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Food & agriculture - Aug 23

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When we finally take the off ramp

Jim Scharplaz, Prairie Writers Circle via Working For change
How oil and policy emptied American farmland, and how farmer and city dweller alike should anticipate oil’s decline
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...Thanks to cheap fossil fuels, farmers today can treat every acre pretty much the same. Diesel powered machinery can till any soil type. Fertilizer produced using natural gas compensates for variations in natural fertility. Pesticides manufactured from petroleum kill weeds and insects for the whole growing season.

Very few farmers are needed to manage this industrial process. And consumers can live far from the field, as trucks transport the average bite of food 1,600 miles from farm gate to dinner plate.

Good crop yields can be achieved without fossil fuel, but much more care is required. Every farm, every field, every acre requires individual attention, with careful consideration given to just the right crop for the land, and the best cultural practices for the crop. Operations must be carefully timed to control weeds and pests, and years-long crop rotations must be planned to assure fertility. It will take many more farmers on the land to supply the necessary knowledge, care and craftsmanship.

If you are in one of the cars rushing by on the freeway, your efforts are just as important as mine as a farmer to develop post-fossil fuel agriculture. Part of the solution is political. To a large extent, the present rural landscape in much of America is the result of federal policy that subsidizes massive production of just a few, easily industrialized crops -- corn, soybeans, wheat. This policy has caused the loss of soil, biodiversity, localized food markets and farmers, resulting in a fragile system dependent on increasingly tight and insecure supplies of petroleum.

Agricultural subsidies must be unhooked from production and tied to good farming practices.

Jim Scharplaz raises cattle in Ottawa County, Kan., and is on the board of the Kansas Rural Center. He wrote this essay for the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.
(22 Aug 2006)


Up Against the Wal-Mart

Tom Philpott, Grist Magazine
Big buyers make organic farmers feel smaller than ever
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With Whole Foods continuing to dazzle Wall Street with its growth and Wal-Mart vowing to become the world's No. 1 organic grocer, now would seem to be a wonderful time to be an organic farmer -- particularly one with enough acreage to supply the corporate giants.

According to classical economics, when demand jumps, supply should follow, pulled up by the good's rising price. But a funny thing is happening in the certified-organic fields and orchards of California, home to about 40 percent of the nation's organic-vegetable acreage: produce is shriveling unpicked on the vine, choked by weeds and neglect.

A labor squeeze has gripped California's farm operators. Simply put, not enough undocumented Mexican workers are sneaking across an increasingly militarized border, and the ones who do tend to be drawn to higher-paid, less-demanding urban jobs. While the labor shortage affects all of the state's fruit and vegetable farms, organic ones bear the heaviest burden, according to a recent Associated Press report. That's because human hands, often wielding a hoe, must do work that's done on conventional farms by herbicides and other chemical inputs.

...The organic produce market once relied on direct sales between small-scale farmers and consumers -- think farmers' markets and CSAs. That meant that buyers were a diverse and numerous bunch, giving farmers some power to set prices at a level that reflected labor and cost. At the farmers' market, I know that if one person gawks at my $3 per pound yellow heirloom tomatoes and walks away empty-handed and flummoxed, I can count on a food fanatic dropping by a minute or two later and snapping up a few pounds with a smile. We nurtured those tomatoes from seed, and staked, strung, and harvested them by hand; $3 per pound seems like a bargain to us.

Now, however, the produce market is increasingly the territory of a few big retailers. In short, a market once characterized by many buyers is transforming into one controlled by a few. And the power to name prices is being wrenched from the hands of farmers by the likes of Wal-Mart and Whole Foods. As those two titans battle it out for the title of the nation's top organic grocer -- a position Whole Foods currently owns by a wide margin [PDF] -- expect them to compete over who can deliver the cheapest organic tomato. And that means large-scale organic farmers can expect to see a price squeeze even as they're struggling to find enough workers to pick their fruit.
(23 Aug 2006)
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Will the world starve in the 21st century?

Bhuwan Thapaliya, Global Politician
In the 20th century, many people worried there would be a world food crisis in the early 21st century as the unstoppable surge in population overwhelmed mankind's ability to produce food, which was nearing a natural ceiling. And now, the range of longer run concerns is even greater than it was. Worries unknown in the past have appeared. Global warming threatens to render once productive lands desolate. Scientists, in their quest for higher yielding crops, are using genetic engineering, a science which many believe to be dangerous.

The older concern that the world is reaching some sort of natural limit to food has not gone away, though it is now focused on particular areas, especially the sea: almost everywhere, fish stocks have been plundered to the point of exhaustion. Furthermore, World population is still rising fast, though the rate of increase has stabilised. And a backlash is developing against all sorts of policies encouraged during the 1960s and 1970s, which were largely technological solutions to the problems of increasing food supply, such as irrigation and the use of farm chemicals and new high yielding seed varieties.

Chemical fertilizers have run off into rivers and lakes causing horrible, creepy blooms of algae. Crop diseases such as late blight in potatoes, the virulent fungus responsible for the Irish famine, appears to be spreading again, having developed resistance to traditional farm chemicals. In the midst of this all, world's leading modern Malthusian's argue that the world is entering an era of food scarcity. They reckon that growing demand from China, India, and other densely populated nations, in particular, could soon overwhelm the capacity of all the world's grain- producing countries.

So is population growth beginning to outstrip food production, as Thomas Malthus predicted more than 200 years ago? Has the "green revolution" run out of stream? Will the expansion of world food supply ruin the environment? The answers to all these questions are dubious. Consider, first, the recent behaviour of food prices and stocks. Clearly, these are doing damage, especially to the many African countries which are net importers of food.
(23 Aug 2006)


Namibia: Fuel Hike Starts to Bite

Tonderai Katswara and Brigitte Weidlich, AllAfrica.com
NAMIBIA'S farmers expect to be severely affected as fuel prices continue to spiral up, with last week's increase alone - 50 cents a litre - pushing up their operating costs by 20 per cent .

The increase, which came into force on Friday, is the fifth of the year, with petrol and diesel both shooting up by 50 cents a litre - the largest single increase in recent years.

The fishing industry is hunkering down, predicting "millions of dollars" in extra running costs, while transport companies anticipate the increase will add 10 per cent to their input costs.

The ripple effect is being felt across the board, with the prices of almost everything from transport to basic commodities and rent also going up.

Fuel on average made up 15 per cent of the annual operating costs for farmers, Sakkie Coetzee, Executive Manager of the Namibia Farmers' Union (NAU) told The Namibian yesterday.

"A fuel hike of 50 cents per litre, which we experienced with the latest diesel and petrol price increases, pushes up the operating costs for a farmer as high as 20 per cent, in other words one-fifth of his overall operating expenses," the NAU executive manager said.

He said the ever-increasing fuel price spiral constantly put the net income of farmers across the board under pressure.

"Although beef and mutton prices increased this year, allowing farmers a little profit margin, the last two fuel hikes practically cancelled these profits for them," he said.

Crop producers were even harder hit, Coetzee said.

"The increased diesel price is a much higher input cost for them than for the livestock farmer," Coetzee told The Namibian.

The fishing industry is also reeling under the weight of the hikes.

Fishing trawlers mainly use diesel and fuel costs were the highest expense when it came to annual running costs, Volker Kuntzsch, Managing Director of Hangana Seafood, one of Namibia's leading fishing companies at Walvis Bay, told The Namibian yesterday.
(22 Aug 2006)

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