Reinert Interview: Limits to Growth

Today is the fourth post in this Monday series of subjects covered during my summer 2014 interview of Bill Reinert, recently retired energy engineer for Toyota who played a key role in the development of the Prius and then assumed the role of future transportation planning of alternative-fueled vehicles at Toyota. See his full bio here.
–Kay M.

K.M.: You were influenced by 60’s culture, “The Limits to Growth”, and were a student of Al Bartlett’s, the physicist who tried to educate the world about exponential function. So far, the limits to growth predictions have not come true. We have enough food and we continue to increase production even as the population grows rapidly. We continue to produce oil and electricity beyond previous expectations. Are our minds just too small to comprehend our capacity to continue to advance our human endeavors? What are the limits to growth?

Reinert: Well, I think that fundamentally, Al was correct about exponential growth. You know, Al was popular in the 1960s and 1970s and our technologies were different then. Now, we’ve moved on, and, yes, we can supply the world’s population with food through GMO production on corporate farms as the small farmer goes away, and with increased use of water which leads to increased fertilizer runoff. And we can get all the energy we need, but it’s going to be more tar sands and less windmills and rainbows. And these things are localized. There are still millions of people starving in some regions, and there are millions without energy.

What you have to ask yourself is what’s the carrying capacity for feeding and providing energy for everybody? What is the bill you are paying? What is the bill Mother Nature is paying? What about quality of life? Are you willing to turn a blind eye to the effects of that carrying capacity?

But, yes, we can go on for a long time.

May not be reprinted without permission.

To see last week’s interview on “Environmental Sacrifice Areas” click here.

Coming next week will be Reinert’s comments on the subject of over-fishing.

A Taste Of Farming In Maine

You can’t get more land-locked than Nebraska, where I grew up. So I find going to Maine and seeing the very different ways of life and livelihoods through food in that state fascinating. Mainers also exhibit a special vibe, a vibe that feels very real, genuine, simple and good.

Here are a few photos from early September in Maine to help you get a feel for what I felt while there.

It was pure luck to stumble upon the Brunswick, Maine farmers market, the oldest farmers market in the state, other than Portland’s. Two women were selling lobsters for $4.49 a pound, less than hamburger at today’s prices. Much of this trip was about lobster, eating it, watching the hard working lobstermen, and seeing the lobster traps set up. A neighbor acquaintance here in Boulder who grew up in Maine likes to say that “You knew who the poor kids were in school because they had lobster in their lunch buckets.”

This is the fella that I enjoyed visiting with the most at the Brunswick market. His name is Dick Keough and he farms on seven acres, with four hoop houses. I noticed that he was selling baby lettuces so I asked if they were for those who have winter gardens in Maine, knowing that the legendary four season gardening expert, Eliot Coleman, hails from these parts. My suspicions proved correct, as Keough is a big winter gardener and is a friend of Coleman’s. He said that they use eight (or more) layers of plastic in the coldest winter time periods, including bubble wrap – in their winter hoop houses. A key piece of knowledge is that there are 27 winter vegetables that can tolerate being frozen, so if you stick with those in your winter hoop gardens in Maine, and figure out the art and science balanced with the right amount of attentiveness, winter vegetable growing there can be a success.

When I asked Keough why he had such strong nice fall rhubarb, he credited fertilizing it with Espoma Plant-Tone which he uses for his other vegetables, too. Plant-Tone is an all-organic fertilizer containing beneficial soil microbes. Keough is a seasoned gardening expert who has participated in the Brunswick farmers market for 27 years, and he told me that it is obvious to see how Maine’s climate is changing. He said that in recent years he only uses a snowblower about three times per winter, whereas this area used to get lots of snow all winter-long.

Other interesting things that I noticed at the Brunswick farmers market were the low cost for eggs at only four dollar per dozen. Here in Boulder at our farmers market they often cost six dollars per dozen. One stand was selling their own home made cider vinegar. One stand sold grass-fed beef. I spoke with its farmer, Dennis Wilk of “King and I Angus” and he explained to me that nearly all beef raised in the region is “grass-fed” due to the nature of the land, the small farm sizes, and, I suppose, the lack of organized large-scale industrial feedlots and cattle markets. How nifty is that?

Dick Keough told me that sometime, I must allow a day to visit Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. It is a 5,000-acre working farm that demonstrates responsible farming techniques.

This scene is near the children’s garden at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens at Boothbay. Though the 270-acre garden is relatively new, it has already become one of the main tourist attractions along the coast.

This is a stack of lobster cages in Portland near two of our favorite lobster/fish shacks, The Porthole, and J’s Oyster. Yummm.

Popham Beach was reasonably uncrowded and we walked its entire length. This was the view of an island right across from it that had a house on it. Years ago I read the 1896 book, The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett who captured the mood of Maine island living so well. I stared and stared at the island and the home, trying to imagine what it would be like to live there. I must re-read Jewett’s book sometime soon. Maine is all about a “mood”, especially if you live there in its difficult weather and moody forest all the year-round. It is a very special place.

Environmental Impacts of Exporting Dry Milk Powder

Photo by Ansel Adams. The Tetons and the Snake River (1942) Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the National Park Service.

In the volumes of agricultural reading that I do, I have not run across a more scathing article about industrial agriculture than a recent feature story in High Country News. The article was about the environmental damage that has been done to water and waterways in Idaho due to its burgeoning dairy industry. The economic gains which are derived from this industry are, unfortunately, often outside the local Idaho communities which are negatively impacted, and sometimes even go to foreign-owned companies. This goes on largely for the purpose of exporting dry milk powder to nations such as China. If you think of Idaho as having pristine rivers, or as being immune to Big Ag, think again.

The article, “Idaho’s sewer system is the Snake River – As Big Ag flourishes, this massive waterway suffers.“, was written by Richard Manning. I do encourage you to read it. The overall issues, as I see it, are repeated across other states and also relate to other aspects of Big Ag. You name the subject. You name the state.

There is an environmental price to pay in subsidizing milk production for export abroad. What about New Zealand, the “Saudi Arabia of Milk”, are they experiencing problems with their waterways, too, just as Idaho? And, the EU is readying to ramp up its milk exports, too, after a 30-year milk-export quota expires this coming March 31st. Here, in the U.S., the new 2014 farm bill has greatly increased its subsidized protection of our dairy industry which probably means growth will continue in this lucrative milk powder export market.

When China thirsts for a safe milk product, the world responds.

1. Here is a graph of our growing exports of dairy/dry milk from the USDA:

U.S. commercial exports of dairy products have grown since 1995, accounting for an increasing share of the total commercial disappearance of U.S milk production. On a milk-equivalent skim-solids basis (a method of adding up quantities of diverse milk products based on their skim-solids content), U.S. commercial exports grew on average 11.8 percent per year between 1995 and 2013, with their share of total commercial disappearance rising from 3.4 percent in 1995 to 18.7 percent in 2013. Commercial exports of nonfat dry milk (NDM) and skim milk powder (SMP) played a major role in this increase. In recent years, major U.S. markets for NDM and SMP have been Mexico, China, Philippines, and Indonesia. Domestic commercial disappearance serves as a proxy for U.S. consumption, calculated as a residual after accounting for production, on-farm use, imports, exports, and changes in stocks. The commercial data also exclude USDA net removals (price support purchases plus subsidized exports minus sales to the commercial market) which were significant in earlier years but a minor factor since 2004.


U.S. Milk Powder Exports

Source: USDA, FAS, GATS. HS code: 0402,
Milk Concentrated. (Iowa State – Choices)

Article from Choices discussing global dairy subsidies:

3. From the FT, an article about milk exports, including 2 great graphs:

Is Organic Corn the Way to Go Next Year?

Let’s face it. Input costs for seeds and chemicals cost a lot when growing field corn.

Will the new farm bill step up to the plate and cover these costs with its new higher price floors?

Is it worth it?

What are the options?

Is it time to switch to growing organic corn?

Or, might policy increase the demand for corn and soy through biofuel policies – to pick up this over-production slack?

Or, should government conservation programs step up and pay more to idle land? (That is not the plan as far as I know.)

Today, let’s take a look at what Chad Hart over at Iowa State is expecting in negative returns per acre to grow corn this year and next. Then, let’s take a look at profit margins for growing organic corn from previous USDA data.

From Iowa State’s Hart:
Based on our ISU estimated production costs, corn margins are a negative $225 per acre and soybean margins are negative $100 per acre. After several years of significant profits for Iowa crops, these margin losses are large. And the margins don’t improve much as we look at the 2015 crops. For corn, the futures market is showing enough carry to push the projected 2015 season average price to roughly $3.50 per bushel. But that’s still $1 per bushel below projected 2015 production costs. Soybean futures for the 2015 crop aren’t provided nearly the same boost. The projected 2015 season average soybean price based on current futures is $9 per bushel. That’s $2 per bushel below projected production costs.

From the USDA:

In 2010, U.S. producers saw average returns of $307 per acre for conventional corn, compared with $557 per acre for organic corn, primarily because higher organic corn prices more than offset lower organic corn yields. Total operating and ownership costs per acre (seed, fertilizer, chemicals, custom operations, fuel, repairs, interest, hired labor, capital recovery of machinery and equipment, taxes, and insurance) were not significantly different between organic and conventional corn, although many of the individual cost components differed. Three major components of operating costs—seed, fertilizer, and chemicals—are lower for organic corn than for conventional corn, while some components of ownership costs—the capital recovery of machinery and equipment, and taxes and insurance—are higher for organic corn. Although the acres planted to organic corn nearly tripled between 2001 and 2010, organic corn accounted for less than 1 percent of total 2010 corn acres.

It will be interesting to see what the producers decide and how acreage numbers look next year. And it will be interesting to see if there will be more farms coming available for sale in corn country.

Inputs required to grow organic corn are less expensive, safer, and promote soil health microbial systems which then retain water so that less rainfall and/or irrigation is required.

One last enticement to grow organic corn at some point in the future is this. There are breeders working on pollen-blocking corn so that organic seed corn can be resistant to GMO variety contamination.