July 10, 2007

Farm, Food and Biofuel Report

United States

Note to would-be Farm Bill reformers everywhere: There are no U.S. Congresscritters whose constituencies include West African cotton farmers. There are no U.S. Congresscritters whose constituencies include clothing manufacturers (actually, you could almost put a period right there, they've mostly gone to China by now), garment distributors, or clothing retailers who've got even a passing desire for the price of cotton to go up. There are no U.S. Congresscritters whose constituencies could be characterized as having a broad, favorable public consensus towards furthering the goals of the World Trade Organization. This doesn't mean you can't argue against subsidies, it just means that the foregoing are always going to be weak arguments when your audience is the U.S. Congress.

Take the debate about international food aid and the Farm Bill, for example. Traditional farm state (as in, states that everyone thinks of as farm states) members of Congress are resisting a pilot program that would allow U.S. food aid dollars to purchase food local to famine-struck regions, which is usually cheaper and is the common practice of other countries, instead of purchasing U.S. crops to be used as donations. Beyond the value-for-money concerns, many countries in need of food aid strongly object to having transgenic crops literally forced down their throats. Transgenics are being forced down our throats at home, too, but in the absence of mandatory labeling, you'd never know it. From the Ethicurean, the USDA says that "more than 85% of cotton and soybeans planted and almost 75% of corn grown in the U.S. have been engineered to include genes from other organisms". If that makes you uneasy, imagine how it makes the recipients of U.S. help feel. But still, repeat after me, there are no U.S. Congresscritters with constituencies in need of U.S. foreign aid.

Now, to the rest of the news ...

Welcome to the transgenic mushroom future, now sporing in an area near you. Not content with genetically modifying wind-pollinated grasses whose spores at least have to land on a compatible plant, a profit-crazed corporation has been looking into genetically modifying one of the world's most common edible mushrooms, an organism whose finer-than-pastry-flour spores are capable of generating new mycelial tissue in any damp, dark environment.

San Francisco Bay Area residents are organizing to make healthy, local food a Farm Bill priority.

The USDA's chief researchers find that organic farming is better than no-till at building up soil organic matter. Organic farming even increases yields, but only when diverse rotation schedules are followed; otherwise, the weed build-up attracted to a single, repeatedly grown crop will depress yields in grain crops other than wheat.

U.S. researchers at the University of Michigan, including Prof. Ivette Perfecto, find that organic farming can produce three times as much food in developing nations as conventional farming. Perfecto has written previously about biodiverse agroforestry in indigenous agriculture, and such diversity or lack thereof would be a key point to determine about the report on getting more food from organic systems. It's easy to demonstrate that a polycropped, organic system can produce plenty of food, but the nature of such a farm often prevents the sort of mechanical harvesting that allows fewer people to work more land.

From Grist, a link to a story on a carbon-neutral ice cream facility, though no word on whether or not the cows are pasture or grain fed. Also, a link to RFK's Live Earth speech, which, while it doesn't mention agriculture directly, makes some key points that also apply to the case for sustainable food systems:

... Now you've heard today a lot of people say that there are many little things that you all can do today to avert climate change on your own. But I will tell you this, it is more important than buying compact flourescent light bulbs or than buying a fuel efficient automobile. The most important thing you can do is to get involved in the political process and get rid of all of these rotten politicians that we have in Washington D.C. --

... And I want you to remember this, that we are not protecting the environment for the sake of the fishes and the birds, we are protecting it because nature is the infrastructure of our communities. And if we want to meet our obligation as a generation, as a civilization, as a nation, which is to create communities for our children that provide them with the same opportunities for dignity, and enrichment, and good health, and prosperity, and stability as the communities that our parents gave us, we've got to start by protecting our environmental infrastructure.

The air we breathe, the water we drink, the wildlife, the public lands, the things that connect us to our past to our history that provide context to our communities and that are the source, ultimately, of our values and our virtues and our character as a people and the future of our children. ...

An Illinois study indicates that miscanthus produces more biomass than switchgrass.

Environmental groups say a Hawaiian Electric plan to use palm oil isn't sustainable because of the impacts of its production on indigenous peoples and ecosystem destruction.

The Texas cattle industry, tired of competing with ethanol production for feed corn, has prompted Gov. Perry to put some weight behind research into cellulosic sources of ethanol such as switchgrass or mesquite.


Afghanistan's deeply entrenched poppy culture prepares for another record opium harvest, coinciding with the resignation of their counter-narcotics minister for what are described as health reasons. Afghanistan produces 92% of the world opium supply, with in-country processing turning most of the raw opium into finished products like heroin for export. Too bad something useful couldn't be done with all that opium, like perhaps using it to fill a global shortfall in opiate medications.

China executes an official linked to bribery and food safety scandals, but were they literally just trying to hide the bodies in the wake of multiple food safety hazards? While their early capitalist fervor is reminiscent of the United States before the advent of food regulatory agencies, so is their track record for food safety both at home and abroad. Convenient links to resources on finding farmers markets and fair trade food are included at the end.

Transgenics are slowly gaining ground around the world, with the first African-produced transgenic maize variety engineered to resist a common crop virus and the Phillipines having approved 41 genetically modified crops.

Pakistan's agricultural sector is already suffering from climate disruption, just a preview of what's to come for everyone else not yet seriously affected:

... This is negatively affecting agriculture productivity by altering bio-physical relationships like changing growing periods of crops, altered scheduling of cropping seasons, increased crop stresses (thermal and moisture stresses), changing irrigation water requirements, altering soil characteristics and increasing the risk of pests and diseases. ...

The International Energy Agency isn't sold on biofuels:

... "Despite political support and enthusiasm for what is seen by some to be an important but only partial solution to the dependence on imported oil, the depletion of liquid hydrocarbons and growing carbon emissions, the economics of first-generation biofuels are still uncertain and raise doubts about whether the ambitious supply growth scenarios some sketch will be realized," the report concluded.

It forecast the biofuels will account for 13 per cent of the overall growth in transportation fuels over the next five years, and 27 per cent of growth in gasoline consumption. But they will still represent less than 2 per cent of the total market for petroleum products.

... "It has to be understood that the impact of biofuels will be worldwide and far-reaching," the IEA said. "First-generation biofuel policies have to be considered regarding their effect on global food availability and prices, and not simply on domestic [agricultural] production surpluses and local energy security concerns." ...

Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of the Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, is more direct about disliking biofuels as a solution to fossil fuel dependence:

... Industrialized countries started the biofuels boom by demanding ambitious renewable-fuel targets. These fuels are to provide 5.75 percent of Europe's transport power by 2010 and 10 percent by 2020. The United States wants 35 billion gallons a year.

These targets far exceed the agricultural capacities of the industrial North. Europe would need to plant 70 percent of its farmland with fuel crops. The entire corn and soy harvest of the United States would need to be processed as ethanol and biodiesel.

... In the tropics, 100 hectares dedicated to family farming generates 35 jobs. Oil-palm and sugarcane provide 10 jobs, eucalyptus two, and soybeans a scant half-job per 100 hectares, all poorly paid.

... Hunger results not from scarcity, but poverty. The world's poorest already spend 50 to 80 percent of household income on food. They suffer when high fuel prices push up food prices. Now, because food and fuel crops compete for land and resources, both increase the price of land and water.

The International Food Policy Research Institute has estimated that the price of basic staples will increase 20 to 33 percent by 2010 and 26 to 135 percent by 2020. Caloric consumption declines as price rises by a ratio of 1:2. ...

The 50 year era of cheap food seems to be coming to a close, partly because fuel crops are now directly competing with food crops for land and partly because we're destroying our habitat:

... Global warming hits crop yields, but only recently has anybody quantified how hard. The answer, published in Environmental Research Letters in March by Christopher Field of the Carnegie Institution in Stanford, California, and David Lobell of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is quite simple: for every 0.5C hotter, crop yields fall between 3 and 5 per cent.

So 2C hotter, which is the lower end of the range of predicted temperature rise this century, means a 12 to 20 per cent fall in global food production. ...

Indian and British money is going towards developing jatropha as a fuel source.

British farmers are being asked to shift towards fuel crops and expand them into 'set aside' land.

Canadian soil specialists are alarmed at corn biofuel's soil impacts, saying that "It can take as little as 3 years to effectively burn your way through most of the 50 to 100 tonnes of humified organic matter in a typical acre of Ontario’s corn producing soil. Once you burn through that organic matter, however, it may realistically take 3 lifetimes to build it back up."

Posted by natasha at July 10, 2007 01:07 PM | Agriculture | Technorati links |

Check out this US Carbon Footprint Map, an interactive United States Carbon Footprint Map, illustrating Greenest States. This site has all sorts of stats on individual State energy consumptions, demographics and State energy offices.


Posted by: Fred at July 10, 2007 01:37 PM




Posted by: RFK Jr. 2008 at July 11, 2007 04:06 PM

I have been looking for someone to put farm subsidies and Afghan opium in the same sentence. You have at least put them in the same post -- albeit paragraphs away and unconnected. I would be most appreciative if you or someone with a far better understanding of the effects of agriculture on the world to discuss the possible relation of the two. I am in the process of finishing a documentary on Afghanistan and Opium and I am wondering of this is an issue at all, and if so, how much validity there is too it, and who could speak to it. Thank you.


Posted by: Jack at July 12, 2007 03:41 AM

Erm, I didn't think the Afghan government would have things like farm subsidies for opium. It seems improbable. But not remotely as improbable as getting opium subsidies added to the commodity title. Yet I feel I'm missing something.

Unless you're suggesting that our farm subsidies contribute to opium production by making it hard for Central Asian farmers to make a living growing anything that we currently subsidize. I think I've heard a similar argument regarding coca production in the Americas.

Posted by: natasha at July 12, 2007 06:38 AM