Worldwatch Plays Along: Malthus, Biofuels and Free-Market Environmentalism
by Carmelo Ruiz Marrero, World War 4 Report
The Washington DC-based Worldwatch Institute is no ordinary environmental organization. Founded by environmental maverick Lester Brown, a man hailed by the Washington Post as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers,” Worldwatch was the first environmental think tank ever. Since its founding in 1974 it has published thoroughly researched reports on global environmental issues ranging from fisheries depletion and China’s soaring resource consumption to green economics and renewable energy.
The organization has also assumed brave and highly principled positions, for example exposing the downside of technologies like nuclear power and genetic engineering, as well as the military’s impact on the environment—issues most mainstream environmental groups dare not touch. Regarding organic agriculture and local food production, their research in recent years has been top-notch. Worldwatch senior researcher Brian Halweil’s book on the international local foods movement, Eat Here, deserves no less acclaim than the writings of Michael Pollan and Carlo Petrini.
But progressive environmentalists have long had mixed feelings about the organization because of its technocratic approach to global environmental problems, enthusiastic support for Green Revolution agriculture, and Malthusian world view. In the 1980’s Worldwatch had a long and protracted debate with Frances Moore Lappe and her fledgling organization Food First. The subtitle of the epochal book Food First, co-authored by Lappe, said it all: “Beyond the Myth of Scarcity”. The book’s thesis—that the apocalyptic “population vs. resources” equation put forth by Thomas Malthus in the 19th century (and by Paul Ehrlich in the 20th) is plain wrong, and that hunger can and does exist where resources and food are plentiful—put Lappe and company in direct contradiction not only with Worldwatch but with the conventional views of the mainstream environmental movement and its supporting foundations. Worldwatch underwriters, which included the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, no doubt were pleased with the organization’s defense of the Green Revolution and Malthusianism (1).
Lester Brown left Worldwatch in 2001 to form the Earth Policy Institute. Since then, some observers have perceived Worldwatch to be moving into some rather questionable positions and endeavors. In 2007 it joined the global debate on biofuels by releasing a report which highlighted the economic, social and environmental problems posed by the biofuels boom. (2) But, quite incredibly, the report’s conclusions fell way short of its analysis and gave biofuels a rather glib and uncritical thumbs-up.
Then in February 2009, Worldwatch released another report on the subject, titled “Smart Choices for Biofuels”, co-authored with the Sierra Club. (3) This report should be regarded with skepticism and concern. Its authors are good at pointing out the pitfalls and problems of biofuels but in the end—and against all logic—conclude that biofuel production can be made sustainable with a few reforms here and there. They assume from the start that biofuels are desirable and inevitable. The industrialized North’s voracious and irresponsible consumption is unadressed, and endless economic growth remains unquestioned. Reports like these can do more harm than good, since their most immediate and obvious effect will be to confound and divide the environmental movement on this issue.
In June 2009, Worldwatch released a report, co-authored with Ecoagriculture Partners (EAP), on the relationship between agricultural practices and global warming. (4) But some of the report’s recommendations are questionable and controversial, to say the very least, especially “biochar” and “voluntary markets for greenhouse gas emission offsets.”
Two months before the report’s release, 147 organizations from 44 countries had signed on to an international declaration against biochar, denouncing it as a false solution to climate change. According to the declaration’s press release:
Civil society groups have called for caution on Biochar in view of serious scientific uncertainty. Many share concerns that this technology would lead to vast areas of land being converted to new plantations, thus repeating the unfolding disasters which agrofuels cause. They point out that large scale financial incentives for biochar or other soil sequestration could result in large scale land conversion and displacement of people. (5)
As for carbon offsets and market-based approaches to address global warming, these have been constantly denounced as false solutions by climate justice advocates, like the World Rainforest Movement, the North America-based Mobilization for Climate Justice and the Global Forest Coalition.
EAP describes its proposal thus: “Ecoagriculture recognizes agricultural producers and communities as key stewards of ecosystems and biodiversity and enables them to play those roles effectively. Ecoagriculture applies an integrated ecosystem approach to agricultural landscapes to address all three pillars, drawing on diverse elements of production and conservation management systems.” (6)
But University of California entomologist Miguel Altieri, one of the biggest authorities on agroecology worldwide, argues in an extensive critique that ecoagriculture is no more than a corporate-friendly mockery of organic agriculture. (7) EAP director Sara Scherr fired off a furious response to Altieri, accusing him of misstating and mischaracterizing her organization’s activities and philosophy.
Any weighing of the relative merit of each side’s arguments must consider Altieri’s consistent, principled and highly erudite defense of the principles of agroecology and progressive political positions in light of EAP’s list of “partners”. These include the World Wildlife Fund—vilified for its support for NAFTA and its collaboration with the Roundtable of Responsible Soy, a high-profile attempt to rationalize the millions of hectares of unsustainable soy monocultures in South America. (8) Other EAP partners include pillars of what could be called pro-corporate eco-capitalist nature conservation, like the Nature Conservancy, which also campaigned for NAFTA and has been accused of greenwashing soy monocultures in Brazil through its controversial partnership with Cargill grain corporation. (9) There’s also Conservation International, strongly criticized by civil society groups for its activities in Mexico’s Lacandon jungle, and the Katoomba Group, a pioneer in developing rationales for “ecosystem markets.” (10)
Altieri reported in 2004 that EAP’s partners included European biotech giants Bayer Cropscience and Syngenta (through its charitable foundation), as well as Croplife International, a trade association that represents the “plant science industry” (read: genetically engineered crops). As of July 2009, none of these appear on EAP’s web site as partners or supporters—apparently the organization wants to keep the appearance of critical distance from the biotech industry.
On July 8 2009, Worldwatch and EAP unveiled a new initiative: “a two-year project to point the world toward innovations in agriculture that can nourish people as well as the planet, supported by a $1.3 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The project will focus specifically on sub-Saharan Africa.” (11)
The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the Gates Foundation’s joint endeavor with the Rockefeller Foundation to address the problem of hunger in Africa, has not gone without controversy. In March 2009 the Oakland Institute released a report titled “Voices from Africa: African Farmers & Environmentalists Speak Out Against a New Green Revolution in Africa”, which features essays and statements of leading African farmers, environmentalists, and civil society groups which directly challenge AGRA’s plans for the continent. (12) Well-founded critiques of AGRA were also presented by GRAIN (13), the ETC Group (14) and Food First (15).
Furthermore, in November-December 2007 the west African country of Mali hosted an international meeting on Alternatives to the Green Revolution (read AGRA). Attendees—over 150 participants from 25 African countries and 10 non-African countries—included farmers, pastoralists, environmentalists, women, youth and development organizations.
The Worldwatch/EAP initiative intends to research “practical solutions for creating sustainable food security.” Most of the “practical solutions” mentioned in the press release— rainwater harvesting, adding nitrogen-fixing plants into crop rotations, farmer-run seed banks, and involving women in decision making—cannot be thought of as innovations by any definition of the word. They are what organic and family farmers have always been doing. Other solutions mentioned, like “tapping international carbon-credit markets”, reflect once again a blind faith in discredited “market solutions”.
What’s most upsetting about the two joint Worldwatch/EAP communiques is their silence about the IAASTD report (also known as the Agricultural Assessment), an enormous document that is to world agriculture what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is to global warming. Written by over 400 experts under the auspices of the World Bank and UN agencies, with the full participation of civil society, governments and industry, and subjected to two independent peer reviews, it is the most thorough appraisal of world agriculture ever undertaken. It concluded that business-as-usual Green Revolution agriculture is not an option. As an alternative, the report’s authors recommended small-scale agroecological production that utilizes local resources, precisely what organic farmers worldwide have been doing all along. As for genetically engineered crops, the Agricultural Assessment expressed caution and skepticism, which did not sit well with the biotechnology industry.
The IAASTD report was released over a year ago, Worldwatch itself took note of it in an April 18, 2008 communique. (16) To approach the subjects of world hunger and sustainable agriculture without reference to the Agricultural Assessment is to court genuine ignorance.
The alternatives to the Green Revolution model and misguided market “solutions” can be summed up in two words: food sovereignty. This innovative concept is the product of one of the most remarkable, democratic and inclusive collective thinking processes in history. It was formulated and refined through years of dialogue and debate among dozens of small farmers organizations from all over the world over a period of years, culminating in the Nyeleni Declaration issued at the World Forum on Food Sovereignty in Mali in 2007. The main architect of the food sovereignty concept is worldwide peasant federation Via Campesina, probably the single most important civil society organization in the world right now.
Global civil society is currently carrying out an exciting, hopeful, inclusive, bottom-up dialogue on food sovereignty, climate justice and the future of agriculture, which is breaking with old paradigms and offering proposals that radically break with the conventional wisdom of industrial civilization. But sadly, Worldwatch seems to have decided to play it safe instead and turn to mainstream partners like EAP, and play along with major funders like the Gates Foundation. Especially sad, considering that the organization has repeated times shown courage and willingness to step out of the herd on sensitive and important issues. It is not my intention to single out the Worldwatch institute—unfortunately it is far from being the only environmental group that has followed this sorry trend.
Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican author, journalist and environmental educator. His articles have been published by Synthesis/Regeneration, Alternet, Corporate Watch, The Ecologist, Earth Island Journal, E Magazine, the CIP Americas Policy Program, Food First, and many other media. He currently heads the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety.
1. Worldwatch was founded with a $500,000 grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Philanthropic foundations founded and controlled by the Rockefellers, like RBF and the Rockefeller Foundation were key in conceiving and funding the Green Revolution. See Mark Dowie’s book American Foundations: An Investigative History (MIT Books, 2002), and also Gerard Colby and Charlotte Dennett’s Thy Will Be Done: Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil (Harper Collins, 2005).
2. “Biofuels for Transport: Global Potential and Implications for Sustainable Agriculture and Energy in the 21st Century,” Worldwatch Institute
3. “Smart Choices for Biofuels,” Worldwatch Institute
4. “Mitigating Climate Change Through Food and Land Use,” Worldwatch Institute
5. “Biochar, a new big threat to people, land, and ecosystems,” Rainforest Rescue
6. I normally do not consult the Wikipedia as a primary source, but the EAP web page specifically directs inquiries to ecoagriculture’s Wikipedia entry:
7. Altieri, Miguel. “Agroecology vs. Ecoagriculture,” Institute of Science in Society
8. See ToxicSoy.org, ResposibleSoy.org
9. “Conservation Corp.: Enviros Ally with Big Grain,” Multinational Monitor
10. Katoomba Group
11. “Worldwatch Institute Launches Initiative to Assess Agricultural Methods’ Impacts on Sustainability, Productivity,” Worldwatch Institute
12. “Voices From Africa: African Farmers & Environmentalists Speak Out Against a New Green Revolution in Africa,” Oakland Institute, March 2009
13. “A new Green Revolution for Africa?” GRAIN, December 2007
14. “Food Sovereignty or Green Revolution 2.0?” ETC Group, April 2007.
15. “Ten Reasons Why the Rockefeller and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations’ Alliance for Another Green Revolution Will Not Solve the Problems of Poverty and Hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa” by Eric Holt-Gimenez, Miguel A. Altieri and Peter Rosset. Food First, October 2006 (PDF)
16. “International Commission Calls for ‘Paradigm Shift’ in Agriculture,” Worldwatch Institute
For more information on what is biochar and what is wrong with it:
For more on AGRA:
For more on IAASTD:
Earth Policy Institute
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