Saturday, 30 August 2008

Let 'em starve!

August is always a slow news month. The key decision makers are generally on holiday, activity falls away, and not a lot happens. Newspapers, however, still have to sell copy. This has given rise to the ‘silly season’, where stories that ordinarily wouldn’t merit too much thought are given a prominence that they possibly do not deserve. One such story this August concerned a rant by Prince Charles (the heir to the British throne) over GM foods (see article). The Prince suggests that the cultivation of GM foods is a gigantic experiment with nature that has gone “seriously wrong”. He also suggests that relying upon “gigantic corporations” for our food would result in an “absolute disaster”.

From a futures perspective, this claim is worth examining. The cultivation of GM crops has been going on for 10 years now, and there is little evidence to suggest that there are any unduly harmful effects from this method of cultivation. The practice has been occurring long enough for any detrimental side effects to have become evident. We currently consume the produce from GM cultivation in three ways. First, there are the GM crops grown abroad that are imported into the UK. Second, there are the processed foodstuffs that are manufactured outside of the UK and then imported as finished products. And finally, there is the livestock feed that is processed with GM crops, that then enters our food chain through the meat that we eat. In this respect, the genie is already out of the bottle.

The Prince offers no evidence to support his claim. Equally, there is no evidence to suggest that the means of making a market for foods (the “gigantic corporations”) is either superior or inferior to any other form of market organisation. We can suspect that a global trade in food actually needs global corporations to move the food from the producer to the consumer.

On the other side of the coin, there is much to suggest that GM cultivation has been beneficial. GM cultivation is a way to improve crop yields and to cultivate crops more efficiently with regards to the environment. This year, we have seen the start of what we feel is likely to be persistent food shortages across the world. As prosperity wraps itself around the globe, as living standards rise, as people rise out of poverty, they are likely to want to eat more of a better diet. If the growth of the supply of food cannot match the growth in demand for food, global food prices are likely to rise – as they have this year. GM cultivation offers a technological solution for the growth in the supply of food to match the growth in demand for food.

Food crops, of course, are also resource intensive. One particular resource that is vital to crop growth, that is starting to register as scarce across the globe, is water. Water is a vital input to the growing process, and there are very few cash crops that can be cultivated successfully without it. An impending shortage of water raises the prospect of declining crop yields. Once again, GM cultivation offers the hope of a solution for this problem, as crop strains that need less water for successful commercial cultivation can be engineered.

If the Prince were to have his way, what would be the implications? We could expect a world in which there is less food than there is now as the GM crops currently in cultivation are replaced by lower yielding crops. We could expect the price of food generally to be more expensive than it is now. However, worse of all, we could expect the incidence of hunger and starvation to be greater than it is now. The cause of poverty eradication in the world would be set back much further than it is now.

I don’t know if Prince Charles is related to Marie Antoinette, but this sounds awfully close to exhorting the developing world to eat cake!

© The European Futures Observatory 2008

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Wednesday, 20 August 2008

St George, the Bear, and the Eagle

How does the present impact upon the future? One way is for us to interpret current events through a prism created by our view of how the future will unfold. We all have an implicit model of the future that governs how we interpret events as they occur. Every now and then, a major event happens that gives us an opportunity to re-evaluate our mental model of the future to question whether or not it remains a reasonable explanation of how we see the future unfolding. For those interested in geopolitics, the Russian incursion into Georgia this summer gives us an opportunity to consider the validity of our models of the future.

Events this summer, in our view, have lent support to this view of the future. Encouraged by the US, a number of EU nations, and NATO, the Georgian army entered South Ossetia to assert the authority of the Georgian government over a dissident region. Russia interpreted this as the ethnic cleansing of Russian citizens residing in South Ossetia and deployed its troops in South Ossetia (thus invading a sovereign neighbour) to guarantee the security of Russian citizens residing in South Ossetia.

Military halt lines don’t follow administrative boundaries, and the Russian incursion halted beyond the South Ossetian border. In the meantime, the Georgian separatists in Abkhazia had received direct military support from Russia in their aspirations to break away from Georgia. Eventually, a ceasefire, brokered by France as the presidency of the EU, has been agreed. Russia has agreed that its troops will withdraw from Georgia at some point in the future and NATO – at the prompting of the US - has announced that ‘there can be no return to business as usual’ (whatever that might mean). The incident still has some way to run, but the basic pattern of events at the grand strategic level is now in place.

We have an article in print entitled ‘The Second Cold War’ (see article) in which we argue that one possible future that matches a resurgent Russia with a US in relative geopolitical decline could lead to a confrontation where the US is unlikely to emerge victorious. In accepting this confrontation, the US could accelerate the process of geopolitical decline. In our work leading to this scenario, we identified a number of potential flashpoints around the world (we call them ‘Geopolitical Hotspots’), one of which is the Caspian Basin.

We modelled the Caspian Basin Hotspot extensively last year - it has a volatile mixture of Russia; Iran; Turkey; the ‘Stans’; Chinese, EU and US oil and gas interests; the world’s largest growing area for opium poppies; militant Islamic interests; and post-Soviet resentments. Events this summer have tended to confirm the Caspian Basin as an area to watch for future conflict. In our models, a resurgent Russia – financed by rising oil and gas revenues – tended to be the more dominant power in the region.

In the model, the US, as the only global super-power, would want to adopt a more proactive role, but lacks the means to do so. The war in Iraq has overstretched the US military capacity, has indebted the Federal Government at just the wrong time, and has exhausted its diplomatic credit. The US, through NATO, could rally the EU nations on the diplomatic front, but a more aggressive military response from European NATO nations would be beyond their remit. The EU nations might consider deploying a peace-keeping force, but the experience of Lebanon in 2006 suggests that this might take some time to organise.

So far, we are encouraged by our model. However, it does have two key critical uncertainties that need to be questioned. First, will we see the continued resurgence of Russia? In many respects, the answer to this question depends upon how tight the energy markets remain. In our scenario, we assumed that we are close to Peak Oil and that Russia could presume high proceeds from energy sales. If energy markets were to soften, then perhaps Russia wouldn’t be so resurgent?

The second critical uncertainty asks if we are actually witnessing the relative decline of the US geopolitically. US influence has waned in recent years, but is this a permanent decline or a temporary undulation? Just suppose that the US Presidential elections in 2008 lead to an outstanding candidate entering the White House. Could the decline of the US in recent years be reversed? We think that it could, if the right candidate were to emerge from the political process in the US. However, whilst this is a possible event, given the current leading candidates and given the state of politics in the US, we feel it to be a highly unlikely event.

This, in a roundabout way, brings us back to Georgia. If the US is unable to assist Georgia, and if the EU nations are unwilling to put themselves out to help Georgia, what is Russia likely to do? NATO has called for Russian troops to be withdrawn to their positions of 6th August (i.e. to vacate Georgia and South Ossetia). Russia has stated that it will withdraw its troops, except for 500 ‘peacekeeping troops’ to be stationed in South Ossetia. The question of Abkhazia still remains in abeyance.

Whatever happens, Georgia, as a sovereign entity, has been destabilised, making the Caspian Basin an even hotter Hotspot. The biggest loser this summer has been the Georgian President, Mikhail Saakashvili, who seriously underestimated Russian resolve and seriously overestimated the willingness of the US and Europe to support his policies.

One wonders if the Russian presence in Georgia is now permanent and whether Mikhail Saakashvili will continue as the President of Georgia.

© The European Futures Observatory 2008