Category Archives: population

Agricultural Predictions, Concerns, and, What’s New?


Desk calendar. Roy Lichtenstein. 1962.

To help kick off the new site, I didn’t post much in January, so today, I thought I’d recap the month from behind the scenes here. Again, the feedback I’ve received on Sowing Agricultural Seeds Daily has been very positive and I do hope that each of you are using it as the great resource that it’s meant to be.

First off, a couple of new things.

1) I’ve added my personal twitter feed to the right sidebar here at Big Picture Agriculture since posts here will be less frequent. This will keep some updates to this site for those who don’t do twitter and want to check in occasionally on what I’m tweeting. (Twitter is the only social media that I do.)

2) Realizing that a fair number of readers value a little commentary, I’ve added a small commentary box to the upper lefthand corner on Sowing Agricultural Seeds Daily. I plan to have fun with this and keep the space pithy, snarky, and at times, personal and off-topic. I will be changing this frequently.

3) I’ve recently changed the link font color scheme, also, on Sowing Agricultural Seeds Daily — with black links and an orange hover color. Over time, I will see if I can change the color of the visited links, as the set-up has some complications for doing that at present. I might also see if there is some way to add a small comment box.

For those who’ve requested an RSS feed, I’m also looking into the possibilities.

About the crash.

No, not the stock market. My computer. For those who’ve read my commentary box this past week, I’ve written about my computer hard drive failure that happened with no warning whatsoever. Since my computer was only three years old and was working perfectly, I expected a warning, and so was…. you guessed it… unprepared. For the second time, I’ve tried to go Apple as a replacement, and this time looks like a charm as I’m loving the software and solid state machine. (Before my last computer purchase, yes, the one that died, I came home with a defective iMac and was extremely disappointed with Apple’s technological support service related to that situation, enough so to give up on them at the time.) Anyway, I lost my photos, and all my off-line Chrome apps that I was keeping a ton of info on. With a little luck, my local super-super-nice Geek Squad is retrieving the photos for me right now. You’d think I’d have known better by now than to live so dangerously.

Boerderij.
For the second year in a row, Johan Oppewal at Boerderij, the largest farm magazine out of the Netherlands, has interviewed me for their January issue, asking my impression of what the year 2014 will bring in U.S. agriculture. This has been fun for me, as I couldn’t imagine a nicer person asking me questions over the phone for an hour from across the Atlantic, and his English is so impressively better than my Dutch. Readers here might enjoy knowing what I said. If so, it follows in the box below…

• We have a situation with depressed farm incomes this year because ag commodity prices have fallen, and we will get a ripple effect in falling farmland and rent prices. Will corn meet input costs?

• The GMO food labeling debate which is on ballots in 20 states following Hawaii’s move… How will it play out? How could that change agriculture in America? (Johan finds this interesting because attitudes are loosening up on this issue over there.)

• How will the farm bill change, which is to be passed in January 2014? We are pretty sure it will drop direct payments and increase the crop insurance program. Farmers need to know so they can plan accordingly and policy is everything.

• The looming severe drought in California: Only 5% of water will be granted to farmers next year under current conditions.

• Ongoing loss of CRP (conservation reserve program) lands in US. — 1.6 million more acres were lost last year after it had already shrunk by 25% in the previous five years. Farmers are farming the ditches, removing fences to farm, ploughing down trees to farm, and farming the hillsides. This, too, is a result of government policies creating an economics that encourages plowing everything under. Will that policy continue?

• Our military, the biggest consumer of petroleum in the nation, is stepping up the efforts to use biofuels for fueling the navy in an alliance between the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Defense. This, along with exports of ethanol, could help keep up the corn demand if the EPA mandate levels change.

• Global markets (other nations) are gaining market share in corn and soybean exports.

• As in your country, high tech farming continues to advance, precision ag, sensors, and the study of drones. As these industrial farm methods gain, they are being used in conjunction with more sustainable cover crops.

• Organic production is becoming economically competitive. The demand is there. Right now organic soybeans, or edamame beans in our grocery stores are imports from China!

• Irrigation continues to go strong, with not enough protection for depleting groundwater and aquifers. New systems continue to be installed, however they are also becoming more efficient.

• Farmers organizations are trying to improve their image through advertising. (like this Superbowl commercial from one year ago). Johan found this “odd”.

• California nut production is going crazy, China is importing our almonds and walnuts. The industry uses transported commercial honeybees from all over our nation, which is a set-up for a very abnormal bee situation.

• Diets: More and more consumers and foodies are shunning wheat products and going gluten free. The most popular new diet in America was the paleo diet this past year.

• The big farms keep getting bigger, and rural areas continue to depopulate, with the average age of the farmer around 58.

• I expect that the use of biotech methods to increase crop yields is a huge growing trend for the future, for example, Monsanto recently partnered with Novozymes for seed coating products.

• This year livestock farmers should do better because of lower feed prices.

• Long-range trends possible: Given right policy and for climate and dietary reasons, US crops could branch out from the predominant corn and soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice into more sorghum, barley, oats, sunflower seeds, dry peas, lentils, canola and peanuts and other crops, and if California loses water and is in a long term drought like those seen historically, other regions might start producing more of the vegetables and other crops known to be from California. ALSO, Canada is growing more corn and soy, as their industrial farming expands due to price incentives created by biofuels programs, and, in part, due to climate change.

Environmental Journalists.
I was also honored to have Dennis Dimick, Environmental Editor of National Geographic, ask me to weigh in with a few of my ideas about what the emerging headlines in environment and energy will be in the future, with an emphasis on agriculture, food, and water internationally, for his preparations to appear on a panel of six journalists at the Woodrow Wilson Center in DC last week. In my response, I gave him four topics of concern, and I’ve put them into the box below.

• The Middle East: In many of their nations, the population is exploding. They have energy to export and money, but they don’t have enough water or food. More and more headlines from there discuss their planning and researching on how to provide water and food for their people. They are putting great effort into this subject. In a few days, there is a huge sustainability/Ag conference in Abu Dhabi drawing innovators from around the globe to discuss the future of growing food sustainably through innovation. (As a wild idea, I wanted to go to this but found out too late, and didn’t get funding.) They also have global water conferences, continually look into methods of desalinating water, growing food in desert greenhouses, and they acquire land in other nations to help with their food security. The Middle East’s geopolitical situation is ever so fragile for so many reasons. The Strait of Hormuz carries oil out and grain in, so forbid it ever becomes impaired. The globe’s rapidly growing energy demand is becoming more and more complicated, with growing renewables, and our fracking technology, which will eventually be expanding around the world, has implications for their future long term energy export prices. Saudi’s domestic economic and their own energy demands are rising, so to meet their needs, they really need high oil revenue. And as the U.S. appears to be stepping back from its previously strong defense there, the question is whether new nations like China could step in more. Recently, on Sowing Agricutural Seeds Daily, I included this amazing news item: GCC countries plan to build a 2,000 kilometre pipeline costing $10.5 Billion to move water from Oman to Kuwait.

• The pollution in China will start becoming more of a target of concern of other nations (if it isn’t already). A recent PNAS study reveals that on some days, Chinese pollution contributed as much as 24 percent of sulfate concentrations over the western U.S., and that China has 16 out of 20 of the world’s most polluted cities. (No hypocrisy intended, as we import our goods from China which lead to much of this pollution.) Last year, China approved the construction of more than 100 million tonnes of new coal production capacity, or, six times more than a year earlier and equal to 10 percent of U.S. annual usage. Given that, and increased coal to liquids and gas plans, and the knowledge that they’ve polluted much of their land for food growing and much of their water, too, now we hear that rich younger Beijing citizens want their children to be able to live outside of China because of pollution.

• This drought in California is scary from an ag perspective and could lead to ugly fights between farmers (nut and vine growers want priority over lettuce and vegetable crops, for example). It could lead to higher food prices, changes in trade, or, relocation of some of the crops they are known for.

• Complexity of more and more technology is an ongoing concern… Is it saving us or will it bring us down? As my computer failed this week and I saw the insanity that goes on inside the Apple store, and, also know that we are trying to automate cars and tractors and gather more and more data from EVERYTHING, I really also worry about a serious technological failure on the horizon because of power failures, terrorism, solar flares, or who knows what, because more and more, technology is embedded into our food, ag, and water systems. Finally, there is a human element here that is in question philosophically.

• These are the negatives. I also see tons of positives happening…

Also, I received an inquiry about my availability to be on a panel at the BIO Convention in SanDiego this summer, but it is looking unlikely at this point.

(Earlier, I turned down an invitation to speak to a waterfowl hunting group in Wisconsin in March, about the loss of CRP land and policy related to that issue.)

Other than that, had a very interesting visit with a relative visiting Colorado on a ski trip who is an EE computer whiz/geek and suddenly finds himself a new northeast Nebraska farm landowner through inheritance (farmland inheritance is a quite a story in itself these days and he has quite a tale to tell just about that). He’s weighing and confronting the realities of being a conscientious absentee landowner who wants both to use sustainable methods and see some profits, too. This is a fascinating subject, as it is no doubt echoed across this nation, with, for example, more than half of farmland rented in many Iowa and Illinois counties according to 2007 USDA data. Sometime, I hope to make a post about this, and I’m proud to say that this family has been keeping up with what I write in this space in helping to sort through Ag issues.

Finally, good luck to local friend and reader B, and congratulations on his new farming venture as he finalizes an acreage purchase here in Boulder County this month. I’m looking forward to my tour of the property and will have the fun of adding my two cents to what his permaculture landscape planner says about using perennials to produce food, fiber, or beverage. That, too, just might be featured in an upcoming post someday.

Stay warm and safe. Spring is on its way judging by some recent Red Winged Blackbird and Great Horned Owl activity nearby. We’re having a mild Colorado winter this season with abundant Rocky Mountain snowfall, which is good, given the drought in the western U.S.
—Kay

3 Picks: Global Grains, Canadian Farmland Prices, Al Bartlett

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

1) UN: World food prices decline amid bumper grain crop: By Christopher Doering. “The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization said the food price index, which measures monthly price changes in cereals, dairy, meat, sugar and oilseeds, averaged 201.8 points in August, down nearly 4 points, or 1.9 percent from July, driven by a drop in global prices for cereals and oils. The August figure was 5.1 percent lower than in the same month a year ago. The UN agency said it increased its forecast for global cereal production, which includes maize (corn), rice and wheat, in 2013-14 to a record 2.492 billion metric tons, up 14 million metric tons from its July forecast and 7.7 percent higher than 2012 estimate.”

2) Latest Canadian Farmland Price Report: By Joel Schlesinger. If you scroll to the bottom of this Globe and Mail article, a history of Canadian farmland prices is summarized at the end. The average price of Canadian farmland per acre in 2012 was $1,798, up 19.5 percent from the previous year. The highest price appreciation in 2012 was in the province of Ontario, followed by Quebec and Manitoba.

3) Al Bartlett, retired CU-Boulder professor, dies at age 90: By Brittany Anas. This is a loss to Boulder and to the whole world, at a time in which the subjects of growth and population seem to often be considered socially unacceptable. Bartlett gave his famous talk on exponential function —“Arithmetic, Population and Energy”— more than 1,700 times around the U.S. and world, it was viewed on Youtube over 5 million times, and he was also loved as a physics professor at the Univ. of Colorado. He was a Boulder watchdog on growth and its environmental consequences, writing letters to the local newspaper as recently as a few months ago. “CU’s Environmental Center is training a cadre of 50 volunteers who can carry on Bartlett’s lectures.”

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

3 Picks: Population Growth, Global Grain Supply, Soil Importance

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

1) World’s Population is Growing much quicker than expected: This Yale Environment360 article by Robert Engelman suggests that 2 out of 5 pregnancies worldwide are unintended and governments are no longer making family planning a high priority. Engelman says that no one really knows what the population will be in 2050, contrary to what scientists constantly tell us. “Only 10 years ago, based on then-current childbearing trends, the UN Population Division was projecting that there would be no more than 8.9 billion people alive in 2050. That number just jumped by 700 million people — an increase nearly as large as the population of Europe. Afghanistan’s current fertility rate — the average number of children each woman has over her lifetime — is now estimated at 6.3, compared to 5.1 previously. Women in South Sudan average 5.4 children, up from the earlier estimate of 3.8. … By unspoken agreement, world leaders have come to see the issue as too sensitive to bring up. The worry appears to be that it offends the anti-contraception Catholic Church, as well as some women’s rights advocates and leaders of high-fertility countries, who argue that the consumption of the wealthy is a far greater threat to humanity than continued population growth.”

2) July IGC Grain Market Report: Total grains (wheat and coarse grains, excluding rice) output is set to rise by 8% y/y in 2013/14, and end-season stocks are expected to increase by 11%, just exceeding 2011/12 levels. Global soyabean production expected to rise by 6% to a new record of 284m t in 2013/14, and inventories by 28% to a 3 year high. World rice production is expected to expand slightly to 476m t in 2013/14; end-season stocks are set to rise for the ninth consecutive year. Despite strong demand growth, maize end season stocks are likely to rise sharply in 2013/14, by an estimated 25% to a 13-year high.

3) Full Planet, Empty Plates: Chapter 5. Eroding Soils Darkening Our Future: By Lester R. Brown. “The thin layer of topsoil that covers the earth’s land surface was formed over long stretches of geological time as new soil formation exceeded the natural rate of erosion. Sometime within the last century, soil erosion began to exceed new soil formation. Now, nearly a third of the world’s cropland is losing topsoil faster than new soil is forming, reducing the land’s inherent fertility. Soil that was formed on a geological time scale is being lost on a human time scale.” [...]

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

Population Map Credit: Flickr CC by Lauren Manning