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Food & agriculture - April 30

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The Trouble with Biofuels: Costs and Consequences of Expanding Biofuel Use in the United Kingdom

Rob Bailey, Chatham House

Biofuel use in the United Kingdom is set to increase significantly despite continued sustainability concerns

  • In the current financial year (2013/14) UK biofuel use will increase to 5 per cent of transport volumes, the highest level ever.
  • An earlier government-commissioned review of UK biofuel policy recommended that biofuel use not surpass this level unless major sustainability issues are addressed. However, EU targets for 2020 would see this exceeded several times over.

Current biofuel standards do not ensure biofuel use is sustainable

  • Agricultural biofuel use increases the level and volatility of food prices, with detrimental impacts on the food security of low-income food-importing countries. 
  • Agricultural biofuel use also indirectly drives expansion of agriculture into areas of high carbon stock such as rainforest or peatland, resulting in indirect land-use change, the emissions from which may outweigh any greenhouse gas savings the biofuels are able to offer.
  • Biodiesel from waste products such as used cooking oil or tallow offer the most favourable sustainability characteristics; however, the risk of indirect emissions increases at higher levels of use and may already be material.
  • Neither indirect land-use change nor food security is addressed in UK sustainability criteria. In the absence of such safeguards, increasing biofuel consumption could have significant environmental and social consequences outside the United Kingdom. It is unclear whether such safeguards will be agreed at the EU level.

Biofuels are not a cost-effective means to reduce emissions from road transport

  • The current generation of biofuels provides an expensive means of reducing emissions from road transport. Carbon abatement costs, excluding emissions from indirect land-use change, are broadly in the range of $165–$1,100 per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). This compares unfavourably with an appraisal price of around $87 per tonne.
  • Accounting for emissions from indirect land-use change increases abatement costs for agricultural biofuels to between $330 and $8,500 per tonne of CO2e depending on the feedstock used. Biodiesel from vegetable oils is found to be worse for the climate than fossil diesel.
  • The 5 per cent biofuel target is likely to cost UK motorists in the region of $700 million (£460 million) in the current financial year (2013/14).
  • If the UK is to meet its EU obligations, the annual cost to UK motorists is likely to rise to around $2 billion (£1.3 billion) a year by 2020.

(April 2013)
You can download the paper here.


Dance of the Honey Bee

Bill Moyers, Truthout


Bill presents and introduces the short documentary "Dance of the Honey Bee." Narrated by Bill McKibben, the film takes a look at the determined, beautiful and vital role honey bees play in preserving life, as well as the threats bees face from a rapidly changing landscape. "Not only are we dependent on the honey bee for much of what we eat," says Bill, "there is, of course, a grace and elegance they bring to the natural world that would diminish us all were they to disappear."...
(23 April 2013)


The benefits of alternative farming methods

Abigail Conrad, The Guardian
Small-scale farmers produce food for 70% of the global population. Yet, they are some of the world's poorest and most food insecure people. Alternatives to conventional farming should be embraced to improve subsistence farmers' yields and to ensure adequate food production for the growing global population. The stark reality, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute, is that the world needs to produce more food with fewer resources.

Agroecology, a farming approach that mimics natural ecosystems, is an alternative method that can produce more food using fewer resources. Small-scale farmers in Africa have used agroecology to more than double crop yields within 3 to 10 years of implementation, according to the UN special rapporteur on the right to food. Farmers also use agroecology to improve soil fertility, adapt to climate change, and reduce farming input costs.

In contrast, conventional farming is characterised by monocropping, green revolution technologies, and synthetic fertiliser. It is resource intensive in terms of capital, land, water, and fossil fuel use. Conventional farming threatens future food production by reducing biodiversity, and contributing to environmental degradation and climate change which lower yields...

(23 April 2013)


A Brief History of Our Deadly Addiction to Nitrogen Fertilizer

Tom Philpott, Mother Jones
As investigators and rescuers move through a destroyed fertilizer factory in West, Texas, it makes me think about just what nitrogen fertilizer is, and why we use so much of it.

Nitrogen is one of the nutrient elements plants need to grow. Every apple or ear of corn plucked represents nutrients pulled from soil, and for land to remain productive, those nutrients must be replenished. Nitrogen is extremely plentiful—it makes up nearly 80 percent of the air we breathe. But atmospheric nitrogen (N2) is joined together in an extremely tight bond that makes it unusable by plants. Plant-available nitrogen, known as nitrate, is actually scarce, and for most of agriculture's 10,000-year-old history, the main challenge was figuring out how to cycle usable nitrogen back into the soil. Farmers of yore might not have known the chemistry, but they knew that composting crop waste, animal manure, and even human waste led to better harvests.

But then, to make a long and complicated story short, in the 19th century European scientists figured out the science behind nitrogen's central role in plant growth, just as the industrial revolution was pushing more people off of farms and into cities. European elites realized that feeding a growing urban population from a shrinking rural labor base would be a problem—and that cheap and easy nitrate would be part of the solution. So the "fixation" of nitrogen—the ability pull it from the air and transform it into something that plants could use—became, well, a fixation. In 1909, a German chemist named Fritz Haber developed a high-temperature, energy-intensive process to synthesize plant-available nitrate from air. And so agriculture's millennia-old nitrogen-cycling problem was solved. Today's industrial-scale farms would not be possible without it...

(19 April 2013)


Connecting the Dots: the Big Permaculture Picture

Jeremy Wickremer, theecologist
The solutions to our current social, economic and environmental challenges can be split into two distinct categories, the ones that are zoomed in on specifics and those that are zoomed out looking at the bigger picture. As an example, if you were only zoomed in on the specifics you might take up jogging to improve your health, but pause every now and again for the brief 'pleasure' of a cigarette.

But by zooming out even a little bit, just enough to connect the dots, it can easily be seen that the two behaviours conflict with each other - like having a tug of war. Just as conflicted behaviour and short-term thinking on a personal level leads to distress, conflicted behaviour at a societal level leads to distressing results for society and also our natural world.

If we want to find effective solutions for a better way to live, it means connecting the dots between interrelated problems. Just like you need a holistic vision for a healthy mind and body, the same applies for a healthy planet...

(24 April 2013)


IYFF: Using the Sun to Empower Women and Help Family Farmers

Jonathan Specht, FoodTank
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has declared 2014 to the International Year of Family Farming. For many family farmers in the developing world, innovations that combine “high” and “low” technologies can make a big difference in profitability and overall quality of life.

For farmers in countries with a dry season and a wet season, irrigation represents a chance to double the amount of crops they can grow in a year. But diesel-powered irrigation can be expensive, and watering crops by hand is time consuming. Solar drip irrigation represents a potentially transformative technology for many family farmers in the developing world. The technology combines solar (photovoltaic) water-pumping and low-pressure drip irrigation. This enables farmers in remote, dry regions to grow crops that are high in nutritional and monetary value year-round.

The Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), a non-profit organization based in the United States, is working to implement solar technology in developing countries to reduce poverty. A recent SELF initiative is the Solar Market Gardens project in the West African nation of Benin...

(23 April 2012)


International Day of Peasant struggles

Staff, Via Campesina
New report argues that: Land concentration and land grabbing are occurring and reaching blatant levels in Europe. Land concentration and land grabbing do not occur only in developing countries in the South ; in fact, both are underway in Europe today. A new report by European Coordination Via Campesina and Hands off the Land network shows that land grabbing and access to land are a critical issues today in Europe, and also reveals that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidy scheme and other policies is implicated in a variety of ways.

The report, involving 25 authors from 11 countries and titled Land concentration, land grabbing and people’s struggles in Europe, reveals the hidden scandal of how just three per cent of landowners have come to control half of all farmed land. This massive concentration of land ownership and wealth is on a par with Brazil, Colombia and Philippines.

Some of these processes of ever-increasing land concentration are not new; however they have accelerated in recent decades in particular in Eastern Europe. Many feature European companies, as well as new actors including Chinese companies and Middle Eastern Hedge Funds, tied into an increasingly global commodity chains, and all looking to profit from the increasingly speculative commodity of land...

(17 April 2013)

You can read the report here.


Why Saving Seed and Growing Organic Food is a Powerful Weapon Against Corporate Tyranny

Bob Wiley, The Mud Report
For 12,000 years, since the advent of agriculture itself, saving seed and exchanging seed with other growers for biodiversity purposes was the way folks maintained their farms and gardens.. Now this traditional practice has become illegal for the many plant varieties that are patented or otherwise owned by a corporation. The fact that these fictitious beings can and do now legally own and control our access to the stuff and staff of life proves that the laws, the governments who create them, the police and courts who enforce them are owned and operated by and for the corporations, not us...

Back in George Washington's day not only were seeds routinely saved and traded but folks were in a position to stand up to authority, to rebel, to overthrow the royal tyrants, to form a more perfect union. Today the corporate tyrants are far more powerful, their security and police state apparatus make almost all types of physical rebellion instant suicide. Almost all, but the corporations and security state aren't totally invulnerable. Their is one powerful weapon 'we the people' still have that the corporate forces darkness are vulnerable to. We can ignore them!

It's obvious now that real change can't come from the top down as it could it Washington's day. Any meaningful change must come from the bottom up. And nothing is more bottom up than the soil and the food we grow from it. Open pollination, non-hybrid seed, is an important aspect of intentionally ignoring the corporate tyrants Open pollinated seeds grow plants that reproduce through natural means, adapt to local conditions over time, and evolve as reliable performers, particularly in their localities, these are the 'folk' varieties that Washington traded. These are the seeds of our non-corporate future, the seeds of our revolution.

(28 April, 2013)


Why farmers still struggle when food prices rise

Thomas Lines, Green House  (report)

Prices of agricultural inputs have risen much faster than food prices. This has created a world crisis for farming, a crisis of agricultural incomes, and an ageing farming population.

A new approach is needed, to create a food system which is economically as well as ecologically resilient and sustainable.

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