Archive for the ‘agriculture’ Category

Billionaires controlling land and other natural resources

The Resnicks who, according to Forbes, own 70,000 acres of pistachio and almond trees in California’s central valley, and entitlements to “at least 120 billion gallons of water per year” (enough to supply nearly 2 million households, by my estimate), and additional privileges.  Their assets total $4.3 billion, estimates Forbes, including not only California properties but also Fiji Water. At least the government of Fiji manages to collect some tax on the water exported.  In the U S, they’re well-connected with major politicians, and how much tax they pay is not reported.

Just another example of how fortunes are accumulated by control of natural resources, facilitated and supplemented by political favors (and, yes, a lot of hard work).

UPDATE December 27 2015: Not for the first time, the Resnicks have shared a tiny bit of their fortune with the Aspen Institute, which is thus funded by water taken from Fiji and California.  Silly me, I always assumed the Aspen Institute was in Colorado, but of course for optimal influence and convenient participation by the influential it is in Washington, DC. And, yes, among the Institute’s concerns is water supply.

GMO crops don’t even increase yield

 

image credit: Stuart Williams via flickr (cc)

image credit: Stuart Williams via flickr (cc)

Here’s a program note from ABC indicating that yield of GMO crops is no greater than conventional crops.  Unfortunately there is no formal citation of the source article, nor is it available on line as far as I can tell, and ABC tends to remove their program notes after a few weeks.  However, the article, from the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, was written by Professor Jack Heinemann of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, which might be enough information to locate it. Heinemann’s web page links to an article which may even be the one in question.

Feeding a growing population on an earth that isn’t

image credit: Antwelm via flickr (cc)

image credit: Antwelm via flickr (cc)

Yesterday’s Guardian carried a very encouraging report from India, where rice farmers are multiplying their production figures by carefully and methodically managing their crops. This has nothing to do with genetic modification, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers, and no need for “protecting” “intellectual” “property.”  Of course it may require more labor per acre than other methods, but growing population means growing supply of labor.  And it may work best on relatively small, owner-operated farms.  The method, known as System of Root (or Rice) Intensification, can be applied to other crops.  It’s based on a French Jesuit’s observations of practices in Madagascar, promoted by Cornell’s International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development.

The Guardian article asserts that Cornell’s work was funded by “an anonymous billionaire,” altho links from the Cornell site imply that “actor Jim Carrey” is somehow involved.   At this writing, there are 205 comments on the Guardian article, some of which are insightful.  One suggests that the reported results are quite exaggerated, but to read beyond the abstract of the source cited seems to cost $19.95.

I have no idea whether this particular method is as beneficial as described, but just last week I spoke to an Illinois farmer who reported that four adults were gainfully employed, supporting themselves, by intensively cultivating an acre of vegetables.  One way or another, people will find ways to coax more food from the earth, if they have a need (or desire) and are permitted to do so.

 

 

Fighting nature with sheep

photo by AuntOwee via flickr (cc)

The problem, according to Science Daily, is that marginal pastureland in the Swiss Alps, after 8 centuries, is being abandoned and given back to nature.  So what does nature do? She grows green alder, which by increasing evaporated water causes a decrease in runoff feeding streams. These streams feed hydroelectric generators, and thus the reduced flow, in one valley alone, will cost something like 500,000 to 1,000,000 Swiss francs annually.  The alder also “contaminates the water with nitrates,”  tho the article doesn’t explain how this is a problem.

The remedy? Researchers demonstrated that Engadine sheep will peel the bark off the alder, killing them and [presumably] restoring grassland.  But “the added financial value of sustainable land use is not sufficient to keep the arable land open.”

Which raises the interesting question: Which poor country has a sheep-raising tradition and potential emigrants who might like to move to Switzerland?

Prices climb for ag land and infrastructure

I have blogged before about rising prices for agricultural land.  The trend continues, with FRB/Chicago reporting(pdf)  that, as of Q2 2011, farmland prices in its area (Iowa plus most of Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana) had risen 17% in a year, and 4% just since the prior quarter.  This trend, of course, reflects an increasing amount of financial power invested in (and therefore inclined to defend) the goverment’s destructive ethanol incentives.

What’s new, to my knowledge, is investment by speculative interests in grain elevators. While elevators aren’t exactly a monopoly like farmland (farmers lacking reasonable elevator services have in some cases built their own), they’re certainly a tool that can be used to squeeze profit without producing or providing useful service.  The source article implies that the investment is simply a function of increasing storage prices (without explaining what caused the prices to increase), with no intention of storing grain to manipulate prices.  Americans wouldn’t do that, would they?

Land Economics and Ownership– cancelled

I am back to the blog, after a series of computer difficulties and travel distractions. I could have resumed earlier, but had (still have) too many things to write about, so I waited for something simple and outrageous. And here it is.

What two products, planned for the 2007 U S Census of Agriculture, have been cancelled?  One is a report on acquaculture.  The other? Land Economics and Ownership.  One inclined to conspiracy theory might say TPTB are trying to prevent folks from learning the truth.  I would tend more to think it’s a product of ignorance, no need for conspiracy. I wonder what the report would have said.

 

 

Farmland owners profit by returning to suburbs

As the housing market tanked a few years ago, of course the price of farmland “ripe” for housing crashed along with it.  Meanwhile, many investors, noting impending food shortages and low interest rates, bought farmland in rural areas.  Now, no surprise, they’re selling their rural land and using some of the cash to again purchase suburban farmland, at the much lower prices. The profit, of course, is in buying and selling land, not producing anything.  I am grateful to Mary Ellen Podmolik for her article in the June 19 Tribune, which provides some details.

Another way the poor and their land are separated

Andrew Kahrl‘s talk this afternoon at APA was “The Plight of Black Coastal Landowners in the Sunbelt South and Its Lessons for Post–Housing Bubble America.”

He used examples from New Hanover County (NC) and Virginia Beach (VA).  A hundred years ago, coastal land wasn’t really good for farming, and folks were aware of the danger of storms, so it tended to be cheap. Poor black farmers wanted to own their own land, and this was what they could get.  (more…)

Podcasts: appropriate agriculture, inappropriate singularity, Argentina

Podcasts can be a way to learn while doing something else.  I’ve encountered some interesting ones in recent weeks.

Grow rice in Vermont? Why not? (more…)

Is waste paper our major export?

There is a meme floating around the Internet (for example, here):

Do you know what our biggest export is today?  Waste paper.

and

The United States has lost a total of about 5.5 million manufacturing jobs since October 2000.

The former assertion seems based on 2007 data reported here, which indicates (without giving a specific figure) that waste paper fills more shipping containers leaving the U S than any other product.  A big volume, surely, but is it our largest export, either by dollar value or physical volume?

Take a look at the U S Statistical Abstract, 2010 edition, table 1272 (download the pdf for the international trade section here).  Latest data shown is for 2008.  Total value of “pulp and waste paper” exported: $7.744 billion.  This is less than 1% of total exports ($1287.442 trillion).  A few larger figures are Coal ($8.196 billion), Vehicles ($98.871 billion), “Television, VCR, etc” ($24.379 billion).  There are eight different categories of chemicals, five of which each exceed $7.744 billion.  And $115.248 billion of “agricultural commodities,” including Corn ($13.931 billion) and “Vegetables and fruits” ($14.040 billion).

I don’t have data on physical volume, but many of the products I mentioned above typically do not travel in shipping containers.  In fact, one reason for export of waste paper might be that many containers would otherwise have to return empty to Asian ports.

As for the loss of manufacturing jobs, certainly there has been a decline, largely because manufacturing workers have become more productive.  The Statistical Abstract only shows manufacturing data back to 2000, but during the period 2000-2008 the constant-dollar manufacturing GDP increased by over 10%, just slightly more than population growth.

I won’t deny that there are serious problems with the U S economy, and I won’t deny that the net outflow of dollars (largely due to petroleum consumption and “defense” expenditures) is unsustainable.  It would be a good thing to remove obstacles which hinder American labor from producing in America, such as taxes on production and encouragement of nonproductive speculation.  A more balanced flow of trade would likely be a byproduct. The more important result would be higher incomes and a better standard of living for working people.