Environmental News Archive

An almost weekly update of environmental news, particularly marine updates, with occasional splatters of transportation, indigenous, ideas of sustainability and sustainable development from around the world.


Plastic bag policy 'a diversion'

17 May 2008
By Joe Lynam
BBC News

Plans to ban or charge for single-use plastic bags are a diversion from the real environmental issues, one of the government's own advisers has said.

Waste and recycling expert Professor Chris Coggins said such a government policy allowed the supermarkets to pass on responsibility to customers.

He said supermarkets could be helping to influence packaging rather than shifting the problem on to consumers.

The government said the public wanted to see action to curb use of the bags.

Visible litter

"Supermarkets have a much bigger role to play in influencing the packaging they use," said Professor Chris Coggins, who was appointed research managing agent for the Department of Food and Rural Affairs' (Defra) waste research programme in 2005.

"They [supermarkets] have power in terms of what they buy and how it's packed. The problem is, by focusing on the consumer end, they are to some extent diverting attention from what they should be doing."

In a BBC interview, Prof Coggins, who also works on the sustainable urban environment (waste) programme, said: "Plastic bags are a very visible form of litter but in reality they are a very small proportion of waste and oil use.

"So in overall resource terms, it's a visual rather than mainstream issue."

Environment minister Joan Ruddock admitted single use bags were only a small part of the waste stream.

But she added: "We know that the public is on our side. They want action. It's very symbolic of our throw-away society and so we do need to do something quite dramatically to curb their use."

Trivial issue

British retailers hand out an estimated 13 billion free plastic bags every year, which take about 1,000 years to decay.

The government has set a voluntary target of cutting plastic bag usage by a quarter every year.

It has also proposed stricter measures on retailers as part of the proposed climate change bill, should that target not be met.

The retail sector comprises about 7% of the total UK building energy consumption, emitting over 5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, according to the Carbon Trust.

But the proposed new legislation has not been welcomed by retailers.

Jane Milne, from the British Retail Consortium, which represents Britain's supermarkets, said: "There are a lot of important provisions in the climate change bill which we do support but we think this is a rather trivial issue to add onto it.

"It's not just a sledgehammer to crack a nut, it's a steamroller to crack a walnut. It really is not the best use of our resources in terms of all the issues that we need to be addressing."

Lack of uniformity

Since 6 May, one of Britain's largest retailers, Marks & Spencer, has been charging its customers 5p for each disposable plastic bag as part of its corporate environmental policy.

The move follows a trial at 50 stores in Northern Ireland and the south-west of England, which saw demand for polythene bags fall by more than 70%.

If that trend is copied throughout the UK, M&S said it could reduce the number of bags used by 280 million each year.

Other supermarkets such as Tesco and Sainsbury's have their own policies for cutting plastic bag use among customers.

Discount retailers such as Aldi and Lidl have been charging for bags for a number of years.

This array of strategies to combat single-use plastic bags by supermarkets has also been criticised by Prof Coggins as confusing for shoppers looking for uniformity nationwide.

In 2002, the Republic of Ireland became the first country in the world to charge for plastic bags - a policy which cut usage by 90% almost overnight.

Although the scheme has been beneficial for the environment, the measure was initially introduced to reduce litter.



Could Rising Food Prices In Poor Countries Trigger Change Among Western Economists?

May 15, 2008 (ENN)

The ongoing food crises in 36 countries around the globe are a cause of worry for major institutions such as the World Bank because the problems signal profound problems of disbalance in the world economy. The main reasons behind the high food prices in poor countries are the high oil price and market liberalization shocks. Biofuel crops are hardly a factor. Climate change is something that has played a role for as long as everyone can remember and it's only being recognized now.

In recent months, the world has witnessed various food riots in poor countries around the globe and the general conclusion bankers in their dossy offices have drawn are that some countries apparently really don't have much of a buffer zone left - hence the upset.

In the 1990s several countries faced hardships meeting their primary needs and there were hardly any protests. So what's different this time? It might be a case of the cupboard being extremely bare. It's odd but now that globalization obsessioning has gone out of fashion, its effects are overly tangible and the word proves as elusive as its definition was vague.

Researchers at French Agricultural Centre For Research and Development (CIRAD) recently produced a hugely interesting report analyzing the reasons behind the high food prices. They compiled experiences from experts in several countries and pointed out that it's easy to find a scapegoat in any of the countries on the brink of starvation, but that the longer term situation is hugely complex.

Firstly the purchasing power of people in emerging countries (Brazil, China, India) has increased in recent decades. In addition, diets changed. People eat more meat now. Calories of animal origin accounted for just 5% of total calorie intake in Asia in 1970. Thirty years later, the figure had more than doubled, to 11.7%.

That's not negligeable; it takes seven calories of plant origin to make one calorie of animal origin. The phenomenon is also a part of urbanization. "Demand for food is growing faster than population levels and this trend will continue", the CIRAD researchers predict. "The agricultural production is less surplus than ten years ago. The market is more stressed."

These trends might have developed over a long time but prices in the shops have shown violent movements in recent months, signalling an immediacy which is fear instilling. In one month, U.S. wheat export prices skyrocketed from $375 to $425 per ton. Prices for Thai rice rose from $365 to $475 per ton. The economic situation is creating the scenario for a very stressed situation. Get bad weather to ruin your crops and riots are easily triggered. The CIRAD researchers also say that several countries were hit by freak weather conditions (drought in Australia, typhoon in Bangladesh, cold winter in China and Vietnam), resulting in poor harvests. This has resulted in more import demands and a fall in supplies from major exporters such as Australia (a big wheat exporter).

Exacerbating this weakness are the actions by speculators cashing in on price expectations on the agricultural commodity futures markets. Given the rising demand for food products and the fall in supplies, there simply is one way only in which a price trend can develop. According to the latest World Bank report, Rising Food Prices: Policy Options and World Bank Response, increases in global wheat prices reached 181 percent over the 36 months leading up to February 2008, and overall global food prices increased by 83 percent. And on top of all that, prices in poor countries also experienced increased volatility due to a lack of market regulation. "As a result of liberalization, governments no longer intervene, and cereal stocks are running very low. We are now firmly in an era of unstable prices, with long-term risks of occasional explosions," according to CIRAD.

What to make of the biofuel stories and the high oil price? In recent months, strong accusations have been made that biofuel crops are to blame for the lack of food supplies domestically in Third World countries. Farmers were said to prefer growing bio fuel crops over food crops due to higher prices. But actual numbers don't underpin the scope of the problem as portrayed in some media. The International Energy Agency released figures showing that less than 1% of all cultivated land globally is used for biofuel crops. What is true is that the stories about the cultivation of lucrative biofuel crops add to the scares that liberalized markets bring to local populations.

The very anticipation alone that the lucrative crops will soon outpace the cultivation of food crops would make an already tense bunch of people even more jittery. "It is our anticipation of the rise in demand rather than the actual rise that accounts for the recent price rises," the CIRAD researchers say, downplaying the severity of the biofuel impact.

That is not to say that the potential disastrous impact of bio crops is over-estimated. The 2008 World Development Report “Agriculture for Development” provides a compelling example of the food-for-fuel debate: over 240 kilograms (or 528 pounds) of corn — enough to feed one person for a whole year — is required to produce the 26 gallons, or100 liters of ethanol needed to fill the gas tank of a modern sports utility vehicle.

So far, what's been more damaging than biofuel has been the impact of rising oil prices. Oil is an incremental need in the mechanized agricultural sector and rising oil prices also affect the cost of transport, fertilizers, irrigation by pumping, and agrifood processing. Although developing countries use less fossil energy in their farming systems, [the high oil price] affects local commodity production, processing and marketing costs," say researchers at CIRAD. "The aim now is to invent a form of agriculture and an agrifood processing and marketing system that is less energy-intensive."

But it's not the food producers who are hardest hit by the high oil price. It's the importers of food that suffer the most. Strangely they're largely absent in many research analysis reports. But to solve their problems means that you've eliminated the largest part of the food problems in most poor countries. So what are the solutions? To find these, it's important to be aware of the changes at grassroots levels in some countries and the anomalies in local politics. The suppliers of food products in many poor countries have innovated dramatically in recent years to gear up for their more sophisticated domestic market. And with some success. Yet politicians are still dreaming on about exporting, a scenario that's simply not materializing because the local market now is as valuable or even more lucrative than exporting.

What it would take for food crop production to replace imports is difficult to estimate, because most of the activities thus far are scarcely covered publicly. Boosting productivity with tremendous results is believed to be difficult for all the old reasons. Shaky resources of course are mostly blamed. CIRAD researchers point at poor technical solutions, poor planting material and weak disease controls. Investment in research into these production chains is also far from sufficient. But the food crop sector is not limited to farmers. This fact is often overlooked. It also concerns a large number of other activities that connect producers and the market including agrifood processing (oil extraction, cereal milling, root and tuber crop crushing, fish drying, etc), marketing and distribution, and catering.

The CIRAD researchers come up with a few helpful hints for short term emergency steps that make a long term difference. "Emergency food aid will not solve the problem," the researchers say. They add that all that it would take to make the commercial food crop sector respond would be to give farmers access to a little more fertilizer, phytosanitary products, good roads, processing facilities, credit, advisory services, insurance and information on prices, and to cut police taxes on roads and the cost of diesel.

Let's hope this is true. The pan ultimate challenge for our century almost certainly has to do with our senses but we're simply failing to make out which one. At a time that plant breeders and agronomists are warning that it's only a matter of a major disease epidemic and farm yields in the world’s major granaries are wiped out, we might do best when we're in possession of a discerning vision of what it is that's needed.


U.S. Using Food Crisis to Boost Bio-Engineered Crops

May 15, 2008 (ENN)

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has slipped a controversial ingredient into the $770 million aid package it recently proposed to ease the world food crisis, adding language that would promote the use of genetically modified crops in food-deprived countries.

The value of genetically modified, or bio-engineered, food is an intensely disputed issue in the U.S. and in Europe, where many countries have banned foods made from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Proponents say that GMO crops can result in higher yields from plants that are hardier in harsh climates, like those found in hungry African nations.

"We certainly think that it is established fact that a number of bio-engineered crops have shown themselves to increase yields through their drought resistance and pest resistance," said Dan Price, a food aid expert on the White House's National Security Council.

Problems anticipated Opponents of GMO crops say they can cause unforeseen medical problems. They also contend that the administration's plan is aimed at helping American agribusinesses.

"This is a hot topic now with the food crisis," said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. "I think it's pretty obvious at this point that genetically engineered crops-they may do a number of things, but they don't increase yields. There are no commercialized crops that are designed to deal with the climate crisis."

President George W. Bush proposed the food package two weeks ago as aid groups and the UN World Food Program pressed Western governments to provide additional funds to bridge the gap caused by rising food prices. The aid must win congressional approval.

It would direct the U.S. Agency for International Development to spend $150 million of the total aid package on development farming, which would include the use of GMO crops.

The U.S. is the UN food program's largest donor, providing nearly half the help the group receives from governments. It gave about $1.1 billion to the WFP in both 2006 and 2007. The WFP provided $2.6 billion in aid in 2006.

In April, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested at a Peace Corps conference that "we need to look again at some of the issues concerning technology and food production. I know that GMOs are not popular around the world, but there are places that drought-resistant crops should be a part of the answer."

Some aid organizations agree that it is time to consider GMO crops.

"I think it's good, that it should be part of the package," said Mark Rosegrant, an environment and technology specialist with the International Food Policy Research Institute. "It shouldn't be the only thing in the package. It is now showing quite a bit of potential in starting to address some of the long-term stresses, drought and heat."

But Noah Zerbe, an assistant professor of government and politics at Humboldt State University in California, said that GMO crops might not be appropriate for developing countries.

"You get fantastic yields if you're able to apply fertilizer and water at the right times, and herbicides to go along with that," Zerbe said. "Unfortunately, most African farmers, they can't afford these inputs."

Africa ambivalent
The U.S. tried to introduce GMO crops to Africa in 2002, with mixed results. European Union opposition was part of the reason that several African nations that year balked at an offer of U.S. aid that included corn, some of which was genetically modified.

In a severe drought, Zambia rejected the U.S. aid altogether. Several other countries accepted the U.S. corn, but only after it was milled.

The NSC's Price said the administration is working to persuade European nations to lift their objection to the use of GMO crops in Africa. Rosegrant of the research institute said that, given current food shortages, new bio-safety measures could resolve such problems.

"There's evidence that those fears tend to be overblown," Rosegrant said.