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Food & agriculture - July 20

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How They Do Drought in Texas

Thomas Lewis, The Daily Impact blog
The next stop on our Last Chance Tour of a collapsing civilization: the Texas Panhandle. The land is turning into desert, the people are acting out the Tragedy of the Commons (a pretty way of describing the way humans fight for the last scrap of a vanishing resource), the government is making things worse and almost everybody is pretending nothing is happening at all.

How bad is the Texas drought? 2011 was the hottest, driest year there in recorded history. The current drought began in 2010 and continues. It is part of the scenario predicted as a consequence of global climate change — a scenario that sees much of the American Southwest becoming virtually uninhabitable desert. The trends are proceeding as forecast, and the water supplies of many Texas cities, towns and farms are in grave jeopardy. But Texans, and their state government, and their dominant political party, do not believe in global climate change. So it’s business as usual.

When it doesn’t rain in Texas, and the crops wither and the surface reservoirs dry up, there is one alternative source of water. It’s the same source relied on by the people of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. It’s the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast underground repository of water that resembles a vast soaked sponge...
(9 July, 2012)


Sent in by EB reader Billhook, who says:
One point in the above warrants revision. Garrett Hardin's fiction of "The Tragedy of the Commons" was so wrong that it's been used as a sally for ridicule in European universities' teaching for several decades. A commons is not just any area of land, sea or air; it is a place where a code of resource-use that respects the ecology and future generations' needs has been agreed, and is respected, by those using the area's resources. Areas lacking such a code are either 'privately inclosed' or state property, or 'open access resources' (such as the Ogallala) or 'sequestered inclosed resources' (such as John Muir's nature reserves).

This may be news to rather a lot of Americans, who, due to the efforts of Hardin's ideological proponents, mostly seem to mistake 'open access resources' as 'commons'. His error has been widely and falsely applied as a propaganda for the Randite privatization trend since the early '80s.

In Europe we have many thousands of traditional commons still operating, mostly in agriculture, where the commoners are still resisting privatization efforts. As a commoner I've grazing rights for about 550 head on a mountain grazing commons of about 110,000 acres here in central Wales. I recently wrote up the form for the local grazing association detailing my plans for the numbers of the diverse classes of stock I'll put out by gender, age, neuters, etc, each year for the next five years, which will be tallied with this farm's accustomed usage.

In North America I hear of a few commons surviving - mostly the traditional ones of the native peoples' cultures - some of which have been crushed and re-established several times post-Columbus. Many, many more commons are doubtless needed, most particularly for resources so critical to society as the aquifers on which it relies. Hence this contribution to EB of The Daily Impact's fine article on the issue.



Nations With Most Food May Lack Best Diets, Study Finds

Alan Bjerga, Bloomberg
An abundant food supply doesn’t guarantee that a nation will have the healthiest or safest diet, according to a study of global food security.

The U.S., Denmark, Norway and France are the world’s most “food-secure” countries in terms of availability, cost and nutrition value while Israel, 22nd overall, had the best quality and safety, according to the study released today by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Germany, while 10th in food security, ranked 21st in quality, measured by nutrient content and balance. The Democratic Republic of Congo ranked last.

The findings are part of a global food-security index developed to measure hunger worldwide and identify areas for improvement. World food prices may rise this month after a drought in the U.S. Midwest wilted crops, the United Nations forecast. Rapid price gains contributed to more than 60 food riots around the globe from 2007 to 2009, while nutrition costs that peaked in April 2011 sparked revolutions in North Africa.

“To truly address the root cause of hunger, we must have a common path forward to tackle such pressing issues as food affordability, availability, nutritional quality and safety,” said Ellen Kullman, chief executive officer of DuPont Co. (DD), which sponsored the study. “What gets measured, gets done,” she said today in Washington where the report was released...
(14 July, 2012)
The report can be accessed here, but requires registration (free.) -KS



Rain or shine, food under pressure

Douglas Fraser, BBC Scotland
Crops are rotting in the fields because they've been beaten down by rain, and because farmers can't get machinery to them for harvest.

The prices may not have spiked yet, but if supply can't meet demand, there's not much doubt about the economic consequences.

Other pressures - of over-powerful customers or of over-capacity of processing - are this month hitting Scotland's dairy and pork farmers. All is not well with the nation's food chain.

But if you think ludicrous amounts of British rain is the main problem for food prices, think again. It's the heat, primarily across the corn belt of the USA, and more recently devastatingly heavy rain in Russia.

Such producer and exporter nations determine world prices. And the news out of Washington on Wednesday was not good for the price for the consumer.

The US government's estimate of the yield per acre this harvest season took a whopping cut of 20 bushels on previous estimates, down to 145. (A bushel of corn is around 25kg)...
(14 July, 2012)


U.S. Corn Growers Farming In Hell As Midwest Heat Spreads

Jeff Wilson, Bloomberg
The worst U.S. drought since Ronald Reagan was president is withering the world’s largest corn crop, and the speed of the damage may spur the government to make a record cut in its July estimate for domestic inventories.

Tumbling yields will combine with the greatest-ever global demand to leave U.S. stockpiles on Sept. 1, 2013, at 1.216 billion bushels (30.89 million metric tons), according to the average of 31 analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. That’s 35 percent below the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s June 12 forecast, implying the biggest reduction since at least 1973. The USDA updates its harvest and inventory estimates July 11.

Crops on July 1 were in the worst condition since 1988, and a Midwest heat wave last week set or tied 1,067 temperature records, government data show. Prices surged 37 percent in three weeks, and Rabobank International said June 28 that corn may rise 9.9 percent more by December to near a record $8 a bushel. The gain is threatening to boost food costs the United Nations says fell 15 percent from a record in February 2011 and feed prices for meat producers including Smithfield Foods Inc. (SFD)

“The drought is much worse than last year and approaching the 1988 disaster,” said John Cory, the chief executive officer of Rochester, Indiana-based grain processor Prairie Mills Products LLC. “There are crops that won’t make it. The dairy and livestock industries are going to get hit very hard. People are just beginning to realize the depth of the problem.”...
(14 July, 2012)


First step taken to develop sustainable UK food supply chain

Staff, GreenWise
The first step in a long-term plan to create a sustainable food supply chain for Britain was launched today with a ground-breaking study looking at how production and consumption could change in the future to meet competing demands of producing more food and improving the environment.
The Green Food Project is the first sustainable food initiative of its kind to bring together Government, farmers, manufacturers, retailers, caterers, environmentalists and scientists. Today it launched its first report to address Britain’s looming food crisis without degrading the natural environment.

The Government’s Foresight report into food security, published last year, estimated that by 2050 two billion more people will be living on the planet and 70 per cent more food will need to be produced. It also estimated that between 30 to 50 per cent of all food grown worldwide may be wasted.

The Green Food Project has been set up to address these challenges and to respond to the Government’s Natural Environment White Paper, published in June 2011, which recommended kick-starting an open debate between "Government, industry and environmental partners to reconcile how we will achieve our goals of improving the environment and increasing food production"...
(14 July, 2012)
The Green Food project publications can be accessed on the DEFRA website here.


Can Britain Farm Itself?

Rob Hopkins, Transition Culture
In 2007 we published Simon Fairlie’s seminal study “Can Britain Feed Itself?” (which originally appeared in The Land journal), the first study since 1975 to ask that question. In spite of being a back of the envelope stab at the question, the study proved hugely provocative (although sadly not in government circles) resulting in a number of “Can [insert name of place] feed itself” studies and seemingly endless debates about whether it could be done in a way that pleased vegans, meat eaters, vegetarians and so on. Five years later, The Land, the journal that published Fairlie’s original study, has published “Can Britain Farm Itself?” (which you can download as a pdf here or read online here), written by Ed Hamer, smallholder and writer (a noble combination). The question it explores is the extent to which agriculture, if approached in a different way, could create land-based employment in a time in desperate need of employment opportunities. It is a fascinating piece of work.

One of its key conclusions is that “cutting exports and replacing imports with domestic production would result in a, not insignificant, increase of 66,315 full time equivalents in the farming sector”. This picks up on Vicki Hurd’s quote which appears in the report:

“That the UK could be entirely self sufficient in all products is not being suggested. Yet when it is not even self sufficient in produce suitable to its climate and soil, and when considerable social and environmental problems arise from the current production and importation, there should be a significant shift in policy towards promoting production and consumption of home grown produce”.

Like “Can Britain Feed Itself?”, it acknowledges that it is a back-of -an-envelope study designed to stimulate debate and discussion (given that the article at The Land’s website has no comments section, feel welcome to have that discussion and debate below (the editors have said they will follow what happens with interest). I find it really heartening that the localisation movement is now starting to build (through studies like this, the forthcoming Economic Blueprints for Totnes, Hereford and Manchester, and other similar things underway) an economic case for localisation and resilience.

The paper mentions that “Farmers’ Weekly reported in May 2012 on the unveiling of John Deere’s first driverless tractor which can plough, seed and harvest a 1,000 acre field if you want it to – controlled entirely by a GPS computer”. ”Can Britain Farm Itself?” is essential reading for those who feel that we need a vibrant, diverse, resilient rural economy that creates meaningful work for people, rather than a people-free automated industrial farming system.

(17 July, 2012)
The Can Britain Farm Itself article can be accessed in pdf form here.

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