FAITH AND JUSTICE


This Faith and justice page is devoted to occasional articles to showcase the challenges of maintaining faith in times of adversity.

Andrew and Valerie Ward have kindly agreed to take on this important role. They both have experience of working in various areas of development.   They and their three children, Sasha, Tiago and Imani. are very much part of our Church.

Contact: Andrew Ward  07900 017394   dr_a_f_ward@hotmail.com

Matthew
 

Let's Think of Others

I have worked in agricultural development for over 25 years now, working a lot in Africa but also in  Asia. I have been a small cog in the mechanism but considering small holder farming over these years there have been successes and some failures. However, it has been reassuring that due to agricultural production and good policies more and more people are receiving at least adequate nutrition. There has been an ongoing reduction in the number of people facing hunger and under-nutrition. During my youth I remember television images of droughts and famines, it feels that there are fewer now. I really feel that, despite population growth, humanity has worked hard to reduce the levels of suffering caused by hunger.

In my previous articles I have always tried to find the positive. I am not sure if I can strike that chord today, I am going to write about a worrying situation but we should never give up hope there will always be opportunities to improve the situation.

I also don’t think we should put our heads in the sand and ignore the situation regarding fellow human beings in less developed countries.

These people are living lives that were it not for the luck of where we were born we ourselves could be living. Change often starts with an acknowledgement of the situation.

Today I read an article from the Global Network Against Food Crises informing readers that in 2021 the number of people in the world living with acute hunger had reached a record high. The report states that since 2018 progress in addressing hunger has been reversed mainly as a result of war but also due to climate change and economic shocks. By 2021, 193 million people in 53 countries or territories faced “acute food security”. This is 40 million more than the already record level in 2020. Over half a million people in Ethiopia, Madagascar, South Sudan and Yemen are faring the worst, with urgent action needed to avoid starvation and death. We hear little about the wars in Ethiopia, South Sudan and Yemen but what I hear is sickening. It is not just Syria and Ukraine where terrible things are happening.

Unfortunately, it does not appear that the situation is going to rapidly improve. Africa is a huge food importer, climate change increases the risks to food production, the conflict in Ukraine reduces the opportunities and increases the costs of importing food. In March my colleague reported that the price of bread had gone up 30% in Egypt – a relatively wealthy African country. Last month my colleague in Nairobi, Kenya told me that milk was not available in the shops, Again, Kenya is a better off African country but one in which milk is a core part of the diet. The economic plans of most African countries have been based around the ability to import affordable food. So much of this food has come from Ukraine or Russia or is affordable because of the exports of Ukraine and Russia. Increasing Africa food production is possible but it will take time and resources, I believe this includes a willingness to embrace new technology. It is said that change comes out of a crisis, and I just hope that the world is sufficiently tuned in to the situation that so many of the poorest people in the world are facing. That the world comes together to work out how to address the challenges that push the poor into hunger. Maybe thiis could lead to a wholescale rapid change not just to address this crisis but to eliminate chronic hunger in the longer term. 
 

Climate Change and Farming

One of my most vivid primary school memories is of large orange hardback hymn books being passed around so that we could sing ‘All good gifts around us’. The lines that resonated most with my younger self were ‘He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain, the breezes and the sunshine and good refreshing rain’. It is an ideal but in most years we can thank God for the balance of weather which has enabled a harvest to be produced and our population to be fed.

        

The problem for poor farmers is when the weather required by the crop doesn’t come or too much of it comes at once. The impact on the harvest can be terrible and most small scale farmers in developing countries do not have crop insurance or forms of compensation for lost harvest. My experience is that crop destructive weather is happening more frequently. Evidence shows that climate change is having a greater effect on the less well off. For millions of poor people climate change makes life harder, their livelihoods more precarious with less control over their destiny.

The occurrence of more frequent droughts is one of the clearest impacts of climate change but there are a multitude of impacts, I will describe a few below.

A few years ago I was in Zimbabwe. The government was looking to help farmers mitigate against droughts by providing farmers with irrigated land for growing their maize. It seemed like a simple solution but it had neglected to consider another effect of climate change. Over a certain temperature the pollen of the maize does not set, the plants do not get pollinated and so the plants do not produce cobs of corn. Climate change is making these temperatures occur more frequently and so even with the irrigation water the maize crop is still more likely to fail.

Heavy rain and flooding can be devastating to farmers as they can physically break or wash away plants or cause rotting. When I lived in Nigeria farmers used to plant a tuber crop, yam, close to the river Niger. The yam would grow in the moisture from the river and the farmers knew when the rains would come and so they would harvest the yam before the rains came and the river flooded. Since then with more erratic rainfall harvesting has become a lottery, if the river floods before the harvest the water covers the field and all is lost, but if you harvest too early the yield is small.

Ever since humans started to farm they have selected what they thought were the best seeds to plant. This grew into the science of plant breeding in which you are cross fertilising varieties of a crop to develop seeds that grow into better plants. When I started work there was a lot of emphasis on traditional plant breeding to overcome problems. Although it might take more than 15 years for the plant breeders to develop a seed that can be sold to farmers this was ok because the farm environment would not change that much in 15 years. But climate change is rapidly changing the weather conditions and also the pest problems that the crop face. With such a rapid change in the farm environment plant breeders, using traditional techniques, struggle to produce new varieties of seeds fast enough.

I won’t go on but I hope that this gives a flavour of why, in terms of food production and peoples’ livelihoods, I pray for humanity to make the right decisions and do the right actions that would lead to a reduction in green house gas emissions and as fast as possible and limit the impact of the devastating changes in the climate that we are witnessing.  
 

Producing Food

In 2020 there were a few days when it seemed that Covid-19 put our supplies of, eggs, flour and toilet paper in doubt. Thankfully these shortages didn’t last for long and we got by. But when we scratch the surface it is amazing that 2020 did not see persistent grocery shortages. Let us also think of those in developing countries for whom food shortages could have been catastrophic and again thank God that food was produced and got to those that needed it.


In my experience of agriculture in Africa problems appear very rapidly. A field may not have any weeds showing but if it is left for ten days the crop can be smothered by weeds, pests and diseases rapidly damage crops. And, as with farming in the UK, the harvest window is often pretty short. Farmers cannot afford to not go to the farm and conduct farm chores, there is no furlough in agriculture.

However, farmers do not act in isolation. Most farmers buy farm inputs (seed, veterinary products, fertiliser etc) and sell their harvested crops. Producing farm inputs requires a labour force and fortunately during 2020 these continued to produce the inputs so required by farmers. In a similar manner a lot of farm harvest is processed and as the processing companies were able to continue with their work farmers were able to sell their produce and consumers were able to benefit from it.

Trade in farm inputs and food products often takes place between countries. Many borders were officially closed during outbreaks of Covid-19 but fortunately most governments agreed that there should be special dispensations for food related goods to continue to pass through borders. And we must of course recognise the importance of the traders continuing to move these products even when doing so would increase personal risk of infection.

This is a very short overview of the steps required for the flow of groceries to continue but I really think it is amazing that it has continued so well despite all of the Covid-19 disruption.
 
Thank God it has and that we have not seen increased hunger as another effect of the pandemic.

In my work I have been challenged with how we can continue to provide farmers with guidance and support despite not being able to mobilise staff for face to face contacts with farmers. The innovation in the face of adversity has been amazing. In Africa instead of face to face training farmers were sent SMS messages reminding them of what they could do to increase their yields. The team swiftly realised that they were communicating with many more farmers than they had previously (about ten times as many). In Latin America a mobile phone based app has been promoted in 17 countries bringing together all aspects of agricultural information – a sort of Wikipedia for farmers. Asia has also developed phone-based learning but has also seen entrepreneurs using drones to provide services to farmers. We will welcome the chance to go back to face to face training with farmers but I think this will be augmented by these new approaches that we developed during the Covid-19 outbreak. 
 

ABOUT ST. GILES CHURCH

 

Covid and Poverty

I have previously written about positive things that have happened at a global level during Covid. But with the situation improving at home we should not forget those worse off than ourselves. I have recently had several discussions with people overseas who have told me that the end of Covid is very much NOT in sight for them and there have been some alarming headlines recently. The Economist recently published a map that showed that in many countries in Africa, Asia and even Latin America vaccination levels will be low until 2023.

Last month I read an article which had the headline ‘COVID-19 hunger spike leaves 1 in 5 Africans malnourished’. This article went on to say that the number of people globally living in hunger rose by 161 million in 2020 with Covid-19 being the main cause of this. That is more than the population of the UK, Ireland and Germany. And this is in addition to the number of people who were already living in hunger. The total number of undernourished people in the world now stands at 811 million, almost 1 in ten. The article focussed on the impact on the poor of a loss of income due to health. I have seen this in African farms before, everything grows so quickly that illness can lead to weeds swamping a crop or a harvest getting spoilt. The article also said that the effects of Covid have been exacerbated by climate change.

It is frustrating to hear about people suffering so much, particularly when we feel helpless to do anything to alleviate this suffering. Early on in the pandemic, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres came up with a brilliant metaphor: ‘COVID-19 has been likened to an x-ray, revealing fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built.’ If Covid-19 can change society aren’t we in an even better position to change society, not to set everything back to how it was in 2019 but to change this world so that it is a better place for everybody to live. Maybe we should be looking for more than just Covid relief!

Andrew Ward

Locusts

My primary school teacher told me that grasshoppers make their noise through rubbing their legs, rather than through their mouth. This was something a younger version of me could fact check and catching grasshoppers became a game. As I started to work with farmers overseas one of the pieces of information that intrigued me was that the only difference between the locusts that we see on the news and the grasshoppers in those areas is that the locusts live together in swarms. They are just grasshoppers who have a lot of food available and so live together rather than living as individuals.



And the swarms are huge.  One recorded swarm is 37 miles long and 25 miles wide — that’s more than twice the size of Paris. A swarm this size, in one day, would eat as much food as the population of France. These swarms can travel 100 miles in a day and contain 40-80 million locusts. Locust swarms described in the Old Testament didn’t seem this fearsome.

The main locust outbreak at the moment is of the Desert Locust species. Usually this species exists as grasshoppers in the Saudi peninsular. There is not a lot of food for them there to sustain a large population. However, because of unusually high rainfall, there has been an abundance of food for the grasshoppers and their population has grown and developed into a locust swarm.



Locusts are not strong fliers, they utilize the wind to take them to new areas. The swarms first spread to Yemen. Due to the civil conflict and focus on humanitarian relief little attention was paid to controlling the locusts. SO their numbers grew AND GREW as they feasted and were then blown across the Indian Ocean to Pakistan. But because of tensions across the Pakistan-India border, where the locusts settled, the two countries were not able to undertake any aerial spraying of the locusts. When they spread to areas where they could be sprayed one official remarked, after spraying, that ‘the density of locusts in the swarms is so high that a 10 to 15-centimeter layer of dead locusts forms on the ground after spraying’.

A change of wind in the Saudi peninsular has taken other swarms of locusts south to Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, Uganda. These swarms continue to grow and are likely to get a boost when the rain season starts in East Africa. The next generation of locusts are about the hatch and their voracious appetite will further damage potential harvests in the region.

This may not be the number one priority on the British news these days. However, livelihoods are being wrecked across two continents and human actions affecting the climate and conflicts are magnifying the impact of the locusts. Efforts are being made to increase control of the locusts through aerial spraying, the use of drones and one story mentioned using ducks to eat the locusts. As yet we do not know how many will suffer and in what ways, I saw an estimate of 19 million people being affected, at this stage we just don’t know.