Posts Tagged ‘biofuel’

Apr11

Global Food Prices Continue to Rise

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By Sophie Wenzlau

Continuing a decade-long increase, global food prices rose 2.7 percent in 2012, reaching levels not seen since the 1960s and 1970s but still well below the price spike of 1974. Between 2000 and 2012, the World Bank global food price index increased 104.5 percent, at an average annual rate of 6.5 percent.

Global food prices rose 2.7 percent in 2012 (Photo Credit: Thinkstock)

The price increases reverse a previous trend when real prices of food commodities declined at an average annual rate of 0.6 percent from 1960 to 1999, approaching historic lows. The sustained price decline can be attributed to farmers’ success in keeping crop yields ahead of rising worldwide food demand. Although the global population grew by 3.8 billion or 122.9 percent between 1961 and 2010, net per capita food production increased by 49 percent over this period. Advances in crop breeding and an expansion of agricultural land drove this rise in production, as farmers cultivated an additional 434 million hectares between 1961 and 2010.

Food price volatility has increased dramatically since 2006. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the standard deviation—or measurement of variation from the average—for food prices between 1990 and 1999 was 7.7 index points, but it increased to 22.4 index points in the 2000–12 period.

Although food price volatility has increased in the last decade, it is not a new phenomenon. According to World Bank data, the standard deviation for food prices in 1960–99 was 11.9 index points higher than in 2000–12. Some price volatility is inherent in agricultural commodities markets, as they are strongly influenced by weather shocks. But the recent upward trend in food prices and volatility can be traced to additional factors including climate change, policies promoting the use of biofuels, rising energy and fertilizer prices, poor harvests, national export restrictions, rising global food demand, and low food stocks.

Perhaps most significant has been an increase in biofuels production in the last decade. Between 2000 and 2011, global biofuels production increased more than 500 percent, due in part to higher oil prices and the adoption of biofuel mandates in the United States and European Union (EU). According to a 2012 study by the University of Bonn’s Center for Development Research, if biofuel production continues to expand according to current plans, the price of feedstock crops (particularly maize, oilseed crops, and sugar cane) will increase more than 11 percent by 2020.

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Dec31

Year in Review: 10 Things You Should Know about Food and Agriculture in 2012

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By Sophie Wenzlau and Laura Reynolds

Although Aunt Mabel’s Christmas trifle might top your list of current food concerns, there are a few other things about U.S. food and agriculture worth considering as you look back on 2012, and forward to 2013:

Photo Credit: wlfarm.org

1. Farm Bill Deadlock. The 2008 Farm Bill, which established the most recent round of policies and support programs for the U.S. food system, expired in September. Although the Senate has passed a new version of the bill, the House has not; congressional leaders are deadlocked on the issues of cutbacks in crop subsidies and reductions in food stamps. If the House does not reach an agreement, U.S. farm policy will revert to the last “permanent” Farm Bill, passed in 1949. With 1949 policy, many innovative programs that invest in sustainable agriculture (like low-interest loans for newfemale, or minority farmers) could be forced to shut down; the price for dairy products could double in January; and antiquated farm subsidies could increase by billions of dollars, likely leading to greater overproduction of commodity crops like corn and soybeans (to the benefit of agribusiness and the detriment of small and medium-sized farms).

2. Enduring Drought. Although media attention has faded, nearly 80 percent of U.S. agricultural land continues to experience drought conditions, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), making this year’s drought more extensive than any experienced since the 1950s. The drought is expected to make food more expensive in 2013 (the USDA predicts a 3 to 4 percent increase in the Consumer Price Index), particularly meat and dairy products. To boost agriculture’s resilience to drought and other forms of climate variability, farmers can increase crop diversity, irrigate more efficiently, adopt agroecological practices, and plant trees in and around farms. Consumers can support small-scale farmers, eat less meat, and pressure the government to enact food policies that support sustainable agriculture.

3. Acceleration of Both the Food Sovereignty Movement and Agribusiness Lobbying. Achieving food sovereignty, or a food system in which producers and consumers are locally connected and food is produced sustainably by small farms, is increasingly a priority for communities in the United States and worldwide. According to the USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory, the total number of farmers markets in the United States increased by 9.6 percent between 2011 and 2012, while winter markets increased by 52 percent. But also accelerating is agribusiness lobbying: campaign contributions from large food production and processing groups—including American Crystal Sugar Company, the Altria GroupAmerican Farm Bureau, the National Cattlemen’s Beef AssociationCalifornia DairiesMonsantoSafeway Inc., and Cargill—increased from $68.3 million in the 2008 election cycle to $78.4 million in 2012, a 12.8 percent change.

4. Failed GM Labeling Bill in California. Although 47 percent of Californians voted in favor of Prop 37, a measure that would have required food companies and retailers to label food containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients, the initiative failed to pass in November. According to California Watch, food and agribusiness companies including The Hershey Co., Nestlé USA, Mars Inc., and Monsanto contributed $44 million in opposition of the initiative, while those in favor of GM labeling contributed $7.3 million. Also notable: the first independent, peer-reviewed study of GM food safety, published in the August issue of the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology, found that rats fed low-levels of Monsanto’s maize NK603for a period of two years (a rat’s average lifespan) suffered from mammary tumors and severe kidney and liver damage. Although the science is not yet conclusive, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should urge consumers to familiarize themselves with the potential health risks of GM food consumption, and should conduct additional studies.

5. Corn Ethanol Found to Be Environmentally Unfriendly. study released by the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology in September found that the increased production of corn for ethanol creates environmental problems like soil acidification and the pollution of lakes and rivers. Although corn has long ruled the biofuels industry (ethanol accounted for 98 percent of domestic biofuel production in 2011), its relative energy-conversion inefficiency and sensitivity to high temperatures—in addition to its environmental footprint—make it an unsustainable long-term energy option. Perennial bioenergy crops like willow, sycamore, sweetgum, jatropha, and cottonwood, however, grow quickly; require considerably less fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide application than annual crops; can thrive on marginal land (i.e., steep slopes); and are often hardier than annual alternatives like corn and soy.

6. Red Meat Production Increases. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, while domestic beef production isprojected to decline in 2012, overall monthly red meat production is up from 2011 levels (due to an increase in pork, lamb, and mutton production). Americans eat a lot of meat: per capita, more than almost anyone else in the world. In 2009, the most recent year for which U.S. Census consumption data is available, the United States consumed nearly 5 million tons more beef than China, although the Chinese population was four times larger. U.S. consumers could significantly reduce per capita greenhouse gas emissions by eating less red meat (the production of which is input intensive). A study published in theJournal of Environmental Science and Technology suggests that switching from a diet based on red meat and dairy to one based on chicken, fish, and eggs could reduce the average household’s yearly emissions by an amount equivalent to driving a 25 mile per gallon automobile 5,340 miles (approximately the distance from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. and back).

7. Stanford Study on Organics Leads to Emotional Debate. A Stanford study titled “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier than Conventional Alternatives?” provoked emotional debate in September. The study found that the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods, although it also found that consumption of organic foods can reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The study’s results were misinterpreted by many, including members of the media, to imply that organic food is not “healthier” than conventional food. In reality, the study calls into question whether organic food is more nutritious than conventional food, and affirms that organics are indeed less pesticide-ridden than conventional alternatives (the primary reason many consumers buy organic).

8. World Food Prize Recognizes Water-Saving Potential of Drip Irrigation. In October, the World Food Prize was awarded to Israeli scientist Daniel Hillel in honor of his contributions to modern drip irrigation technology. Drip irrigation is the precise application of water to plant roots via tiny holes in pipes, allowing a controlled amount of water to drip into the ground. This precision avoids water loss due to evaporation, enables plants to absorb water at their roots (where they need it most), and allows farmers to water only those rows or crops they want to, in lieu of an entire field. Drip irrigation can enhance plant growth, boost crop yields, and improve plant nutritional quality, while minimizing water waste, according to multiple sources (Cornell University ecologists, and a study conducted by the government of Zimbabwe, among others). Agriculture account for 70 percent of water use worldwide; numerous organizations, including the Pacific Institute, have argued that the efficient and conservative use of water in agriculture is a top priority, especially as overuse and climate change threaten to exacerbate situations of water scarcity.

9. Rio+20 Affirms Commitment to Sustainable Development in AgricultureThe Future We Wantthe non-binding agreement produced at the United Nations’ Rio+20 conference in June, acknowledges that food security and nutrition have become pressing global challenges, and affirms international commitment to enhancing food security and access to adequate, safe, and nutritious food for present and future generations. In the document, the international community urges the development of multilateral strategies to promote the participation of farmers, especially smallholder farmers (including women) in agricultural markets; stresses the need to enhance sustainable livestock production; and recognizes the need to manage the risks associated with high and volatile food prices and their consequences for smallholder farmers and poor urban dwellers around the world. But overall, the agreement was heralded as a failure by many groups, including Greenpeace, Oxfam, and the World Wildlife Fund. According to Kumi Naidoo, the head of Greenpeace, “We were promised the ‘future we want’ but are now being presented with a ‘common vision’ of a polluter’s charter that will cook the planet, empty the oceans, and wreck the rain forests…This is not a foundation on which to grow economies or pull people out of poverty, it’s the last will and testament of a destructive twentieth century development model.”

10. White House Calls for More Investment in Agricultural Research and Innovation. A new report, released by an independent, presidentially appointed advisory group earlier this month, argues that the federal government should launch a coordinated effort to boost American agricultural science by increasing public investment and rebalancing the USDA’s research portfolio. The report cautions that U.S. agriculture faces a number of challenges that are poised to become much more serious in years to come: the need to manage new pests, pathogens, and invasive plants; increase the efficiency of water use; reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture; adapt to a changing climate; and accommodate demands for bioenergy—all while continuing to produce safe and nutritious food at home and for those in need abroad. Overall, the report calls for an increase in U.S. investment in agricultural research by a total of $700 million per year, to nurture a new “innovation ecosystem” capable of leveraging the best of America’s diverse science and technology enterprise for advancements in agriculture.

Although they might not be sexy, agricultural issues are worth caring about. The way we choose to grow, process, distribute, consume, and legislate on behalf of food can affect everything from public health, to greenhouse gas emissions, to global food availability, to water quality, to the ability of our food system to withstand shocks like floods and droughts. By familiarizing ourselves with these and other food issues, we as consumers can make informed decisions in both the grocery store and the voting booth, and can generate the action needed to move our food system in a healthy, equitable, and sustainable direction in 2013.

Sophie Wenzlau and Laura Reynolds are Food and Agriculture Staff Researchers at the Worldwatch Institute.

Aug03

Soybeans in Paraguay: A Boom for the Economy, Bust for Environmental and Public Health

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By Carly Chaapel

Soybean fields extend for miles on what was often thickly forested land in Paraguay. (Photo credit: MercoPress)

They are in bread, peanut butter, cookies, coffee creamer, crayons, candles, cows, and even cars. Soybeans, hailed as a “miracle crop” by many, have been harvested, pulverized, and processed to such an extent that it is nearly impossible to go a day without using them in some way.

In 2011, the United States and Brazil were the top two soybean producers in the world. Though Paraguay only contributes 3 percent of the global soybean supply, the rising demand for this cheap oil and protein has dramatically altered the Paraguayan agricultural landscape. Oxfam International executive director Jeremy Hobbs recently highlighted in the New York Times the destructive power that soybeans may have on the country’s entire political and economic stability.

This past June, President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay was impeached because of strong opposition to his agrarian reform and deaths during an attempt to remove squatters at a large farm belonging to a political opponent. He was a strong advocate for agricultural reform that would redistribute land and pull many of his people out of poverty. Just 2 percent of the Paraguayan population owns over three-quarters of the arable land.

Since 1996, over 1.2 million hectares of Paraguayan forest have been cleared and replaced with large swaths of treeless soy fields. Paraguay is currently the fourth largest exporter of soy, and much of the harvest is shipped to Europe and China as cattle feed and biofuels. According to the World Bank, however, undernourishment affects 10 percent of the population in Paraguay. Regardless of Paraguay’s booming US$1.6 billion soy export economy, 40 percent of the population still lives in poverty.

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Jul23

Breakfast, Jewelry, and Electricity: Tucumã Can Do it All

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By Eun Jae Park

Guarding its tasty fruits with sharp, needlelike spikes, the tucumã palm tree remains scattered throughout the Amazonas region of northeastern Brazil. With a rich texture and a mildly sweet yet savory flavor, the tucumã fruit has been a widely enjoyed treat in the Amazonas and nearby regions for centuries. A typical tucumã fruit can vary greatly in size from 20 to 100 grams and is packed with protein and Vitamin A.

The sharp spikes of the tucumã palm protects it fruits. (Photo Credit: Flavors of Brazil)

Tucumã can be prepared in many different ways: sandwiched between two French roll slices, stuffed into pancakes with tapioca, squeezed into juice, or freshly picked from the tree. In the past 30 years, tucumã has gained tremendous widespread popularity as an alternative breakfast staple. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2011 publication Fruit trees and useful plants in Amazonian life, tucumã sandwiches represent 60-80 percent of all breakfast sandwiches and 16-30 percent of tapioca pancakes made in Manaus, the most populous city in the Amazonas.

Aside from its culinary benefits, the tucumã fruit’s seeds are utilized to make a famous Amazonas bead necklace. FAO reports that an artisan can craft about 48 necklaces from just two bunches of fruit and sell a single handmade seed necklace at US$2 to $3. Tucumã allows indigenous Amazonians to practice traditional art while creating a source of potential income.

In addition, tucumã has been recently studied as a stable fuel source in the Amazonas. Almost 60 percent of a tucumã fruit’s weight is oil, making it a viable source of biofuel production. A study conducted by Acta Amozonica, a Brazilian research institute for issues within the Amazon rainforest, concluded that tucumã kernels are an excellent input source for biofuel production. Only 32 of the 4,600 unique, isolated communities in the Amazonas have electricity, making large-scale tucumã biofuel production a likely possibility in the future.

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Dec08

Innovation of the week: Turning cattails into fuel

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By Graham Salinger

Canada’s Lake Winnipeg is the 11th largest lake in the world and it is one of the world’s most polluted lakes. Tinted with a bluish-green tinge as a result of algae, Lake Winnipeg is no longer a viable fresh water source. The key to addressing Lake Winnipeg’s problems is in the Netley-Libau Marsh.  Located at the south end of Lake Winnipeg, the marsh filters nutrients running from the red river into Lake Winnipeg. Beginning in the 1970’s, the marsh began to experience significant rises in levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. These elevated levels resulted in a dramatic loss of fish, plants, wild life, aquatic vegetation, and wetland areas.

By using the cattails as a biofuel, reesearchers hope to reduce pollutants in Canada’s natural water ways, restore the marsh’s habitat, and reduce green house gas emissions. (Photo credit: University of Manitoba)

Richard Grosshans, a researcher with the University of Manitoba and the International Institute for Sustainable Development, thinks he may have the solution to Lake Winnipeg’ s problems. The answer, he says, is cattails.  According to his research, preventing harmful nutrients from re-entering the marsh requires removing cattails that grow abundantly in the marsh. While other pollutants, such as nitrogen, are stored in wetlands and are naturally broken down over time, phosphorus gets stored in sediments and eventually retained in biomass, such as cattails. When the cattails decay they release phosphorus into the water.

The research has demonstrated that removing the cattails can help restore the marsh’s ecological potential. In areas where researchers removed cattails, plants began growing two weeks earlier than in areas where cattails were not removed. Additionally, plant size and density in areas where cattails have been removed increased within two years of removal.

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Oct01

Don’t waste energy, turn waste into energy

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By Graham Salinger

Nearly 2 million people die every year from water born diseases because of a lack of adequate sanitation. A team of researchers led by Kartik Chandran, an associate professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University, thinks they may have a solution to the sanitation crisis that will also promote energy security in developing countries. Dr. Chandran recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates  Foundation to set up a “Next-Generation Urban Sanitation Facility” in Accra, Ghana.  Working with his colleagues Ashley Murray, founder and director of Waste Enterprisers , and Moses  Mensah of the  Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Dr. Chandran hopes to turn feces  found in sewage into biodiesel and methane by converting  a waste-processing facility into a biorefinery.

Dr. Kartik Chandran and his research team are developing the “Next-Generation Urban Sanitation Facility” in Accra, Ghana (Photo credit: Columbia University).

“Thus far, sanitation approaches have been extremely resource- and energy-intensive and therefore out of reach for some of the world´s poorest but also most at-need populations,” Dr.  Chandran explained in a press release. This has resulted in waste going directly into water supplies without being treated. Water management is especially important at a time when the impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly evident and fresh water availability grows more erratic. As water resources become scarce, preventing water from being contaminated becomes increasingly significant to agriculture and public health. Yet, half the people in the developing world lack access to safe sanitation.

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Apr07

New York Times Reports that Biofuels are Leading to Higher Food Prices

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Check out this article in yesterday’s New York Times about how biofuels are leading to higher food prices.

New-York-Times-Food-And-Agriculture-FAO-UN-United-Nations-Cassava

(Photo credit: Agnes Dherbeys for The New York Times)

The article quotes, among other experts, Olivier Dubois, a bioenergy expert at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), who says that “we have to move away from the thinking that producing an energy crop doesn’t compete with food. It almost inevitably does.” Last year, for example, 98 percent of the staple food crop cassava exported from Thailand, the world’s largest cassava exporter, went to China and was used to make biofuel.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.