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Food & agriculture - Jan 28

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Plan ahead to avoid fertilizer shortages

Steve Watson, Kansas State University via Farm Talk
K-State specialist says demand, high prices making it difficult to get fertilizer needs filled
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Supplies of nitrogen fertilizers, as well as phosphorus and potassium fertilizers, are tight throughout the United States, making this the time to plan ahead, a Kansas State University agronomist said.

In fact, it is currently difficult to buy fertilizer nitrogen for winter wheat topdressing and/or this spring´s row crops unless the supply has already been lined up---regardless of what the posted prices are, said Dale Leikam, K-State Research and Extension nutrient management specialist.

"The tight supply situation applies to all the main nitrogen fertilizer sources- UAN solution, urea, and ammonia---as well as other phosphorus and potassium fertilizers. Fertilizer prices are continuing to increase and supplies will likely remain very tight for the foreseeable future," Leikam said.

...The sharp increase in price and accompanying fertilizer N shortage is not a sudden development, the agronomist explained. Unprecedented market forces have markedly changed the fertilizer industry over the past decade which has set the stage for the current supply/demand imbalance and resulting high prices, he said.

"Over the past decade, much of our fertilizer nitrogen manufacturing capacity has shut down in the U.S. as a result of sharp increases and fluctuations in natural gas costs, lower-cost foreign competition, domestic environmental regulations, and so forth. In most cases, the domestic fertilizer manufacturing plants that have ceased operations will likely never come back on line despite the current higher fertilizer nitrogen prices," Leikam said.

As a result, more and more nitrogen fertilizer is now imported from countries in the Middle East, South America, the former Soviet Union, and other low-cost natural gas areas, he said.

"More than 50 percent U.S. fertilizer nitrogen supply is imported annually---and our dependence on foreign imports continues to increase.

“Also, global demand for this supply of fertilizer nitrogen continues to increase, especially in countries such as China and India with rapidly expanding economies," Leikam said.
(22 January 2008)


Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler

Mark Bittman, New York Times
A SEA change in the consumption of a resource that Americans take for granted may be in store - something cheap, plentiful, widely enjoyed and a part of daily life. And it isn’t oil.

It’s meat.

The two commodities share a great deal: Like oil, meat is subsidized by the federal government. Like oil, meat is subject to accelerating demand as nations become wealthier, and this, in turn, sends prices higher. Finally - like oil - meat is something people are encouraged to consume less of, as the toll exacted by industrial production increases, and becomes increasingly visible.

Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world’s tropical rain forests.
(27 January 2008)


A Dying Breed

Andrew Rice, New York Times
...In recent decades, global trade, sophisticated marketing, artificial insemination and the demands of agricultural economics have transformed the Holstein into the world’s predominant dairy breed. Indigenous animals like East Africa’s sinewy Ankole, the product of centuries of selection for traits adapted to harsh conditions, are struggling to compete with foreign imports bred for maximal production. This worries some scientists. The world’s food supply is increasingly dependent on a small and narrowing list of highly engineered breeds: the Holstein, the Large White pig and the Rhode Island Red and Leghorn chickens. There’s a risk that future diseases could ravage these homogeneous animal populations. Poor countries, which possess much of the world’s vanishing biodiversity, may also be discarding breeds that possess undiscovered genetic advantages. But farmers like Mugira say they can’t afford to wait for science. And so, on the African savanna, a competition for survival is underway.
(27 January 2008)


How Big is a Farm? Who is a Farmer?

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon's Book
Well, the game of post-riposte is winding down over at [The Oil Drum], 400+ comments, etc... on my response to Stuart Staniford (his original essay linked at the top of mine or in my last post), complete with Staniford's response to me, and back again.... Fun and all, but back to work. Although if you'd like a nice, short post on the subject, check out Dmitry Orlov's comments on the subject.

One of the problems in this discussion is the question of "how big is a farm?" That is, when we talk about "farmers" who are we actually talking about? What's "agriculture", and what's "gardening?" Where does "homesteading" "smallholding" "horticulture" and "subsistence farming" fall in the mess?

...I think (and yes, all the real farmers yell at me, and I don't entirely blame them), that "farmer" should be the umbrella term for remunerative food production. That is, I think you are a farmer if you grow food for sale, for barter or as a large portion of your own personal economy - that is, I think we call them "subsistence farmers" for a reason. If farming either provides a significant part of your income.

My criteria for this is simple - we don't live in isolation - the word "farmer" should mean something across national and cultural boundaries. That is, a "farmer" in India, and a "farmer" in Canada should be able to recognize one another as fellow creatures with a shared profession, and art. As we are speaking now, the word "farmer" as it is used in the rich world erases the vast majority of world farmers out of the language, and that shouldn't be acceptable to us. As important, it gives us a mistaken sense of what agriculture actually is- even what agriculture was.

...Right now, the majority of the world's farms are small farms. The average farm size in Africa and Asia is 1.6 hectares (for those who are accustomed to acreage measurements, a hectare is about 2.5 acres - thus, the average farm size in Africa and Asia would be a bit under 4 acres). This means that there are a whole lot of farms much smaller than 4 acres. 95% of all farms in many parts of the former Soviet Unions are under 1 hectare, and that they provide the majority of all agricultural production, a total of 52% of all food eaten in the region.

...In a 2004 analysis for the Handbook of Agricultural Economics, Eastwood, Lipton and Newell observe that in developing nations, small farmers tend to be disproportionately taxed, while in developed nations, they tend not to receive the benefits of agricultural subsidies. That is, small farmers tend to get the worst of both worlds, with both poor and rich nations tending to disadvantage them economically.
(26 January 2008)
I think Sharon is onto something, in going beyond the stereotypes that prevail in modern America. In many ways, the highly mechanized, large-scale agriculture of America is an anomaly. Small-scale producers have been the rule for most of history.

Before fossil fuels, civilization basically consisted of peasants and craftspeople supporting a small number of rulers, priests, soldiers and bureaucrats. Weighed down by taxes and customs, the lot of the peasant has often not been a happy one.

Not just in the past either - as Sharon points out: "in both the rich and the poor world, we work very hard to keep our small farmers poor."

The conflicts that swirl around land, taxes and farmers/peasants are the stuff of history. This all gets very political very fast.

In an intriguing article, written before her death, homesteading author Carla Emery wrote about her vision of how the US successfully responds to peak oil by re-distributing the farmland. (See last part of article). -BA


Cuban permaculturalist to tour Australia

Duroyan Fertl, Green Left (Australia)
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc in the early 1990s, Cuba lost access to the oil, fertilizers and virtually all trading partners that the small island nation depended upon to survive. Cuba faced economic collapse virtually overnight.

Cuba, however, refused to give up on building a socialist society - maintaining, for example, its universal free healthcare and education - while it entered into the period of economic hardship known as the “Special Period”, and the United States tightened its decades-long blockade of the country.

During this time, however, it faced an even more challenging crisis: securing food to sustain the population. Over half the country’s food had come from the USSR, and most of its petroleum, fertilisers and pesticides were imports.

Early in the “Special Period”, a number of Australians travelled to Cuba to introduce permaculture, a form of sustainable, low-input agriculture. The ideas were eagerly taken up by the Cuban government as part of its policy of “linking people with the land”. The government immediately set about creating urban agricultural cooperatives and investing in biotechnology and agricultural science.

...Roberto Perez Rivero, permaculture and environmental educator for the Antonio Nunez Jimenez Foundation for Nature and Humanity - Cuba’s major environment organisation - will be touring Australia in March and April this year.

Perez is one of Cuba’s leading permaculturalists, featured in the award-winning documentary on Cuba’s shift to sustainable development, The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.
(26 January 2008)
If one is interested in food and peak oil, one needs to study how the Cubans handled their transition - regardless of one's politics. -BA.

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