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How world rice trade sparked price riots

Sarah Elzas, rfi
Commodities don’t exactly light up the imagination. Jean-Pierre Boris, a journalist at RFI who has specialized in commodities for over ten years, concedes that the subject can seem boring.

“When you think of commodities, you think of the Chicago exchange and money being moved all around the world,” he says. “But that’s only part of it. In commodities you have a lot of human beings involved in all those deals.

And he says that rice is even more interesting, because there is no fixed market. Boris is the co-author of the film Main basse sur le riz (translated as Hands off our rice) and wrote a book with the same title that was published at the end of March.

“Rice is not being priced on an organised market,” he explains. “You don’t have an exchange like you have for wheat and other seeds like soy. Rice is being priced between you and me.”

With over 100,000 varieties of rice, it’s impossible to fix a price. And as a staple that feeds half the world’s population, the rice market gets negotiated by hundreds – if not thousands – of people across the globe.

A large amount of Asian rice is sold in Africa, for example, something that captured the interest of Boris’ collaborator, film director Jean Crépu.

“He went to Africa a few years ago and he was stunned at seeing so much rice coming from Asia. He was wondering why there was so much rice from Thailand and Vietnam being sold on African markets.”

But that by itself was not enough to interest a producer to get the film made. The idea was rekindled in 2008, though, after people all over the world, from Africa to Asia to the Caribbean, rioted because of rising food prices.

The filmmakers were asked to follow the rice trail and find out what happened during the so-called food crisis. And they found that the crisis had nothing to do with the actual supply of rice, and everything to do with the markets…
(3 April 2010)
More info about the film (in French) here.

Our £17bn waste mountain: Annual bill for throwaway Britain

Susie Mesure and Nina Lakhani, The Independent
The phenomenal amount of food and drink thrown away in Britain is costing the country £17bn a year, at a time when the economy is still struggling to emerge from the longest recession on record.

An astonishing new report paints the first complete picture of the scale of the UK’s waste mountain, which hit 18.4 million tons last year. The figures, which include food, drink and excess packaging discarded by households, distributors, retailers and manufacturers, will increase pressure on the Government to accelerate its long-awaited plans to slash waste.

Wrap, the Government’s recycling body that published the report, said the environmental cost is compounding the economic impact. The carbon cost of all that wasted food and drink is equivalent to an extra 12.4 million cars on British roads.

Environmental activists leapt on the figures yesterday, which they said highlighted the Government’s failure to focus on waste prevention. Julian Kirby, Friends of the Earth’s resource use campaigner, said: “Neither the economy nor the planet can afford to foot the bill for the staggering level of waste in the UK food chain. There is not enough talk about prevention, which is where we need to see much greater focus from government and industry. The Government must act on this report across the food supply chain and end its own wasteful and costly obsession with incineration.”

The report underlined that households produce the vast bulk of food and drink wasted in Britain, throwing away 11.9 million tons every year, at a cost of £12bn. This is two-thirds of the country’s total waste mountain. Manufacturers are the next worst offenders, wasting five million tons annually, with retailers wasting 1.4 million tons and a further 100,000 tons getting lost during the distribution process.
(4 April 2010)
The link to the report is here.

Resistance to Weedkillers a Growing Problem for Engineered Crops, NAS Report Says

Paul Voosen, New York Times
Farmers’ dependence on the weedkiller Roundup and its generic alternatives threatens to undermine environmental gains that have accompanied widespread use of genetically engineered crops, the National Academy of Sciences said in a report today.

More than 80 percent of the corn, soy and cotton grown in the United States has been engineered with bacterial genes to resist insect pests or the Roundup herbicide, also known as glyphosate. The glyphosate-resistance trait has become so prevalent that many farmers now have a “nearly exclusive reliance on glyphosate for weed control,” the report says.

Since the introduction of glyphosate-resistant crops, up to nine important weed species, like giant ragweed and pigweed, have independently evolved resistance to the weedkiller. This resistance was not spread by the crops’ pollen, but rather through strong selection pressure caused by the nearly indiscriminate use of the herbicide.

“We’ve got a significant weed-resistance problem,” said David Ervin, the report’s lead author and a professor of environmental management and economics at Portland State University. “That’s an issue that’s not going to go away. And it has to be dealt with, as it could jeopardize the usefulness of the technology down the road.”

Once resistance has appeared in a weed, farmers often revert to old habits. They ramp up glyphosate use and add other, more toxic herbicides into the mix, mitigating the environmental gains found in using only glyphosate, which does little harm to animals or soil. Tillage also tends to increase, decreasing soil quality.

To maintain the value of the technology, farmers must employ more diverse weed-management practices, which include rotating herbicides and application methods, and better mechanical control practices. Though large commercial farms have long known about such methods, they have been loath to implement them, the report says.

…In the end, the study — the first comprehensive look the academy has taken on the effect of GM crops on sustainable farming — was unable to make conclusions on a variety of topics due to a frustrating lack of data, Ervin said.

“There’s some pretty important holes that need to be filled,” he said.

Studies of the economic impact of the crops, including the gains from glyphosate and drawbacks of spiraling seed prices, tailed off earlier this decade. And while advocates of GM crops say they have been beneficial to water quality, scant evidence qualifies this claim, Ervin said.

The social impact of GM crops has also been sorely neglected. The scientists on the study would hear anecdotes about farmers being unable to purchase unmodified seeds or strife between organic and GM farms, but little peer-reviewed research backs these stories. And while some studies have been done on the effects of consolidation in the seed industry, not nearly enough research is happening, Ervin said.

Read the full report here.
(13 April 2010)
related: Special Report: Are regulators dropping the ball on biocrops?

In India, Wal-Mart Goes to the Farm

Vikas Bajaj, New York Times
At first glance, the vegetable patches in this north Indian village look no different from the many small, spare farms that dot the country.

But up close, visitors can see some curious experiments: insect traps made with reusable plastic bags; bamboo poles helping bitter gourd grow bigger and straighter; and seedlings germinating from plastic trays under a fine net.

These are low-tech innovations, to be sure. But they are crucial to the goals of the benefactor — Wal-Mart — that supplied them.

Two years after Wal-Mart came to India, it is trying to do to agriculture here what it has done to industries around the world: change business models by using its hyper-efficient practices to improve productivity and speed the flow of goods.

Not everyone is happy about the company’s presence here. Many Indian activists and policy makers abhor big-box retailing, fearing that it will drive India’s millions of shopkeepers out of business. Some legislators are suspicious of the company’s motives. The government still does not allow Wal-Mart Stores and other foreign companies to sell directly to consumers.

But Wal-Mart is persisting because its effort in India is critical to its global growth strategy. Confronted with saturated markets in the United States and other developed countries, the company needs to establish a bigger presence in emerging markets, like India, where modern stores make up just 5 percent of the country’s retail industry…
(12 April 2010)

What it will take to feed the world

Declan Butler, naturenews
Marion Guillou is the chief executive of France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research, Europe’s largest agricultural-research agency. She talks to Declan Butler about how researchers are trying to meet the challenge of feeding a world population that is estimated to grow to 9 billion people by 2050.

Agricultural researchers held the first ever Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development last week in Montpellier. What came out of that?

The conference showed that agricultural researchers are mobilized and recognize themselves as a global community. At the same time, there is strong tension between the CGIAR [Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research] international research centres and the global agricultural research community. The centres tend to be too closed to those outside, and there is pressure to open them up to national and other agricultural research bodies.

Developing countries at the conference also sent a strong message about the return in strength of family farms; that making these more productive is key to both alleviating poverty and meeting local and global food demand. It’s a new political message: count on and help small farms. The international focus has long been on large-scale industrial farming, so this changes quite a few things. The themes of research for smallholdings are very different from those of large-scale farming, involving, for example, concepts such as crop rotation, complements of animals and plants, and the use of animal waste as fertilizer, so the research questions are not the same.

What are the most promising routes to feeding 9 billion people?

The first priority is to fight loss and waste. We lose as much as 30 to 35% of the world’s food output. That gives us a large margin of manoeuvre to increase the food available. We are doing research with food processors and distributors to explore solutions. We certainly won’t be able solve the problem, but we can improve it.

Diet will also be a major determinant in our capacity to nourish the world [animal products require considerably more energy and land than plants]. We need to ensure food availability of 3,000 kilocalories a day per person, of which only 500 kilocalories is from animal products — we are not trying to transform everyone into vegetarians. This provides a healthy and satisfying diet, but is far from a typical Western diet. If we continue the current dietary regime typical of OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries, and if many other countries follow us on this trajectory, we will not have the same results in terms of food availability as we would with a more moderate diet worldwide.
(14 April 2010)
See the report from this conference here

Report Says Contaminated Meat Is In Supermarkets

Ron Claiborne, Dan Childs and Hanna Siegel, ABC news
It is a frightening picture: beef contaminated with toxic heavy metals, pesticides and antibiotics making its way into the nation’s supermarkets.

A new report finds dangerous levels of chemicals and metals in our meat.

Phyllis K. Fong, the Agriculture Department’s inspector general, looked at how beef is tested for harmful substances.

According to her new report, inspectors charged with checking cattle for disease and meat for contaminants were, “unable to determine if meat has unacceptable levels of… potentially hazardous substances [and do] not test for pesticides… determined to be of high risk.”

The inspectors also failed to test beef for 23 pesticides, the report says.

The study — entitled the National Residue Program for Cattle Audit Report — says there are no standards for how much of certain dangerous substances, such as copper and highly toxic dioxin, is too much for someone to eat. As a result, meat containing these substances has gotten into the nation’s food supply, it finds.

The report says the health danger to people who eat this beef is a “growing concern,” and calls for better coordination among the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ensure the safety of the country’s meat supply.
(14 April 2010)

Crop Diversity Pays Off

Jason Bradford, Farmland LLP

Conventional agriculture production systems in developed countries rely heavily on fossil energy, but emerging uncertainties in energy supply indicate a need to better understand energy efficiency in conventional and alternative systems.

So begins a press release from the American Society of Agronomy to highlight a recently published paper titled “Fossil Energy Use in Conventional and Low-External-Input Cropping Systems.”

It is difficult to design long-lived field experiments in agriculture that ask questions about effects of crop diversity on crucial parameters such as energy and fertilizer use, weed control, yields and profitability. But this is what a group of scientists at Iowa State has done. They have a produced numerous publications and posters explaining the work, but the recent subject of the press release is still behind a pay wall.

Why are they doing this? One of their posters explains:

Conventional cropping systems in the central U.S. have low levels of biological diversity and rely heavily on synthetic fertilizers and herbicides, which commonly contaminate water in this region. Ecological theory suggests that diversified cropping systems integrated with livestock should foster reduced reliance on agrichemicals and fossil fuels, and should lower production costs and pollution.

Of course my interest perks anytime somebody connects ecological theory to agronomy.

Ecological Theory: Good to Know, Best to Apply

I’ll repost a few graphics from the posters to summarize the results, but first a bit of explanation on their design. The typical crop rotation pattern in their geography is a two year corn/soybean pattern (in many case corn actually just follows corn). These are summer crops, which leaves fields bare over the winter. They tested two alternative rotations: a 3 year rotation of corn/soybean/small grain that also includes red clover as a winter cover crop and green manure, and a 4 year rotation that adds alfalfa to the pattern.

An overhead view of the study plots, each of which is 18 m by 85 m.

Energy use was dramatically less due to reductions in fertilizer and herbicide applications.

Even with dramatically lower inputs, yields were actually slightly higher for the 3 and 4 year rotations.

Lower inputs with greater yields means the energy gain is much higher with the longer rotations.

The lower input costs compensate for an increase in management costs, making the financial returns similar among rotations.

(12 April 2010)