Training Environmental Leaders in Nepal, Sandee Style

I had always wanted to visit Nepal and between the 9th and 14th of December I finally made the voyage. I participated in a seminar of Sandee (the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economists) and spent some time with my colleague and friend Biswo Poudel.


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The flight to Kathmandu is among the longest as it one of the farthest locations from San Francisco. I selected the shortest flights and after 24 hours in transit I was in Kathmandu – unfortunately my luggage could not keep up with the pace of flying and arrived the next day, after enjoying an overnight stay in Bangkok.

Life in Nepal is affected by two recent setbacks: First, the major earthquake that shook Nepal in April 2015. On the surface there were not many obvious signs that this had happened. A few houses in the downtown area were crumbled – but many more are not habitable. In the older part of town and in the villages the damage was much more substantial – many old houses and some temples collapsed.

The Nepalese have also faced a de facto blockade of goods shipped through India. The blockade is apparent everywhere: queues of cars waiting for gas at official government facilities, many flights have been canceled and planes that serve Nepal bring their fuel with them. Tourist resorts are deserted and there are few choices of food at restaurants and even a shortage of medicine in hospitals. The pain of the blockade was reduced by the smuggling of fuel – and more than doubling the price of gasoline in the black market. I could not figure out the cause of the blockade, but I suspect that whatever were the sins of Nepal, the blockade was an excessive response.

I figured out that while Nepal is part of the Indian civilization, it hates to be treated like a little brother. The Nepalese are also stuck between India and China. They have been independent for millennia and want to keep good relations with the giants at its borders, and want to do so without taking sides.

I also realized that religion plays a major role in Nepal — there are 4000 temples in Kathmandu — and the music and chanting from temples are pervasive. Many of the Nepalese are both Hindi and Buddhist and I learned to appreciate their religious perspective. While the monotheistic religions believe that the world is ruled by one deity, my Nepalese friends assume that the world is ruled by a cabinet with many rulers through a hierarchical system. In Nepalese schools there are temples to the education gods and in hospitals, to the medicine gods. This approach may be quite inclusive – if you believe in many gods, the odds of accepting another one seems to be quite high.

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Despite the Modi blockade (named after the Indian prime minster, who the Nepalese viewed until recently as a reformer and good neighbor, and now see him as a capricious bully), my trip was wonderful. The limited food choices were still very tasty, a combination of interesting Indians dishes with fresh salads and soups. The weather was spectacular: I enjoyed watching snowy mountaintops when the temperature below in the valley is around 60F. Biswo and his wife, Pratibha, showed me fascinating parts of their country and the Sandee workshop was wonderful.

As I understand it, Sandee is part of a program initiated by Karl Goran Maeler and Sir Partha Dasgupta and by the Swedish Beijer Institute, which was aimed to create leaders of environmental economics research in developing countries.

The program established four regional networks for Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia and Sandee for South Asia. Each program has its unique features and flavors. Sandee is 15 years old, and offers education and training activities, including a summer school of three weeks in environmental economics, a shorter winter program and other educational and policy programs.

The most advanced program is a research-training program for economists with a PhD or masters degree who work as assistant professors as well as in government. Each year, the program selects 5 to 15 participants from a pool of applicants. Participants receive around $10,000 annually to conduct supervised research for 2-3 years.

Each participant is assigned an advisor, and the participants meet their advisors at the biannual workshops. The advisors – the “faculty” of the program – are leading environmental and resource economists from prominent universities.[1] The advising process is very detailed and deep: the participants and their advisors interact constantly and during the biannual meeting each candidate makes a presentation and receives feedback from the advisors, other assigned reviewers, and other participants. The reviewing and feedback processes assist the candidate in designing a conceptual framework and data collection plan, and help to improve the analysis and writing of a research publication.

Some of the time of the biannual meetings is allocated to learning and exposure to new research. I was invited to the 31st biannual workshop to speak about my work on Biotechnology and Sustainable Development. Another guest speaker was Professor Mushfiq Mobarak from Yale, who provided an excellent review on the use of impact assessment studies as tools for increase adoption improved practices and for introducing change.

Both of us also served as commenters on the participants’ presentations. I was very impressed with the depth and quality of these the research efforts, which covered major issues of development and the environment. Particular emphasis was given to (1) understanding and designing strategies for adaption to climate change, (2) analysis of the factors that influence adoption of new technologies and estimating the impacts of these technologies, and (3) estimating the cost and benefits to economic agents in developing countries from environmental conservation activities that provide global benefits. Such activities may include conservation of biodiversity and sequestration of greenhouse gases.

The perception is that the toughest challenge of an academic career is to get a degree and then a job. I think that actually working on your own after graduation is even more challenging. This is especially so in a developing-country environment, in which young scholars are frequently not surrounded by experienced faculty members who provide support and can teach the tricks of the trade.

The biannual research and writing workshop train the participants to withstand the rigorous critical review that academic researchers face and help them to respond to feedback rather than give up. They provide the exposure and skills that will make researchers much more effective teachers, advisors, and colleagues in their own right. I admire the commitment of the advisors, who have been coming to South Asia twice a year to supervise their students for minimum or no compensation. Their dedication is a testimony to the value of the program – as economists who value their time dearly they would not make this effort unless the benefits are immense and justify the cost.

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I learned from this program what the term “capacity building” means, both in concept and practice. The program creates research leaders, and some of the participants go on to become policy analysts, advisors, and scholars.

The program also improves their skills as teachers and in turn, will cultivate the skills of their students. Finally it brings together economists from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri-Lanka, and Nepal. I saw emerging friendships and collaborations that may forge better understanding between future leaders of nations, many of which have a history of conflicts and misunderstandings.

My 15 years of experience as co-director of the Beahrs ELP allows me to appreciate Sandee even more. Beahrs ELP participants are from many disciplines and the program emphasizes broadening of horizons and multidisciplinary cooperation. Sandee’s emphasis is to strengthen the capacity of economists in their chosen disciplines.

Both of the programs work to build an international network of collaboration. We invest immense amounts in educating our youth, but education does not need to end with graduation. With the fast accumulation of new knowledge and technological change, some forms of knowledge and skills become obsolete. Both programs are forums for lifelong learning that is especially important in the context of development work. I believe that these types of investments in our future deserve support and nurturing.

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After the workshops, Biswo and Pratibha took me on a tour of Chitwan (their hometown) and the region’s national park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While we didn’t see the emblematic Mount Everest, we were nestled in a valley surrounded by towering mountains and wide rivers running through it.

One attraction of the region is its jungle safari, where you may encounter rhinos, elephants, crocodiles, and, if you are lucky, tigers. This region also taught me about environmental leadership in action. During the civil war in Nepal (1996-2006), environmentalists in the region risked their lives to save its animals and were successful in establishing an active ecotourism industry.

Absent are the Holiday Inns and Hiltons, and instead there are homegrown and charming resorts that attract people from all over the world. Some tourists may climb the Himalayas and then relax at these charming resorts. My time in Nepal showed me that environmental leadership is about learning and practice. It requires support from the outside but it must also build commitment from the inside.

[1] The advisors this year were Jeff Vincent and Subarbau Patanayak from Duke University; Celine Nauges from the University of Tolouse; Jean Marie Baland from University of Namur Belgium; the founding director of the program, Priya Shyamsundar, and its current director, E. Somanathan from the Indian Statistical Institute; and Enamul Haque from Asian Center for Development.

Searching for Coexistence of GMO and Organics in Amsterdam

I recently returned from a conference on the co-existence of genetically modified food (GMO) with other food, such as organic. The meeting was on November 17-20 in Amsterdam, which was rainy, cold and windy, an unpleasant departure from the sunny and dry climate of drought-stricken Berkeley that I have grown accustomed to. Fortunately we were located in a hotel at DAM Square – the center of the city where everything began – that did not have much exposure to the weather.

I was fascinated from my time in this bustling city. Amsterdam has all the major brands you see in major tourist towns: Zara, Hermes and Gucci. But the local stores especially emphasize what seem to be the pillars of the local economy – cheese, marijuana, sex, and alcohol (you feel like you live in a Heineken ad). And the head shops put Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley to shame. The city is friendly and crowded, in a constant state of orderly chaos. As a taxi driver told me, “You might think that traffic is a mess- but there is some logic there- people tend to obey the red lights but use common sense when it come to other rules. Freedom is good.”

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One benchmark to judge conferences, especially on topics related to food, is on their nightly dinners – and this one was a winner. Our first conference dinner was in a fish restaurant in a charming building built around 1640. We climbed a narrow and steep staircase to our seats on the thiIMG_2030rd floor (safety and access rules are rather recent phenomenon). A unique feature of the restaurant is a Rembrandt self-portrait on the wall – I guess he gave it in exchange for a meal.

The next night we had a lovely tour in the rain of Amsterdam’s canals on the way to second and main dinner of the conference, which was held in a grand and very impressive and elegant building. The dinner included a presentation of the history of Amsterdam and we learned that the dinner’s venue served originally as a church, later converted to become the first stock market in the world. This stock market financed the Dutch discoverers and trade companies during the golden era of Holland in the 18th century when Amsterdam was the richest city in the world.

We learned that the Dutch discovered New Zealand, bought Manhattan, and renamed familiar locations (Harlem Brookline). The food in both cases was like everything in Holland – not flashy – but well done and enjoyable with an ample supply of liquids. Kudos to Justus Wesseler and his team on organizing a wonderful conference on food issues with a strong culinary component.

The conference was about co-existence…but what is co-existence? The definition of co-existence as addressed in the conference is quite narrow: it is a political and economic set up that allows for genetically modified crops to exist within the same regions of non-GMO and/or organic systems. The conference addressed the relative advantages and disadvantages of GMOs versus other systems, the regulation of GMOs (e.g. labeling, purity standards, etc.), and attitudes and perceptions of biotechnology in agriculture.

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So, what did I learn from the conference?

First, the conference strengthened my impression that we reached some equilibrium in production and use of GMOs. There is some degree of co-existence of GMO and non-GMO products in consumption – and much less in production. Consumers in much of the world consume GMOs indirectly when they consume meats (it is used in production corn and soybeans that feed chicken and pigs), but there is very limited direct consumption of GMO products as food (papaya, sweet corn and few vegetables).

Much of the GMO products are produced in the US, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina, and even though GMOs are used to produce few feed crops in much of Europe and Africa, regulations practically ban GMOs. There is evidence that the limited use of GMOs already benefits the poor and the environment by reducing the price of foods, the use of heavily toxic pesticides, and the greenhouse gas emissions of agriculture.

Second, Europe is changing its regulatory regimes. In the past, many applications to grow GMO varieties were approved on technical grounds by the EU regulatory authorities. The implementation was delayed because it was impossible to reach the political consensus needed for approval. A recent policy will enable some countries to ban production of GMO products (opt out of the EU decisions) while the rest will maintain procedures that may allow some production with GMO varieties. This new policy may take the EU further away from the goal of “An Ever Closer Union Among the Peoples of Europe.”

It is expected that certain countries like Germany and Austria may fully ban GMO use. Some sensed that the political reality in those countries would lead to growing emphasis on shunning new biotechnology discoveries and encouraging local food and organic production. Other countries — Spain, Holland, and maybe England — may actually embrace GMOs, and have GMOs and organics side-by-side. But, developing the rules will still be a challenge. Since agricultural biotechnology is evolving and new technologies like gene editing are being introduced, the regulatory regimes will also evolve over time.

The countries that shun GMOs, like Germany, are losing a source of relative advantage and tend to reduce their research capacity in modern biotechnology. It is expected that some of these countries may reverse their positions and regulations in the future.

Third, on average, consumers have negative attitudes towards GMOs. But the attitude towards GMO as a technology are not strong, but rather are affected by the way the choices faced by consumers are framed. Instead, the objection to GMOs in many cases reflects negative attitudes to big agribusiness that became associated with GMOs. Consumers’ familiarity with GMOs is limited: a large percentage of the U.S. public assumes that GM products are much more ubiquitous than they really are, which allows retailers to promote GMO-free chocolates or tomatoes when no such GMO varieties are even available, and thus can charge a premium.

Consumers’ attitudes towards GMOs vary within and across nations. Significant portions of the population in many developed countries may be willing to pay a significant amount to avoid GMO foods, but studies also found that half the population was not willing to pay much to avoid it, and some were even open to pay extra for traits that enhance food quality.

Fourth, surveys found that a large majority of consumers were in support of labeling GMOs as long as they are not costly. A majority of consumers in a survey supported a label stating that the food “contains DNA which is a living organism”. But when consumers realize that labeling is costly, a large percentage will not be willing to pay the cost. Indeed all the propositions in the US to introduce GMO labeling were defeated. In the US we are likely to see voluntary labeling while in the EU, labeling is mandatory. The impact and cost of labeling depends on their implementation.

Fifth, Monsanto – the dominant developer of commercialized GMO traits – has decided to launch a “charm offensive” and reach out to its critics and the critics of GMOs more generally. I wish them the best and believe that they will be able to reach out and change the mind of some open-minded critics of GMOs; but the hardcore opposition to GMOs will not budge. They benefit from demonizing Monsanto and have been very successful thus far.

Whatever the flaws of the company, it was able to harness a great technology that eluded others. Furthermore, this technology already has provided benefits to the poor and the environment. Such technology should have been hailed (like Apple), but the fact that the benefits of the technology are not apparent to the middle class, coupled with the power of the certain interest groups that stand to lose from the technology, and past missteps of Monsanto (it did not have a Steve Jobs) have all contributed to their current predicament. As such, the diffusion of GMOs has been curtailed – and while they have not reached their potential – they already have had a major impact and will have much larger impacts in the future.

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This conference is part of an effort to improve the global food system and the human condition. The current state of affairs is unsatisfactory. The poor and the environment pay a heavy price for the global community’s failure to take advantage of known traits which were not developed and promising opportunities that have not been pursued because of unjustified regulations and barriers.

Furthermore, our ability to adapt to climate change will be hampered by not utilizing the best tools for developing agricultural technology we have. Of course, more and smarter use of GMOs is not the only solution – I believe in diversified agricultural principles that take advantage of the best of biotechnology as well as ecological agricultural practices.

As I see it, cumbersome regulations, efforts to label GMOs, and attacks against Monsanto are not providing alternatives to address the real issues of our food systems. We need to improve food distribution systems and address other societal problems that maintain poverty and restrict opportunities and access.

Smart adaptation to climate change in agriculture: A recipe from Milan

I returned from a ten day stay in Milan where I attended both the International Conference of Agricultural Economists (ICAE) triennial meeting as well as a workshop on climate smart agriculture sponsored by FAO.[1] Milan is known as the “city that works” in Italy, and indeed I marveled at its modernized public transportation, cleanliness, and elegance. Of course, it also has its share of magnificent older buildings, churches, and neighborhoods that are a must see when visiting Italy.Of course, it also has its share of magnificent older buildings, churches, and neighborhoods that are a must see when visiting Italy.

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The ICAE conference was held on the campus of the University of Milan—a converted hospital that was built in the 15th century. It is the best venue of the best-run conference I have attended in many years. The FAO workshop took place in a palace that was built by a rich merchant in the 18th century, was the home of the Austrian queen, then sold to Napoleonic government in 19th century, and is now owned by the Italian government. It has a marvelous mirror room and a great yard for lunches and other outdoor activities. The workshop focused on a line of ongoing research on how climate change considerations should affect agricultural investments and policies in developing countries in the near future (the next 15-20 years). It emphasized identifying effective strategies for adaptation to (rather than mitigation of) climate change, and assessing their impacts.

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It is predicted by the IPCC and other notable groups that the main short term effect of climate change is the increased likelihood of extreme weather events (droughts, typhons, etc.). In the longer run (after 2040), climate change may lead to rising water levels and significant “migration of weather” (e.g. the weather in San Francisco in the future may be similar to the current weather of Los Angeles). The main forms of adaptation to long run changes includeinnovation and adoption of alternative agricultural practices and economic activities or migration away from locations where farming and livelihood become unfeasible to new locations . The main proposed forms of adaptation to the short term increases in the likelihood of extreme weather events are adoption of more climate resilient crop varieties and management practices and introduction of crop insurance and input subsidies. Based on this background and the discussion in the workshop, I developed my own conclusions on the design of effective adaptation strategies for the near future.

First, agricultural investment activities in the near future should address both long and short term challenges of climate change. While weather migration and rising water levels may be outcomes in the distant future, designing investments to protect against rising water levels and the development of institutions and arrangements that will foster migration requires significant lead time.

Second, agriculture is evolving regardless of climate change, and investment and adaptation strategies should be forward looking and aim to address emerging agricultural realities, not the realties of the past. Smallholders across the world are becoming less autarkic and are engaging more frequently in trade, as more and more of them own cell phones and even bicycles. They sell to supermarkets and hold jobs outside of the farm. Thus, the introduction of production practices that will increase average productivity and earnings that contribute tofinancial resilience can be an important component of adaptation strategies. Further expansion of agricultural trade networks, transportation and communication channels, and access to credit markets that will allow farmers to save and borrow at reasonable rates will also be valuable in addressing crisis situations.

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Third, the emphasis on the introduction of resilient farming and other practices that will help to withstand weather shocks has its limits. Climate resilient strategies are very desirable if they are not very costly in terms of average yield or income.  Moreover, resilient strategies have their limitations, as they may not be able to withstand the worst-case scenarios (severe drought or flooding). The build up of agricultural resilience should be accompanied by construction of modern roads and building up local storage as a safety measures for extreme situations. That suggests that research on adaptation should quantify the cost of resilience strategies, which will allow parties to determine which ones to use, where, and to what extent. Research should also be conducted on the feasibility and financial viability of insurance schemes as a mechanism to address increases in the likelihood of extreme events, and its use limited to situations where it is economically viable.

Fourth, the objective of agricultural development strategies should be that farmers will thrive, not merely survive. Thus, assuring food security is a threshold, but agricultural and development strategies should aim higher. While assuring a competitive farm sector consisting of many smallholders is a valuable objective, we need to realize that sometimes farms may be too small to succeed (the opposite of too big to fail). Policy-makers should not aim to prop up small farms at any cost, and natural processes of migration away from farming and consolidation resulting in fewer, but stronger, small farmers may be welcome and will enhance their ability to withstand the challenge of climate change.

Fifth, farmers in developing countries are continuously engaged in global supply chains, which are vulnerable to extreme weather and other impacts of climate change, and private sector firms are engaged in adaptation activities of their own. Coordination and planning of climate change policies should be synergistic with activities of the private sector, and emphasize public sector efforts  to complement rather than compete with the private sector.

Our workshop in Milan helped us to develop priorities for future research efforts. The beauty of Milan and its historical heritage are inspiring, but to be effective, we need to go out to the field, solidify our analysis, and verify and update our initial conclusions.

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[1] A special thanks to my partners Leslie Lipper, Nancy Mccarthy, Solomon Asfaw, and Giacomo Branca who organized the workshop.