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.


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

Greek Minister Tsaftaris: Sustainable Food Production Should Be a Basic Element of Our Civilization

Today, just as the E.U. is heatedly debating the Common Agricultural Policy, I stumbled upon these videos which are a real gem for those of us concerned about food production, because they say so much that is applicable to everyone, everywhere. In the subtitled videos which were made several months ago, a Greek citizen by the name of Pavlos Georgiadis travels around in his unreliable yellow Citroen bug car, and interviews some of Greece’s younger people who have sought hope and opportunity in their nation’s countryside after seeing the hopelessness of ever becoming employed in the urban areas.

But, they need help…

The gist of the story is that 1.5 million younger people in Greece, many with college degrees, want to farm during this aftermath of Greece’s financial crisis. Their problem is the limited availability of water, the cost of power, fertilizer, and petroleum. Some of them expressed the opinion that Greece prefers to import food instead of produce it, making the nation food insecure. The film is a visual feast, especially if you like the Mediterranean diet. Pavlos visits a farm allotment having 100-year old grape vines, a snail farm, a vegetable farm, a greenhouse growing bananas, and a large dairy, interviewing each of the farmers to find out what they are doing and what their concerns are.

One farmer discusses an Ag policy in Greece over the past several decades that has supported the production of a few monoculture crops like cotton. This seems a terrible waste given their climate and good Thessalian Plain soil.

In the fourth video, Georgiadis visits with Greek Rural Development and Food Minister, Athanasios Tsaftaris, who is representing Greece in the negotiations for the reform of the new E.U. Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Georgiadis and Tsaftaris recognize that the younger generation would like to be able to profit in the countryside through producing quality food, not by increasing the amount of production. The Minister discusses climate change with him. He says that Greece is seeing water scarcity along with increased flooding, and new diseases such as a fungus which is wiping out Chestnut forests, new pests on crops, and even NEW FISH seen by fishermen.

When asked “Is this compatible with the concept of sustainability?” the Minister answers, “We have to respect the future generations. This is the meaning of sustainability. The way that our generation depletes natural resources and misuses the inputs for the production process raises production costs and causes harm to the environment …to manage the production process more sustainably is also a basic element of our civilization. We should not be driven by over-consumption or else we will harm the environment so much to the point where the process becomes irreversible.”

Now, back to the subject of the contentious debate going on in the E.U. over their Ag policy negotiations. The legislation now has over 350 amendments and the greening of the bill has been scaled back greatly, as expected. In spite of fairly severe proposed cuts, the CAP budget will still account for nearly 40% of the E.U.’s budget in 2014-2020.

The debate is going on today and the full Parliament vote on the four pieces of legislation is tomorrow.

This comes at a time when more extreme weather events are requiring strong safety nets for farmers, many want to see healthy food production that is produced sustainably, austerity measures are requiring budget cut-backs, and nations want to increase their Ag exports to help their fiscal situations.

I hope that you enjoy watching this set of videos as much as I did.

Videoblog on CAP | Episode 1: Food Security from foodpolitics on Vimeo.

Videoblog on CAP | Episode 2: Young Farmers from foodpolitics on Vimeo.

Videoblog on CAP | Episode 3: Environment from foodpolitics on Vimeo.

Videoblog on CAP | Episode 4: Epilogue from foodpolitics on Vimeo.