Category Archives: Europe and UK

3 Picks: China’s Agriculture, Stressed Rivers, EU Farm Policy


Rice fields, China. Photo credit: Flickr CC via Eugene Regis

Below, are today’s three chosen agricultural-related news picks.

1) China’s 40 Year Evolution of agriculture: “In many ways, the evolution of Chinese agriculture over the past 40 years is a remarkable success story. Spurred by investments in research and government subsidies for fertilizers and other farm technologies, China now feeds 22% of the world’s population on just 9% of its total arable land. But as a special collection of papers in the July-August issue of the Journal of Environmental Quality (JEQ) points out, these achievements have come at a cost. Massive losses of nutrients from croplands and manure from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have polluted the country’s streams, rivers, soil, and air. In pursuit of food security, China has also dipped deeply into global resource supplies, using in recent years more synthetic nitrogen fertilizer than all of North America and Europe combined.”

2) 21 Vulnerable Rivers in the U.S.: Jaeah Lee covers an important story in America, that of the demands, over-allocation, and mismanagement of our rivers. “In March, the EPA estimated that more than half of the nation’s waterways are in “poor condition for aquatic life.” … In the interactive map below, we highlight 21 rivers that, based on the conservation group American Rivers’ reports in 2012 and 2013, are under the most duress (or soon will be) from extended droughts, flooding, agriculture, or severe pollution from nearby industrial activity.”

3) Q & A explains EU Farm Policy Reform: This BBC summary wraps up the farm reform issues in the EU. “There has been intense debate about “greening” – the Commission’s proposal to make 30% of the direct payment received by farmers dependent on environmental criteria. MEPs and governments insist on flexibility, to allow for the diverse circumstances of Europe’s farms. So these greening targets have been watered down, environmentalists say: the requirement for arable farmers to grow at least three different crops, to promote biodiversity; for farmers to leave 7% of their land fallow, to encourage wildlife; and for farmers to maintain pasture land permanently, rather than ploughing it up.”

This news post was written and compiled by K. McDonald.

3 Picks: EU Farm Policy, Biodiversity Solution, 2013 Food Prize


U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, former Iowa lawyer, Tom Vilsack, meets with Iowa farmers during the drought of 2012. USDA photo by Darin Leach.

Below, are today’s three chosen agricultural-related news picks.

1) Biggest Farms in Europe To Receive Fewer Subsidies: In what has been a very long and involved legislative process, the EU is closer to reforming its agricultural policy, and there has been some success in promoting ecological farming methods. Rowena Mason, for the Telegraph, tells us “The European Union has long been criticised for handing billions of pounds of public money to prop up the continent’s farmers. Around 40 per cent of the EU’s entire budget is spent on subsidies under the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), with much paid to big business and industry. Its annual cost to British families is around £100 a year. However, European officials last night appeared to have struck a deal to slash subsidies for large-scale industrial farming by up to a third. More support will be challenged to small-scale famers, especially young ones and those who work in an environmentally-friendly way.” More info on the subject from Bloomberg here.

2) Study Out of Iowa Recommends Biodiversity as a Sustainable Solution (pdf): Matt Liebman1, Matthew J. Helmers, Lisa A. Schulte and Craig A. Chase. A new Iowa study addressed Iowa environmental farming problems including water contamination by nutrients and herbicides, a lack of non-agricultural habitat to support diverse communities of native plants and animals, and a high level of dependence on petrochemical energy in the dominant cropping systems. It also considered that future weather extreme events are likely to make soil and water conservation more difficult. The authors used three cropping systems to address the challenges, and the results included this conclusion… Conversion of small amounts of cropland to prairie buffer strips can provide disproportionately large improvements in soil and water conservation, nutrient retention, and densities of native plants and birds.

3) 2013 World Food Prize Goes to Three Biotechnology Scientists: “Three distinguished scientists — Marc Van Montagu of Belgium, and Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert T. Fraley of the United States — will share the 2013 World Food Prize for their independent, individual breakthrough achievements in founding, developing, and applying modern agricultural biotechnology. Their research is making it possible for farmers to grow crops with: improved yields; resistance to insects and disease; and the ability to tolerate extreme variations in climate.” To see Mark Bittman’s take-down of the Food Prize over at NYTs Opinionator, go here: “The True Deservers of a Food Prize”. (I wish I had time to critique what he wrote, as I disagree with some of it, agree with some of it, but also think he’s missing some of the big picture.)

This news post was written and compiled by K. McDonald.

Special UN Report: Biofuels Impact Food Prices and Availability

A new report from the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) out of Rome, for the United Nations, implicates biofuels as a cause of high food prices. The June 2013 report, released today, is titled, “Biofuels and food security” (PDF). This comprehensive document includes many interesting graphics and it attempts to cover all aspects of biofuels production.

Every-so-often I catch a headline or tweet from biofuels interest groups or lobbyists who periodically promote the story that biofuels do not contribute to high food prices. This document clearly states that they do. While the ripple effect of the production and consumption of biofuels is far-reaching and can even account for some increased income for small-shareholder farmers, they are being promoted especially by corporate agricultural interests.

Just this week DuPont received much feel-good publicity in promoting their food, agriculture and alternative energy “innovation center” in Johnston, Iowa, where their Pioneer Hi-Bred business unit is located. What was (at least part of) the hoopla really about? Making cellulosic ethanol out of corn stover.

Taxpayers are on the hook for funding second generation biofuels, by the way, and cellulosic ethanol from corn stover qualifies. Follow the money. Currently, in the EU, biofuels policies are being rewritten, and the biofuels industry there, just like it does here, is lobbying hard against new proposals before the Parliament and Council to limit the use of food crops for biofuels.

Here are a few chosen, key statements from the United Nation’s report:

1. In the last few years (since 2004) of short-term commodity food price increase, biofuels did play an important role.
2. All crops compete for the same land or water, labour, capital, inputs and investment and there are no current magic non-food crops that can ensure more harmonious biofuel production on marginal lands. Therefore, non-food/feedcrops should be assessed with the same rigour as food/feedcrops for their direct and indirect food security impacts.
3. In the case of the US, the impact on food security is essentially through the global transmission of prices.
4. (O)n the technological frontier for biofuels, few … countries have the resources to move forward to second-generation biofuels, given the often proprietary nature of this technology, the elevated capital investments required, and the high demands that second-generation technologies make on infrastructure, logistics and human capital.
5. (I)ndustrial advances can take place more quickly than agronomic advances needed to lower feedstock costs of both conventional and advanced biofuels.
6. Given the increasing price of fossil fuels and more efficient production, biofuels, or at least some of them, will be competitive even without public support. Increasingly it will be the market rather than policies that will drive the development of the sector.
7. Biofuel development has both global and local effects, positive and negative, short and long term. Many of these effects take the form of increased competition, for food, for land, for water. There are links between biofuels and food security. Therefore biofuel policies have to integrate food security as a major concern.

Included was a good summary of how corn ethanol in the U.S. has impacted other commodities:

The US has historically been both the world’s leading producer and exporter of corn, responsible for as much as 50 percent of world trade. The share of US corn production directed to ethanol increased in one decade from less than 10 percent to over 40 percent in the 2010/11 crop year, and remained at that high level in 2011/2012. Not only did the US exports and share in international corn trade decline as a result, but a significant part of the expansion of corn production in the US came at the expense of other major global crops, including soybeans. This was seen to have two effects: an increase in the price of corn and of its close substitutes like wheat on world markets, and a stimulation of food and feed production in other regions of the world, at the same time as major quantities of corn were subtracted from the feed market.

This next chart shows us how policy of individual nations affects trade and consumption of biofuels.

I also wanted to include the chart from the report with EROI (net energy return on investments) values from various feedstocks, but when I looked at their numbers, they looked quite “off” to me, so I am not including it here. Unfortunately, EROI numbers, while important, fluctuate wildly and are difficult to obtain and keep current, I suppose.

The report lists the environmental sustainability concerns of biofuels, one of my own major concerns, below.

1. Lifecycle GHG emmisions.
2. Soil quality.
3. Harvest levels of wood resources.
4. Emissions of non-GHG air pollutants, including air toxics.
5. Water use and efficiency.
6. Water quality.
7. Biological diversity in the landscape.
8. Land use and land-use change related to bioenergy feedstock production.

Certainly, here in the U.S., we have seen large negative impacts on all of the items on this list, making a project such as corn ethanol production insanely unsustainable and destructive to our environment in its current policy form.

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NOTE: A special thanks to ActionAid for alerting me to this report.