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Another Summer, Another Food Crisis?

Corn prices peaked during the run up to the 2008 economic crisis at $7.88 per bushel and as the prices of corn and other commodities rose we saw food riots worldwide. Commodity prices soon came back the earth — corn is currently trading at about $4 a barrel. Given that we’re in the middle of an anemic recovery, you’d think spiking food prices are thankfully the last thing we have to worry about.

Not so, say a pair of economists from University of Illinois (via Phil Brasher of the Des Moines Register). In an analysis of past growing seasons, they suggest that commodity corn prices could reach $7 by summer. The reason for the potential coming price spike? Would you believe ethanol? Read more

Getting at the Roots of Climate Change: Food

Around one third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the way we produce, process, distribute and consume the food we eat according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Meanwhile, farmers the world over will be the most affected by climate change, as higher carbon in the atmosphere and higher temperatures increase erratic weather patterns, pests, and disease occurrence, while decreasing water availability, disrupting relationships with pollinators and lowering yield and the efficacy of herbicides like glyphosate (aka Roundup) — all detailed in a revealing new report from the USDA called The Effects of Climate Change on U.S. Ecosystems [pdf].

We should all give the USDA credit for keeping the ties between agriculture, food and climate change at the forefront of the discussion. Even in Copenhagen, where agriculture is getting less attention than it arguably should be considering its impact and potential for mitigating climate change, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke about the need for research, and seeing agriculture as an opportunity for climate change mitigation. He even said to the delegates in Copenhagen, “We need to develop cropping and livestock systems that are resilient to climate change.” While I agree on the surface with these statements, taking a deeper look reveals potentially problematic ideas for just how to do this. Read more

Re-assessing Biofuels, an Interview with Dr. David Pimentel

If you’ve been listening to the news in the past month, you’ve probably heard quite a bit about biofuels. Simply put, they are fuel made out of plants – principally corn and soybeans in the United States.

The new Obama administration is solidly in favor of increased biofuels production. Everyone from his Secretary of Agriculture to his Secretary of Energy has voiced their support for this policy. But the production of biofuel is by no means uncontroversial, and solidly at the center of this controversy is Dr. David Pimentel, Professor of Ecology and Agricultural Sciences at Cornell University. Read more

Farm Policy in the Next Presidency

In fifteen days, Americans will make an important decision: who will take the reigns and get us out of this mess.  One topic the candidates have mostly left out of their speeches on the campaign trail thus far is food.  Whether they realize it or not, when either John McCain or Barack Obama sit down next January to begin the task of fixing our economy, to promote green energy in order to produce the jobs they’ve both promised, and to deal with the climate crisis and health care, food will be the unavoidable issue that keeps cropping up. Read more

Down and dirty

All human life — all terrestrial life, in fact — relies on that thin, fragile layer of topsoil that covers much of the non-oceanic earth. In a large sense, human societies rise and fall, thrive and decline, based on how well they nourish their topsoil. I’m not a huge fan of Jared Diamond, but his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed teases out an important lesson: burning through your share of topsoil leads to catastrophe. Read more