Wednesday, 16 July 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

Biofuels have little impact in cutting greenhouse gas emissions so governments should concentrate instead on lowering energy consumption to fight climate change, according to an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report published today. Governments should boost the so-called second generation biofuels that do not use food crops, said the report, which will be seen as a blow to biofuels. But elsewhere the sector is booming and the conflicts around biofuel production are not being played out in quite the same way.

Earlier this month the Guardian newspaper published an article detailing a confidential World Bank report that claimed biofuels have forced global food prices up by 75% - far more than previously estimated. The implication of the report being that biofuels have been at the centre of the recent high food price-hunger-food riot cycle.

The Guardian's exclusive has sparked much debate at a time when the production of biofuels has become highly contentious.

Last week, we heard an upbeat presentation on Brazils' bio-ethanol experience from Luiz Augusto Horta Nogueira, a bioenergy expert from Itajubá Federal School of Engineering, Minas Gerais, Brazil. STEPS member Adrian Smith blogged on Horta Nogueira's presentation at the launch of Demos' latest Atlas of Ideas publication, Brazil, the Natural Knowledge Economy. As Adrian said at the time, there was much talk of the positive economic effects of bio-ethnol production and its growth capacitym but little of the conflicts around the issue.

And this week, Brazil's bioenergy research has received a boost with the announcement of US$130m investment in a new research programme promoting cooperation between academic institutions and industry. SciDev.Net's report said: "In addition to academic activities, BIOEN will work with private companies in Brazil's bioethanol industry to bring new technologies to industry sooner."

Meanwhile, in Kenya, a court has temporarily halted a $370 million sugar and biofuels project in a coastal wetland. Reuters reports that conservation groups warned the project would threaten wildlife and local livelihoods. One study shows irrigation in the area would cause severe drainage of the Delta, leaving local farmers without water for their herds during dry seasons.

And cassava conversion is the focus of a new initiative in Cambodia where a North Korean company is setting up Cambodia's first biofuel factory.

Are the potential harm to livelihoods and the environment being left out of the debate? Earlier this month the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization published a report that claimed the global biofuels boom risks harming poor people in poor countries by forcing them off land they depend on.

Dispossession was a theme touched on by Les Levidow and Helena Paul who gave a STEPS seminar in January on the links between biofuel production, higher land and food prices and dispossesion from resouces. As Paul said during the seminar: "Why should it only be this one path? We really need to look at the targets, the targets are set, industry is racing ahead and we have people running behind saying 'let's look at sustainability'. But it's too little, too late." Read more

Tuesday, 15 July 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

"The delivery of safe food and health governance is challenging and contested, and knowledge and institutions independent of vested interests are essential for public health," write Erik Millstone - STEPS Centre food and agrciulture co-convenor - and Tim Lang in this week's Lancet.

But how independent of vested interests is the FSA now? Read Millstone and Lang's verdict and recommendations. Read more

Thursday, 10 July 2008


By ADRIAN SMITH, STEPS Centre member

The tone of the launch of Demos' Brazil, the Natural Knowledge Economy report by Kirsten Bound, was aimed at boosting innovative activities and potential in the country in general. The distributional consequences (social and environmental) of that innovation were acknowledged as a challenge, but not covered at the event, although the report, part of the Atlas of Ideas project, does delve into this.

Rather, at the launch in London on Tuesday, we heard much about standard indicators of innovation, and how relatively well Brasil was improving on these. Though patenting was poor and considered a bad thing. As was the high proportion of research in the public sector, which is 80 per cent, though around 40 per cent is public money.

It was acknowledged in passing that there might be 'hidden' innovation beyond scientific publications and R&D investment. However, pro-poor innovation was not considered at all. A question posed by a delegate from SustainAbility about secondary education performance did indicate this was a problem. Whilst university education was performing well, and the best universities were free to students, one needed a good private education to stand a chance of a place. If secondary education is poor, then this may also have implications for the non-graduate skill base necessary for the urban and rural poor to capture any spill-over benefits from a conventional innovation system, frontier pursing approach.

We got a very upbeat presentation on bio-ethanol from Luiz Augusto Horta Nogueira, Bioenergy expert, Itajubá Federal School of Engineering, Minas Gerais, Brazil, and the industrial system for its production in Brasil is impressive. Future capacity increases were substantial, and Brasil was well placed (subject to trade rules) to export biofuel around the globe, and bioethanol knowledge and technology to other potential tropical producers.

It was an example of what Ban Ki-Moon has called the gentle green giant - Brasil's quiet advances in the area of environmental innovation. But again, little interrogation of the conflicts between movements like MST and the large agri-businesses driving biofuels. Nor the controversial encroachment of agbiotech into Brasil. As on other contentious issues, the need to develop regulatory systems that can direct innovation, and create resource-based solutions without destroying the resource base, was skirted around. A 'challenge' for the future.

The term 'natural knowledge economy' was coined to try and capture the way Brasil was using science and technology to increase the value it attains from its rich natural resource endowments. In contrast to the sequence from resource-based to knowledge-based economy, Brasil was combining the two, now. From a Sustainability perspective, this dichotomy between knowledge and resource based economies rings hollow. All economies are resource based. And their exploitation always requires knowledge. The relative economic value attached to each may vary, but it is hard to see one without the other at the global scale. Indeed, those concerned about Sustainability worry that much environmental knowledge is being ignored by innovators.

Overall, what was lacking was reflection on competing ideologies of development, and the roles for innovation therein. Nor, more pragmatically, which models of technology and development are 'apt' under Brasilian circumstances, and which alternatives are considered better for different sections of Brasilian society. The diversity of Brasilian society, and its open culture, was considered a strength for innovation. But this was not then considered in terms of different kinds of innovation within that diversity (cf. an implied linear model in many presentations and discussion - especially Andrew Cahn, the head of UK Trade & Investment).

Perhaps the closest we got was some very thoughtful closing remarks from the Ambassador of Brasil. He pointed out how 'territory' had been a long-standing feature in Brasilian thought - the 'meaning' of Brasil, though always subject to revision, nevertheless drew upon the early and rapid colonisation of land within its present day borders. Ambassador Santos-Neves listed a number of innovations, in agriculture, and in oil exploration, that failed when standard approaches were imported from the US and elsewhere; but when local knowledge about Brasilian territory was applied, then results improved. Oil was found in unexpected places (and
lots of it). Brasil does best when it uses knowledge with the full
knowledge of its own territory. It will be interesting to see the extent to
which innovation priorities alter as Brasil moves towards its bicentennial
of independence, and reflects on its visions for the future, and the kind
of society it wishes to develop.

Doubtless some of this more critical reflection upon Brasil's impressive
rise is picked up in the report. But the launch concentrated more on boosting Brasilian innovation to the mutual economic advantage of those already in a position to benefit.
Read more

Wednesday, 2 July 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

When the potential of a flu pandemic derived from Avian Influenza emerged, alarm bells rang across the world. The prospect of a major public health catastrophe caused by the human-human transmission of so-called bird flu sparked considerable investment into developing surveillance and response systems for the disease.

But how effective are these responses? And who are the likely winners and losers? Are such response systems robust, durable and resilient, in the face of unknown, and perhaps unknowable, shocks and stresses, and a complex and dynamic viral ecology? A new research project co-ordinated by Professor Ian Scoones in KNOTS (Knowledge, Society and Technology) Team at the Institute of Development Studies is seeking some answers. Photo: Robert Churchill / iStockphoto

The project – supported by the FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organisation) Pro-Poor Livestock Policy Initiative as part of a wider set of activities under the DFID (UK Department for International Development)-funded Pro-Poor HPAI Risk Reduction Project - aims to investigate the politics of policy processes surrounding the response to Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI).

The work seeks to interrogate the assumptions being made by the politics and processes of global responses to avian flu and explore different framings in the debate – including those often not heard in mainstream policy circles. Key actors and networks will be identified along with associated narratives and practices of policy.

Dr Anni McLeod, FAO Senior Officer (Livestock Policy), attended the recent planning workshop for this project at IDS. ‘This research comes at a particularly interesting time because the global focus is shifting from Avian Influenza as a single disease and an emergency, to thinking about how we might deal with zoonotic diseases in the future. That is going to require a very good understanding for the political economy in which the diseases are situated and the way that institutions work together to deal with them,’ she said.

‘We have got so much experience with Avian Influenza, there are so many narratives running through this on which we can draw, but there has been very little documentation of those narratives; most of the research that has been done doesn’t take that angle. This is quite a unique project coming at a really interesting time,’ Dr McLeod added.

The research will focus on both the international level, working with the key agencies involved in the global response, and the country level, engaging with four countries in SE Asia – Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. The overall analysis of the political economy of policy will reveal key challenges, obstacles and opportunities for responding to avian flu – and potentially other global epidemics. This project is part of a broader initiative of the STEPS Centre on
‘Global epidemics: pathways of disease and response'.

Working with collaborators in international agencies and national programmes, as well as funding agencies, the aim will be to develop a fresh and critical reflection on the current response to the HPAI challenge, asking questions about the distributional and sustainability consequences of the existing policy response.

Karl Rich, Agricultural Economist at the
International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Kenya said of the project, ‘There are a lot of complementarities between this type of work in terms of understanding the political economy of response – the institutions behind it, the narratives – with what we at ILRI are doing, which is trying to place this in the broader institutional contexts as far as looking at different mitigations, what works, what doesn’t and why. So this research brings a lot of real synergies to what we are doing and potential capacity that we can maybe share among the different research groups and with IDS.'

Read more