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Food & agriculture - July 18

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Supermarkets and Service Stations Now Competing for Grain

Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute
Cars, not people, will claim most of the increase in world grain consumption this year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that world grain use will grow by 20 million tons in 2006. Of this, 14 million tons will be used to produce fuel for cars in the United States, leaving only 6 million tons to satisfy the world’s growing food needs.

In agricultural terms, the world appetite for automotive fuel is insatiable. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year. The grain to fill the tank every two weeks over a year will feed 26 people.

Investors are jumping on the highly profitable biofuel-bandwagon so fast that hardly a day goes by without another ethanol distillery or biodiesel refinery being announced somewhere in the world. The amount of corn used in U.S. ethanol distilleries has tripled in five years, jumping from 18 million tons in 2001 to an estimated 55 million tons from the 2006 crop.

In some U.S. Corn Belt states, ethanol distilleries are taking over the corn supply. In Iowa, a staggering 55 ethanol plants are operating or have been proposed. Iowa State University economist Bob Wisner observes that if all these plants are built, they would use virtually all the corn grown in Iowa. In South Dakota, a top-ten corn-growing state, ethanol distilleries are already claiming over half of the corn harvest.

With so many distilleries being built, livestock and poultry producers fear there may not be enough corn to produce meat, milk, and eggs. And since the United States supplies 70 percent of world corn exports, corn-importing countries are worried about their supply.

Since almost everything we eat can be converted into fuel for automobiles, including wheat, corn, rice, soybeans, and sugarcane, the line between the food and energy economies is disappearing.
(13 July 2006)


How the Energy Crisis Will Help My Diet

seismobob, The Oil Drum
Like many Americans I am a bit overweight and this is true even after living a year in China eating indigenous food and shedding 15% of my body mass. Coming back to the fattest city in the land of the big helping, I am concerned about regaining that weight given the fact that Americans eat 920 kg of food annually (3,800 kcal per person per day). But never fear, the energy crisis will eventually help me maintain my desired weight. Many are going to wonder what does the energy crisis have to do with being fat. Well, the modern agricultural system is nothing but a system which turns petroleum and natural gas into food. Thirteen kilocalories of energy is used to produce each kilocalorie of food we eat (p. 20).

When energy becomes scarce, the quantity of food will decline.

The first place to look at this is in fertilizer. Nitrogen fertilizers are made using lots of energy. In the US it is natural gas which is used but in China it is coal. The manufacture of nitrogen fertilizer uses 1% of the world's energy supply. And this one percent feeds us. There is a direct correlation between fertilizer price and natural gas price in the US.
(18 July 2006)
A good presentation, a little technical. Many worthwhile comments follow the article on The Oil Drum. -BA


India: Organic Farming, Answer to Farmers' Suicides?

Bharat Dogra, Inter Press Service via Common Dreams
NAGNI, Uttaranchal - As the phenomenon of mass suicides by farmers turns into a major national issue, small cultivators in this sub-Himalayan state are demonstrating that the way forward to sustainable agriculture may lie in sticking to traditional methods.
In the lush and fertile valleys of Uttaranchal, farmers have long been suspicious of branded seeds that are being aggressively promoted by trans-national corporations (TNCs) like Monsanto that are now having an increasing presence in the country. The idea that crops can be grown without viable seeds for the future or that they have to be dosed with specific chemicals and other costly inputs is abhorrent to them.

"So many changes have been seen in recent years, but I continue to grow traditional varieties of crops without using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. I also exchange seeds with other farmers and participate in efforts to save our forests. I think all this is very important for our welfare,'' says Sivdeyi Devi, a woman farmer of Jardhar village.

Earlier this month, after a fresh spate of suicides was reported among distressed farmers, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh toured the worst-affected state of Maharashtra and announced a bailout package worth 840 million US dollars. That was the first major intervention by the government on behalf of farmers who fallen deep in debt by taking loans to buy costly farm inputs.

The independent Human Rights Law Network, which has been working on farmers' suicides believes that more than 10,000 farmers have committed suicide over the last five years, in important farming states such as Punjab, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.

But in Uttaranchal, farmers and peasants, unlike their counterparts in other states, are keenly aware of the exploitative practices of money lenders and contractors and know the value of organised resistance. This began with the ‘chipko' (hug-the-tree) movement of the 1970s and 1980s that saved entire forests from greedy lumber contractors.
(18 July 2006)


Peak oil preview: North Korea & Cuba

Dale Jiajun Wen, YES! Magazine
That peak oil is coming is no longer a question. It’s only a matter of when. The global food system we are familiar with depends crucially on cheap energy and long-distance transportation—food consumed in the United States travels an average of 1,400 miles. Does peak oil mean inevitable starvation?

Two countries provide a preview. Their divergent stories, one of famine, one of sufficiency, stand as a warning and a model. North Korea and Cuba experienced the peak-oil scenario prematurely and abruptly due to the collapse of the former Soviet bloc and the intensified trade embargo against Cuba. The quite different outcomes are partly due to luck: the Cuban climate allows people to survive on food rations that would be fatal in North Korea’s harsh winters.

But the more fundamental reason is policy. North Korea tried to carry on business as usual as long as possible, while Cuba implemented a proactive policy to move toward sustainable agriculture and self-sufficiency.

Dale Wen is a visiting scholar with the International Forum on Globalization. A native of China, she specializes in China and globalization issues.
(Summer 2006 issue)


Farmers' Foe: Smog Damage to Crops Costs Billions

Anne Chaon, Agence France Presse (AFP) via Common Dreams
The internal combustion engine contributes massively to global warming, kills around 1.2 million people a year in road accidents and, scientists now warn, is costing billions of dollars in crop damage each year.

The villain is a molecule of oxygen called ozone.

At ground level, though, ozone can be dangerous. Formed by a reaction between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds emitted by road traffic, ozone smog can be a life-shortening problem for people with bad respiratory problems.

Another fast-emerging picture is that this pollution is also inflicting a rising bill in damage to food plants, especially in regions where hot, sunny, windless conditions favour ozone formation.

Frank Raes, a Dutch scientist at the Joint Research Centre in Ispra, a unit funded by the EU's executive Commission, estimates that each year India loses five billion dollars in crops because of ozone, followed by China, with 2.5 billion dollars.

They are followed by Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and the east and west coasts of North America.

By 2030, says Raes, India will lose 20 percent of its crops through damage, compared with less than five percent through man-made global warming.
(18 July 2006)

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