All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for September 2012

Cotton subsidies and Al-Qaeda

leave a comment »

The cover of Time Magazine (September 17 issue: “One Nation Subsidized”) features a thought-provoking article by Michael Grunwald.  As I was reading on, my thoughts kept moving to the news of an Al-Qaeda offshoot taking over the northern half of Mali, in Africa.  What’s the connection, you ask?  Let me lay it out, best as I can.  Aside from the ecological truism that everything is connected, there is an interesting link between the two topics formed by farm policy.

In his article Grunwald mentions that his Miami-based family pays about $100/month for water.  He figures that this fee represents just a small fraction of the actual cost of delivering clean water and treating the sewage they produce.  That cost doesn’t even begin to account for the $15 billion needed to restore the Everglades, which is vital for the long term water supply for Miami.  Likewise, they pay around $200 a month for electricity, but “that number would be much higher if the feds didn’t subsidize the construction, liability insurance and just about every other cost associated with my utility’s nuclear power plants while also providing generous tax advantages (depletion allowances, intangible drilling costs, and so forth) for natural gas and other fossil fuels.”

As a journalist, Grunwald ponders the ramifications of the various subsidies that touch the life of his family, directly or indirectly: located as they are in a low-lying area in the path of hurricanes, they benefit from subsidized flood insurance, and they also can deduct their home mortgage interest from their taxes, two measures that have been denounced as promoting sprawl.  But they also have been profiting from subsidies to install energy efficient windows and writing-off home office expenses, measures rightly applauded by environmentalists.  Some good, some bad, but there is certainly no denying that subsidies play a huge role in the life of every American family.

But farm handouts certainly for a continuous thread in Grunwald’s article:

 The silliest handouts that brighten my morning are the boondoggles that funnel billions to America’s cotton and grain farmers and maybe knock a few cents off the price of my T-shirts and my kids’ breakfast waffles.  Uncle Sam sends at least $15 billion every year to farmers and agribusinesses in the form of grants, loans, crop insurance and other goodies.  The farm lobby is so omnipotent in Washington that when the World Trade Organization ruled that US handouts give our cotton farmers an unfair advantage over Brazil, the US cut a deal to shovel $147 million a year to Brazilian cotton farmers rather than kick our own farmers off the dole.”

“When I asked analysts at the antigovernment Cato Institute and the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities what was the most wasteful government spending, they all gave the same answer: farm subsidies.”

The next article in that issue of Time is by Bobby Ghosh, optimistically titled “The End of Al-Qaeda?”  How ironic.  This, as Al-Qaeda is making great strides in northern Mali, controlling over half of the African country and imposing Taliban-like measures: music is banned, education is repressed, and Unesco world heritage sites have been destroyed.

Even stranger, in contrast to the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed in Afghanistan,  the Islamist group Ansar Dine is destroying Islamic sites: the tombs of Sidi Mahmoud and other teachers considered holy by locals in Timbuktu.  This is very hard to understand, but it certainly brings to mind the concept of environmentally-related violence developed by Thomas Homer-Dixon: environmental change bringing about drought and food scarcity, fomenting violence between competing groups as the only escape route, as with the Janjaweed in Darfur.

Maybe this is all related to climate, but I think that there is a more basic, policy related connection, which brings me back to Michael Grunwald’s article.

Remember the US subsidies to agriculture, including the ones to cotton?  Mali produces cotton.  But Malian farmers can’t make a living at it.  And their government certainly can’t afford to subsidize them.  Subsidized American cotton depresses the price their locally grown cotton fetches.  Unfair competition, whichever you look at it; but Mali cotton farmers certainly don’t have the clout with the WTO that their wealthier Brazilian colleagues enjoy.

Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman have nicely documented the situation in their 2009 book Enough: why the world’s poorest starve in an age of plenty.  During the 90’s, international development efforts turned away from agriculture, choosing to emphasize industrial projects instead.  This policy would not have been so damaging to developing nations, and Africa in particular, if a consistent trade policy had been followed.  But according to Thurow and Kilman:

 Hypocrisy reigned. While the United States and Europe continued to lavish subsidies on their farmers, they pushed the World Bank to prevent poor countries, particularly African nations, from doling out subsidies of their own.”

And the sad, predictable result?

 Certain that the [2002] US Farm Bill would widen their misery, Coulibaly [a Malian cotton farmer] had a news flash of his own that he wanted to send back to America: ‘We are all our brothers’ keepers,’ he said. ‘If we are not at peace here, you won’t be at peace there.’”

Now cotton farming is practiced in the south of Mali, far from where the Ansar Dine operate.  But if the Malian government in Bamako has been powerless at stopping the Al-Qaeda group, it is in large part because it is poor and without resources.  This would not be so if it could rely on a prosperous agricultural economy, based on export of cotton and other crops.

And this situation is doubly a shame because Malian farmers are leading the way in the Sahel for agricultural reforms based on ecological principles, intercropping, agro-forestry, soil organic matter management, you name it.   There have been numerous successful projects there, all the more inspiring that they owe little to western NGOs: they are locally inspired and rely on local knowledge and better policy.  Mark Hertsgaard, in his 2011 bestseller Hot: living through the next fifty years on Earth, considers this development in the Sahel remarkable grounds for optimism.  “Food yields have risen substantially; malnutrition has decreased…if some of the poorest farmers in the world can achieve so much, it suggests that the rest of us can do even more.”  Water tables have bounced back, desertification is receding.  And the soil now contains much more organic matter, which is recognized as a most effective way to combat climate change.

The surprising bottom line is this: doing away with the farm subsidies that destroy tropical agriculture would make us all – farmers, consumers, the Earth – better off.  Removing subsidies to cotton and sugar in the US, in particular, would be one of the most effective ways to reduce hunger, malnutrition, and the violence that ensues.  As well as fighting climate change, to boot.

Failing that, we are facing a stark alternative.  “If we are not at peace here, you won’t at peace there.”  The solution is clear – and it’s not even hard.


Written by enviropaul

September 22, 2012 at 6:24 pm

Wolves, grazing rights, and climate change

with 2 comments

Wyoming has decided that wolves no longer need protection.  As of October 1rst, 2012, unlimited hunting will be allowed.  There will be no restrictions because the animals are considered predators, rather than game.

Of course hunting groups are elated with the decision (see here), while environmentalists are aghast (see here for background).

In another item of news, the so-called “Sagebrush Rebellion” has been dealt a blow, possibly fatal, by the Supreme Court.  About time, one would say: this is a holdover from the Reagan era, and the particulars (here) make for interesting reading.  Here are some excerpts:

Over the past 21 years, firebrand Nevada rancher Wayne Hage and his survivors waged a legal war against federal land managers who were seeking to restrict cattle grazing on public lands and became a heroic symbol for those who yearned for bygone days and bridled at the growing reach of government.

Then in a little noticed decision on July 26, a three-judge panel of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., overturned Hage’s hard-fought multimillion-dollar legal victories.

It was a quiet rebuke to a legal saga that began in 1991 after the government impounded some of Hage’s cattle. The rancher had defied grazing restrictions in Nevada’s Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, and refused to pay fines for grazing permit violations.

What these news items have in common is the conflict between public land users, ranchers in particular, who want to do as they please, and government jurisdiction.  But what could this possibly have to do with climate change?

In my opinion, quite a bit.  First, there are the obvious implications about government intervention.  The climate is changing, and we have barely scratched the surface of the consequences.  But from drought to flooding and hurricanes, it is clear that no mitigation is possible by individual action only.  Only collective action – that is, government, along with extensive consultation – can have any positive effect on avoiding the worst; and never mind the thornier problem of who decides how to apportion the costs and damages.  Caught as it is in its heroic pioneers myth, this is something that the western US is particularly ill equipped to do, and western Canada isn’t far behind.

But how we’ll be dealing with the impacts of climate change, and who will decide, isn’t the only implication of these two news story – there is something much more concrete and immediate, and it has to do with water supply.

It’s no secret that degraded land holds water poorly.  Cattle can be amazingly destructive to small creeks, because of the erosion caused by their trampling of the creeksides, and the removal of vegetation.  The effect of cattle drinking goes far beyond a mere muddying of the water; some creeks actually go dry during summer, because of the loss of hydraulic integrity (that is, the trampled soil can no longer act as a sponge and slowly release water during the dry periods).  The simple expedient of fencing alongside creeks to exclude cattle has been show to be enough to restore year-round flows in dry areas.

It is not as well-known that wolves can have exactly the same impact as barbed-wire fencing.  Where there are wolves, deer and elk avoid streambanks, spending as little time drinking as possible, because of their exposed and vulnerable situation.  Absent wolves, these animals hang out near the creeks and rivers, munching on the lush and well watered plants that grow there.  Eventually cottonwood saplings and tall grasses disappear from overgrazing, and with them the good soil structure that holds water over the dry spells.  One of completely unexpected effect of re-introducing wolves in places where they had been exterminated has been the restored health of creeks and rivers.

Which is why the Wyoming decision is such an unfortunate one.  It is true that there are now many more wolves that just a few years ago.  This attests to the success of the re-introduction program, but of course there are now numerous conflicts between ranchers, sheep herders, and wolves.  A limited, controlled hunt may have been justified; but this is a case of an all-or-nothing law, and it will be open season on Wyoming wolves this fall.

Oh yeah, what about climate change?  Well, there is an unprecedented drought over the whole prairies, and climatologists expect that things may worsen.  Which means that we need to become smarter with our resources, and in particular with water.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view. (Aldo Leopold)

Even if he didn’t link the wolf with water, Leopold’s thinking was remarkably prescient.  We need to think like a mountain, he exhorted us; we need to consider the whole ecology.

This has never been more true than now, when we are facing a drastically changed climate.

Written by enviropaul

September 2, 2012 at 4:36 pm