding the food derived from grazing and fisheries.

        This means that without nitrogen fertilisers no more than 53% of today’s population could be fed at a generally inadequate per capita level of 1900 diets. If we were to provide today’s average per capita food supply with the 1900 level of agricultural productivity, we could feed only about 2.4 billion people or just 40% of today’s total.”

        Let me state unequivocally that I’m not saying organic farming is bad – far from it. There are many upsides and benefits that come from many organic farming methods. All pre-industrial practices are perhaps much better for the soil and environment viz. better grounded in agro-ecological production principles.  My goal in this post isn’t to bash organic farming per se, instead, it’s to bust the worst of the myths of them and to establish that within a changed paradigm (population size) it finds a poor fit to present day problems we aim to solve.

        From the sketch of the evolution of agriculture given earlier it is evident that whenever mankind hit a road block or tipping point, the old adage came into play: necessity was the mother of all inventions, as Albert Einstein once said. When people really needed to do something, they will always figured out a way to do it. The human capacity to invent and create is universal. Ours is a living world of continuous creation and infinite variation. Scientists keep discovering more species; there may be more than millions of them on earth, each the embodiment of an innovation that worked. Yet when we look at our own species, we frequently say we're "resistant to change."  The organic farming movement is one such expression, as it is fixated on the past even when we need to move on and face the challenges of the future. A whole ideology evolved based on an obsession how food should be produced rather than the optimal way agriculture could feed the world with minimal damage to the environment.
        Now let’s get back to Oxfam’s problem statement. If we examine the problems caused by Nitrogen pollution, only two are come across in your paper - soil acidity and leaching. 


        It’s erroneous to conclude that only synthetic nitrogen tends to contribute to increasing acidity in soils. Both chemical and organic fertilizers may eventually make the soil more acid. Hydrogen is added in the form of ammonia-based fertilizers, urea-based fertilizers, and as proteins (amino acids) in organic fertilizers. Transformations of these sources of N into nitrate releases H to create soil acidity. Therefore, fertilization with fertilizers containing ammonium or even adding large quantities of organic matter to a soil will ultimately increase the soil acidity and lower the pH.

        The FAO/ECE (1991) reports:
        “Acidification as a result of ammonia emission (volatilization) from livestock accommodation, manure storage facilities, and manure being spread on the land. Ammonia constitutes a major contribution to the acidification of the environment, especially in areas with considerable intensive livestock farming.”
        So to support organic farming, we need to boost manure availability which in turns can be only achieved by boosting livestock farming which FAO/ECE say contributes significantly to acidification! By this logic can using manure be considered truly “Green” , organic as  it maybe?


        Leaching is the downward movement of nitrogen with water percolation through the soil profile. How much nitrogen is lost from the rootzone is dependent on the nitrogen form present, soil type, the amount of rainfall in relation to evapo-transpiration, and the depth of the rootzone.

        Nitrogen applied through fertilizers, organic or synthetic, is converted to plant-available-nitrate by the same chemical process by the same bacteria living in the soil. As a crop grows it starts off with a limited need for nitrogen because the plants are small and they are getting some which was stored in the seed itself.  Then they go into a period of very rapid growth where they need quite a bit of nitrogen (and other nutrients).  During the period of “grain fill” there is very high demand for nutrients.  After that, the plant does not really need or take up nutrients over weeks prior to harvest. So the key to nitrogen management lies in matching nutrient supply cycle with the nutrient demand cycle. This is easier done in synthetic fertilizers as application can be staggered in splits, placed more precisely for root absorption and through use of nitrogen stabilization products. 

        Generally, nitrogen contained in livestock manures must be transformed by bio-chemical processes (mineralisation and nitrification) before becoming available for plant nutrition. However, any organic nitrogen which is mineralised later in the year after the period of active uptake by the crop may be leached from the soil during winter and can contribute to pollution of ground water. 

        Why is so?

        Some of the nitrogen molecules in an “organic” fertilizer are exactly the same chemicals as in “synthetic” fertilizers – urea and ammonia.  Some of it is in more complex biologically formed molecules like amino acids, nucleic acids and a variety of intermediate metabolites and structural molecules.  That is why organic fertilizers are “slow release” forms of nitrogen.  Over time, soil microbes convert those more complex forms into exactly the same nitrate ion that comes from a synthetic fertilizer – the nitrate that plants can use (and which can become a pollutant of the water or atmosphere).  The problem is that the conversion process does not match the crop demand.  To achieve good yields, organic growers need to apply very high amounts of total nitrogen so that enough is available when the crop needs it.  Much of this nitrogen continues to be turned into nitrate well after the crop is using it and so it is well documented that this form of fertilization leads to water pollution issues.
        (Slow nitrogen releaser) Organic fertilizers are accordingly are suitable for crops with longer nutrient demand cycles whereas synthetic fertilisers, slow release exceptions aside, are more suited for crops having shorter nutrient demand cycles.
        Organic fertilizers also have the problem that they contain more phosphorus than is needed if they are used at the rates that make sense from a nitrogen point of view.  Growers using manure or compost pick rates based on nitrogen, but that means that phosphorus is over-supplied.  This too leads to water pollution.

        That’s not all. There is hardly any difference of using green manures and synthetic nitrogen. Leguminous crops produce nitrogen by extracting it from the atmosphere. So does synthetic nitrogen fertilizer production. Plants uptake the nitrogen produced by legumes and nitrogen fertilizers through the same chemical process - they are subject to the same microbial processes in the soil. So they give off the same by-products - NO2 and NH4 which environmentalists consider dangerous to the environment. A field fertilized by legumes and synthetic fertilizers are equally prone to soil depletion as all they do is to increase nitrogen levels in the soil and not other macro nutrients such as phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca) and sulphur (S) which are also required by plants in large amounts. Depending on the soil condition, sometimes it is necessary to supply chemical plant foods, such as lime, phosphorus and potassium and to inoculate the seed, in order to produce successfully these nitrogen-fixing crops. In addition, they need smaller quantities of trace elements like manganese, copper, zinc, sulphur, iron and boron. These assume criticality in soil fertility to the extent they are easily or rarely found in the soil.

        Farmyard manure needs to be stocked for a period of time till its use.  The IPCC estimates that even with good storage practices, 1-2% of the carbon in that manure is emitted as methane.  When you combine that with the amount of manure needed to fertilize a crop, you end up with a “carbon footprint” that is 3-8 times as large as if you delivered the same amount nitrogen with synthetic fertilizers like urea.  Similarly, in the composting process it has been documented that 2.7% of the carbon is released as methane.  Combining that with how much compost it takes to fertilize a crop (on the order of ~4-6 tons/acre), and the “carbon footprint” of this organic fertilizer is on the order of 14 times as high as for a conventional alternative.

        The indictment that mineral fertilizers destroy earthworms and beneficial soil bacteria is without foundation. At the Rothamsted Experimental Station, it has been found that earthworms are just as numerous in the soil of the fertilized plots as in the unfertilized - but those in the fertilized area are larger and fatter. Many experiments show that application of superphosphate to soils at rates commonly recommended will increase the population of beneficial soil bacteria. The use of mineral fertilizer will, in general, result in an increase of the organic matter of the soil and thus promote bacteria and earthworms. Organic matter is, of course, a by-product of plant growth and one of the quickest ways to increase it in a soil is to use chemical fertilizer to grow luxuriant green manure crops that will be turned back in the soil, or heavy crops that will leave a large residue of organic material.

        Organic pollution occurs when an excess of organic matter, such as manure or sewage, enters the water. When organic matter increases in a pond, the number of decomposers will increase. These decomposers grow rapidly and use a great deal of oxygen during their growth. This leads to a depletion of oxygen as the decomposition process occurs. A lack of oxygen can kill aquatic organisms. As the aquatic organisms die, they are broken down by decomposers which lead to further depletion of the oxygen levels. 
        So whether organic fertilizers are greener than synthetic fertilizers is matter of personal opinion. Since they are more expensive than synthetic fertilizers, a more important issue is their appropriateness in a country like India. B.G. Shivakumar & I.P.S. Ahlawat in their paper “Organic Farming in India: Myths and Realities” observed:
        “Before jumping into organic farming bandwagon, we need to have answers to the following: What level of crop yield/ productivity is acceptable? Is it suitable for country like India with a large population to feed? Whether available organic sources of plant nutrients sufficient for pure organic farming? And, are organic farming technologies sustainable in long run?

        ... At present, there is a gap of nearly 10 million tonnes between annual addition and removal of nutrients by crops which are met by mining nutrients from soil. A negative balance of about 8 million tonnes of NPK is foreseen in 2020, even if we continue to use chemical fertilizers, maintaining present growth rates of production and consumption. The most optimistic estimates at present, show that only about 25-30 per cent nutrient needs of Indian agriculture can be met by utilizing various organic sources.: These organic sources are agriculture wastes, animal manure etc.

        ... In general, it is observed that the crop productivity declines under organic farming. The extent of decline depends on the crop type, farming systems practices followed at present etc. The decline is more in high yielding and high nutrient drawing cereals as compared to legumes and vegetables and in irrigated systems as compared to rainfed and dryland farming systems. Without using fertilisers, the requirement of area to merely sustain the present level of food grain production will be more than the geographical area of India! This is simply neither possible nor sustainable.

        ... Organic foods are a matter of choice of the individuals or enterprises. If somebody wants to go in for organic farming, primarily on commercial consideration / profits motive, to take advantage of the unusually higher prices of organic food, they are free to do so. Organic farming is essentially a marking tool, and cannot replace conventional farming for food security, quality and quantity of crop outputs. With a growing population and precarious food situation, India cannot afford to take risk with organic farming alone.

        - The authors are scientists at Division of Agronomy, Indian Agricultural Research Institute”
        The National Academy of Science in their Policy Paper entitled Organic Farming: Approaches and Possibilities in the Context of Indian Agriculture likewise observed:
        The primary concern of all organised communities and civilised societies is to meet the food requirements of its people. The cultivated area, required to maintain the present level of food grain production in India without using the fertilisers, reaches more than the total geographical area of the country. At present, there is a gap of nearly 10 million tonnes between annual addition and removal of nutrients by crops which are met by mining nutrients from soil. A negative balance of about 8 mt of NPK is foreseen in 2020, even if we continue to use chemical fertilisers, maintaining present growth rates of production and consumption.

        ... The most optimistic estimates at present, show that only about 25-30 per cent nutrient needs of Indian agriculture can be met by utilising various organic sources. It is proved beyond doubt that on long-term basis, conjoint application of inorganic fertilisers along with various organic sources is capable of sustaining higher crop productivity, improving soil quality and soil productivity. The organic sources should be used in integration with chemical fertilisers to narrow down the gap between addition and removal of nutrients by crops as well as to sustain soil quality and to achieve higher crop productivity. The food security demand of the country requires that inorganic fertilisers be used in balanced doses.”

        So there we have it. Whether organic is green or less green than conventional farming, countries like India have no choice. Even if organic farming is most desirable, India just cannot afford complete dependence on this system. At best India can opt for more integrated farming systems that combine the best of both organic and inorganic farming systems.
        Organic farming, being more expensively priced cannot increase the food security of the poor. Their products are consumed by the affluent in urban pockets within the country, with the majority being exported to West who endowed with huge agricultural surpluses.  Within this context, it reduces food security as it reduces total arable land availability within the country that could theoretically feed the poor.
        If organic is the panacea for India’s agriculture then farmers surely has not bought this claim. The story of cotton in India serves as a classical case-study. Eco-fascists opposed both hybrids and GM seeds in the name of organic farming with the result today more than 95% of cotton cultivation is today accounted by GM. If they had on the other hand confined their fire only on GM then they would have been more likely to have kept GM at bay in our country. In the next couple of years GM cotton may account for near 100% of all production. This would be total humiliation for the organic lobby within the country but this has not stopped eco-fascists in claiming organic cotton yields and quality are higher than GM. It has never occurred to them to ask if organic cotton had been such a phenomenal success as they make it out to be, why is it not reflected in their adoption rates.  And if they continue to live in delusion, GM will soon enter the country’s food chain in the most pervasive way.

        Everyone would like to prevent the planet from slipping past its tipping points, if these are real. But no one in the developing world would like to save the planet at their cost of their own lives and decline in their standard of living so that the White Man can live satisfied their different fetishes. The West has agricultural surpluses and yet their organic farms are less than 5% of total farming. In the European Union (EU 27) more than 7.5 million hectares are managed organically by almost 200’000 producers (2008). This constitutes just 4.3 percent of the agricultural area. In the UK cultivation area for organic farming dropped below 50,000 hectares level. With economic recession, demand for more expensive organic food is also sharply dropping in Europe.

        Even India, with very little agriculture surplus, has organic farms, a majority of them being uncertified, possessing a much higher share in overall agriculture than the West. So if the West is interested in promoting a totally organic agriculture economy, let them do it in their own countries rather exporting this fetish to developing and emerging economies!  The key difference is that the huge surpluses give Europe a buffer against any production decline while we have no such buffer. Imagine the plight of countries like Somalia and Ethiopia where the West is training their focus to promote the so called Climate Smart Agriculture

        Oxfam’s GROW Campaign

        Oxfam’s GROW campaign is committed to growing a better future – and as a priority that means ensuring food security for all. But it also means cultivating a broader notion of prosperity in a resource-constrained world. Oxfam believes that, over the next decade, we need a rapid transition to a new model of prosperity, one which delivers economic development, respects planetary boundaries, and has equity at its heart.”
        The GROW Campaign is obviously the current flag ship of Oxfam’s development programmes. This campaign is however nothing but Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) given a catchy name by Oxfam.  We have already undertaken a detailed critique of GROW (read here).  The justifications for adoption of CSA techniques rests on 3 pillars viz. accelerated global warming; food price inflation and agriculture going bust. All three have been falsified:


        The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has estimated that the mean world temperature will increase by between 1.8 degrees C and 4 degrees C  by the end of this century and also qualified this prediction by stating that as global temperatures increase, this will be accompanied by a substantial increase in global food production.  The assumption was that CO2 in the atmospheric levels would continue to grow exponentially until the so called “tipping point” is crossed.
        Oxfam apparently grabbed the first part of the IPCC prediction but rejected the second part. Instead, they speciously interpreted the projected rise in global temperature to result in decline of agricultural productivity which in turn increases global hunger to ostensibly justify their GROW programme whose conceptual logic of the problem and solution are summarized below:
        Problem: Increased CO2 = High Temperature = Reduced Agriculture Productivity = Increased Hunger
        Solution: Decreased CO2 = Lower Temperature = Increased Agriculture Productivity = Decreased Hunger
        The UK Met Office and University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit (UEA-CRU) last month made the significant announcement that the rising trend in world temperatures ended in 1997. See fig to the right. Latest data from NASA / GISS too confirms the robust deceleration of global warming, revealing the non-significant impact on global temperatures by CO2. Download data file used in NASA-GISS Excel chart and check it out yourself!
        Besides the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change in its recent review observed 
        "Uncertainty in the sign of projected changes in climate extremes over the coming two to three decades is relatively large because climate change signals are expected to be relatively small compared to natural climate variability”.
        In simple IPCC speak; global warming (climate change) would be taking a vacation for next 3 decades and to be replaced by global cooling (natural variability) during the interim.
        The UAH (satellite) data for January are out. The global average lower tropospheric temperature anomaly for January, 2012 is just a tad below zero viz -0.09 deg C.  Global temperatures for February should show a more precipitous drop as global sea surface temperatures are rapidly plunging and with the deep freeze in Europe. 

        Dec-Feb temperatures in India are running at least 5-15 deg C below average. Further the Tokyo-based Regional Institute for Global Change (RIGC) said in its seasonal predictions for March-April-May this year almost the entire India is likely to experience below-normal temperatures. If so, India is likely to have the entire first 5 months of 2012 with below normal temperatures. This would practically mean, 2012 would definitely go down as one of the coldest years in recorded history for India and we can expect consequently, one of the mildest summer historically too this year. 

        It can be argued that this year is an exception, being a La Niña year. The converse also holds true - the reverse phenomenon El Niño causes temperatures to go up in India.  Both La Niña and El Niño events together are known as El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Statistically, for every five years, 2-3 years will be accounted by ENSO (whether La Niña or El Niño) and 2-3 years by neutral or non-ENSO years.  The ENSO and other oceanic climatic phenomenon called Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) can account for most of the climatic variability in South Asia. Worse still, unlike the last 3 decades, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) has turned negative and whenever it does, La Niñas tend to be more frequent and stronger than El Niños. All these means that the challenge for Indian agriculture for the next 3 decades would be to adapt to a much milder temperature than average.

        Now if Oxfam’s GROW programme is versatile enough to adapt to all these wild temperatures fluctuations, you can even justify implementing such a programme in India. But this is not the case since Oxfam’s GROW campaign encourages adaptation only for warming temperatures. Besides, NGOs like Oxfam can hardly lay a claim to a core competence in weather forecasting despite whatever your public pretensions. A few months ago, Cyclone Thane hit Tamilnadu. Despite all the hullabaloo Oxfam creates about disaster preparedness capability, there is no evidence of Oxfam putting this into practice. In Sri Lanka Oxfam promoted adaptation to drought only to find a huge flood hit the country last year. In East Africa, NGOs like Oxfam based agricultural strategies on the IPCC prediction of increased precipitation but was caught on the wrong foot when the La Niña induced drought struck - one of the worst in recorded history.

        If you can’t predict next week’s weather, how smart can your agriculture strategies be? Accordingly, despite all good intentions that Oxfam may have, you can imagine what kind of havoc your GROW programme can play with Indian agriculture under these circumstances.


        If there is such a tight correlation fit between spiraling food prices and the so called climate change (increasing temperatures) as claimed, why not Oxfam simply produce the relevant graphs?
        A cursory look at FAOs Food Price Index graph for the last 4 years should make it evident that this is a spurious claim. 

        Oxfam claims that climate change has caused food systems to go bust and as a result supply-demand shortages are exploited by commodity speculators which are the reasons for the runaway food inflationary trends. 

        As seen from FAO’s food price index chart, after hitting an all time high early last year, global food prices are clearly trending downwards. 

        A bumper global harvest and reduced consumption in OECD countries due to their economic slowdown this year will extend further downward pressure on global food prices. So unless in the advent of war in the Middle East, disrupting oil supplies; food commodity prices are poised to soften even further. 


        Barbara Stoking, Oxfam’s CEO in one of Oxfam’s reports had claimed that “Farms have gone bust” - as a justification for your GROW programme.  If farms have gone bust, Oxfam needs to explain the global bumper harvests this year!


        World inventories of wheat will be the biggest ever before the next harvest, as expanded output in India, Kazakhstan, China to Morocco signal ample supplies and lower food prices. According to an USDA report, global wheat supplies for 2011/12 are projected 2.1 million tons higher. Indian production for 2011/12 is increased 0.9 million tons reflecting the latest government revisions, which increased yields for the crop that was harvested last spring. Wheat futures are down 26 percent in the past year, helping to reduce global food prices by 10 percent since reaching a record in February 2011.


        Oxfam makes the remarkable claim that increased minimum temperature (TMin) reduces rice productivity. If so, how does Oxfam explain the bumper rice harvest for the last two years?

        The harvest of rice around the world in 2011–2012 should hit a new record of 721 million tons and lead to lower prices, a United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) report informs. With the growing season nearly over in the northern hemisphere and well underway in the southern hemisphere, the FAO predicted in its latest quarterly report that rice production should increase by three percent from the previous year. +3%!!!

        The FAO estimates that this should enable the price of rice to continue falling in the coming months as stocks increase and imports decline. It estimated that global trade in rice would decline by one million tons due to better harvests in traditional import countries.

        MAIZE (CORN)

        Maize (corn) productivity has been growing though slowly over the years. A huge chunk of maize supply is diverted for (ethanol) bio-fuel production. Despite this, supply is able to meet demand though corn price inflation is highest among all grains.  

        Maize (corn) prices no longer follow supply and demand trends. Olivier de Schutter, the UN’s rapporteur on the right to food said that  speculators are to blame for the jumps in food prices. He says prices of key cereal crops like maize have, 'increased very significantly but this is not linked to low stock levels or harvests, but rather to traders reacting to information and speculating on the markets.'


        Making food for an exploding population a function of cropland taken from nature and yields falling with changing climate produces a ‘dumb farmer’ scenario of doom. A doomed, hungry humanity will not spare nature reserves. So this how the so called Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) (which Oxfam’s GROW campaign is a variant) positions itself.

        So how are the so called ‘dumb’ farmers performing? Here are extracts from a Times of India report:
        “Food production expected to exceed 250 million tonnes, "an all time record", at the end of the Eleventh Five Year Plan ending March 31. 

        Prime Minister Manmohan Singh government's flagship agricultural plans like Bharat Nirman, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act ( MGNREGA), the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana and the Rainfed Areas Development Programme and other agrarian policies have begun to pay off and the country has "reached new plateaus in foodgrain production".

        "Food production at the end of the Eleventh Plan will exceed 250 million tonnes, an all time record. Our pulse production, at 18 million tonnes, is well above the previous barrier of 15 million tonnes. We are producing today more milk, more fruits, more vegetables, more sugarcane, more oilseeds and more cotton than ever before. Last year production of vegetables went up by 9.57 per cent and nearly two million tonnes of cold storage capacity was created."

        He said the agricultural growth was "likely to be about 3.5 per cent per annum during the Eleventh Five Year Plan which is much better than in the 10th".

        A 3.5% growth rate per annum is more than twice India’s population growth rate. There is no evidence of India falling into the Malthusian trap. Using this momentum, India now wants to climb to an above 5-6% per annum growth rate during the 12tth Five Year Plan. That would be almost triple the growth rates the GAP Index demands. 

        [The Global Agricultural Productivity Index (GAP Index) was developed by GHI to measure ongoing progress in achieving the goal of sustainably doubling agricultural output by 2050. The GAP Index measures the difference between the current rate of agricultural productivity growth and the pace required to meet future needs. A twofold increase in agricultural output by 2050 will require total factor productivity (TFP) to grow at an annual global rate of 1.75 percent.]

        It even gets better. The state of Gujarat, initially a laggard in agricultural productivity is for the last 10 years clocking double digit grow rates per annum!

        Not bad for a “dumb farmer” won’t you say? If this performance is what Barbara Stoking describes as “Farm Systems gone bust”, we Indians can’t help being pleased to considered “dumb” rather “smart”

        What say you Kate? Can you give an explanation why CSA or Oxfam’s GROW programme exclusively targets developing countries and not the West?  After all - the OECD countries plus Russia accounts for nearly 60% of all global agricultural production. Is it because their agriculture is already smart? Or is it simply that it suits the West to impose climate mitigation compliance only on developing countries agriculture and not their own? If so, where’s the  principle of justice, the equity?

        This brings us to the issue what your India country office’s complicity is in pursuing such an eco-imperialistic agenda. So I wrote to Murray Culshaw, my former boss who was also a former Oxfam India Director during the nineties. A few days earlier to my letter to him was the controversy where Britain expressed regret that despite providing £ 1 billion in aid to India, they failed to be awarded a defence contract worth £ 13 billion. This incident comprised the backdrop to my letter to Murray. And this is what he replied:
        I am of course fully aware of UK being 'cheesed off' on the fighter jet issue! And the whole matter of aid being geo-political in nature and tied. But concerning your question right at the end about why offices in India do not take an independent view of some of the bigger issues you outline... I think there are several reasons. One or two of an 'institutional nature' and one or two of a 'practical nature'.


        1.  Institutions appoint leadership (in fact everyone) to carry out policies and programmes decided at some ‘higher’ level. They do not appoint people to question or challenge positions.
        2.  Leadership (and again everyone in an institution) have their lives dependent on the institution so they will not put their hands up.  If they do they quickly move out (or are pushed out in various ways), to another institution they are happier with in terms of policy and practice.

        Practical - but added on to the above:

        1.  In India the organisations you mention are all completely dependent on international aid from their head offices... so they can't speak out against 'internationally decided' policies. If they did, their funds would be stopped.
        2. In India if the agencies were to seriously question policies/ positions being taken by the government, they would have their FCRA withdrawn and so would not survive.
        3. By and large senior staff recruited at national (or international) levels even in the aid/ development world have a 'career' approach to life (9-5 Monday to Fridays), rather than a commitment to causes which they believe in and work for 24x7.
        There we have it. Oxfam India and other INGOs are staffed by lap dogs of their corporate offices. If the corporate office tells them that Venus is going to crash into Earth because of CO2 tripping point had been crossed, we can expect these clowns the very next minute to spread this hysteria all over the country! Murray incidentally tried an independent approach and never completed his full tenure as Oxfam Director. He was shown the door by Oxfam!


        1. This is a great site Rajan. Thank you for taking the trouble to put this together.

          Peter Wardle

        2. Excellent Rajan ! But would like to go thru it once again, as I have done it hastily the first time.
          And I have added a page "Global Warming Hysteria". Will surely put up your contributions ..