Category Archives: climate change

8 Informative and Interesting Recent USDA Charts

For this post, I’ve gathered together some recent and especially noteworthy USDA charts with their accompanying descriptions. The subjects vary widely, so there should be something of interest for everyone.

1. Conservation Program Funding in the New Farm Bill

While the new CRP acreage cap cuts maximum enrollment by 25 percent, the impact on program enrollment and related environmental benefits may be relatively modest. CRP acreage has been declining since 2007, falling from 36.8 million acres to 25.6 million—30 percent—by December 2013. Environmental benefits, however, may not be diminishing as quickly as the drop in enrolled acreage might suggest. CRP has shifted rapidly from enrolling whole fields or farms (through general signup) to funding high-priority, partial-field practices, including riparian buffers, field-edge filter strips, grassed waterways, and wetland restoration (through continuous signup). On a per-acre basis, these practices are believed to provide greater environmental benefits than whole-field enrollments while taking less land out of crop production. Because partial-field practices are more expensive, however, CRP annual payments have fallen by only 10 percent since 2007. At the end of 2013, the average annual payment for partial-field practices was $103 per acre, versus only $50 per acre for whole fields.

2. Global Demand and Rising Costs to Affect Prices of Corn, Wheat and Soybeans

Although market responses to high crop prices in recent years, both in the United States and in other countries, are projected to lower U.S. crop prices over the next couple of years, in the longer term prices for corn, wheat, and soybeans are projected to remain high relative to historical prices. The continuing influence of several long-term factors—including global growth in population and per capita income, a low-valued U.S. dollar, increasing costs for crude petroleum, and rising biofuel production—underlies these price projections. Corn prices are projected to decline through 2015/16, but then begin increasing in 2016/17 as ending stocks tighten due to growth in feed use, exports, and demand for corn by ethanol producers. Soybean prices are expected to initially fall from recent highs but then rise moderately after 2015/16, reflecting strengthening demand for soybeans and soybean products. Wheat prices are projected to fall through 2016/17, in response to rising wheat stocks and falling corn prices, but strengthen in the longer term due to export growth, moderate gains in food use, and declining stocks.

3. Agriculture’s role in climate change: greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration

The greenhouse gas (GHG) profile of the agricultural and forestry sector differs substantially from the profile of other sectors. Agriculture is an emission-intensive sector; it accounted for less than 1 percent of U.S. production (in real gross value-added terms), but emitted 10.4 percent of U.S. GHGs in 2012. Energy-related CO2 emission sources—which dominate GHG emissions in most other production sectors—are dwarfed in agriculture by unique crop and livestock emissions of nitrous oxide and methane. Crop and pasture soil management are the activities that generate the most emissions, due largely to the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers and other nutrients. The next largest sources are enteric fermentation (digestion in ruminant livestock) and manure management. Agriculture and forestry are unique in providing opportunities for withdrawing carbon from the atmosphere through biological sequestration in soil and biomass carbon sinks. The carbon sinks, which are largely due to land use change from agricultural to forest land (afforestation) and forest management on continuing forest, offset 13.5 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions in 2012. ERS is currently involved in research on the economic incentives farm operators have, or could be provided with, to take steps to both mitigate GHG emissions and adapt to climate change.

4. U.S. Wheat Export Market Share Projected to Continue to Fall

Although global and U.S. wheat exports are projected to rise over the next decade, the U.S. share of the world market is projected to continue to decline because of competition from other exporters. Global demand for wheat is expected to expand, driven primarily by income and population growth in developing country markets, including Sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt, Pakistan, Algeria, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Brazil. The number of major exporting countries has, however, expanded in recent years from the traditional wheat exporters–the United States, Argentina, Australia, Canada, and the European Union–to include Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan. Although variable, the wheat export volume of those three Black Sea exporters together now rivals that of the United States. Low production costs and new investment in the agricultural sectors of the Black Sea region have enabled their world market share to climb, despite the region’s highly variable weather. Competition from the Black Sea region, as well as from traditional exporters, has resulted in a decline in the U.S. share of expanding world exports from an average of about 39 percent in the first half of the 1980s to an average of about 20 percent over the last 5 years.

5. Food loss in U.S. grocery stores, restaurants, and homes valued at $162 billion in 2010

In the United States, 31 percent—or 133 billion pounds—of the 430 billion pounds of the available food supply at the retail and consumer levels in 2010 went uneaten. The estimated value of this food loss was $161.6 billion, using 2010 retail prices. Food loss by retailers, foodservice establishments, and consumers occurs for a variety of reasons—a refrigerator malfunctions and food spoils, a store or restaurant overstocks holiday foods that do not get purchased, or consumers cook more than they need and choose to throw the extra food away. Food loss also includes cooking loss and natural shrinkage, such as when leafy greens wilt. In 2010, the top three food groups in terms of share of total value of food loss were meat, poultry, and fish ($48 billion); vegetables ($30 billion); and dairy products ($27 billion). Meat, poultry, and fish’s 30-percent share in value terms is higher than its 12-percent share when measured on a weight basis due to these foods’ higher per pound cost relative to many other foods.

6. Dynamic growth projected for world poultry trade

Poultry meat imports by major importers are projected to increase by 2.5 million tons (34 percent) between 2013 and 2023, led by rising import demand in North Africa and the Middle East (NAME), Mexico, and Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Similar factors are expected to drive import growth in each region. Rising incomes and the low cost of poultry meat relative to other meats are projected to favor growth in poultry meat consumption among the low- and middle-income consumers in each region. At the same time, limited local supplies of feed grains and feed protein in all three regions are expected to continue to limit the expansion of indigenous poultry meat production. The NAME region currently accounts for 47 percent of imports by the major poultry importers, and is projected to account for nearly 80 percent of the increase in their poultry meat imports between 2014 and 2023. In contrast, little import growth is projected for Russia, where policies continue to deter imports in favor of domestic producers, and for China, where domestic production is projected to keep pace with demand.

7. World population growth is projected to continue slowing over the next decade, rising about 1.0 percent per year for the projection period compared to an annual rate of 1.2 percent in 2001-10.

• Developed countries have very low projected rates of population growth, at 0.4 percent over 2013-23. The projected annual average population growth rate for the United States of about 0.8 percent is the highest among developed countries, in part reflecting immigration.

• Population growth rates in developing economies are projected to be sharply lower than rates in 1990-2010, but remain above those in the rest of the world. As a result, the share of global population accounted for by developing countries increases to 82 percent by 2023, compared to 79 percent in 2000.

• China and India together accounted for 36 percent of the world’s population in 2013. China’s population growth rate slows from 1.0 percent per year in 1991-2000 to less than 0.4 percent in 2013-23, with its share of global population falling. The population growth rate in India is projected to decline from 1.8 percent to 1.2 percent per year over the same period, increasing its share of world population.

• Brazil’s population growth rate falls from 1.6 percent per year in 1991-2000 to 1.0 percent annually in 2013-23. The population growth rate in Indonesia is projected to decline from 1.7 percent to 0.9 percent per year over the same period. Although Sub-Saharan Africa’s population growth rate declines from 2.6 percent to 2.4 percent per year between the same periods, this region continues to have the highest population growth rate of any region in the world and its population decline is modest relative to other regions of the world.

• Countries with declining populations include Greece, Germany, most central European countries, Russia, Ukraine, and Japan.

8. Global trade: Wheat, coarse grains, and soybeans and soybean products

Global trade in soybeans and soybean products has risen rapidly since the early 1990s, and has surpassed global trade in wheat and total coarse grains (corn, barley, sorghum, rye, oats, millet, and mixed grains). Continued strong growth in global demand for vegetable oil and protein meal, particularly in China and other Asian countries, is expected to maintain soybean and soybean- products trade well above either wheat or coarse grain trade throughout the next decade.

• Globally, the total area planted to grains, oilseeds, and cotton is projected to expand an average of 0.5 percent per year. Area expands more rapidly in countries with a reserve of available land and policies that allow farmers to respond to prices. Such countries include Russia, Ukraine, Brazil, Argentina, some other countries in South America, and some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. On the other hand, in many countries area expansion is less than half that rate, and cropped area even contracts in some countries. Over half of the projected growth in global production of grains, oilseeds, and cotton is derived from rising yields, even though growth in crop yields is projected to continue slowing.

• The market impact of slower yield growth is partially offset by slower growth in world population. Nonetheless, population growth is a significant factor driving overall growth in demand for agricultural products. Additionally, rising per capita income in most countries supplements population gains in the demand for vegetable oils, meats, horticulture, dairy products, and grains. World per capita use of vegetable oils is projected to rise 6.5 percent over the next 10 years, compared with 15 percent for meats and 7 percent for total coarse grains. In contrast, per capita wheat use does not rise, and per capita rice consumption drops 1 percent.

• Increasing demand for grains, oilseeds, and other crops provide incentives to expand the global area under cultivation and the intensity of cropping the land. The largest projected increases in the area planted to field crops are in the former Soviet Union (FSU) and Sub- Saharan Africa. Large expansions are also projected for Brazil, Indonesia, and Argentina, including some uncultivated land brought into soybean and palm oil production in response to increased world demand for vegetable oils.

Allan Savory: “Agriculture is More Destructive than Coal Mining”

Note that this post is part of a series of posts that I am making after attending the first ever Savory Institute International Conference held last week in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado.

Allan Savory inside the Boulder Theater. June 2013.

The first talk to kick off the Savory Institute International Conference held in Boulder, Colorado last week was by the institute’s founder, Allan Savory.

Savory began his talk by explaining that he’s been addressing the subject of desertification for fifty years.

He rattled off soil erosion numbers. . . “our planet is losing 80-100 billion tons of soil per year,” calling that “the most frightening statistic in the world.”

He named some of the factors related to this soil loss, which included the burning of grasslands around the world, the loss of forests, the loss of biodiversity, and the silting of continental shelves.

Then, he explained to us that because healthy soils are an important natural reservoir of water, today we have a big problem of decreased effectiveness of rainfall due to degraded and eroded soil. This is caused by agricultural practices, not by climate change. Because healthy soils sequester Carbon, large soil losses and resting soils have led to a reduced capacity to mitigate climate change. So, agriculture is more destructive than coal mining or anything else going on in the world today. [1]

He questioned why people aren’t more aware of these facts, and then, proceeded to answer how we got ourselves into this situation.

He explained that the change began in the grasslands of the world when early humans developed plants and animals for food which altered or eliminated the grasslands. And, he explained that humans shelve their problems for future generations.

He went on by listing three problems that are causing an acceleration of these wrong agricultural practices: population growth; exploding technological advances; and a modern educational system which divides knowledge into parts so that we no longer see the whole.

Savory was on a roll here already, when next, he said he doesn’t understand why something that makes no sense, like turning 40% of the U.S. corn crop into ethanol is a policy, and there are so few people who protest it.

He questioned a system where not one dollar is spent saving soil but we spend billions looking for new oil reserves. “The world is leaderless,” he said.

He warned that, “Worse wars will be fought over water than oil.”

So, those are the problems, what is the Savory Institute doing to make solutions?

The Savory Institute is combining science, social, and environmental principles to reverse desertification at Savory Hubs which are popping up around the world. The goal is to remove the barriers to the human creativity and knowledge that we have, and then, teach and share this knowledge.

“The barriers to sensibility are 100 percent human caused,” he said. Working in Zimbabwe, Savory finds, is a good fit since “if any change occurs, it’ll happen in a small nation, not a large nation” further stating that such work would be impossible in the U.S.

Working with Zimbabwe leaders, he has seen the anger which arises from confusion of mixed messages from multiple sources that suggest different agricultural solutions. Who are these small nations to believe?

He likes the openness of agricultural policy in Zimbabwe, and then describes what it is like to pass agricultural legislation in the London Parliament, which he visited. There are so many complex pages to read, that the voters in Parliament give up trying to understand it, and just turn it back to those who wrote it to let them decide.

More quotes . . .

“We do not have a larger problem than our rising population and our deteriorating environment.”

Since the world is so very complex, “we need a holistic context.

“The role of the government in agriculture is to get out of the way for human creativity, and to remove the policy barriers.”

Bringing up another important world problem, he said that we have got to find benign sources of energy and develop them.

And yet another, “Because of desertification and other problems, many people are already migrating.”

“Nobody is talking about agriculture. Because of our agriculture, climate change will continue.”

“Although agriculture is the problem, it can also be the solution.”

He said that the world is crying out for leadership that will shift public opinion and that will come from ordinary people in communities. He added that most people are inherently good.

Then, he closed his talk with this question, “What can ordinary people do?”

Savory’s answer was a challenge to the audience with a call to action, “If you care about your children, put it on a war footing. Look in the mirror and ask yourself what did you do when you were in the prime of your life to help solve these problems?”

[1] This is to say that healthy soils would be capable of mitigating the CO2 that has been released from the burning of fossil fuels. This will be covered more fully in an upcoming post.



(Click to enlarge)

Photo Credit: Allan Savory by Kay McDonald.

Desertification Map Credit: Soil map and soil climate map, USDA-NRCS, Soil Survey Division, World Soil Resources, Washington D.C.

Previous related post here: The Savory Institute Conference.

The Savory Institute Conference

Last Thursday and Friday I was privileged to attend the first ever annual Savory Institute International Conference right here in my home town of Boulder, Colorado. The title of the conference was, “Transforming the Landscape: Using Holistic Management to Create Global Impact.”

Over the next week, or so, I’ll be making a series of posts reporting on and inspired by that conference.

If you don’t know who Allan Savory is, check out his TED talk here. This TED talk from earlier this year went viral and has now had over 1.3 million views!

Born in South Africa, Savory has spent his life trying to combat desertification, a problem covering large regions of the globe, through the integration of holistically managed livestock systems. To clarify, overgrazing which destroys roots causes desertification, whereas Savory’s holistic management approach is a system of regenerative grazing.

“It helps to think of soil as a living organism covered with skin like a human. We can live with a certain percentage of our skin damaged, but if too high a percentage is damaged, we die. So, too, does soil and thus most life…” —— Allan Savory

When I arrived at the conference I knew I’d come to a special gathering. The Boulder Theater room was filled with the energy of people who were friendly, enthusiastic, and optimistic. By a show of hands, there was a strong showing of people under age 30 — something that is unusual in Ag these days. There were many cowboy hats and boots, an indication that quite a few people attending were from the real world.

Representatives from Savory “Hubs” were there from all over the world to tell us what was happening in their particular hub — along with some history of why their hub was created. We heard a wide variety of stories about broken lands, broken farming systems, and the resulting broken humans — followed by the process, the hope, and the success of holistic repair and regeneration.

There was a wide array of audience attendees. I met a newly retired Cal Poly professor who’d taught holistic management most of his teaching career, and an Australian rancher and agricultural instructor who brought his son with him. I sat next to a young lady from Chile, who told me that though she grew up in Georgia, she’s now managing the property that her grandfather purchased in Chile in the 1950′s. She is in her first year of using holistic management practices on that land, running 40,000 sheep and 4,000 cattle across the property. I also met a college student from Tennessee who was there to find out more about how land use impacts climate change, and a Massachusetts Mom who was working in the organic and eat local food movement in her community.

There was a great speaker line-up to teach us about soil, carbon sequestration, holistic systems, grasslands and rangeland management, the enormous challenge of gathering data and being scientific in complex systems, the limits to growth, broken monetary systems, hope, and challenges for the future.

Allan Savory’s talk which kicked off the event contained one prized quote after another.

Stay tuned.

(NEXT POST HERE: Allan Savory: Agriculture is More Destructive than Coal Mining)

President Obama’s Climate Action Plan & How it Relates to Agriculture

President Barack Obama. Mexico City, Mexico. May 3, 2013.
(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

I’ve perused the Climate Action Plan document and these excerpts below are the key statements and paragraphs which relate to agriculture. Most of this is already known, but of interest and importance, nonetheless. Note that there was a lot about forestry which I did not include. The headings in bold are the category titles from which the the excerpts were taken. My only comments are that there is great irony between the two statements in the Case for Action . . . sigh . . . and that there is no mention of which types of agricultural practices sequester more carbon.


“And increasing floods, heat waves, and droughts have put farmers out of business, which is already raising food prices dramatically.”

“Our scientists will design new fuels, and our farmers will grow them.”

Developing and Deploying Advanced Transportation Technologies:
Biofuels have an important role to play in increasing our energy security, fostering rural economic development, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. That is why the Administration supports the Renewable Fuels Standard, and is investing in research and development to help bring next-generation biofuels on line. For example, the United States Navy and Departments of Energy and Agriculture are working with the private sector to accelerate the development of cost-competitive advanced biofuels for use by the military and commercial sectors. More broadly, the Administration will continue to leverage partnerships between the private and public sectors to deploy cleaner fuels, including advanced batteries and fuel cell technologies, in every transportation mode.

Reducing Energy Bills for American Families and Businesses:
Reducing Barriers to Investment in Energy Efficiency:
Energy efficiency upgrades bring significant cost savings, but upfront costs act as a barrier to more widespread investment. In response, the Administration is committing to a number of new executive actions. As soon as this fall, the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service will finalize a proposed update to its Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program to provide up to $250 million for rural utilities to finance efficiency investments by businesses and homeowners across rural America. The Department is also streamlining its Rural Energy for America program to provide grants and loan guarantees directly to agricultural producers and rural small businesses for energy efficiency and renewable energy systems.

Maintaining Agricultural Sustainability:
Building on the existing network of federal climatescience research and action centers, the Department of Agriculture is creating seven new Regional Climate Hubs to deliver tailored, science-based knowledge to farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners. These hubs will work with universities and other partners, including the Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to support climate resilience. Its Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation are also providing grants and technical support to agricultural water users for more water-efficient practices in the face of drought and long-term climate change.

Strengthening Global Resilience to Climate Change:
Going forward, we will continue to:
● Strengthen government and local community planning and response capacities, such as by increasing water storage and water use efficiency to cope with the increased variability in water supply.
● Develop innovative financial risk management tools such as index insurance to help smallholder farmers and pastoralists manage risk associated with changing rainfall patterns and drought.
● Distribute drought-resistant seeds and promote management practices that increase farmers’ ability to cope with climate impacts.

A Recipe for Soil Disaster: Flooding + Today’s Farm Policy

“Soil is more important than oil and is as much a nonrenewable resource.”
—Wes Jackson

Back in March, I wrote one of my most popular posts ever, titled “Is Anyone Paying Attention? We’ve Lost 9.7 Million Acres of CRP Land in Five Years.

The article began like this…

The amount of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), at 27.1 million acres, is down by 26 percent, or 9.7 million acres in the past five years, to a 25 year low. During this same time period, corn acreage has increased by 13 million acres. Farmers are once again planting crops on marginal lands “fencerow to fencerow” to cash in on today’s high commodity prices. CRP payments haven’t risen to compete with crop returns, and the program itself is being whittled away by Congress.

There was much of interest in the post, but one important piece of information was this…

The map below shows us that 2.5 Million Acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land was lost in just one year in the contracts held in 2011 versus 2012. Much of the area exiting the program this past year was in the Plains states to grow more corn on marginal land. The two states converting the most CRP land to crops this year are North Dakota and Montana, in part due to inroads of corn and soybean acres into this traditionally wheat growing region.

Well, as it turns out, somebody is paying attention, because last week I received a file of photographs from North Dakotan Rick, who calls himself a concerned Prairie Photographer. He has documented for us the erosion of newly converted “HEL” or highly erodible land to cropland in North Dakota and calls this story an ongoing disaster.

The photos he sent are great examples of poor farming practices spurred on by today’s government policy which encourages all out monoculture crop production from fencerow to fencerow. Combined policies of crop insurance and mandated (still increasing) use of corn and soy for biofuels are causing this destruction to one of our nation’s most precious resources, its topsoil.

Unfortunately, this resource is located in flyover country and civilizations are known to take topsoil for granted until it is gone. Chalk it up to human nature. U.S. cropland is somewhat akin to a factory these days, with the motive of ever-increasing efficiency made possible through mechanization and fossil fuel inputs. High productivity as the driving motivator is shortsighted, however, because when you lose your topsoil you lose your productivity.

Climate scientists predict more weather extremes like droughts and flooding, and these photos were taken following heavy rains in the region. I encourage you to click on the photos to enlarge them to more fully view the extent of the damage.

(Click to enlarge.)

According to the photographer, the above photo shows a field which covers one-half section in central North Dakota that was “broken out” of CRP last fall. This spring it was seeded to beans. He found blue/green treated bean seeds all over. The photo looks into the ditch and field from the Hiway.

(Click to enlarge.)

This photo shows the same field from another side. When you enlarge the photo, notice the gullies in the top of the hill.

(Click to enlarge.)

This field, also in central North Dakota, was taken recently following 3-6 inch rains in the region over a few days. What is missing in these fields (in all of these photos) are grassed waterways and buffer areas which would have mitigated the topsoil erosion.

(Click to enlarge.)

The photographer had this to say about the above photograph: “Please note that the wetland (in left center of photo) received a foot of new topsoil!! Pretty soon it will pond no water and then it can too be farmed!”

Next, let’s look at a map to see the unique geographic importance of this region in North Dakota where these photos were taken.

This is called the Prairie Pothole region which is extremely important habitat for waterfowl, migratory birds, and aquatic invertebrates. By paying farmers an adequate sum to retire these highly erodible lands, we could preserve both the land and the wildlife of the region.

Other Regions Also Saw Flooding
By doing a Google search, I found that the states of Iowa, Illinois, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Vermont each have had recent news items about flooding and heavy rains which washed out seeds and required replanting. Anytime you hear “replant” in the news, and it seems we’ve been hearing it a lot lately, think topsoil erosion, because rain that washes out seeds also washes the topsoil away. Farmers dislike the costs, as new seeds are expensive, and they often have to reapply fertilizer which has also been washed away. In some cases, taxpayer subsidized crop insurance covers replanting expenses.

Today’s policy is not what farmers want. A 2010 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll revealed that two-thirds of Iowa farmers said they should be required to conserve soil on highly erodible cropland regardless of whether they participated in federal farm programs.

Soil is a Global Issue
As the world’s leading farm commodity exporter, the rest of the world should pay attention to our farming practices, too, as they play a role in the future food security of the entire planet. In yesterday’s news, a timely Aljazeera report out of Reykjavik, Iceland, ties in well to this post. Iceland lost nearly all of its topsoil, and, consequently its wealth due to overgrazing and other unsustainable practices decades ago. A “peak soil” meeting held there expressed concern because of the fact that “In the past 40 years, 30 percent of the planet’s arable land has become unproductive due to erosion.”

Reykjavik, Iceland – Soil is becoming endangered, and this reality needs to be part of our collective awareness in order to feed nine billion people by 2050, say experts meeting in Reykjavík. And a big part of reversing soil decline is the use of carbon, the same element that is helping to overheat the planet. “Keeping and putting carbon in its rightful place,” needs to be the mantra for humanity if we want to continue to eat, drink and combat global warming, concluded 200 researchers from more than 30 countries. “There is no life without soil,” said Anne Glover, chief scientific adviser to the European Commission. … Iceland relies far less on agriculture now and the harsh lessons of poor land management of the past are irrelevant to the 90 percent of Icelanders who now live in urban areas. “The public isn’t supporting land restoration,” Halldórsson said. “We’ve forgotten that land is the foundation of life.”

Here in the U.S., we should surely know better. We have no good excuses to overproduce farm commodities and then turn around and create an artificial demand for them — at the cost of our precious topsoil.

If flooding becomes more and more frequent because of climate change, that means that today’s U.S. Ag policy and industrial farming practices will lead to a more rapid loss of topsoil in our farm country, especially in conjunction with government policy plans which continue to decrease Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage. Add a little drought-induced blowing dust into the mix and Hugh Bennett will surely turn over in his grave.

Is anybody paying attention?

UPDATE: I’ve written a “Part 2″ here: More Updates on Soil Erosion in Iowa and the U.S.


Also Recommended
The following 1-minute videos show you the recent washing out of topsoil in other farming areas:
Video #1
Video #2