Earth > Gardening, Farming >
Seed, crop, harvest
planting a new crop of a single plant each year
with fields containing varieties
of mutually complementary species,
planted once, harvested seasonally
but remaining in place for years.
producing different kinds of foods
in commercial quantities
with little or no chemical applications,
irrigation, annual reseeding,
tillage or tending
Tilling the soil releases
vast amounts of carbon dioxide
into the atmosphere.
crop damage USA
crop yields / yield USA
story.php?storyId=1080820 - August 17, 2000
field / agricultural field
oilseed rape field
seed bank USA
reseeding / replanting
perennial plants > Kernza
- the essential ingredient
for growing corn and most other crops
fruit grower USA
crops > corn, soybeans and wheat
wheat yields UK
pumpkin > squash
British beer-makers > hops UK
Ethanol's "sweet spot was 18 months ago," said Rick Brehm,
president and chief executive of Lincolnway Energy,
which is based in Nevada,
Lynn L. Walters for The New York Times
Sudden Surplus Arises as Threat to Ethanol Boom
NYT 30 September 2007
Last week, the average wholesale price of ethanol
was $2.42 per gallon in New York and $1.77 in Iowa,
according to the DTN Ethanol Center.
Lynn L. Walters for The New York Times
Sudden Surplus Arises as Threat to Ethanol Boom
maize / corn
ethanol UK / USA
ethanol > biofuel
field / agricultural field
oilseed rape field
Coming Food Crisis
The New York Times
By GARY PAUL NABHAN
Ariz. — THIS summer the tiny town of Furnace Creek, Calif., may once again grace
the nation’s front pages. Situated in Death Valley, it last made news in 1913,
when it set the record for the world’s hottest recorded temperature, at 134
degrees. With the heat wave currently blanketing the Western states, and given
that the mercury there has already reached 130 degrees, the news media is awash
in speculation that Furnace Creek could soon break its own mark.
Such speculation, though, misses the real concern posed by the heat wave, which
covers an area larger than New England. The problem isn’t spiking temperatures,
but a new reality in which long stretches of triple-digit days are common —
threatening not only the lives of the millions of people who live there, but
also a cornerstone of the American food supply.
People living outside the region seldom recognize its immense contribution to
American agriculture: roughly 40 percent of the net farm income for the country
normally comes from the 17 Western states; cattle and sheep production make up a
significant part of that, as do salad greens, dry beans, onions, melons, hops,
barley, wheat and citrus fruits. The current heat wave will undeniably diminish
both the quality and quantity of these foods.
The most vulnerable crops are those that were already in flower and fruit when
temperatures surged, from apricots and barley to wheat and zucchini. Idaho
farmers have documented how their potato yields have been knocked back because
their heat-stressed plants are not developing their normal number of tubers.
Across much of the region, temperatures on the surface of food and forage crops
hit 105 degrees, at least 10 degrees higher than the threshold for most
What’s more, when food and forage crops, as well as livestock, have had to
endure temperatures 10 to 20 degrees higher than the long-term averages, they
require far more water than usual. The Western drought, which has persisted for
the last few years, has already diminished both surface water and groundwater
supplies and increased energy costs, because of all the water that has to be
pumped in from elsewhere.
If these costs are passed on to consumers, we can again expect food prices,
especially for beef and lamb, to rise, just as they did in 2012, the hottest
year in American history. So extensive was last year’s drought that more than
1,500 counties — about half of all the counties in the country — were declared
national drought disaster areas, and 90 percent of those were hit by heat waves
The answer so far has been to help affected farmers with payouts from crop
insurance plans. But while we can all sympathize with affected farmers, such
assistance is merely a temporary response to a long-term problem.
Fortunately, there are dozens of time-tested strategies that our best farmers
and ranchers have begun to use. The problem is that several agribusiness
advocacy organizations have done their best to block any federal effort to
promote them, including leaving them out of the current farm bill, or of climate
change legislation at all.
One strategy would be to promote the use of locally produced compost to increase
the moisture-holding capacity of fields, orchards and vineyards. In addition to
locking carbon in the soil, composting buffers crop roots from heat and drought
while increasing forage and food-crop yields. By simply increasing organic
matter in their fields from 1 percent to 5 percent, farmers can increase water
storage in the root zones from 33 pounds per cubic meter to 195 pounds.
And we have a great source of compostable waste: cities. Since much of the green
waste in this country is now simply generating methane emissions from landfills,
cities should be mandated to transition to green-waste sorting and composting,
which could then be distributed to nearby farms.
Second, we need to reduce the bureaucratic hurdles to using small- and
medium-scale rainwater harvesting and gray water (that is, waste water excluding
toilet water) on private lands, rather than funneling all runoff to huge, costly
and vulnerable reservoirs behind downstream dams. Both urban and rural food
production can be greatly enhanced through proven techniques of harvesting rain
and biologically filtering gray water for irrigation. However, many state and
local laws restrict what farmers can do with such water.
Moreover, the farm bill should include funds from the Strikeforce Initiative of
the Department of Agriculture to help farmers transition to forms of perennial
agriculture — initially focusing on edible tree crops and perennial grass
pastures — rather than providing more subsidies to biofuel production from
annual crops. Perennial crops not only keep 7.5 to 9.4 times more carbon in the
soil than annual crops, but their production also reduces the amount of fossil
fuels needed to till the soil every year.
We also need to address the looming seed crisis. Because of recent episodes of
drought, fire and floods, we are facing the largest shortfall in the
availability of native grass, forage legume, tree and shrub seeds in American
history. Yet current budget-cutting proposals threaten to significantly reduce
the number of federal plant material centers, which promote conservation best
If our rangelands, forests and farms are to recover from the devastating heat,
drought and wildfires of the last three years, they need to be seeded with
appropriate native forage and ground-cover species to heal from the wounds of
climatic catastrophes. To that end, the farm bill should direct more money to
the underfinanced seed collection and distribution programs.
Finally, the National Plant Germplasm System, the Department of Agriculture’s
national reserve of crop seeds, should be charged with evaluating hundreds of
thousands of seed collections for drought and heat tolerance, as well as other
climatic adaptations — and given the financing to do so. Thousands of heirloom
vegetables and heritage grains already in federal and state collections could be
rapidly screened and then used by farmers for a fraction of what it costs a
biotech firm to develop, patent and market a single “climate-friendly” crop.
Investing in climate-change adaptation will be far more cost-effective than
doling out $11.6 billion in crop insurance payments, as the government did last
year, for farmers hit with diminished yields or all-out crop failures.
Unfortunately, some agribusiness organizations fear that if they admit that
accelerating climate change is already affecting farmers, it will shackle them
with more regulations. But those organizations are hardly serving their member
farmers and ranchers if they keep them at risk of further suffering from heat
extremes and extended drought.
And no one can reasonably argue that the current system offers farmers any
long-term protection. Last year some farmers made more from insurance payments
than from selling their products, meaning we are dangerously close to
subsidizing farmers for not adapting to changing climate conditions.
It’s now up to our political and business leaders to get their heads out of the
hot sand and do something tangible to implement climate change policy and
practices before farmers, ranchers and consumers are further affected. Climate
adaptation is the game every food producer and eater must now play. A little
investment coming too late will not help us adapt in time to this new reality.
Nabhan is a research scientist
Southwest Center at the University of Arizona
and the author
Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land:
Desert Farmers in Adapting
Our Coming Food Crisis,
Struggles to Feed Itself
The New York Times
By JUSTIN GILLIS
OBREGÓN, Mexico — The dun wheat field spreading out at Ravi P. Singh’s feet
offered a possible clue to human destiny. Baked by a desert sun and deliberately
starved of water, the plants were parched and nearly dead.
Dr. Singh, a wheat breeder, grabbed seed heads that should have been plump with
the staff of life. His practiced fingers found empty husks.
“You’re not going to feed the people with that,” he said.
But then, over in Plot 88, his eyes settled on a healthier plant, one that had
managed to thrive in spite of the drought, producing plump kernels of wheat.
“This is beautiful!” he shouted as wheat beards rustled in the wind.
Hope in a stalk of grain: It is a hope the world needs these days, for the great
agricultural system that feeds the human race is in trouble.
The rapid growth in farm output that defined the late 20th century has slowed to
the point that it is failing to keep up with the demand for food, driven by
population increases and rising affluence in once-poor countries.
Consumption of the four staples that supply most human calories — wheat, rice,
corn and soybeans — has outstripped production for much of the past decade,
drawing once-large stockpiles down to worrisome levels. The imbalance between
supply and demand has resulted in two huge spikes in international grain prices
since 2007, with some grains more than doubling in cost.
Those price jumps, though felt only moderately in the West, have worsened hunger
for tens of millions of poor people, destabilizing politics in scores of
countries, from Mexico to Uzbekistan to Yemen. The Haitian government was ousted
in 2008 amid food riots, and anger over high prices has played a role in the
recent Arab uprisings.
Now, the latest scientific research suggests that a previously discounted factor
is helping to destabilize the food system: climate change.
Many of the failed harvests of the past decade were a consequence of weather
disasters, like floods in the United States, drought in Australia and blistering
heat waves in Europe and Russia. Scientists believe some, though not all, of
those events were caused or worsened by human-induced global warming.
Temperatures are rising rapidly during the growing season in some of the most
important agricultural countries, and a paper published several weeks ago found
that this had shaved several percentage points off potential yields, adding to
the price gyrations.
For nearly two decades, scientists had predicted that climate change would be
relatively manageable for agriculture, suggesting that even under worst-case
assumptions, it would probably take until 2080 for food prices to double.
In part, they were counting on a counterintuitive ace in the hole: that rising
carbon dioxide levels, the primary contributor to global warming, would act as a
powerful plant fertilizer and offset many of the ill effects of climate change.
Until a few years ago, these assumptions went largely unchallenged. But lately,
the destabilization of the food system and the soaring prices have rattled many
“The success of agriculture has been astounding,” said Cynthia Rosenzweig, a
researcher at NASA who helped pioneer the study of climate change and
agriculture. “But I think there’s starting to be premonitions that it may not
A scramble is on to figure out whether climate science has been too sanguine
about the risks. Some researchers, analyzing computer forecasts that are used to
advise governments on future crop prospects, are pointing out what they consider
to be gaping holes. These include a failure to consider the effects of extreme
weather, like the floods and the heat waves that are increasing as the earth
A rising unease about the future of the world’s food supply came through during
interviews this year with more than 50 agricultural experts working in nine
These experts say that in coming decades, farmers need to withstand whatever
climate shocks come their way while roughly doubling the amount of food they
produce to meet rising demand. And they need to do it while reducing the
considerable environmental damage caused by the business of agriculture.
Agronomists emphasize that the situation is far from hopeless. Examples are
already available, from the deserts of Mexico to the rice paddies of India, to
show that it may be possible to make agriculture more productive and more
resilient in the face of climate change. Farmers have achieved huge gains in
output in the past, and rising prices are a powerful incentive to do so again.
But new crop varieties and new techniques are required, far beyond those
available now, scientists said. Despite the urgent need, they added, promised
financing has been slow to materialize, much of the necessary work has yet to
begin and, once it does, it is likely to take decades to bear results.
“There’s just such a tremendous disconnect, with people not understanding the
highly dangerous situation we are in,” said Marianne Bänziger, deputy chief of
the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, a leading research
institute in Mexico.
A wheat physiologist at the center, Matthew Reynolds, fretted over the potential
consequences of not attacking the problem vigorously.
“What a horrible world it will be if food really becomes short from one year to
the next,” he said. “What will that do to society?”
Sitting with a group of his fellow wheat farmers, Francisco Javier Ramos Bours
voiced a suspicion. Water shortages had already arrived in recent years for
growers in his region, the Yaqui Valley, which sits in the Sonoran Desert of
northwestern Mexico. In his view, global climate change could well be
“All the world is talking about it,” Mr. Ramos said as the other farmers nodded.
Farmers everywhere face rising difficulties: water shortages as well as flash
floods. Their crops are afflicted by emerging pests and diseases and by blasts
of heat beyond anything they remember.
In a recent interview on the far side of the world, in northeastern India, a
rice farmer named Ram Khatri Yadav offered his own complaint about the changing
climate. “It will not rain in the rainy season, but it will rain in the nonrainy
season,” he said. “The cold season is also shrinking.”
Decades ago, the wheat farmers in the Yaqui Valley of Mexico were the vanguard
of a broad development in agriculture called the Green Revolution, which used
improved crop varieties and more intensive farming methods to raise food
production across much of the developing world.
When Norman E. Borlaug, a young American agronomist, began working here in the
1940s under the sponsorship of the Rockefeller Foundation, the Yaqui Valley
farmers embraced him. His successes as a breeder helped farmers raise Mexico’s
wheat output sixfold.
In the 1960s, Dr. Borlaug spread his approach to India and Pakistan, where mass
starvation was feared. Output soared there, too.
Other countries joined the Green Revolution, and food production outstripped
population growth through the latter half of the 20th century. Dr. Borlaug
became the only agronomist ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1970, for
helping to “provide bread for a hungry world.”
As he accepted the prize in Oslo, he issued a stern warning. “We may be at high
tide now,” he said, “but ebb tide could soon set in if we become complacent and
relax our efforts.”
As output rose, staple grains — which feed people directly or are used to
produce meat, eggs, dairy products and farmed fish — became cheaper and cheaper.
Poverty still prevented many people in poor countries from buying enough food,
but over all, the percentage of hungry people in the world shrank.
By the late 1980s, food production seemed under control. Governments and
foundations began to cut back on agricultural research, or to redirect money
into the problems created by intensive farming, like environmental damage. Over
a 20-year period, Western aid for agricultural development in poor countries
fell by almost half, with some of the world’s most important research centers
suffering mass layoffs.
Just as Dr. Borlaug had predicted, the consequences of this loss of focus began
to show up in the world’s food system toward the end of the century. Output
continued to rise, but because fewer innovations were reaching farmers, the
growth rate slowed.
That lull occurred just as food and feed demand was starting to take off, thanks
in part to rising affluence across much of Asia. Millions of people added meat
and dairy products to their diets, requiring considerable grain to produce.
Other factors contributed to demand, including a policy of converting much of
the American corn crop into ethanol.
And erratic weather began eating into yields. A 2003 heat wave in Europe that
some researchers believe was worsened by human-induced global warming slashed
agricultural output in some countries by as much as 30 percent. A long drought
in Australia, also possibly linked to climate change, cut wheat and rice
In 2007 and 2008, with grain stockpiles low, prices doubled and in some cases
tripled. Whole countries began hoarding food, and panic buying ensued in some
markets, notably for rice. Food riots broke out in more than 30 countries.
Farmers responded to the high prices by planting as much as possible, and
healthy harvests in 2008 and 2009 helped rebuild stocks, to a degree. That
factor, plus the global recession, drove prices down in 2009. But by last year,
more weather-related harvest failures sent them soaring again. This year, rice
supplies are adequate, but with bad weather threatening the wheat and corn crops
in some areas, markets remain jittery.
Experts are starting to fear that the era of cheap food may be over. “Our
mindset was surpluses,” said Dan Glickman, a former United States secretary of
agriculture. “That has just changed overnight.”
Forty years ago, a third of the population in the developing world was
undernourished. By the tail end of the Green Revolution, in the mid-1990s, the
share had fallen below 20 percent, and the absolute number of hungry people
dipped below 800 million for the first time in modern history.
But the recent price spikes have helped cause the largest increases in world
hunger in decades. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
estimated the number of hungry people at 925 million last year, and the number
is expected to be higher when a fresh estimate is completed this year. The World
Bank says the figure could be as high as 940 million.
Dr. Borlaug’s latest successor at the corn and wheat institute, Hans-Joachim
Braun, recently outlined the challenges facing the world’s farmers. On top of
the weather disasters, he said, booming cities are chewing up agricultural land
and competing with farmers for water. In some of the world’s breadbaskets,
farmers have achieved high output only by pumping groundwater much faster than
nature can replenish it.
“This is in no way sustainable,” Dr. Braun said.
The farmers of the Yaqui Valley grow their wheat in a near-desert, relying on
irrigation. Their water comes by aqueduct from nearby mountains, but for parts
of the past decade, rainfall was below normal. Scientists do not know if this
has been a consequence of climate change, but Northern Mexico falls squarely
within a global belt that is expected to dry further because of human emissions
of greenhouse gases.
Dr. Braun is leading efforts to tackle problems of this sort with new wheat
varieties that would be able to withstand many kinds of stress, including scant
water. Descendants of the plant that one of his breeders, Dr. Singh, found in a
wheat field one recent day might eventually wind up in farmers’ fields the world
But budgets for this kind of research remain exceedingly tight, frustrating
agronomists who feel that the problems are growing more urgent by the year.
“There are biological limitations on how fast we can do this work,” Dr. Braun
said. “If we don’t get started now, we are going to be in serious trouble.”
For decades, scientists believed that the human dependence on fossil fuels, for
all the problems it was expected to cause, would offer one enormous benefit.
Carbon dioxide, the main gas released by combustion, is also the primary fuel
for the growth of plants. They draw it out of the air and, using the energy from
sunlight, convert the carbon into energy-dense compounds like glucose. All human
and animal life runs on these compounds.
Humans have already raised the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 40
percent since the Industrial Revolution, and are on course to double or triple
it over the coming century. Studies have long suggested that the extra gas would
supercharge the world’s food crops, and might be especially helpful in years
when the weather is difficult.
But many of those studies were done in artificial conditions, like greenhouses
or special growth chambers. For the past decade, scientists at the University of
Illinois have been putting the “CO2 fertilization effect” to a real-world test
in the two most important crops grown in the United States.
They started by planting soybeans in a field, then sprayed extra carbon dioxide
from a giant tank. Based on the earlier research, they hoped the gas might bump
yields as much as 30 percent under optimal growing conditions.
But when they harvested their soybeans, they got a rude surprise: the bump was
only half as large. “When we measured the yields, it was like, wait a minute —
this is not what we expected,” said Elizabeth A. Ainsworth, a Department of
Agriculture researcher who played a leading role in the work.
When they grew the soybeans in the sort of conditions expected to prevail in a
future climate, with high temperatures or low water, the extra carbon dioxide
could not fully offset the yield decline caused by those factors.
They also ran tests using corn, America’s single most valuable crop and the
basis for its meat production and its biofuel industry. While that crop was
already known to be less responsive to carbon dioxide, a yield bump was still
expected — especially during droughts. The Illinois researchers got no bump.
Their work has contributed to a broader body of research suggesting that extra
carbon dioxide does act as plant fertilizer, but that the benefits are less than
previously believed — and probably less than needed to avert food shortages.
“One of the things that we’re starting to believe is that the positives of CO2
are unlikely to outweigh the negatives of the other factors,” said Andrew D. B.
Leakey, another of the Illinois researchers.
Other recent evidence suggests that longstanding assumptions about food
production on a warming planet may have been too optimistic.
Two economists, Wolfram Schlenker of Columbia University and Michael J. Roberts
of North Carolina State University, have pioneered ways to compare crop yields
and natural temperature variability at a fine scale. Their work shows that when
crops are subjected to temperatures above a certain threshold — about 84 degrees
for corn and 86 degrees for soybeans — yields fall sharply.
This line of research suggests that in the type of climate predicted for the
United States by the end of the century, with more scorching days in the growing
season, yields of today’s crop varieties could fall by 30 percent or more.
Though it has not yet happened in the United States, many important agricultural
countries are already warming rapidly in the growing season, with average
increases of several degrees. A few weeks ago, David B. Lobell of Stanford
University published a paper with Dr. Schlenker suggesting that temperature
increases in France, Russia, China and other countries were suppressing crop
yields, adding to the pressures on the food system.
“I think there’s been an under-recognition of just how sensitive crops are to
heat, and how fast heat exposure is increasing,” Dr. Lobell said.
Such research has provoked controversy. The findings go somewhat beyond those of
a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United
Nations body that episodically reviews climate science and advises governments.
That report found that while climate change was likely to pose severe challenges
for agriculture in the tropics, it would probably be beneficial in some of the
chillier regions of the Northern Hemisphere, and that the carbon dioxide effect
should offset many problems.
In an interview at the University of Illinois, one of the leading scientists
behind the work there, Stephen P. Long, sharply criticized the 2007 report,
saying it had failed to sound a sufficient alarm. “I felt it needed to be much
more honest in saying this is our best guess at the moment, but there are
probably huge errors in there,” Dr. Long said. “We’re talking about the future
food supply of the world.”
William E. Easterling, dean of earth sciences at Pennsylvania State University
and a primary author of the 2007 report, said in an interview that the recent
research had slightly altered his perspective. “We have probably to some extent
overestimated” the benefits of carbon dioxide in computerized crop forecasts, he
said. But he added that applying a “correction factor” would probably take care
of the problem, and he doubted that the estimates in the report would change
drastically as a result.
The 2007 report did point out a hole in the existing body of research: most
forecasts had failed to consider several factors that could conceivably produce
nasty surprises, like a projected rise in extreme weather events. No sooner had
the report been published than food prices began rising, partly because of crop
failures caused by just such extremes.
Oxfam, the international relief group, projected recently that food prices would
more than double by 2030 from today’s high levels, with climate change
responsible for perhaps half the increase. As worries like that proliferate,
some scientists are ready to go back to the drawing board regarding agriculture
and climate change.
Dr. Rosenzweig, the NASA climate scientist, played a leading role in forming the
old consensus. But in an interview at her office in Manhattan, she ticked off
recent stresses on the food system and said they had led her to take a fresh
She is pulling together a global consortium of researchers whose goal will be to
produce more detailed and realistic computer forecasts; she won high-level
endorsement for the project at a recent meeting between British and United
States officials. “We absolutely have to get the science lined up to provide
these answers,” Dr. Rosenzweig said.
At the end of a dirt road in northeastern India, nestled between two streams,
lies the remote village of Samhauta. Anand Kumar Singh, a farmer there, recently
related a story that he could scarcely believe himself.
Last June, he planted 10 acres of a new variety of rice. On Aug. 23, the area
was struck by a severe flood that submerged his field for 10 days. In years
past, such a flood would have destroyed his crop. But the new variety sprang
back to life, yielding a robust harvest.
“That was a miracle,” Mr. Singh said.
The miracle was the product not of divine intervention but of technology — an
illustration of how far scientists may be able to go in helping farmers adapt to
the problems that bedevil them.
“It’s the best example in agriculture,” said Julia Bailey-Serres, a researcher
at the University of California, Riverside, who has done genetic work on the
rice variety that Mr. Singh used. “The submergence-tolerant rice essentially
sits and waits out the flood.”
In the heyday of the Green Revolution, the 1960s, leaders like Dr. Borlaug
founded an international network of research centers to focus on the world’s
major crops. The corn and wheat center in Mexico is one. The new rice variety
that is exciting farmers in India is the product of another, the International
Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.
Leading researchers say it is possible to create crop varieties that are more
resistant to drought and flooding and that respond especially well to rising
carbon dioxide. The scientists are less certain that crops can be made to
withstand withering heat, though genetic engineering may eventually do the
The flood-tolerant rice was created from an old strain grown in a small area of
India, but decades of work were required to improve it. Money was so tight that
even after the rice had been proven to survive floods for twice as long as
previous varieties, distribution to farmers was not assured. Then an American
charity, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, stepped in with a $20 million
grant to finance final development and distribution of the rice in India and
other countries. It may get into a million farmers’ hands this year.
The Gateses, widely known for their work in public health, have also become
leading backers of agricultural projects in recent years. “I’m an optimist,” Mr.
Gates said in an interview. “I think we can get crops that will mitigate many of
The Gates Foundation has awarded $1.7 billion for agricultural projects since
2006, but even a charity as large as it is cannot solve humanity’s food problems
on its own. Governments have recognized that far more effort is needed on their
part, but they have been slow to deliver.
In 2008 and 2009, in the midst of the political crises set off by food prices,
the world’s governments outbid one another to offer support. At a conference in
L’Aquila, Italy, they pledged about $22 billion for agricultural development.
It later turned out, however, that no more than half of that was new money not
previously committed to agriculture, and two years later, the extra financing
has not fully materialized. “It’s a disappointment,” Mr. Gates said.
The Obama administration has won high marks from antihunger advocates for
focusing on the issue. President Obama pledged $3.5 billion at L’Aquila, more
than any other country, and the United States has begun an ambitious initiative
called Feed the Future to support agricultural development in 20 of the neediest
So far, the administration has won $1.9 billion from Congress. Amid the budget
struggles in Washington, it remains to be seen whether the United States will
fully honor its pledge.
Perhaps the most hopeful sign nowadays is that poor countries themselves are
starting to invest in agriculture in a serious way, as many did not do in the
years when food was cheap.
In Africa, largely bypassed by the Green Revolution but with enormous potential,
a dozen countries are on the verge of fulfilling a promise to devote 10 percent
of their budgets to farm development, up from 5 percent or less.
“In my country, every penny counts,” Agnes Kalibata, the agriculture minister of
Rwanda, said in an interview. With difficulty, Rwanda has met the 10 percent
pledge, and she cited a terracing project in the country’s highlands that has
raised potato yields by 600 percent for some farmers.
Yet the leading agricultural experts say that poor countries cannot solve the
problems by themselves. The United Nations recently projected that global
population would hit 10 billion by the end of the century, 3 billion more than
today. Coupled with the demand for diets richer in protein, the projections mean
that food production may need to double by later in the century.
Unlike in the past, that demand must somehow be met on a planet where little new
land is available for farming, where water supplies are tightening, where the
temperature is rising, where the weather has become erratic and where the food
system is already showing serious signs of instability.
“We’ve doubled the world’s food production several times before in history, and
now we have to do it one more time,” said Jonathan A. Foley, a researcher at the
University of Minnesota. “The last doubling is the hardest. It is possible, but
it’s not going to be easy.”
A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself,
Genetically Engineered Distortions
May 14, 2010
The New York Times
By PAMELA C. RONALD
and JAMES E. McWILLIAMS
A REPORT by the National Research Council last month gave ammunition to both
sides in the debate over the cultivation of genetically engineered crops. More
than 80 percent of the corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the United States is
genetically engineered, and the report details the “long and impressive list of
benefits” that has come from these crops, including improved soil quality,
reduced erosion and reduced insecticide use.
It also confirmed predictions that widespread cultivation of these crops would
lead to the emergence of weeds resistant to a commonly used herbicide,
glyphosate (marketed by Monsanto as Roundup). Predictably, both sides have done
what they do best when it comes to genetically engineered crops: they’ve argued
over the findings.
Lost in the din is the potential role this technology could play in the poorest
regions of the world — areas that will bear the brunt of climate change and the
difficult growing conditions it will bring. Indeed, buried deep in the council’s
report is an appeal to apply genetic engineering to a greater number of crops,
and for a greater diversity of purposes.
Appreciating this potential means recognizing that genetic engineering can be
used not just to modify major commodity crops in the West, but also to improve a
much wider range of crops that can be grown in difficult conditions throughout
Doing that also requires opponents to realize that by demonizing the technology,
they’ve hindered applications of genetic engineering that could save lives and
protect the environment.
Scientists at nonprofit institutions have been working for more than two decades
to genetically engineer seeds that could benefit farmers struggling with
ever-pervasive dry spells and old and novel pests. Drought-tolerant cassava,
insect-resistant cowpeas, fungus-resistant bananas, virus-resistant sweet
potatoes and high-yielding pearl millet are just a few examples of genetically
engineered foods that could improve the lives of the poor around the globe.
For example, researchers in the public domain have been working to engineer
sorghum crops that are resistant to both drought and an aggressively parasitic
African weed, Striga.
In a 1994 pilot project by the United States Agency for International
Development, an experimental variety of engineered sorghum had a yield four
times that of local varieties under adverse conditions. Sorghum, a native of the
continent, is a staple throughout Africa, and improved sorghum seeds would be
As well as enhancing yields, engineered seeds can make crops more nutritious. A
new variety of rice modified to produce high amounts of provitamin A, named
Golden Rice, will soon be available in the Philippines and, if marketed, would
almost assuredly save the lives of thousands of children suffering from vitamin
There’s also a sorghum breed that’s been genetically engineered to produce
micronutrients like zinc, and a potato designed to contain greater amounts of
To appreciate the value of genetic engineering, one need only examine the story
of papaya. In the early 1990s, Hawaii’s papaya industry was facing disaster
because of the deadly papaya ringspot virus. Its single-handed savior was a
breed engineered to be resistant to the virus. Without it, the state’s papaya
industry would have collapsed. Today, 80 percent of Hawaiian papaya is
genetically engineered, and there is still no conventional or organic method to
control ringspot virus.
The real significance of the papaya recovery is not that genetic engineering was
the most appropriate technology delivered at the right time, but rather that the
resistant papaya was introduced before the backlash against engineered crops
Opponents of genetically engineered crops have spent much of the last decade
stoking consumer distrust of this precise and safe technology, even though, as
the research council’s previous reports noted, engineered crops have harmed
neither human health nor the environment.
In doing so, they have pushed up regulatory costs to the point where the
technology is beyond the economic reach of small companies or foundations that
might otherwise develop a wider range of healthier crops for the neediest
farmers. European restrictions, for instance, make it virtually impossible for
scientists at small laboratories there to carry out field tests of engineered
As it now stands, opposition to genetic engineering has driven the technology
further into the hands of a few seed companies that can afford it, further
encouraging their monopolistic tendencies while leaving it out of reach for
those that want to use it for crops with low (or no) profit margins.
The stakes are too high for us not to make the best use of genetic engineering.
If we fail to invest responsibly in agricultural research, if we continue to
allow propaganda to trump science, then the potential for global agriculture to
be productive, diverse and sustainable will go unfulfilled. And it’s not those
of us here in the developed world who will suffer the direct consequences, but
rather the poorest and most vulnerable.
Pamela C. Ronald, a professor of plant pathology
at the University of
is the co-author of “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming,
Genetics and the Future of Food.”
James E. McWilliams, a history professor
Texas State University at San Marcos,
is the author of “Just Food.”
Distortions, NYT, 14.5.2010,
A Farm on Every Floor
August 24, 2009
The New York Times
By DICKSON D. DESPOMMIER
IF climate change and population growth progress at their current pace, in
roughly 50 years farming as we know it will no longer exist. This means that the
majority of people could soon be without enough food or water. But there is a
solution that is surprisingly within reach: Move most farming into cities, and
grow crops in tall, specially constructed buildings. It’s called vertical
The floods and droughts that have come with climate change are wreaking havoc on
traditional farmland. Three recent floods (in 1993, 2007 and 2008) cost the
United States billions of dollars in lost crops, with even more devastating
losses in topsoil. Changes in rain patterns and temperature could diminish
India’s agricultural output by 30 percent by the end of the century.
What’s more, population increases will soon cause our farmers to run out of
land. The amount of arable land per person decreased from about an acre in 1970
to roughly half an acre in 2000 and is projected to decline to about a third of
an acre by 2050, according to the United Nations. With billions more people on
the way, before we know it the traditional soil-based farming model developed
over the last 12,000 years will no longer be a sustainable option.
Irrigation now claims some 70 percent of the fresh water that we use. After
applying this water to crops, the excess agricultural runoff, contaminated with
silt, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, is unfit for reuse. The developed
world must find new agricultural approaches before the world’s hungriest come
knocking on its door for a glass of clean water and a plate of disease-free rice
Imagine a farm right in the middle of a major city. Food production would take
advantage of hydroponic and aeroponic technologies. Both methods are soil-free.
Hydroponics allows us to grow plants in a water-and-nutrient solution, while
aeroponics grows them in a nutrient-laden mist. These methods use far less water
than conventional cultivation techniques, in some cases as much as 90 percent
Now apply the vertical farm concept to countries that are water-challenged — the
Middle East readily comes to mind — and suddenly things look less hopeless. For
this reason the world’s very first vertical farm may be established there,
although the idea has garnered considerable interest from architects and
governments all over the world.
Vertical farms are now feasible, in large part because of a robust global
greenhouse initiative that has enjoyed considerable commercial success over the
last 10 years. (Disclosure: I’ve started a business to build vertical farms.)
There is a rising consumer demand for locally grown vegetables and fruits, as
well as intense urban-farming activity in cities throughout the United States.
Vertical farms would not only revolutionize and improve urban life but also
revitalize land that was damaged by traditional farming. For every indoor acre
farmed, some 10 to 20 outdoor acres of farmland could be allowed to return to
their original ecological state (mostly hardwood forest). Abandoned farms do
this free of charge, with no human help required.
A vertical farm would behave like a functional ecosystem, in which waste was
recycled and the water used in hydroponics and aeroponics was recaptured by
dehumidification and used over and over again. The technologies needed to create
a vertical farm are currently being used in controlled-environment agriculture
facilities but have not been integrated into a seamless source of food
production in urban high-rise buildings.
Such buildings, by the way, are not the only structures that could house
vertical farms. Farms of various dimensions and crop yields could be built into
a variety of urban settings — from schools, restaurants and hospitals to the
upper floors of apartment complexes. By supplying a continuous quantity of fresh
vegetables and fruits to city dwellers, these farms would help combat health
problems, like Type II diabetes and obesity, that arise in part from the lack of
quality produce in our diet.
The list of benefits is long. Vertical farms would produce crops year-round that
contain no agro-chemicals. Fish and poultry could also be raised indoors. The
farms would greatly reduce fossil-fuel use and greenhouse-gas emissions, since
they would eliminate the need for heavy farm machinery and trucks that deliver
food from farm to fork. (Wouldn’t it be great if everything on your plate came
from around the corner, rather than from hundreds to thousands of miles away?)
Vertical farming could finally put an end to agricultural runoff, a major source
of water pollution. Crops would never again be destroyed by floods or droughts.
New employment opportunities for vertical farm managers and workers would
abound, and abandoned city properties would become productive once again.
Vertical farms would also make cities more pleasant places to live. The
structures themselves would be things of beauty and grace. In order to allow
plants to capture passive sunlight, walls and ceilings would be completely
transparent. So from a distance, it would look as if there were gardens
suspended in space.
City dwellers would also be able to breathe easier — quite literally. Vertical
farms would bring a great concentration of plants into cities. These plants
would absorb carbon dioxide produced by automobile emissions and give off oxygen
in return. So imagine you wanted to build the first vertical farm and put it in
New York City. What would it take? We have the technology — now we need money,
political will and, of course, proof that this concept can work. That’s why a
prototype would be a good place to start. I estimate that constructing a
five-story farm, taking up one-eighth of a square city block, would cost $20
million to $30 million. Part of the financing should come from the city
government, as a vertical farm would go a long way toward achieving Mayor
Michael Bloomberg’s goal of a green New York City by 2030. Manhattan Borough
President Scott Stringer has already expressed interest in having a vertical
farm in the city. City officials should be interested. If a farm is located
where the public can easily visit it, the iconic building could generate
significant tourist dollars, on top of revenue from the sales of its produce.
But most of the financing should come from private sources, including groups
controlling venture-capital funds. The real money would flow once entrepreneurs
and clean-tech investors realize how much profit there is to be made in urban
farming. Imagine a farm in which crop production is not limited by seasons or
adverse weather events. Sales could be made in advance because crop-production
levels could be guaranteed, thanks to the predictable nature of indoor
agriculture. An actual indoor farm developed at Cornell University growing
hydroponic lettuce was able to produce as many as 68 heads per square foot per
year. At a retail price in New York of up to $2.50 a head for hydroponic
lettuce, you can easily do the math and project profitability for other similar
When people ask me why the world still does not have a single vertical farm, I
just raise my eyebrows and shrug my shoulders. Perhaps people just need to see
proof that farms can grow several stories high. As soon as the first city takes
that leap of faith, the world’s first vertical farm could be less than a year
away from coming to the aid of a hungry, thirsty world. Not a moment too soon.
Dickson D. Despommier,
a professor of public health at Columbia University,
is writing a book about vertical farms.
A Farm on Every Floor,
Corn, Soybean, Wheat Prices Climb
October 26, 2007
Filed at 11:11 a.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
CHICAGO (AP) -- Agriculture futures strengthened Friday on the Chicago Board
of Trade, with corn leading the move higher.
Wheat for December delivery rose 3 cents to $8.05 a bushel; December corn rose
6.75 cents to $3.73 a bushel; December oats gained 4 cents to $2.82 a bushel;
January soybeans added 9.75 cents to $10.2225 a bushel.
Beef futures were mixed while pork futures rose on the Chicago Mercantile
December live cattle rose 0.1 cent to 96.35 cents a pound; November feeder
cattle fell 0.47 cent to $1.093 a pound; December lean hogs rose 0.3 cent to
54.9 cents a pound; February pork bellies gained 0.98 cent to 81.5 cents a
Corn, Soybean, Wheat
as Threat to Ethanol Boom
The New York Times
By CLIFFORD KRAUSS
Iowa, Sept. 24 — The ethanol boom of recent years — which spurred a frenzy of
distillery construction, record corn prices, rising food prices and hopes of a
new future for rural America — may be fading.
Only last year, farmers here spoke of a biofuel gold rush, and they rejoiced as
prices for ethanol and the corn used to produce it set records.
But companies and farm cooperatives have built so many distilleries so quickly
that the ethanol market is suddenly plagued by a glut, in part because the means
to distribute it has not kept pace. The average national ethanol price on the
spot market has plunged 30 percent since May, with the decline escalating
sharply in the last few weeks.
“The end of the ethanol boom is possibly in sight and may already be here,” said
Neil E. Harl, an economics professor emeritus at Iowa State University who
lectures on ethanol and is a consultant for producers. “This is a dangerous time
for people who are making investments.”
While generous government support is expected to keep the output of ethanol fuel
growing, the poorly planned overexpansion of the industry raises questions about
its ability to fulfill the hopes of President Bush and other policy makers to
serve as a serious antidote to the nation’s heavy reliance on foreign oil.
And if the bust becomes worse, candidates for president could be put on the spot
to pledge even more federal support for the industry, particularly here in Iowa,
whose caucus in January is the first contest in the presidential nominating
Many industry experts say the worst problems are temporary and have been
intensified by transportation bottlenecks in getting ethanol from the heartland
to the coasts, where it is needed most. And even if some farmers who invested in
the plants lose money, most of them are reaping a separate bounty from higher
prices for corn and other commodities, which are expected to remain elevated for
Even so, companies are already shelving plans for expansion and canceling new
plant construction. If prices fall more, as many analysts predict, there is
likely to be a sweeping consolidation of the industry, and some smaller
companies could go out of business.
The falling price of ethanol comes in sharp contrast to the rise in crude oil
prices. Lower ethanol prices help reduce gasoline prices at the pump, where
ethanol is available, but because it constitutes 10 percent or less in most
blends, the impact for the consumer is marginal.
Congress essentially legislated the industry’s expansion by requiring steadily
higher quantities of ethanol as a gasoline blend, a kick-start that was further
spurred by the proliferation of bans on a competing fuel additive used to help
curb air pollution.
But the ethanol industry, which is also heavily subsidized by federal tax
incentives, got far ahead of the requirements of the law, rapidly building
scores of plants and snapping up a rising share of the corn harvest. Many of
those plants have gone into operation in recent months, and many more are
scheduled for completion by the end of next year.
The resulting ethanol oversupply is buffeting the market. Here in northern Iowa,
deep in the corn belt, newly cautious farmers and ethanol executives are
figuring out how to cut costs and weighing their options should the situation
“We don’t know what, ultimately, the marketplace will price ethanol at,” said
Rick Brehm, president and chief executive of Lincolnway Energy, a midsize
distillery here. “It could go lower.”
Since construction crews broke ground on the Lincolnway plant in 2005, the price
of ethanol on the local market has fallen to $1.55 a gallon from about $2, Mr.
Brehm said. Over the same period, the price of corn, representing 70 percent of
production costs, has risen to $3.27 a bushel from $1.60. “We’re trapped between
two commodities,” he said.
Lincolnway was once virtually alone in the region, but now a handful of new
competing distilleries are operating and pouring even more ethanol onto the
market, offering blenders more options to negotiate lower prices and driving up
demand for corn.
“Obviously, I’m concerned about where we’re going,” said Bill Couser, chairman
of Lincolnway Energy, though he added that his company is still making money and
he is optimistic about the future.
The ethanol boom was set off when Congress enacted an energy law in 2005 that
included a national mandate for the use of renewable fuel in gasoline, obliging
the market to consume 7.5 billion gallons a year by 2012, compared with 3.5
billion gallons in 2004.
Already, ethanol producers are poised to outpace that mandate, with capacity
expected to reach 7.8 million gallons by the end of 2007 and 11.5 billion
gallons by 2009, although some in the industry are now predicting that the
expansion could slow.
The number of ethanol plants in the country has increased to 129 today from 81
in January 2005, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, while plants
under construction or expanding have mushroomed to about 80 from 16 during the
“As ethanol supply increases over the next 12 months, the challenge will be to
find a home for it,” said Mark Flannery, head of energy equity research at
Credit Suisse. “The ethanol surplus is here already.”
Because ethanol is corrosive and soaks up water and impurities, it cannot be
shipped through the country’s fuel pipeline network. So it must be transported
by train, truck and barge, a more expensive transportation network that is
suddenly finding it hard to keep up with the surge in ethanol production.
There is a long backlog in orders for specialized ethanol rail cars to ship the
surplus production. Many rail terminals at the ethanol plants do not have spurs
large enough to accommodate the long trains that ethanol promoters like to call
“virtual pipelines.” And pumps from the storage tanks to the rail cars at the
terminals often do not have sufficient capacity to load trains quickly and
Phillip C. Baumel, economics professor emeritus at Iowa State University, said
that in many cases ethanol producers ramped up their production so rapidly that
they gave “inadequate attention to meeting transportation and distribution
Gasoline wholesale marketers have been slow to gear up ethanol blending
terminals, in part because they had to invest simultaneously in equipment to
manage low sulfur diesel and tougher product specifications.
Prices of ethanol range widely around the country, even differing from one
county to the next in the same state on a daily basis. [The average rack, or
wholesale, price reported by the DTN Ethanol Center on Tuesday was $2.42 a
gallon in New York and $1.77 in Iowa.] Generally, prices are highest in states
farthest away from the Midwest farm belt and in ones that have federal or state
clean-air requirements that encourage the use of ethanol.
In a new study, the Agriculture Department warned of “several supply chain
issues that could inhibit growth in the ethanol industry,” including a backlog
in rail tank car orders that grew to 36,166 rail cars by the end of the first
quarter in 2007 from about 10,000 in the third quarter of 2005.
“You just can’t scale it up overnight,” said Chuck Baker, vice president and
executive director of the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance
Stiff blending regulations in some southern states like Florida have also been
an impediment to ethanol. And so far, only about 1,000 of the 179,000 pumps at
gasoline stations around the country offer E-85, a fuel that is 85 percent
ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, intended for the five million flex-fuel
vehicles on the road that can run on high ethanol blends.
Major ethanol producers and lobbyists describe the developing gulf between
production output and transport capacity as a temporary growing pain that will
be alleviated over time.
“We have an industry that has doubled in size in just the past couple of years,”
said Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association. “It is going to
take a little time for the infrastructure to catch up.”
Some analysts outside the industry think the current market upheaval may be more
than simply a hiccup.
Aaron Brady, a director at the consulting firm Cambridge Energy Research
Associates, said the current market problems could worsen if combined with other
“unintended consequences that may be lurking” from increased ethanol production.
He said pressure on corn and other food prices, water shortages, soil and
fertilizer runoff could hurt political support for the industry.
“If Congress doesn’t substantially raise the renewable fuel standard,” Mr. Brady
said, “then this is not just a short term problem but a long term issue, and
there will be more of a shakeout in the industry.”
The Senate has approved a bill that would require gasoline producers to blend 36
billion gallons of ethanol into gasoline by 2022, an increase from the current
standard of 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. The House did not include such a
provision in the version it passed, and it is uncertain whether any final
legislation will emerge this year and what it will say about ethanol if it does.
Ethanol proponents say a new energy law is virtually inevitable at some point,
and that even if it does not pass this year, lower ethanol prices will provide
an incentive for refiners to blend more ethanol into expensive gasoline. A
higher renewable fuels standard would force refiners and blenders to work faster
to process increased amounts.
A strong energy law would also increase investment and research into ethanol
production from nonfood sources, like switch grass, and persuade auto companies
to make more cars that run on blends well beyond the standard low percentage
ethanol mixture, ethanol proponents argue.
“This is an industry that is going to continue to grow,” said Bruce Rastetter,
chief executive of Hawkeye Renewables, a private company based in nearby Ames
that has two distilleries and two more under construction. “Once you see an
energy bill, I think you will see the industry respond again.” (Still, he has
dropped plans to build a fifth plant and take Hawkeye public.)
Sudden Surplus Arises as Threat to Ethanol Boom,
Agriculture Futures Trade Higher
September 26, 2007
Filed at 11:01 a.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
CHICAGO (AP) -- Wheat, corn and soybean prices rose Wednesday on the Chicago
Board of Trade.
Wheat for December delivery rose 10.75 cents to $8.98 a bushel; December corn
rose 2.75 cents to $3.745 a bushel; December oats dipped 1 cent to $2.805 a
bushel; November soybeans jumped 16 cents to $9.89 a bushel.
Beef futures rose and pork futures were mixed on the Chicago Mercantile
October live cattle rose 0.18 cent to 97.75 cents a pound; October feeder cattle
rose 0.23 cent to $1.163 a pound; October lean hogs fell 0.25 cent to 60.75
cents a pound; February pork bellies rose 0.58 cent to 89.3 cents a pound.
http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/business/AP-Board-of-Trade.html - broken
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