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Reap what we sow

Colin Tudge, The Guardian
The ruin of the floods underlines the urgency of achieving national self-reliance in food crops

At a farm near my home in Oxfordshire, 50 sheep died in last week’s floods. Another farm, where the locals buy pick-your-own strawberries, asparagus and broad beans, has almost certainly lost its entire crop. I haven’t the heart to ask what it’s like in Gloucestershire. Of course, sheep and strawberries aren’t the crops that actually feed people. The staple foods are the cereals. We will have to see over the next few weeks if Britain still has any wheat or barley worth harvesting.

But there is nothing special about Britain. It’s all part of the global pattern some scientists have been forecasting for decades, and which many in positions of influence have chosen to ignore, scorn, or lie about. The climate is indeed changing. We will never see “normal” times again – or at least not for many centuries – and agriculture, our food supply, is in the firing line. Sometimes the weather will be too dry, sometimes too wet, and although it will generally be warmer it is likely in some places to be colder than ever remembered. The “good” and “normal” years will be the aberrations.

…Our government is equally wedded to the notion that farming, like everything else, must return the biggest possible buck. Many a Treasury buff has been suggesting that because it is cheaper to buy food from Brazil and Africa, where there is more space and sunshine and the labourers demand less, then that is what we should do. Statistics are presented to show that Britain’s farming should go the way of its coal-mining, and it probably would have done already if it weren’t that farms tend to be owned by influential people. The failure of UK crops this year will doubtless reinforce this view – why grow crops in a place that has become so fickle?

But we have seen that the rest of the world is fickle too; and it will not be easier to buy food from abroad if “abroad” has nothing to sell us; or if the Chinese need it too and are able to pay more.

The world could feed itself – well and forever. But if we are serious about this then we have to design agriculture specifically to feed people. The principles are simple: grow crops where they grow best and fit the livestock in where we can. This way we would provide lots of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety, which is just what nutritionists recommend and is the basis of all the world’s great cuisines. Sound farming and great cooking go together.

In a world that is uncertain, we need to grow food everywhere it can reasonably be grown, not just leave it to a few “bread baskets” we can already see are precarious. We should not run down UK agriculture. We, like everyone else in the world, should be striving for national self-reliance, which doesn’t mean an end to trade – just growing enough to get by on when the chips are down.

Colin Tudge is the author of Feeding People is Easy
(31 July 2007)

Unusual Culprits Cripple Farms in California

Jennifer Steinhauer, New York Times
BUTTONWILLOW, Calif. – The alfalfa here went unwatered for about 10 days, and $10,000 worth of it withered. About 20 miles to the north, the almond trees were also left thirsty, as were melons, pistachios and tomato crops, for weeks on end.

The culprits were not the typical ones – heat waves, fires or drought – but thieves, who have been stripping the copper wires out of irrigation systems throughout California. The rampant thefts have left farmers without functioning water pumps for days and weeks at a time, creating financial loss and occasional crop devastation in a region still smarting from a spectacular freeze last winter.

Theft of scrap metal, mostly copper, has vexed many areas of American life and industry for the last 18 months, fueled largely by record-level prices for copper resulting from a building boom in Asia. Common in developing counties, metal theft is now committed in nearly every state, largely by methamphetamine users who hock the metal to buy drugs, the authorities say.
(31 July 2007)

Copper theft spoils food bank groceries

Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS – Thieves stole copper pipe from a freezer at the state’s largest food bank, wasting nearly half a million dollars worth of food meant to help the poor, police said.

The copper theft was captured by security cameras Friday night, police said, but the freezer’s failure wasn’t discovered until Monday. By then, thousands of pounds of groceries at the Gleaners Food Bank had become unusable.

…The theft could cost Gleaners $464,000 in lost food, plus $20,000 for immediate repairs. Gleaners will work this week to solicit more donations and plans to continue distributing its nonperishable food.

Copper can be sold for around $3 per pound, and thefts have become common across the country. In the food bank’s case, it is unlikely the thieves got more than a few hundred dollars if they sold all the copper tubing to a scrap yard, Police Lt. Jeff Duhamell said.
(31 July 2007)

Worry about bread, not oil

Niall Ferguson, Telegraph (UK)
The great demographer and economist Thomas Malthus was 23-years-old the last time a British summer was this rain-soaked, which was back in 1789. The consequences of excessive rainfall in the late 18th century were predictable.

Crops would fail, the harvest would be dismal, food prices would rise and some people would starve. It was no coincidence that the French Revolution broke out the same year.

The price of a loaf of bread rose by 88 per cent in 1789 as a consequence of similar lousy weather. Historians of the Left like Georges Lefebvre used to see this as a prime cause of Louis XVI’s downfall.

Nine years after that rain-soaked summer, Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population. It is an essay we would do well to re-read today.

…Some people worry about peak oil. I worry more about peak grain.

Niall Ferguson is Laurence A Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University © Niall Ferguson, 2007
(29 July 2007)
Also posted at Los Angeles Times. Malthus is in the news again. -BA

Feeding Billions, A Grain at a Time
(Text and video)
Patrick Barta, Wall Street Journal
As development and climate change imperil rice yields, scientists seek new Green Revolution

Famine was still a scourge a generation ago when farmers in this dusty region received the first seed packets of a new strain of rice designed to grow hardier plants, and feed more people, than ever before.

The rice, known as IR8 by the scientists who developed it, brought the Green Revolution here to India’s Punjab region. In the 1960s, local farmers were on the front lines of a movement that affected billions of people around the world who depend on rice as their staple food. The new varieties of rice, developed by a small laboratory in the Philippines, spurred an agricultural boom that transformed lives and nations.

It’s a boom that now is at risk of going bust.

Rice yields are flat-lining. Overproduction has exhausted the soil that once supported the larger crops. Water shortages abound. And the price of the world’s most eaten food is rising steeply, up about 70% since 2001, according to U.S. agencies.

Now, huge populations that subsist on rice, in mostly poor stretches of the globe, are suffering the deleterious effects.
(28 July 2007)