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Food & agriculture - March 10

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The unusual uses of urine

Richard Sugg, Guardian/UK
Urine has enjoyed an impressive range of practical and medical uses for much of history, so here's to pee power

Sarah DeWeerdt's recent article tells of how "Gerardine Botte, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Ohio University … has developed a technology to generate hydrogen fuel from urine".

Urine has, in fact, had an impressive range of practical uses for much of history. A key area was medicine. In Rome, Pliny the Elder recommended fresh urine for the treatment of "sores, burns, affections of the anus, chaps and scorpion stings", while stale urine mixed with ash could be rubbed on your baby for nappy rash. In early-modern Europe numerous medical luminaries went further. Pioneering French surgeon Ambroise Paré noted that itching eye-lids could be washed in the patient's urine – provided that it had been kept "all night in a barber's basin" first.

The father of chemistry, Robert Boyle, advised certain patients to drink every morning "a moderate draught of their own urine", preferably while "tis yet warm". Anyone indignantly demanding a second opinion would find that Thomas Willis – the richest doctor in England at the time – was instructing a young gentlewoman to drink her own warm urine against "extreme sourness" in her throat.
(10 March 2011)
The ultimate in recycling - drinking one's own urine. It's nice to see #1 getting some respect, but author Sugg misses the most important forgotten use of urine -- as a source of nutrients. If urine and waste are just flushed away, as is our standard practice, it pollutes and deprives us of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassum, the macro-nutrients needed for plant growth. Especially phosphorus!. -BA



Heat Damages Colombia Coffee, Raising Prices

Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times
Like most of the small landowners in Colombia’s lush mountainous Cauca region, Luis Garzón, 80, and his family have thrived for decades by supplying shade-grown, rainforest-friendly Arabica coffee for top foreign brands like Nespresso and Green Mountain. A sign in the center of a nearby town proclaims, “The coffee of Cauca is No. 1!”

But in the last few years, coffee yields have plummeted here and in many of Latin America’s other premier coffee regions as a result of rising temperatures and more intense and unpredictable rains, phenomena that many scientists link partly to global warming.

Coffee plants require the right mix of temperature, rainfall and spells of dryness for beans to ripen properly and maintain their taste. Coffee pests thrive in the warmer, wetter weather.

Bean production at the Garzóns’ farm is therefore down 70 percent from five years ago, leaving the family little money for clothing for toddlers and “thinking twice” about sending older children to college,
(9 March 2011)
Also at the NY Times, a hefty debat on Coffee, the New Shaky Commodity::

While "peak coffee" may not be the same as peak oil, coffee is a commodity like no other. How will the heated market affect the ever evolving culture of coffee connoisseurship? What does history tell us about the role of coffee in unifying communities and advancing civilization, let alone in keeping everyone awake?



Decline of Honey Bees Now a Global Phenomenon, says United Nations

Michael McCarthy , Independent/UK
The mysterious collapse of honey-bee colonies is becoming a global phenomenon, scientists working for the United Nations have revealed.

Declines in managed bee colonies, seen increasingly in Europe and the US in the past decade, are also now being observed in China and Japan and there are the first signs of African collapses from Egypt, according to the report from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

The authors, who include some of the world's leading honey-bee experts, issue a stark warning about the disappearance of bees, which are increasingly important as crop pollinators around the globe. Without profound changes to the way human beings manage the planet, they say, declines in pollinators needed to feed a growing global population are likely to continue. The scientists warn that a number of factors may now be coming together to hit bee colonies around the world, ranging from declines in flowering plants and the use of damaging insecticides, to the worldwide spread of pests and air pollution.
(10 March 2011)
Related from the Guardian: Globalisation and agriculture industry exacerbating bee decline, says UN and UN report into mass honeybee deaths provides no simple solution. -BA



US farmers fear the return of the Dust Bowl

Charles Laurence, Telegraph/UK
For years the Ogallala Aquifer, the world’s largest underground body of fresh water, has irrigated thousands of square miles of American farmland. Now it is running dry
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There is not much to be happy about these days in Happy, Texas. Main Street is shuttered but for the Happy National Bank, slowly but inexorably disappearing into a High Plains wind that turns all to dust. The old Picture House, the cinema, has closed. Tumbleweed rolls into the still corners behind the grain elevators, soaring prairie cathedrals that spoke of prosperity before they were abandoned for lack of business.

Happy's problem is that it has run out of water for its farms. Its population, dropping 10 per cent a year, is down to 595. The name, which brings a smile for miles around and plays in faded paint on the fronts of every shuttered business – Happy Grain Inc, Happy Game Room – has become irony tinged with bitterness. It goes back to the cowboy days of the 19th century. A cattle drive north through the Texas Panhandle to the rail heads beyond had been running out of water, steers dying on the hoof, when its cowboys stumbled on a watering hole. They named the spot Happy Draw, for the water. Now Happy is the harbinger of a potential Dust Bowl unseen in America since the Great Depression.
(8 March 2011)
Recommended by reader C. Robins. -BA



The World Food Crisis

Prabhat Patnaik, MRzine
While the advanced capitalist countries are hit by an acute crisis of recession and unemployment, the developing world is facing, apart from the fallout of this crisis, an acute food crisis. Hunger afflicts the developing world today with a virulence not seen in decades.

... We therefore have to look at the underlying output and demand trends; and here we come across two startling facts.

First, per capita cereal output, and also foodgrain output, has declined significantly in absolute terms for the world as a whole since the eighties. The average annual per capita cereal output for the quinquennium 1980-85 was 335 kilogrammes; for 2000-05 it was 310 kilogrammes. Since this decline in output has also meant decline in consumption, hunger in the world has been on the increase long before the price upsurge of 2008. Or putting it differently, the world food crisis is a matter not of the last two years but of the last two decades or more.

The second fact is even more startling. ... cereal price relative to manufactured goods declined by 46 per cent between 1980 and 2000. Indeed, between 1980 and 2008, the year of price upsurge, foodgrain prices in general fell relative to those of manufactured goods, even though per capita foodgrain output declined in absolute terms.

How could this happen? The answer is simple: a massive squeeze on the purchasing power (an "income deflation") imposed on the working population all over the world, and especially in the third world, by the universal pursuit of "neo-liberal" policies.

... Neo-liberal policies impose an income deflation not just on workers but on peasants, petty producers, and agricultural workers in several ways: through cuts in government expenditure on health, education, and welfare (which forces them to access more expensive private facilities); through cuts in input subsidies by the government (which squeezes peasant incomes); through cuts in government expenditure on rural development (which entails a drying up of rural purchasing power); through the unemployment generated by imports out-competing domestic production and by the changing demand-pattern of the increasingly affluent elite (eg, corporate retail outlets displacing petty traders); and through increasing corporate and MNC control over the distribution of peasants' and petty producers' output (which reduces their share in the final price).

Income deflation, however, even as it squeezes demand via restricting purchasing power, also has the effect of restricting output and supply in so far as it is directed against peasants and petty producers, by reducing the profitability of their activities. This fact, together with the general withdrawal of State support and protection from peasant and petty production sectors (the virtual winding up of agricultural extension activities by the government in India is a case in point), which also characterises neo-liberalism, means that the output of this sector atrophies. Income deflation therefore traps the foodgrain sector of the economy at a low level of demand and supply.

A consequence of this is that while foodgrain prices can remain low or even fall relative to those of manufactured goods, even in the midst of declining per capita output, a sudden shock to the system in the form of an injection of demand can cause an inflationary spurt; and if speculation builds on it, the spurt can be quite lethal. Such a shock has been provided to the world food economy by the sudden diversion of late of substantial amounts of grains for the production of bio-fuels. In the US alone, which is a large foodgrain producer, more than a fourth of grain output is currently diverted to the production of bio-fuels.

... An argument is often advanced that to overcome the world food shortage, agriculture everywhere should be opened up for corporate capital. Even if we assume for argument's sake that such a move will augment food output, it will only compound world hunger by imposing a massive squeeze on the purchasing power of the peasants and agricultural labourers who will get uprooted to make way for corporate agriculture. There is no escape therefore from the fact that overcoming the world food crisis requires a revamping of peasant agriculture, through land reforms, through State support, through protection from encroachment by corporate and MNC capital, and through State-funded transfers and welfare expenditures for improving the quality of rural life. The point is: will neo-liberalism allow it?

Prabhat Patnaik is a Marxist economist in India. This article was first published in People's Democracy on 27 February 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.
(7 March 2011)
This argument for peasant agriculture just shows how much Marxist thought has changed over the decades. Traditional Marxism was all for mechanizations and centralization in agriculture. -BA

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