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Vocapedia > Earth > Gardening, Farming > Seed, crop, harvest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

annual monoculture

planting a new crop of a single plant each year        USA

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/23/
opinion/bittman-now-this-is-natural-food.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

perennial polyculture,

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        USA

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/23/
opinion/bittman-now-this-is-natural-food.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tilling the soil releases

vast amounts of carbon dioxide

into the atmosphere.        USA

 

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/04/13/
711144729/can-this-breakfast-cereal-help-save-the-planet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

crop        USA

 

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/04/13/
711144729/can-this-breakfast-cereal-help-save-the-planet

 

 

 

 

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/02/12/
584936969/what-canola-can-tell-us-about-crops-and-climate-change

 

 

 

 

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/12/01/
567791446/the-soybean-is-king-yet-remains-invisible

 

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/09/06/
548985185/texas-farmers-suffer-extensive-crop-losses-in-wake-of-harvey

 

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/08/22/
545022259/does-sustainability-help-the-environment-or-just-agricultures-public-image

 

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/08/02/
540650904/carbon-dioxide-may-rob-crops-of-nutrition-leaving-millions-at-risk

 

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/07/01/
535119546/unseasonable-winter-weather-takes-a-bite-out-of-georgias-peach-crop

 

 

 

 

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2015/04/23/
401531585/fruit-growers-try-tricking-mother-nature-to-prevent-crop-damage

 

 

 

 

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/09/01/
344354403/these-5-crops-are-still-hand-harvested-and-its-hard-work

 

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/05/08/
310473928/less-nutritious-grains-may-be-in-our-future

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

conventional crop

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

farm crops        USA

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/31/
opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-our-water-guzzling-food-factory.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

grow crops        UK

 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jul/10/
droughts-hot-dry-summers-england

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

crop damage        USA

 

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/23/
401531585/fruit-growers-try-tricking-mother-nature-to-prevent-crop-damage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

crop yields        USA

 

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/02/12/
584936969/what-canola-can-tell-us-about-crops-and-climate-change

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

sharecropper        USA

 

https://www.npr.org/2020/07/27/
895651353/john-lewis-sharecroppers-son-is-given-a-heroes-sendoff-in-alabama

 

https://www.npr.org/2019/09/29/
765563659/marking-the-centennial-of-arkansas-elaine-massacre

 

https://www.npr.org/2018/08/03/
634541159/him-doing-well-was-through-his-children-a-sharecropper-s-son-makes-his-dad-proud

 

https://www.npr.org/2015/05/15/
406988156/b-b-king-on-life-plantation-living-and-his-droopy-drawers-sound

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

sharecropping        USA

 

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/
story.php?storyId=1080820 - August 17, 2000

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

plantation        USA

 

https://www.npr.org/2015/05/15/
406988156/b-b-king-on-life-plantation-living-and-his-droopy-drawers-sound

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

orchard        USA

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/05/08/310473928/
less-nutritious-grains-may-be-in-our-futurercharf

 

 

 

 

field / agricultural field        USA

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/13/us/
california-announces-restrictions-on-water-use-by-farmers.html

 

 

 

 

rape

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rapeseed

 

 

 

 

oilseed rape field

 

 

 

 

maize

 

 

 

 

sugar beet

 

 

 

 

seed        USA

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/04/13/
711144729/can-this-breakfast-cereal-help-save-the-planet

 

 

 

 

seed bank        USA

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/02/02/
170846948/how-to-save-a-public-library-make-it-a-seed-bank

 

 

 

 

germinate        USA

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/04/13/
711144729/can-this-breakfast-cereal-help-save-the-planet

 

 

 

 

reseeding / replanting        USA

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/04/13/
711144729/can-this-breakfast-cereal-help-save-the-planet

 

 

 

 

perennial plants > Kernza        USA

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/04/13/
711144729/can-this-breakfast-cereal-help-save-the-planet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nitrogen        USA

 

- the essential ingredient

for growing corn and most other crops

 

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/08/22/
545022259/does-sustainability-help-the-environment-or-just-agricultures-public-image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

fruit grower        USA

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2015/04/23/
401531585/fruit-growers-try-tricking-mother-nature-to-prevent-crop-damage

 

 

 

 

sprinkler        UK

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jan/13/
global-food-crisis-heatwaves-crops

 

 

 

 

 crops > corn, soybeans and wheat        USA

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/03/
opinion/we-need-gmo-wheat.html

 

 

 

 

wheat        UK

https://www.economist.com/special-report/2005/12/20/
ears-of-plenty

 

 

 

 

wheat yields        UK

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/oct/10/
un-rising-food-costs-weather

 

 

 

 

wheat        USA

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/04/13/
711144729/can-this-breakfast-cereal-help-save-the-planet

 

 

 

 

G.M.O. wheat        USA

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/03/
opinion/we-need-gmo-wheat.html

 

 

 

 

pumpkin        USA

http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/10/10/
556896155/green-squash-deemed-worlds-biggest-brings-triple-win-to-r-i-grower

 

 

 

 

pumpkin > squash        USA

http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/10/10/
556896155/green-squash-deemed-worlds-biggest-brings-triple-win-to-r-i-grower

 

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/06/23/
483147072/how-native-american-tribes-saved-a-giant-ancient-squash-from-oblivion

 

 

 

 

seed        USA

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/06/23/
483147072/how-native-american-tribes-saved-a-giant-ancient-squash-from-oblivion

 

 

 

 

British beer-makers > hops        UK

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/oct/08/
british-beer-makers-fight-foreign-hops

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

potato blight

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Famine_(Ireland)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

scab

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ethanol's "sweet spot was 18 months ago," said Rick Brehm,

president and chief executive of Lincolnway Energy,

which is based in Nevada, Iowa

 

Photo:

Lynn L. Walters for The New York Times

http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2007/09/28/business/20071001_ETHANOL_SLIDESHOW_5.html

 

Sudden Surplus Arises as Threat to Ethanol Boom

NYT        30 September 2007

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/30/business/30ethanol.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Photo:

Lynn L. Walters for The New York Times

http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2007/09/28/business/20071001_ETHANOL_SLIDESHOW_7.html

 

Sudden Surplus Arises as Threat to Ethanol Boom

NYT        30.9.2007

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/30/business/30ethanol.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

maize / corn

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maize 

 

 

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/12/01/
567791446/the-soybean-is-king-yet-remains-invisible

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/02/10/
513963490/1-000-years-ago-corn-made-this-society-big-
then-a-changing-climate-destroyed-the

 

 

 

 

ethanol        UK / USA

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/04/opinion/l04ethanol.html

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/30/business/30ethanol.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/jan/26/energy.usnews

 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2006/nov/29/society.travel 

 

 

 

 

ethanol distillery        USA

 

 

 

 

ethanol > biofuel        USA

http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2007/09/28/
business/20071001_ETHANOL_SLIDESHOW_index.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

soybean        USA

 

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/12/01/
567791446/the-soybean-is-king-yet-remains-invisible

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

field / agricultural field        USA

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/13/us/
california-announces-restrictions-on-water-use-by-farmers.html

 

 

 

 

rape

 

 

 

 

oilseed rape field

 

 

 

 

maize

 

 

 

 

sugar beet

 

 

 

 

sugar        USA

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/12/17/
505861855/the-final-days-of-hawaiian-sugar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

potato blight

 

 

 

 

scab

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

harvest        USA

 

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/15/
opinion/covid-farmworkers-paid-leave.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

harvest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

be hand-harvested        USA

 

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/09/01/
344354403/these-5-crops-are-still-hand-harvested-and-its-hard-work

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Coming Food Crisis

 

July 21, 2013

The New York Times

By GARY PAUL NABHAN

 

TUCSON, 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 temperate-zone crops.

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 as well.

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 practices.

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.

 

Gary Paul Nabhan is a research scientist

at the Southwest Center at the University of Arizona

and the author of

Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land:

Lessons From Desert Farmers in Adapting

to Climate Uncertainty.”

Our Coming Food Crisis,
NYT,
21.7.2013,
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/22/
opinion/our-coming-food-crisis.html

 

 

 

 

 

A Warming Planet

Struggles to Feed Itself

 

June 4, 2011

The New York Times

By JUSTIN GILLIS

 

CIUDAD 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 leading scientists.

“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 continue forever.”

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 warms.

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 countries.

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?”

 

‘The World Is Talking’

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 responsible.

“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 production.

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 over.

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.”

 

Shaken Assumptions

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 look.

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.

 

Promises Unkept

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 trick.

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 our problems.”

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 countries.

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,
R,
4.6.2011,
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/science/earth/05harvest.html

 

 

 

 

 

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 the world.

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 widely beneficial.

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 A deficiency.

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 protein.

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 intensified.

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 seeds.

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 California, Davis,

is the co-author of “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming,

Genetics and the Future of Food.”

James E. McWilliams, a history professor

at Texas State University at San Marcos,

is the author of “Just Food.”

    Genetically Engineered Distortions, NYT, 14.5.2010,
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/15/opinion/15ronald.html

 

 

 

 

 

Op-Ed Contributor

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 farming.

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 and beans.

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 less.

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 crops.

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,
NYT,
24.8.2009,
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/24/opinion/24Despommier.html

 

 

 

 

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 Exchange.

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 pound.

Corn, Soybean, Wheat Prices Climb,
NYT,
26.10.2007,
http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/business/AP-Board-of-Trade.html

 

 

 

 

 

Sudden Surplus Arises

as Threat to Ethanol Boom

 

September 30, 2007

The New York Times

By CLIFFORD KRAUSS

 

NEVADA, 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 process.

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 some time.

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 get worse.

“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 same period.

“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 efficiently.

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 needs.”

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 Association.

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,
NYT,
30.9.2007,
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/30/business/30ethanol.html

 

 

 

 

 

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 Exchange.

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.

Agriculture Futures Trade Higher,
NYT,
26.9.2007,
http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/business/AP-Board-of-Trade.html - broken milk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Related > Anglonautes > Vocapedia

 

agriculture / farming, gardening

 

 

climate change, global warming

 

 

economy > commodities

 

 

economy > the poor > food > hunger

 

 

 

 

 

Related

 

The Salt - What's on Your Plate        NPR        USA

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/

 

 

 

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