Friday, June 3, 2011

OXFAM morphs into a Paul Ehrlich clone: Claims world faces mass starvation!

The world is facing a hunger crisis unlike anything it has seen in more than 50 years. 925 million people are hungry and 98 percent of them live in developing countries. Asia and the Pacific region is home to over half the world’s population and nearly two thirds of the world’s hungry people; women make up a little over half of the world's population, but they account for over 60 percent of the world’s hungry.

One out of four children - roughly 146 million - in developing countries is underweight. Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes. That's one child every five seconds. In 2008, nearly 9 million children died before they reached their fifth birthday. One third of these deaths are due directly or indirectly to hunger and malnutrition.

India is home to nearly 50 percent of the world’s hungry population. 350 million Indians—about 35 percent of India’s population—are considered food-insecure, consuming less than 80 percent of minimum energy requirements. Nutritional and health indicators are extremely low. Nationally, nearly nine out of 10 pregnant women between the ages of 15 and 49 suffer from malnutrition and/or anaemia. And more than half of Indian children under five are moderately or severely malnourished, or suffer from stunting.

Growing a Better Future in a Resource Constrained World

These are scary statistics which could be even more scary in the decades ahead, if not nipped in the bud. This is exactly what OXFAM warn about in their new report, “Growing a Better Future in a Resource Constrained World” . Barbara Stocking, Oxfam's chief executive, said: 
"The food system is pretty well bust. All the signs are that the number of people going hungry is going up."
The report predicts that the prices of food, already at a record high, will more than double in the next 20 years. In addition, by 2050, demand for food will rise 70 percent, yet the report says the world’s capacity to increase food production is declining. A contributor to these issues: global climate change and pro bio-fuel policies throughout the world.

So what's driving the inevitable hunger explosion?  No guessing required - the OXFAM report attributes this to the excessive use of fossil fuels; contributing carbon emissions and a mindless exploitation of natural resources that is at the heart of the unfolding disaster. 

"Oxfam warned the current 900 million people who experience hunger could rise within 20 years unless the world's food system is overhauled." 
This is an astonishing statement as it comes from Oxfam with over 60 years of experience in the field and considered as leader among international NGOs. Astonishing as it contradict global yield growth data published so far. Astonishing as global yields continue to progressively increase (see above graph) while Oxfam claims that farm systems have gone bust as Matt Ridley in his article Why Oxfam Is Wrong On Food published in The Times points out:
"In the long run, even after this year’s price spike, according to data compiled by Daniel Sumner, of the University of California Davis, maize and wheat prices are in real terms only about half what they were in the 1940s and 25 per cent below what they averaged in the 1960s. Relative to wages, they have fallen even farther. By far the most significant reason for this long-term decline in food prices is that those beastly plundering capitalists have been inventing things like fertilisers, tractors, pesticides and new varieties to increase yields and cut costs.
The truth is that over the past 60 years the world’s farmers have trebled the yield of the big three cereals (rice, wheat and maize), which provide 60 per cent of human calories, without ploughing a single net extra acre. (Incidentally, yields are probably 10 per cent higher simply because of increased carbon dioxide in the air.) In some places, food prices have been so low that land has come out of agriculture and back into forest. Malnutrition and hunger persist, yes, but mass famine now happens chiefly in countries with too much government, such as North Korea and Zimbabwe." 

The theory of population explosion is an old argument, if not a slightly dubious one. According to this theory, people go hungry simply because the population is growing so fast that food becomes scarce as agricultural productive capacity become unable to keep up pace with population growth. 

The reality is that hunger often has little to do with scarcity, being more driven by affordability criterion. OXFAM’s warning of flat crop yields and weak harvests appears dubious as it contradicts data available. If OXFAM has data to the contrary, well the report does not reveal any source. In fact, the report contradicts itself later on by stating “We produce more food than we need.”  
Oxfam simply got India wrong. There is ample food in India.  Read Economic Times article - India faces problem of plentiful food. And yet, OXFAM  portray the causation of hunger in this country as follows:
“Despite doubling the size of it economy between 1990 and 2005 the number of hungry people in India increased by 65 million - more than the population of France - because economic development excluded the rural poor and social protection schemes failed to reach them. Today one in four of the world’s hungry people live in India." 
The reasons extended by OXFAM for hunger may be all peripherally true. However, hunger  correlates highly to poverty and for that reason, reducing poverty remains the long-term solution and not raising agricultural productivity per se as OXFAM makes it out to be.  It is factors such as globalization; economic policies and the control of land etc which are more significant factors to hunger rather than low agricultural productivity which remains only of minor significance. 

The sooner OXFAM recognize that world hunger is only a face of world poverty the better it is for itself to be taken seriously in its touted mission to eliminate hunger in this country. But to be fair to the OXFAM report it does address some minor structural issues. It said that up to 90 per cent of global grain trading happened between just three firms - each had made substantial profits from price fluctuations since the 2008 food crisis.  Oxfam therefore called for regulators to place limits on trading in agricultural futures - contracts designed to reduce uncertainty in prices, but which critics say are perversely driving prices higher. The fact remains, commodity futures speculation can be only a secondary cause for hunger and not the primary one.
The Report starts with denial and a Freudian slip:
“Despite an overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change and a robust economic basis for swift and decisive action, we continue pumping out more and more greenhouse gases.”
From the extract from this report (given above), the prism in which OXFAM chose to analyse the whole issue of global hunger is from the anthropogenic climate change framework. It is funny however the OXFAM stress on “overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change”. This coming in June 2011, suggests that OXFAM is still in the denial mode.
Climategate punctured the credibility of the science. Its credibility further nose dived after the  Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were forced to admit their findings were flawed, taking steps to radically overhaul their systems and procedures, including permitting more divergent opinions that challenged the “consensus”. 1,000 leading climatologists have signed a petition challenging the IPCC which is almost 20 times the number of UN scientists (52) who authored the media-hyped IPCC 2007 Summary for Policymakers.

The Kyoto Protocol is dead, save the official pronouncement with 4 big polluters US, Canada, Russia and Japan confirming that they will not renew the treaty next year. The international market in carbon credits has suffered an almost total collapse, with only $1.5billion of them traded last year — the lowest since the system opened in 2005, according to a report from the World Bank.  World leaders including Obama completely avoid climate change, global warming and renewable energy from their vocabulary or in official agreements.

There had been a spate of admissions by leading  global warmist media and climatologists that climate sceptics are winning the argument with the public over global warming. The most significant admission was by James Hansen of NASA as he heads NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies, and is widely thought of as "the father of global warming" – his dramatic alert about climate change in US Senate hearings in July 1988 put the issue on the world agenda.  Read here. 

The overwhelming scientific consensus has apparently little takers and fools no one and it remains a puzzle why an OXFAM would like to live in a make believe world.
But it is second part of the statement that proves more interesting - “robust economic basis for swift and decisive action”. Such a narrative refers to a call for swapping the use of fossil fuels for renewable energy sources including bio-fuels. But the report ironically reserves it harshest condemnation for bio-fuels (part of the so-called robust economic for swift and decisive action) by this surprising admission - “Bloated biofuel lobbies, hooked on subsidies that divert food from mouths to cars.”

Now how can we interpret this? It pretty much  looks a Freudian slip as OXFAM  now more candidly admit  bio-fuels as a significant cause of the growing global hunger. So whenever OXFAM attributes climate change as causing global hunger, we can't be  faulted to consider it an euphemism for solutions peddled by  climate activists that has gone awry but which OXFAM continue to describe as “robust economic basis for swift and decisive action”. We climate sceptics have always considered such solutions not only a waste of money but solutions worse than the problem it tries to solve. OXFAM's turnaround position in bio-fuels validates our position!

We have another reason to rejoice too. This is for the first time; OXFAM has unambiguously and categorically condemned bio-fuels as being a causative factor for global hunger. Till now,  OXFAM walked the tight rope as reflected in the document - “Biofuels: Ony if we avoid burning food says Oxfam”.  


 On 23rd January 2009 in a Stop Climate Chaos coalition meeting in Leeds, attended by Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Robert Goodwill, Shadow Roads Minister for Transport Richard Brett, Liberal Democrat and Co-Leader of Leeds City Council, Oxfam’s Head of UK Campaigns, Martin Kirk reportedly made this remarkable admission:
“None of us foresaw the effects of first generation biofuels, but without them we wouldn’t be getting to second generation and that’s the right direction to go in.”
Biofuels obviously cannot be grown in Europe, including the UK. So it has to be outsourced to developing countries. They in turn look at it as a cash crop,  diverting their arable land for bio-fuel production so that European cars can be fed on “Green” fuels.  This area reduction in turn lowers the agricultural output in these countries which lends itself to create supply led food inflationary pressures which reduces affordability of food, leading to hunger. A blog post from Tanzania comments the kind of other havoc these kinds of programmes played in developing countries: 
“Massive land-grabbing scramble in developing countries as Western companies (some even with foreign aid support) rapidly establish enormous carbon monoculture fields in tropical countries, destroying eco-systems and biodiversity. A key question that is being asked is whether it is ethical for rich countries in the North to make ‘renewable’ carbon in places where it has serious negative iacts on poor people and tropical forests that will be cut down to create space for ‘carbon fields’ in monoculture plantations.”
And yet, as far back as two years ago, OXFAM’s campaign head in the UK was talking of a second generation biofuel revolution which he was convinced  was the right way to go! It is amazing that OXFAM that boast of a worldwide operation including in Tanzania feigns ignorance of biofuels detrimental impact.

Obviously since then some significant change has taken place in OXFAM’s policy outlook that they have now finally decided to campaign against biofuels.  Better late than never, and so welcome as it, it still raises the question whether OXFAM still support the other two pillars bio-fuel leans on viz. system of carbon credits and trading (part of robust economic basis for swift and decisive action)?  The report significantly does not offer us a clue. Maybe OXFAM perhaps has revised its opinion on these two props also but too embarrassed to admit it. 


There were 1.4 billion people in extreme poverty in 2005. The World Bank estimates that the spike in global food prices in 2008, followed by the global economic recession in 2009 and 2010 has pushed between 100-150 million people into poverty. This in simple terms illustrates  a high correlation between the rate of development with poverty and hunger - higher the growth, the lesser the poverty and hunger and vice versa.

Food/energy inflation can negate the gains of economic growth.  Even OXFAM admits this: 
“The dependency of the food system on oil for transport and fertilizers is a key factor in both, as oil prices are expected to rise in the long term and to become increasingly volatile.” 
Nonetheless, though the narrative uses terms like oil price shocks, the OXFAM report has nothing to say about the crude supply disruption effects caused by Western countries warmongering impulses in the Middle East. Iraq could be considered history, but surely Libya is current that deserves some sort of mention as a significant contributor to global hunger. And still despite this omission, the report claims that
“Oxfam’s Grow Campaign has a simple message: another future is possible, and we can build it together.” 
What kind of future is this when an Iraq or Libyan war and the accompanying oil price shocks are considered  inconsequential in the fight to banish global hunger?

This aside, if we thought that OXFAM’s solutions are intended to mitigate problems of the food system arising from the dependence on increasingly expensive fossil fuel, then think again. This is what OXFAM advocates:
“National governments must intervene to speed up and direct the transition. They must invest in public goods such as R&D in clean energy. They must create incentives through subsidies and tax breaks to guide private capital to where it is needed. They must tax undesirables – such as greenhouse gas emissions – to direct economic activity towards desirable alternatives”
This narrative simply means OXFAM’s solutions offer no respite for the farming systems of developing countries as it calls on their governments to tax their people even higher for fossil fuels. The OXFAM report even claims that worldwide subsidies for renewable energy are $57bn compared with $312bn for fossil fuels. How these figures have been derived maybe a matter of controversy, but even we accept them at face value, what OXFAM suggests is to remove the subsidies of fossil fuels and re-deploy them on renewable energy sources. 

This sounds a reasonable argument, but it ignores the reality that the efficacy of renewables currently makes them incapable of replacing fossil fuels for meeting mass consumption of energy.

We need to only look to Tamil Nadu to understand this. This is a state where renewables constitute almost one-third the installed power capacity.  In fact in Tamil Nadu, all fossil dependent green-field power projects have been shelved during the last decade. Instead new capacity expansion has taken place by focusing solely on renewable energy.
The result was it reduced Tamil Nadu from a power surplus to a power deficit state, forcing it to buy power from other states in the country. With the deficit running above 3,500 MW, the state has no option but to introduce long power cuts. As a result, industrial and agricultural production in the state has taken a huge hit. Economists put the cost estimates of this deficiency knocking off at least 2% of the state’s GDP! All because the renewable energy sector was unable to generate more than 10-15% of their installed capacity! A waste of public investment as the government belatedly is realizing. And it is this option, renewables, that OXFAM peddles as a sustainable solution in the fight against hunger!


The issue of climate change has started to put off people and for NGOs dependent on public contribution, this could place them in a very tricky situation. OXFAM seems to have found a simple solution to get around this - re-package climate change as global hunger.

But the report claims that agriculture accounts for upto 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. So to make agriculture climate compliant the Oxfam report puts two criteria - practices should rapidly adapt to a changing climate and it needs to slash its carbon footprint.

Let’s ignore this nonsense of agriculture’s carbon footprint and focus on the dilemma on how OXFAM would find a balance between these two contradictory objectives? Would OXFAM place the food requirements of the community first or will their climate agenda get priority?

During the runup to Copenhagen Climate meet in 2009, Oxfam held a South Asian workshop on Climate Change for their staff and partners. A few who attended later told me that they were shocked when participants were told to encourage conversion of arable land for afforestation to curb methane and other greenhouse gas emissions as “climate adaptation” programmes.  So if this true, then OXFAM’s agenda of slashing carbon footprint swamps those of increasing food security of the community and we need to take the following statement of objectives with a pinch of salt.
"Unlocking the potential of smallholder agriculture – the backbone of the food system – represents our single biggest opportunity to increase food production, boost food security, and reduces vulnerability.” 
The criteria of agriculture to quickly adapt to climate is equally interesting as the report elaborates this must enable us to “dramatically scale up our ability to collectively manage risks and build resilience to shocks and volatility.”  This raises the question whether NGOs like OXFAM have an adequate understanding of the weather, leave alone, climate, to weave this into meaningful operational strategies and plans. If we go to Sri Lanka, to enquire, this may provoke a burst of derisive laughter among the locals.  A few months ago “sustainable agricultural” projects of leading NGOs like OXFAM; prepared for drought. Instead came the La Niña induced unprecedented flooding. These NGOs ended up red faced as overnight the practices they introduced turned Sri Lanka into a net food importer.

Paul Ehrlich’s book Population Bomb turned him an instant celebrity. An environmentalist, Ehrlich in the seventies warned the world of mass starvation in the 70s. But here we are in 2011 having survived his scare. Until very recently, till hare brained climate schemes like bio-fuels came into play, global food prices and availability remained fairly stable.

 Thomas Malthus, the 18th century political economist, propounded a grim theory in which whenever population outstripped food production, starvation would cull the numbers until the equation was restored.  So Ehrlich's theory was no means original. His contribution was to dramatically and graphically rehash the Malthusian theory! Here is an extract from his book:

“Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make....The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years... “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programmes embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”
Despite such prophesy of doom, the world death rate fell in the 1970s and remained falling till present day! Could Oxfam have caught the Ehrlich bug? It looks very possible as the report had been written by Gawain Kripke who worked with the radical green outfit, Friends of the Earth before joining Oxfam America. That could explain the rather sharp language used in the report like the global food supply system is "pretty much bust," urging governments and policy planners to take immediate remedial steps. The elements prophesy of doom are all there too -“Future wars may take place not over territory or other such issues but over food.”

So what’s the likely fate of the Oxfam’s report? After the initial publicity hullabaloo dies down, once the media realizes that it is a Paul Ehrlich clone with a climate change tinge; they may extend Oxfam the courtesy they now confer Paul Ehrlich - contempt for a sensationalist!  The revival of agriculture is integral in any strategy to eliminate poverty and hunger in this world. But to drum up support for any cause of the basis of specious reports those exaggerates and distort facts and sensationalizing the issues not only is unethical but counter-productive for NGOs.

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