Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Don't (just) worry, bee happy

The plight of the honey bee (not to be confused with the "Flight of the Bumblebee") has obviously struck a sensitive and very responsive chord. People really seem to understand the critically important role these critters play in the grand ecological scheme of things. The mysterious demise of bee hives across the country is troublesome. The response has been a combination of sympathy, fear and anger.

There's been one other response and it may be the one really positive outcome of this tragic situation: people feel empowered to do something about it -- and they are. Enrollment at beekeeping classes and workshops are at all-time highs.

We still need to figure the source of the original problem, but in the meantime it's encouraging to see this massive positive grassroots response to a serious problem. (GW)

Buzz grows over beekeeping

All morning one cool, drizzly April Sunday, cars pull up to the Reseska Apiaries warehouse in Holliston - one driven by an attorney, one carrying a plumber and a machinist, another a yoga studio owner. The occasion is the arrival by truck of 270 three-pound boxes of honeybees from Georgia, all ready for pick-up by a diverse and burgeoning cadre of backyard beekeepers.

"When I signed up for bee school, I thought there would be six people," says Kristina Ward, a 38-year-old landscape designer from Norfolk. "It turned out there's a whole subculture."

Subculture indeed. Ward is among almost four dozen aspiring beekeepers who recently completed the Norfolk County Beekeepers Association introductory "bee school," up from 17 two years ago.

Across Massachusetts and beyond, interest in beekeeping is exploding. Plymouth County's bee school had 40 students this spring, up from about two dozen two years ago. Worcester County, home of the nation's oldest county beekeepers' association, attracted 200 to its most recent course, almost double its 2005 enrollment. Essex County turned away some 40 aspiring beekeepers this year and taught another 93, a dramatic increase in interest over 2007, when 90 students enrolled, and well above the 60 or 70 typical before that. The Massachusetts Beekeepers Association has 320 members with 2,000 hives, up from 93 members with an estimated 1,500 hives in 2006.

Spurred in part by news of the mysterious colony collapse disorder that has decimated the nation's commercial honeybee population and in part by the ongoing popularity of gardening, the surge reflects a rising interest around the country.

"In 20 years, I have not seen the participation in beginner classes that I've seen this year," says Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture, who sends samples of his Ohio-based magazine to bee schools. "For the first time in 20 years, I've run out of magazines. Every year, people say, 'Can you send five or 10 or 15?' This year they're saying 30 or 40."

The packages piled in the Reseska warehouse are simple screened boxes, 15 inches wide by 8 inches tall by 5 inches deep, each with 12,000 bees clustering around a queen and generating enough heat to make the boxes warm to the touch.

Peter Hauschka, a 65-year-old biochemist from Needham, arrives to collect his order. He gets twice as many peaches and raspberries from his garden since he started keeping honeybees two years ago, he says, not to mention the 200 pounds of honey he harvested from two hives. He notices distant trees blushing with early signs of spring.

"Beekeeping connects you with nature in a way you haven't before, because you become very observant, watching what's blossoming," he says. "You think like a bee."

What honeybees do for Hauschka's garden they do on a grander scale by pollinating some 90 crops - including almonds and apples and blueberries as well as alfalfa for livestock - that account for one-third of the food Americans eat. Since late 2006, large commercial beekeepers, who bring their honeybees from crop to crop in state to state, have reported losses of 30 to 70 percent, often to the so-called colony collapse disorder characterized by inexplicably abandoned hives. Since September 2007, more than two-fifths of commercial beekeepers surveyed by the US Department of Agriculture have reported abnormally high losses, averaging 44 percent of their hives.

"It's one of the major threats to American agriculture," says USDA bee researcher Kevin Hackett.

The honeybees' plight - documented on PBS's "Nature" and CBS's "60 Minutes," as well as in newspapers across the country - motivated Robin Lamperti, a yoga studio owner from Walpole, to attend bee school. "I'm actually a gardener. I've always noticed certain plants I had attracted honeybees," says Lamperti, 46. "For several years, I thought I would do beekeeping, and then all this attention was given."

She mentioned her interest to her brother-in-law, Peter Tullock, a furniture maker and restorer who lives in Wrentham. "I said, 'That sounds like a ball. Let's give it a try,' " says Tullock, 40. His 8-year-old daughter, Madison, became curious, so he bought her a protective hat and veil, too.

Now they're making a day of picking up bees and setting up hives.

"Where's the queen?" Madison asks.

"She's right in the middle," her father replies. "You won't see her until we take the cover off."

The next stop is Howard Crawford's Akin-Bak Farm in Franklin, where Crawford and Norfolk County Beekeepers Association president Ed Karle show the "newbees" how to install bees into their hives.

Crawford, 84, started keeping bees 45 years ago to pollinate his apple orchard and truck garden. Most of the apple trees are gone now, and much of his land is untended, but he still has beehives. "I love the bees. Some people think they're mean. I like them. I just sit and watch them come in and out of the hive. It's relaxing," Crawford says. "You never see a beekeeper that's real depressed or anything."

The new beekeepers don their veils for Crawford's demonstration. Marc Zaller, 50, a courier company owner from North Attleborough, and Loretta Lennon, 45, a plumber from West Roxbury, were watching "Ulee's Gold," a 1997 movie about a beekeeper, when they decided to take up the hobby. They and their friend Francis Walker, a machinist and backyard gardener from North Attleborough who had read about disappearing honeybees, enrolled in bee school.

"In a small way, I'm doing something to help the bee population," says Walker, 52. "I hope my bees survive. It's like anything new you ever try. You're nervous about failure the first time out."

The instructors pass around the tiny cage protecting the queen because she and the half-dozen workers attending her are from a different hive than the other bees. Karle sprinkles confectioner's sugar on all the bees to guard against the Verroa mites he considers a bigger problem in Massachusetts than colony collapse disorder, although Crawford says he's lost two hives to the mysterious ailment.

Finally Karle shakes the bees from the box into the hive, between frames that will soon fill with honeycomb and the 1,500 eggs a day the queen will lay. Their buzzing is audible over the whir of passing cars, and their bodies are white with sugar. Stray bees land on shirts and hats, and one stings Crawford. Tullock brushes bees off Madison's hat, which she has decorated with pins of bees and flowers and a heart-shaped button that says "Bee Happy."

They're ready now to install their own bees, first in Lamperti's hive, set beside her day lilies and a Buddha. Step by careful step they replicate what they've learned. Lamperti notices a large bee. "Oh, Pete," she says, "there's a drone." Its job is to fertilize the queen.

With buzzing bees competing with the buzz of a neighbor's lawn mower, they pour the insects into the hive that Lamperti painted sea green and decorated with an "om" symbol. They repeat the process at Tullock's hive near a barely budding crabapple tree, in a spot so quiet that when they load the bees their buzzing pierces the still air. Madison, wearing her bee veil, started the day declaring herself no longer afraid of bees, but now she stands back on a ridge with her mother and her sister.

"Well," Madison confesses, "I felt a little bit scared."

The new beekeepers must wait at least three days to open their hives to give the queen time to escape her cage and the workers time to accept her. If all goes well, by August each hive could house 60,000 honeybees.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

How on God's green earth will we make up the difference?

Crunching the numbers that describe what it will really take to mitigate human-induced climate change reveals just how daunting the problem is. But rather than discouraging us, the mathematical realities should strengthen our resolve.

We definitely need to develop a Herculean Design Science revolution that realizes the goal of "doing more with less". (GW)

The Real Cost of Tackling Climate Change

By Steven F. Hayward
Wall Street Journal
April 28, 2008

The usual chorus of environmentalists and editorial writers has chimed in to attack President Bush's recent speech on climate change. In his address of April 23, he put forth a goal of stopping the growth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2025.

"Way too little and way too late," runs the refrain, followed by the claim that nothing less than an 80% reduction in emissions by the year 2050 will suffice – what I call the "80 by 50" target. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have endorsed it. John McCain is not far behind, calling for a 65% reduction.

We all ought to reflect on what an 80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050 really means. When we do, it becomes clear that the president's target has one overwhelming virtue: Assuming emissions curbs are even necessary, his goal is at least realistic.

The same cannot be said for the carbon emissions targets espoused by the three presidential candidates and environmentalists. Indeed, these targets would send us back to emissions levels last witnessed when the cotton gin was in daily use.

Begin with the current inventory of carbon dioxide emissions – CO2 being the principal greenhouse gas generated almost entirely by energy use. According to the Department of Energy's most recent data on greenhouse gas emissions, in 2006 the U.S. emitted 5.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, or just under 20 tons per capita. An 80% reduction in these emissions from 1990 levels means that the U.S. cannot emit more than about one billion metric tons of CO2 in 2050.

Were man-made carbon dioxide emissions in this country ever that low? The answer is probably yes – from historical energy data it is possible to estimate that the U.S. last emitted one billion metric tons around 1910. But in 1910, the U.S. had 92 million people, and per capita income, in current dollars, was about $6,000.

By the year 2050, the Census Bureau projects that our population will be around 420 million. This means per capita emissions will have to fall to about 2.5 tons in order to meet the goal of 80% reduction.

It is likely that U.S. per capita emissions were never that low – even back in colonial days when the only fuel we burned was wood. The only nations in the world today that emit at this low level are all poor developing nations, such as Belize, Mauritius, Jordan, Haiti and Somalia.

If that comparison seems unfair, consider that even the least-CO2 emitting industrialized nations do not come close to the 2050 target. France and Switzerland, compact nations that generate almost all of their electricity from nonfossil fuel sources (nuclear for France, hydro for Switzerland) emit about 6.5 metric tons of CO2 per capita.

The daunting task of reaching one billion metric tons of CO2 emissions by 2050 comes into even greater relief when we look at the American economy, sector-by-sector. The Energy Department breaks down emissions into residential, commercial (office buildings, etc.), industrial, and transportation (planes, trains and automobiles); electricity consumption is apportioned to each.

Consider the residential sector. At the present time, American households emit 1.2 billion tons of CO2 – 20% higher than the entire nation's emissions must be in 2050. If households are to emit no more than their present share of CO2, emissions will have to be reduced to 204 million tons by 2050. But in 2050, there will be another 40 million residential households in the U.S.

Today, the average residence in the U.S. uses about 10,500 kilowatt hours of electricity and emits 11.4 tons of CO2 per year (much more if you are Al Gore or John Edwards and live in a mansion). To stay within the magic number, average household emissions will have to fall to no more than 1.5 tons per year. In our current electricity infrastructure, this would mean using no more than about 2,500 KwH per year. This is not enough juice to run the average hot water heater.

You can forget refrigerators, microwaves, clothes dryers and flat screen TVs. Even a house tricked out with all the latest high-efficiency EnergyStar appliances and compact fluorescent lights won't come close. The same daunting energy math applies to the industrial, commercial and transportation sectors as well. The clear implication is that we shall have to replace virtually the entire fossil fuel electricity infrastructure over the next four decades with CO2-free sources – a multitrillion dollar proposition, if it can be done at all.

Natural gas – the preferred coal substitute of the moment – won't come close. If we replaced every single existing coal plant with a natural gas plant, CO2 emissions from electric power generation alone would still be more than twice the 2050 target. Most environmentalists remain opposed to nuclear power, of course. It is unlikely that renewables – wind, solar, and biomass – can ever make up more than about 20% of our electricity supply.

Suppose, however, that a breakthrough in carbon sequestration, a revival of nuclear power, and a significant improvement in the cost and effectiveness of renewables were to enable us to reduce the carbon footprint of electricity production. That would still leave transportation.

Right now our cars and trucks consume about 180 billion gallons of motor fuel. To meet the 2050 target, we shall have to limit consumption of gasoline to about 31 billion gallons, unless a genuine carbon-neutral liquid fuel can be produced. (Ethanol isn't it.) To show how unrealistic this is, if the entire nation drove nothing but Toyota Priuses in 2050, we'd still overshoot the transportation emissions target by 40%.

The enthusiasm for an 80% reduction target is often justified on grounds that national policy should set an ambitious goal. However, claims on behalf of alternative energy sources – biofuels, hydrogen, windpower and so forth – either do not match up to the scale of the energy required, or are not cost-competitive in current form.

How on God's green earth will we make up the difference? Someone should put this question to the candidates. And not let them slide past it with glittering generalities.

Mr. Hayward is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the annual "Index of Leading Environmental Indicators," from which this article is adapted.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The dirt on dirt

As a kid I used to eat dirt. I fact, I loved eating it. Scientists have a name for this. It's called geophagy. It is usually a sign of nutritional deficiency. I don't think this was relevant in my case. No one else in my family consumed dirt. In fact my older brother was charged with helping to break me of the habit. He interpreted that pretty freely to mean that he could literally slap some sense into my head whenever he saw me partake.

All this came flashing back to me back in the 1980s when I met Joanna Campe who introduced me to the worldwide effort to restore trace minerals lost to the soils -- a process called remineralization. That got me to reading a bunch of books on the topic of soil including Edward Hyams' out-of-print "Soil and Civilization", and
"Out of the Earth: Civilization and the Life of the Soil" by Daniel Hillel and believe it or not, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 1938 Yearbook of Agriculture (published during the tenure of Henry A. Wallace as Secretary of Agriculture). Finally, Charles Mann writes about the amazing human-made terra preta soils of Amazonia in his fascinating "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus".

While my perspective on soil has been more or less from an intellectual perch, I have farmer and gardening friends who are nothing less than passionate about dirt. And rightfully so. It is after all the stuff of life -- a precious resource that is all too often taken for granted. (GW)

The future of dirt

Better soil could accomplish some surprising things, researchers find, but improving it is no small task.

THE EARTH'S UNCERTAIN oil reserves and dwindling freshwater supply may get all the attention, but modern society is also overtaxing the ground itself.

At the same time that a growing population and the newfound appetites of the global middle class are straining our food supply, governments all over the world are also pushing for more ethanol-generating energy crops. To support all that production on a limited amount of arable land, scientists and farmers have long focused on technical improvements such as plant breeding, bioengineering, and creating new fertilizers and pesticides.

But some are now asking a different question: What if we could create better dirt?

An increasing number of scientists are starting to emphasize the extent to which soil - even more than petroleum or water or air - is a limited and fragile resource. Managing it better, and even improving it, will be vital to any equation that allows the earth to support the more than 9 billion people the UN estimates will live on the planet by midcentury.

The most dramatic research is still in the early stages, but soil specialists already have developed farming techniques that maintain and temporarily enhance the nutrient content of soil. Scientists in Australia and the United States have started making rich new earth from industrial waste, and research into the astonishing fertility of a mysterious Amazonian soil may lead to an additive that can boost the power of soil for thousands of years.

"A few decades ago, the philosophy was, 'Well, if your soil's degraded, just put some more fertilizer on, or till it another time and you can get the same crop yield,' " says David Laird, a soil scientist at the USDA's National Soil Tilth Laboratory. "Now there is growing interest in putting together systems that enhance the actual quality of the soil itself."

Dirt remains, in certain ways, a puzzle: Despite its seeming simplicity, it is a complex system whose fertility arises from the interaction of myriad physical, biological, and chemical properties. Even the most advanced current research doesn't claim to be able to synthesize enough of it for use on a global scale.

Nevertheless, progress in the science of soil has the potential to be truly transformative, and to help solve some of the biggest problems the planet faces. By 2050, according to Rattan Lal, a professor of soil science at Ohio State University, "All the necessities of food, feed, fiber, and fuel are going to be met by less than one-tenth of an acre per person, on average. And we already have seriously degraded a lot of the available land. So unless you can restore some of it you will just run out."

Soil does not arise quickly. In nature it starts with a layer of glacial grit, or windblown sand, or cooled lava, or alluvial silt, or some other crumbled mineral matter. A few pioneer plants put down shallow roots, and living things begin to make their homes in and on the surface, enriching it with their excrement, and enriching it further when they die and rot. The resulting organic matter feeds a whole underground ecology that aerates the soil, fixes nutrients, and makes it more hospitable for plant life, and over time the process feeds back on itself. If the soil doesn't wash away or get parched by drought, it very gradually thickens. It takes tens of thousands of years to make 6 inches of topsoil.

Because of all the things human beings do to it, University of Washington geologist David Montgomery has calculated, the world today is losing soil 10 to 20 times faster than it is replenishing it. In some places it is happening much faster: Sub-Saharan Africa, Northern China, parts of the American West, and Australia are already seeing large tracts of arable land disappear.

In his book, "Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations," Montgomery traces the decline of numerous early societies, including classical Greece, imperial Rome, various Pacific Island cultures, and the Mayans, to poor management of their soil.

However, it has also happened that civilizations have improved their dirt. Among the world's richer soils is terra preta, the "black earth" found in certain swaths of the Amazon basin. It is dark, loose, and loamy, and unlike the pallid earth that characterizes most of the Amazon, it is strikingly fertile.

In the last few years, archeologists have established something else intriguing about terra preta: it is man-made. It contains high concentrations of charcoal, along with organic matter such as manure and fish bones - essentially the household trash of a pre-Columbian society practicing a distinctive brand of slash-and-burn agriculture.

Researchers trying to replicate the fertility of terra preta have concluded that its secret is in the charcoal. Work by soil scientists like Laird, Johannes Lehmann of Cornell, and Mingxin Guo of Delaware State University suggests that the benefits of supplementing soil with charcoal - which they call "biochar" to distinguish it from the fuel of backyard barbecues - could be dramatic, widespread, and durable. Biochar, they have found, enhances the retention of water and nutrients, decreases the need for fertilizer, encourages microbial growth, and allows more air to reach crop roots. It also breaks down at a far slower rate than traditional fertilizers and soil additives. Depending on how the charcoal is made and applied, estimates of its life span range from decades to millennia. Scientists believe that some Amazonian terra preta soils are at least 2,000 years old.

"Biochar is much more effective at doing all the great things that normal organic matter usually does in soil, but it does it in much more effective ways, and it does it in a much longer way," says Lehmann.

Soil scientists have been experimenting with biochar for just a few years - barely enough time to see how well it performs over repeated plantings. Even its champions concede that there's plenty we need to learn about how to produce it on a mass scale. Researchers today are looking at how it might best be applied to the soil: in a dust, perhaps, or in pellets, or in a slurry mixed with manure. Two American companies, Eprida and BEST Energies, are working on bringing it to market.

Other scientists are looking at an even more ambitious project: making new soil from scratch. The challenge is to make truly synthetic soil that matches the stability and longevity of natural topsoil. (The artificial soils sold by the bag at gardening stores tend to be either natural soil that has been enriched, or potting soil, which is mostly compost and quickly degrades.)

Dick Haynes, a soil scientist at Australia's University of Queensland, has created a synthetic soil from industrial waste products: fly ash from power plants and byproducts of aluminum processing for its mineral components, poultry litter and manure for its organic matter. Haynes has said he wants to launch a soil-making industry in Australia, a country that has seen its limited fertile soil threatened by a decade-long drought. He hopes to have a product on the market within a few years.

Though Haynes has described his dirt as the world's first artificial soil, there are some precedents. In the mid-1990s, a Purdue University engineering graduate student named Jody Tishmack created a similar soil from power plant waste, biosolids left over from antibiotics production at a nearby Eli Lilly plant, and animal bedding from the veterinary school. The university used it for reclamation and landscaping projects around campus.

Today, Tishmack is still working on artificial soil, and her experience illustrates a key obstacle to its widespread adoption: cost. Synthetic soil is a very expensive way to replace a resource that is, however troubled, free.

She founded a company called Soilmaker, which uses a slightly less exotic recipe for its soil and sells it to gardeners and landscapers. Asked whether her product could work on an agricultural scale, she responded, "I can make it, but that doesn't mean that you can afford it. It would cost you $30,000 to put an acre of it down."

Until such methods are within reach of farmers, soil experts are focusing on ways that farmers can protect and even improve the soil they have.

One example is crop rotation, an ancient farming practice now seeing more use in both the developed and developing world. Instead of watching soil blow away from fallow fields between plantings, farmers are alternating grain crops with other crops so that the soil is covered at all times. And if those other crops are legumes like alfalfa, clover, or soybeans, they also take nitrogen out of the air and enrich the soil.

A twist on this idea, especially in tropical zones with poor soil, is agroforestry, in which fast-growing trees are interplanted with food crops - the tree roots stabilize the soil and pull up deep nutrients.

Another technique is to persuade farmers to stop tilling their ground entirely. Tilling, or plowing, is for most people synonymous with farming - traditionally it's been used to control weeds and mix fertilizer into the soil. But it also leaves soil far more susceptible to erosion, drying it out and leaving it bare to wind and rain.

To combat this, a growing number of American farmers are adopting "no-till" techniques, using machinery that inserts seeds through small slits into the ground. After the harvest, the crop remains are left on the field to decay, replenishing the soil in ways that synthetic fertilizers cannot.

Although techniques like no-till farming are gradually becoming mainstream practices, soil scientists remain frustrated by the lack of wider attention to the issue.

The loss of soil that feels so urgent to geologists averages out, over all the world's farmland, to just one millimeter per year. That rate is slow enough to create a political problem: It's outside the time frame of the politicians - and in many cases the farmers - who are key to fixing any problem as big as disappearing soil.

"Managing some of these slow-motion problems is the hardest because it never becomes a crisis," says Montgomery.

To soil scientists, the time horizon is only part of the political challenge. The larger problem may be, simply, that it remains hard for many people to take soil seriously.

"We put a value on the crops we harvest from the soil, but we don't think about the long-term benefit to the society of maintaining soil health and productivity," says Matt Liebman, a professor of agronomy at Iowa State. "It's much the same way we put a lot of value on medical treatments but very little on prevention."

Liebman points to the US Farm Bill as an example. Every year American farmers are heavily subsidized for commodity crops like corn, cotton, sorghum, and wheat that deplete soils, but are paid nearly nothing for those, like alfalfa, that help enrich it.

Ultimately, it may be the issue of climate change that drives public interest in soil.

As Daniel Hillel, a research scientist at Columbia University's Center for Climate Systems Research, points out, climate change is in part a soil problem. Carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide released from cultivated earth are in essence lost plant nutrients, and they're also major greenhouse gases.

Caring properly for soil, whether through additives like biochar or techniques like crop rotation and no-till agriculture, may have a serious role to play in mitigating greenhouse gases. Part of biochar's appeal, in fact, is that it keeps carbon locked up in soil for the many years the charcoal takes to break down. Currently, researchers at England's Newcastle University are working on a calcium-rich soil that they believe will have enhanced carbon-storing capacities.

If so, it would mean one more job for soil, a resource from which we already expect a lot - and which will underlie our ability to thrive in the centuries ahead.

"Maintaining your soil quality," says Laird, "is maintaining the viability of your society."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The fabric of revolution

Today marks the 14 year anniversary of post-apartheid rule in South Africa. All is not well. The gains that have been made in improving the overall quality of life for the majority of people is now being threatened as a result of the continuing spread of AIDS (As many as 1,000 AIDS-related every day) and an electricity system that fails to deliver (Households and businesses must plan around scheduled daily power outages).

If there is a silver lining in South Africa's power outages it is this: for the first time in fourteen years, people are rallying and mobilizing around a cause not based on race. If that sounds like an assessment made by Pollyanna looking through rose-colored glasses to you, read on. (GW)

Power outage

As South Africa celebrates 14 years of post-apartheid rule, AIDS and electricity could spark revolution

By: Peter-Dirk Uys
The Phoenix
April 23, 2008

EDITOR’S NOTE As the Republic of South Africa celebrates 14 years of democracy this Sunday, April 27, that nation is also confronting some severe growing pains. High on the list of problems is a surging demand for energy that has overwhelmed the country’s electricity supplier, Eskom, to the point where “load-shedding” (i.e., selectively turning off customers’ power) is routine. Lucrative mining operations have been periodically forced to shut down, and the country’s currency, the rand, has been in freefall.

The electricity shortage has also jeopardized South Africa’s deal with the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) to host the 2010 World Cup soccer championships, for which the construction of some new stadiums is already underway.

Thabo Mbeki, the South African president internationally notorious for dismissing the nation’s AIDS crisis, has been weakened by the failure of the very boom economy he fostered and will likely be succeeded by African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma (a/k/a “JZ”), himself linked to several corruption investigations. Zuma had served as deputy president until he became embroiled in a scandal involving top-ranking government officials accused of accepting (US) $8 billion in bribes from foreign companies bidding for pieces of a lucrative South African rearmament program.

South African satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys, currently appearing in Cambridge in his one-person show Elections and Erections: A Chronicle of Fear and Fun at the ART’s Zero Arrow Street Theatre, has been a thorn in that nation’s political side since apartheid provided him with fish-in-a-barrel targets. In this exclusive essay for the Phoenix, he laments that, thanks to circumstances back in Pretoria, his career as a national critic is, for now, all too secure, even in the post-apartheid era. Still, he has hope for the future.

Damn it, I want to be optimistic. I have always seen my glass as half full and not half empty. Now I think it’s dry. I’ll check once the lights come on again.

South Africa’s government of the day has always written my best material, so perhaps this national electricity crisis is just another wonderful ploy to grab more kickbacks. (We know the recent arms deal enriched those crème de la comrades beyond their wildest dreams. That $8 billion is peanuts compared with the $100 billion needed to erect the cluster of nuclear power plants that will bring South Africa’s electricity grid back online.) No one will complain — everyone is united in their fury. “Build the power stations, Zuma!” they will demand. Before load-shedding (the politically correct alternative to the word “blackouts”), the nation would have just said: “No way, Comrade!”

As of April 27, democracy in the Republic of South Africa is 14 years old. In 1994, after centuries of darkness, the miracle happened and the lights went on once again, after apartheid made way for the formerly banned alternative. And we are still there. Except, this time thanks to incompetence, the lights are going out once more.

President Thabo Mbeki has admitted that his government got its timing wrong in terms of managing our electricity needs. (By “government,” I think he means his cabinet.) He says sorry. As if his administration merely had added too much salt to the national stew. Actually, the stew was never there. His comrades took the gravy. Now there’s no salt, either.

Is there anything here that gives hope? Facing the next eight years without confidence in our electricity grid? Forget government; it is impossible to keep small businesses going when even the mines give up. We marveled at the collapse of Zimbabwe. That took years. Our demise could take weeks.

Suddenly, it is possible that World Cup soccer bosses FIFA, the other evil empire, which has no sentiment for “the people of South Africa,” will move their 2010 commitment from what is known as “the rainbow nation” to Australia. They’ve already prepared for it.

Without power, our other attractions of rainbow appeal pale into gloom. We’ll sit with all those billion-rand unfinished soccer stadiums that cannot be adapted overnight into power stations. Like the planned concrete piss-pot in the center of eco-green Cape Town, which, though it will be inaccessible to many poor blacks, will at least be perfectly situated for TV shots with that lovely image of Table Mountain in the background.

Meanwhile, that most commercial of the world’s heritage sites, the famed “University of Robben Island” — the grim prison from which Nelson Mandela and his first democratically elected cabinet were graduated — is in trouble. (Even Jacob Zuma, our possible next president, passed through it in solitary confinement from grade five to cum laude.) This jewel in our crown now sits virtually bankrupt with $3.4 million lost due to corruption and incompetence. The Department for Arts and Culture’s aging ferry system has collapsed, leading to thousands of canceled tours (often booked months in advance) and angry foreign tourists. A spokesperson for the department passionately came to the defense of his beleaguered comrades, saying that Robben Island symbolizes what the ruling African National Congress (ANC) stands for.

Comrade? You couldn’t have said it better.

A chance to make things work
Optimism is catchy. It is a balm and a great therapy. But when does optimism become propaganda? By constantly giving our government the benefit of the doubt while logic and common sense keep banging at the panic button, we are supporting them in their carelessness and failures. Since Mbeki declared himself an enemy of his people with his inexplicable denials of the seriousness of HIV and AIDS, I have not been a fan. But I never thought I would see him dismantled by his own party in such a casual and shocking manner as he was at the December Congress of the ANC, where Zuma and his clique were elected and Thabo’s Mbekivellian Politburo — that is, Political Bureau — was kicked out. Now, Mbeki looks like the small, pathetic puppet I use on stage.

After our impending general election, in April 2009, a new chapter will have opened. Once unprotected by the office of leadership, the road to a court in the Hague on charges of genocide for Mbeki and his minister of health, with her bizarre cures for the AIDS virus, will be clear. We are losing 1000 people a day thanks to their denials. Genocide in 2008 is simply: “Ignore them and they will go away.”

Could we see the current electrical crunch in any way as a good thing? Maybe, because, for the first time, people are sharing an opinion not based on color or creed. Blacks, whites, browns, and pinks are making their voices heard without resorting to a race debate. The fact that black South Africans have, in the majority, only enjoyed electricity for the past 13 years makes their frustration and anger even more understandable. This is the fabric of revolution. Will Eskom, our official power network, be the Bastille of a future collapse of the rainbow nation? Rainbows don’t exist. It’s time to open the umbrella of opinion and go into the storm.

Since taking control of spin and gesture politics, Mbeki’s Politburo has dazzled with promises and blah-blah, enriched with quotations from Shakespeare, Woolworths, and the thesaurus. All the government departments that work well — finance, foreign affairs, defense, and tourism — are there only to enrich the top few. The rest of the government, supposedly put there by the people for the people, is in a mess. Education. Housing. Health. Welfare. Energy. Home Affairs. Environment. Transport.

Service delivery can’t happen without electricity. You can’t see the future moving in the dark. But for the first time since national freedom, rich and poor, black and white, businesses and buskers, are united in their need to find the solution that eludes government. The people will learn to lead and the government can follow.

My optimism will never be bland theatrical propaganda for bad, careless politics. I believe that we will make South Africa the country it should be. So I encourage my people not to pack for Perth to follow the soccer ball. Staying home is more fun. Our ultimate optimism is this: because of the energy crisis, we might now save the planet for tomorrow. Think of it as a unique opportunity to meet our energy needs without burning dirty coal or a dicey nuclear cocktail.

Mandela gave us that second chance. I think suddenly, out of the blue, we have a third chance to make things work. And a chance to remake our economy from one dependent on cheap power to a competitive economy based on innovation, taking responsibility for the future of the Earth, and the unique resourcefulness of all South Africans. Maybe if we see our country as half-lit and not half-dark, we still can win.

Pieter-Dirk Uys was awarded South Africa’s prestigious Truth and Reconciliation Award in 2001.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

"Market failures at every link of the food chain"

Joseph E. Stiglitz won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001. He has written two important books on globalization: "Globalization And Its Discontents" and "Making Globilzation Work". The latter contains the chapter "Making Trade Fair" in which Stiglitz makes the following observation with regard to agricultural subsidies:
"Since the vast majority of those living in developing countries depend directly or indirectly on agriculture for their livelihood, eliminating subsidies and opening agricultural markets would, by raising prices, be of enormous benefit...Among and within the developing countries there would be losers and winners: farmers would be better off, while urban workers would face higher food prices. The way to solve this transitional problem would be for industrial countries to provide assistance to help the developing countries through the adjustment period -- even a fraction of what they now spend on agricultural subsidies would do."
Stiglitz acknowledges that subsidies primarily help agribusiness at the expense of the small farmer. The argument that small farms are inefficient is basically a falsehood perpetuated by corporate farming interests and perverse government policies.

And now the reality of the situation is being exposed in part by the impacts of climate change and the ill-informed solutions that are being proposed to address them. Fortunately that provides the opportunity for real (i.e. comprehensive/systemic) solutions to be implemented. Hopefully this will be done with the appropriate sense of urgency. (GW)

The silent tsunami

The Economist
April 17, 2008

Food prices are causing misery and strife around the world. Radical solutions are needed

PICTURES of hunger usually show passive eyes and swollen bellies. The harvest fails because of war or strife; the onset of crisis is sudden and localised. Its burden falls on those already at the margin.

Today's pictures are different. “This is a silent tsunami,” says Josette Sheeran of the World Food Programme, a United Nations agency. A wave of food-price inflation is moving through the world, leaving riots and shaken governments in its wake. For the first time in 30 years, food protests are erupting in many places at once. Bangladesh is in turmoil (see article); even China is worried (see article). Elsewhere, the food crisis of 2008 will test the assertion of Amartya Sen, an Indian economist, that famines do not happen in democracies.

Famine traditionally means mass starvation. The measures of today's crisis are misery and malnutrition. The middle classes in poor countries are giving up health care and cutting out meat so they can eat three meals a day. The middling poor, those on $2 a day, are pulling children from school and cutting back on vegetables so they can still afford rice. Those on $1 a day are cutting back on meat, vegetables and one or two meals, so they can afford one bowl. The desperate—those on 50 cents a day—face disaster.

Roughly a billion people live on $1 a day. If, on a conservative estimate, the cost of their food rises 20% (and in some places, it has risen a lot more), 100m people could be forced back to this level, the common measure of absolute poverty. In some countries, that would undo all the gains in poverty reduction they have made during the past decade of growth. Because food markets are in turmoil, civil strife is growing; and because trade and openness itself could be undermined, the food crisis of 2008 may become a challenge to globalisation.

Rich countries need to take the food problems as seriously as they take the credit crunch. Already bigwigs at the World Bank and the United Nations are calling for a “new deal” for food. Their clamour is justified. But getting the right kind of help is not so easy, partly because food is not a one-solution-fits-all problem and partly because some of the help needed now risks making matters worse in the long run.

The starting-point should be that rising food prices bear more heavily on some places than others. Food exporters, and countries where farmers are self-sufficient, or net sellers, benefit. Some countries—those in West Africa which import their staples, or Bangladesh, with its huge numbers of landless labourers—risk ruin and civil strife. Because of the severity there, the first step must be to mend the holes in the world's safety net. That means financing the World Food Programme properly. The WFP is the world's largest distributor of food aid and its most important barrier between hungry people and starvation. Like a $1-a-day family in a developing country, its purchasing power has been slashed by the rising cost of grain. Merely to distribute the same amount of food as last year, the WFP needs—and should get—an extra $700m.

And because the problems in many places are not like those of a traditional famine, the WFP should be allowed to broaden what it does. At the moment, it mostly buys grain and doles it out in areas where there is little or no food. That is necessary in famine-ravaged places, but it damages local markets. In most places there are no absolute shortages and the task is to lower domestic prices without doing too much harm to farmers. That is best done by distributing cash, not food—by supporting (sometimes inventing) social-protection programmes and food-for-work schemes for the poor. The agency can help here, though the main burden—tens of billions of dollars' worth—will be borne by developing-country governments and lending institutions in the West.

Such actions are palliatives. But the food crisis of 2008 has revealed market failures at every link of the food chain (see article). Any “new deal” ought to try to address the long-term problems that are holding poor farmers back.

In general, governments ought to liberalise markets, not intervene in them further. Food is riddled with state intervention at every turn, from subsidies to millers for cheap bread to bribes for farmers to leave land fallow. The upshot of such quotas, subsidies and controls is to dump all the imbalances that in another business might be smoothed out through small adjustments onto the one unregulated part of the food chain: the international market.

For decades, this produced low world prices and disincentives to poor farmers. Now, the opposite is happening. As a result of yet another government distortion—this time subsidies to biofuels in the rich world—prices have gone through the roof. Governments have further exaggerated the problem by imposing export quotas and trade restrictions, raising prices again. In the past, the main argument for liberalising farming was that it would raise food prices and boost returns to farmers. Now that prices have massively overshot, the argument stands for the opposite reason: liberalisation would reduce prices, while leaving farmers with a decent living.

There is an occasional exception to the rule that governments should keep out of agriculture. They can provide basic technology: executing capital-intensive irrigation projects too large for poor individual farmers to undertake, or paying for basic science that helps produce higher-yielding seeds. But be careful. Too often—as in Europe, where superstitious distrust of genetic modification is slowing take-up of the technology—governments hinder rather than help such advances. Since the way to feed the world is not to bring more land under cultivation, but to increase yields, science is crucial.

Agriculture is now in limbo. The world of cheap food has gone. With luck and good policy, there will be a new equilibrium. The transition from one to the other is proving more costly and painful than anyone had expected. But the change is desirable, and governments should be seeking to ease the pain of transition, not to stop the process itself.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Slavery's economic imprint

What if direct, quantifiable and verifiable connections between the African slave trade and the socioeconomic conditions of today's African nations could be proven? What should be the political ramifications be? How would the America's obligation/commitment to aid Africa be affected?

This has recently emerged as a topic of discussion and heated debate in academic circles thanks to the research of Harvard economist Nathan Nunn. He argues that the African countries that suffered the biggest slave exports are by and large the countries that are now experiencing the lowest incomes. If his hunches and research are correct it would have to dramatically change our government's attitude and policies with regard to aiding Africa. It would certainly enrich discussions around proposals calling for reparations for Africa and African nations.(GW)

Shackled to the past

New research from a Harvard scholar suggests that Africa's economic woes may have their roots in the slave trade.

To some develoment economists, the world can be boiled down this simply: There are rich countries that keep getting richer, and there are poor countries that seem destined to grow poorer. And then, there is Africa.

For every symptom of Africa's relentless underdevelopment, there is a theory about its root causes. Colonialism, the Cold War, climate change, ethnic warfare, the choking off of technology - they all rank high on the list of ills and crimes perpetrated on this continent in the last century. But underneath all those, many scholars have long sensed that to answer the two most nagging questions about Africa - How do we fix it? And how did it break? - you have to go much farther back in time. All the way to African slavery.

Sensing it is one thing. Proving it is another. Could there be a direct, quantifiable link between the African countries most ravaged by slavery and those that are the most underdeveloped today? And if there were such a link, could it be measured?

A young Harvard economist named Nathan Nunn believes there is, and believes he has. In a study sure to stir controversy over the legacy of the African slave trades, Nunn argues that the African countries with the biggest slave exports are by and large the countries with the lowest incomes now (based on per capita gross domestic product in 2000). That relationship, he contends, is no coincidence. One actually helped to cause the other.

It's a sweeping, ambitious recasting of slavery's horrific commerce. It is also a work of risky estimates and serious statistical gymnastics. Somehow, Nunn had to account for some 17 million slaves by their ethnic origins - a task some historians say can't accurately be done, but that Nunn nonetheless undertook, mining slavery data compiled over decades by other scholars. He also had to prove that his findings of cause and effect weren't polluted by a long list of variables that seem likely to have affected Africa's economies in the last 600 years. Nunn, a 33-year-old assistant professor, didn't shy away from this either, devising ways to control for everything from climate to natural resources to geography to Islamic influence to a country's particular brand of colonialism.

Bottom line, Nunn argues, if you were an African country that had the most people sold into slavery between 1400 and 1900, then you are likely one of the African countries holding the shortest end of the economic stick today. Depending on whom you ask, it's a claim that is either groundbreaking or wildly premature.

"I don't even know of something comparable that's previously been done," said Stephen O'Connell, who teaches economics at Swarthmore College and cowrote a seminal, two-volume tome on Africa's political economy in the modern era. "There's no question this is going to draw a lot of attention and a lot of study to figure out how strong this evidence is."

Scholars have debated the nature of slavery's economic imprint for decades, with many passionately convinced that it explains Africa's modern predicament. But those passions, O'Connell said, have not been backed up by hard numbers.

Nunn's research, published in February's Quarterly Journal of Economics and in other papers, leaves some important questions unanswered. He doesn't say exactly how the capture of large numbers of slaves from certain countries caused their underdevelopment today - but he makes some compelling guesses. Those guesses could have implications at a time when Western nations are being pressed like never before to finally do right by Africa, and the continent has gone into pop-culture overdrive. (Bob Geldof and Bono, meet Oprah, Angelina, Madonna, Don Cheadle, and George Clooney.)

Research already strongly suggests that the raiding of Africans by Africans triggered deep ethnic splits, wide-scale corruption, and a collapse of state systems. But if the countries identified by Nunn as having the biggest slave exports experienced a kind of nuclear dose of this, and his initial testing indicates they did, his theory might offer some road maps for development. For one, it seems to support arguments long held in some development camps that the best use of foreign aid dollars lies not in conventional relief efforts - the food drops and water wells and antimalarial nets - but in long-term investments to rebuild economic and political institutions.

Nunn's work also draws attention to the sensitive issue of apologies, reparations, debt relief, and the question of just how much the United States and Europe owe African countries that were at the epicenter of the slave trades. After all, he is drawing a straight line between the past actions of Western nations and Africa's ongoing suffering: Without the slave trades, according to Nunn, 72 percent of Africa's income gap with the rest of the world would not exist today.

In one sense, Nunn is an heir to Walter Rodney, the late Pan-African scholar who famously linked slavery to Africa's modern crisis. But Rodney was a Black Power activist who inspired riots after he was banned from entering Jamaica. Nunn, on the other hand, is the product of the small Canadian town of Vanderhoof, British Columbia (pop. 4,500). Self-deprecating almost to a fault, he doesn't exactly fit the profile of someone inclined to drop academic bombs, about slavery or anything else. Yet he has managed to wade deep into slavery's treacherous, emotional waters.

As a graduate student at the University of Toronto, Nunn pored over studies that tied late 19th- and early 20th-century colonialism to Africa's underdevelopment today. But that colonial period, often called the "Mad Scramble for Africa," lasted 75 years. Slavery went on for centuries. That got Nunn thinking. "It just seemed like the slave trade was more penetrating than colonial rule, and it was worth looking at empirically," he said.

By Nunn's rankings, Africa's biggest economic losers now, and biggest slave exporters then, include Angola, Togo, Ethiopia, Guinea, Sudan, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Conversely, the nations least touched by slavery, and significantly less poor, include Mauritius, Tunisia, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa.

The numbers don't always line up perfectly, as with Rwanda. By Nunn's calculations, Rwanda had some of the lowest slave exports, but it also ranked among the lowest for GDP income in 2000, and its recent history of genocidal conflict hardly qualifies it as a model for development. (Under its first democratically elected president, Rwanda has begun to grow rapidly since 2003, becoming a kind of showcase for the potential for economic recovery after genocide.)

But Nunn can live with the outliers: In statistics, he said, there are always exceptions. "Nothing perfectly explains one thing."

How much error is acceptable in a study of this scope is a matter Nunn is likely to hear about from students of slavery's history. His theories rely on centuries-old data, or others' estimates of centuries-old data, that are incomplete and, in some cases, scholar say, terribly unreliable.

David Eltis, a history professor at Emory University and a leading scholar of the slave trades, said that the territory staked out by Nunn is intriguing. But engaging in some estimating of his own, he said Nunn's scholarship is premature by about 20 to 30 years. "I'm not saying he's wrong," said Eltis. "What I'm saying is I don't find the argument proven in any sense."

Nunn concedes that he is "an outsider" to the sprawling, scattered data sets he has compiled. And it's fair to say that his methods are not for the statistically faint of heart. For one, he has to map slave populations onto countries that did not exist during slavery; most of present-day Africa's boundaries were drawn much later, under colonialism. Nunn also has to contend with multiple slave trades. In reality, there were four distinct slave trades operating in Africa between 1400 and 1900, the trans-Atlantic slave trade being the most infamous and penetrating.

Luckily for Nunn, counting the total number of exported slaves was actually the easy part. Thanks to a massive, pioneering database project known as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, it is now possible to track slaves shipped on about 82 percent of trans-Atlantic voyages attempted, and Nunn has mined this data. The database has some gaps, and Nunn's sources for the three other slave trades are sketchier, but for the most part Nunn can reasonably clear this hurdle. It's the next step that is potentially laden with huge errors: Nunn needs to know what proportion of the slaves on those voyages came from the coastal countries that shipped them off, and what proportion originally came from other inland countries. That is risky business, because it involves trying to categorize slaves by some 200 different ethnic identities.

Nunn does his level best, drawing on slavery's many paper trails - plantation inventories, slave registers, runaway notices, church and notary documents, and birth, marriage, court, prison, and death records - that noted slaves' ethnic markings or ethnically based surnames. It's Nunn's contention that slave traders had a vested interest in making sure these kinds of records were accurate, because the economic stakes of slavery were so high. "From the point of view of Europe and the colonies, slaves were valuable commodities," Nunn said. "So much so that the records for slaves from that time are much, much better than records for free people."

But not everyone buys this theory, including Eltis, who knows a thing or two about the slave trades: He is the lead architect behind the slave trade database so central to Nunn's claims.

"I just don't think the data are there at the moment to allow an accurate assessment of where slaves originated," Eltis said. "What slave owners wanted was labor. The actual ethnic designation of slaves was secondary."

There is, however, one rule that slavery has always obeyed, be it Roman, Egyptian, or African: Human labor always flows from poorer areas to richer areas. If the countries hit hardest by slavery are poorer now, Eltis said, they likely were poorer before slavery even began. (In his paper, Nunn raises and discounts this theory.)

Where some find Nunn's proposition outlandish, others are bound to see it as courageous. He has attempted to put plot points and statistical weight behind slavery's global aftermath. "That's not kooky," said O'Connell. "It's heroic."

More than ever before, those concerned with Africa are trying to shut the door on decades of failed prescriptions for the continent. Consequently, a new generation of crusading aid workers, think-tank researchers, and celebrity economists in opposing camps all believe passionately that they have the next Big Idea - be they microloans, grain science, a new Marshall Plan, or a massive overhaul of trade policy. Whether Nunn likes it or not, he has stepped into this ongoing war of ideas.

Nunn's research also comes at a time when the most fervent calls for reparations have come and gone, but when international calls for Western apologies for slavery still draw attention. The United States has never apologized for slavery, although five states - Virginia, Maryland, Alabama, North Carolina, and New Jersey - have done so recently, and Congress is poised to consider a resolution of apology this year. With much of the world's trade policy heavily skewed to the West's advantage and Africa's disadvantage, some say apologies carry little if any value. In any case, it remains to be seen whether the United States will ever face the role it played in one of history's worst crimes.

"The question you have to ask is, what would make a country that already knows it participated in the slave trades any more likely to apologize when it hasn't already?" said Ronald Walters, a professor at the University of Maryland and author of the book "The Price of Racial Reconciliation." "The evidence would have to be bulletproof, and I don't think this study is that strong."

For the moment, Nunn said, he can't say what the implications of his research might be. But his first, tentative steps in that direction are intriguing. Meshing his numbers with those of other scholars, Nunn has found that the countries he identified as having the most slaves taken are also the countries that have the most ethnic fractionalization today. It may well be that the ethnic fault lines driving Africa's worst conflicts have powerful roots in slavery, which required Africans to turn on one another in order to capture one another, severely weakening communal ties and preventing the spread of services like education, health facilities, and access to water across a large population.

The echoes across time are fascinating, and seem undeniable. But many practitioners say that ultimately, looking at Africa's problems through the lens of slavery is self-defeating. Calestous Juma, a native of Kenya and one of the most influential voices on African economic development, falls squarely into this camp.

"The legacy of slavery cannot be denied, but if you push the argument too far, it becomes a fatalistic argument," said Juma, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "Because you start to say, 'Well, what can we really do? We can't undo the past, and therefore, Africa will always remain poor.' "

An adviser to African presidents and the UN, Juma has a far more straightforward view of underdevelopment in Africa: Its root causes, he said, lie in the near total lack of technology and technical education for its people.

"I think Africa is poor not because of what was done to Africa, but because of what has not been done," Juma said. "I don't think [growth] comes from knowing that somebody disrupted your societies and institutions centuries ago. It comes from a very conscious effort{hellip}to harness intellectual capabilities and transform knowledge into goods and services. That should be the preoccupation of Africa at the moment."

Juma and Nunn may be working toward an eventual meeting of the minds. The Kenyan sees slavery's lasting scar as a deeply psychological one - an attack on the self-confidence of a continent, and by extension, its human potential. Until that legacy is conquered, Juma said, Africa will not advance.

Nunn, now at work on Chapter 2, has another name for this legacy: He calls it the trust channel. He can't prove it. But using household surveys of Africans over the last seven years known as the Afrobarometer, he is finding that ethnic groups that had the most slaves taken in the past express the most difficulty trusting people within their group, and outside their group. It may be that as it ravaged populations and crippled institutions, the hunting down and handing over of their own kin also robbed them of an innate ability to trust, all the way to the present day.

Measuring this kind of collective feeling, and correlating it to events so far in the past, will likely put Nunn right back on slippery ground. But he doesn't seem to mind. "The idea of the transmission or evolution of trust over generations, and this being affected by these large historic events," Nunn said, "is definitely not mainstream in economics."

Francie Latour is an associate editor at Wellesley magazine. She worked as a Globe reporter from 1996 to 2007.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

"Huge rise" in food prices is a threat to global stability

I had lunch with a friend the other day and she told me that her two sons no longer listen to NPR with her because the news frightens them so much. They are both in elementary school.

The bad news is that everything does seem to be spiraling out of control these days: the unending war, an unstable global climate, ecosystems in peril, skyrocketing energy and food prices, food supply, a chaotic housing market. It's hard to believe that things could get much worse.

Perhaps the only good news in all this is that many of these problems are interconnected. Consequently a number of them could be addressed at the same time if comprehensive systems-based solutions are implemented. On the other hand, short-sighted "solutions" could indeed make things even worse.

The development of indigenous renewable energy sources and sustainable agricultural practices that emphasize their use while minimizing dependence on fossil fuel inputs is an example of a comprehensive approach to the looming food crisis. Going the genetically modified organism (GMO) route is certainly problematic. (GW)

'Era of cheap food is over,' says EU

April 23, 2008

EU consumers should get used to paying more for food as prices for meat, grain, cereal and a range of agricultural commodities are set to increase further, according to EU officials and MEPs debating the issue in Strasbourg yesterday (22 April). The EU's current push for biofuels came under repeated scrutiny during the discussion.


Sharp increases in food prices in recent months have sparked riots in a number of countries, including Haïti, Mexico, Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, Uzebkistan, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia. EU consumers have also seen dramatic increases in prices for basic foodstuffs.

Rising global populations and demand for food, climate change related crop failures, higher fuel and fertilizer prices, speculation on commodity markets, dysfunctional global agricultural markets and greater biofuels production are widely seen as the causes of the crisis.

EU policies, most notably export subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and more recently the bloc's proposed target to increase biofuels use by 10% by 2020, are also coming under increasing scrutiny. There are concerns that the combined effect of these measures acts as a disincentive to boost greater agricultural output in developing countries, notably in Africa.

"We won't see food prices going back down to former levels," EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel told a Strasbourg audience of MEPs convened to discuss the global food crisis.

The "huge rise" in food prices is a threat to global stability, according to Michel, who announced an increase in EU spending on food aid to developing countries.

But Michel also stressed that solving the crisis is "far beyond the EU's ability", pointing to structural problems in world agricultural markets and, in particular, a lack of purchasing power in poorer countries.

Empty bellies

Global average food prices have risen by 83% in the past three years, according to the World Bank, which notes a particularly sharp increase in the past six months. While EU citizens have to dig deeper into their pockets to meet rising costs, in many poor nations - where hundreds of millions of families and individuals live on less than one euro per day - the increase means the difference between poverty and starvation.

Josette Sheeran, executive director of the UN's World Food Programme (WFP), has compared the crisis to the 2004 Asian tsunami, and is calling for "large-scale, high-level action by the global community, focused on emergency and longer-term solutions".

The crisis has also raised concerns that the UN's objective of halving global poverty by 2015, the so-called Millenium Development Goals, will not be met.

'Hedge foods'

Growing demand for previously unaffordable meat and other 'luxury' foods in rapidly developing nations like China, India and Brasil is frequently cited as one of the main drivers of higher prices.

But during their debate, a number of MEPs also pointed to increased food commodities speculation and profiteering in the wake of the recent melt-down of global financial markets. The implication, according to a number of Socialist MEPs in particular, is that players on the financial markets have scrambled to find new profits, and are deliberately driving down food supplies while pushing demand in order to boost the price of food commodities.

Calls for greater regulation of financial markets have raised red flags in Brussels, where the EU's Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson recently warned against using the crisis as an excuse for greater agricultural protectionism (EurActiv 21/04/08).

Bashing biofuels

There are growing concerns that a greater shift from food production towards biomass-for-biofuels production will further aggravate food shortages and price concerns.

Italy's outgoing prime minister, Romano Prodi, most recently addressed the issue at the International Energy Forum in Rome on 22 April. Competition between food and fuels is creating a conflict that could result in "disastrous social conflicts and dubious environmental results," he said.

The office of Gordon Brown, the UK prime minister, also promised on 22 April to "push for a change" in the EU's biofuels policy if a UK government review finds that the policy is counter-productive in terms of food prices and environmental sustainability.

Brussels meanwhile continues to defend its biofuels proposals.

"Biofuels have become a scapegoat for recent commodity price increases that have other causes – poor harvests worldwide and growing food demand generated by increased standards of living in China and India," EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs wrote in a blog post on 28 March.

A number of MEPs have also cautioned against 'throwing out the baby with the bath water', arguing that biofuels have only a marginal impact on food price hikes and that structural changes to world food markets, as well as greater agricultural output from Africa, would largely cancel out the food price impact of biofuels production.

The GMO solution?

While most MEPs agreed during their debate that greater agricultural productivity is needed to address the crisis, views differed sharply about the benefits of using biotechnology and genetically modified (GM) crops in order to boost harvests in the EU and in developing states.

There is also speculation that the extent of the price hikes may push EU consumers towards a generally more favourable view of GM crops. EU citizens "hearts may be on the left, but their pockets are on the right," said MEP Neil Parish, chairman of the Parliament's agriculture committee, the International Herald Tribune reported.

But a collection of EU consumer, family farm and environmental groups remain opposed to GM crops. In a statement issued to MEPs as part of the debate, the groups argue that "there is little evidence to suggest that weakening the GMO regime in Europe will address [the crisis]. Price increases have occurred all over the world – even in the US which has the most permissive system of GM approvals".


The 22 April Strasbourg debate drew a range of reactions across party lines.

French Christian Democrat MEP Joseph Daul, chairman of the EPP-ED group, said that agrofuels (or biofuels) are "not to blame" for the crisis, particularly in Europe, where agro-fuels production accounts for only 2% of the bloc's total agricultural output. Europe needs to "think seriously" about GM crops, he added.

The leader of the Socialists (PES), German MEP Martin Schulz, focused on the "considerable speculation" in global food markets. "Casino capitalism has taken a seat at the table of the poor. This is immorality carried to the extreme. This is why we need international controls on financial markets," Schulz said in a press statement.

UK MEP Graham Watson, chairman of the Liberals (ALDE), argued for a greater reform of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which he sees as the "root cause" of the problem. Watson also argued against an excessive focus on biofuels. "While it is true that bio-fuels increase demand for crops and displace food production the reasons for the recent food price rises are many and varied and so must be the international community's response", he said.

But independent UK MEP Graham Booth called on the EU to reverse its biofuels policy immediately, arguing that is is a "key factor in the surge in food prices around the world".

German Green MEP Rebecca Harms was slightly more measured in her stance on the issue. "Agrofuels alone are not to blame for the rise in food prices, but they are exacerbating the current crisis. Agrofuels only make sense when they contribute to climate protection and that is not currently the case," she said.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Cape Wind: How many studies will it take till we know...?

More than 40,000 individuals and organizations have submitted comments on an environmental review of the wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound, according to federal officials.

"I've never seen anything like this before," said Rodney Cluck, Cape Wind project manager for the U.S. Minerals Management Service, the lead federal agency to review Cape Wind Associates' plan to build 130 wind turbines in the sound.

No other project reviewed by the agency during Cluck's 11 years with MMS has received as much attention, he said. The final number of public comments submitted on the agency's Cape Wind draft environmental report has yet to be tallied. A 2005 report on the project issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received one-tenth the number of comments the MMS document has so far.

Despite the difference in magnitude, there were similar criticisms leveled against the MMS and Army Corps of Engineers documents.

The MMS report took hits for conclusions drawn from studies of other projects, analysis of the impact of construction noise and alternatives considered in the document. The report, which was released in January, found little environmental impact across 117 areas under consideration.

Some federal agencies requested more information on the project and called parts of the report inadequate.

"At the very least, the (report) should explain why recommended studies and analyses were not conducted and the ramifications of not having that information," Michael Bartlett, supervisor for the New England Field Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote about bird and fisheries research in a letter sent to MMS on Monday.

While Bartlett praised MMS officials for attempts to analyze alternatives to Cape Wind's proposal and an economic comparison of different sites and sizes for the project, he questioned conclusions in the report about its environmental impact.

The report's information on migratory birds and fishery habitats linked to the 25-square miles of Horseshoe Shoal where the project would be located is inadequate, Bartlett wrote. "Once again, we feel that it would be more appropriate for the (report) to conclude that there is insufficient information to make an informed impact analysis."

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator Robert Varney called for additional research and consideration of alternatives to Cape Wind such as a floating wind farm proposed further offshore by a Dutch company.

"We strongly encourage MMS to work more closely with EPA and other agencies during the development of the (final report)," Varney wrote in a letter to MMS officials.

The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, the project's most vocal opponent, enlisted 40 experts to review the report and produced a 3,000-page critique, the organization's president, Glenn Wattley, said yesterday.

"Part of the dilemma here is after three years the MMS hasn't produced a higher quality document," Wattley said, comparing the Army Corps review and the MMS report.

MMS took over the review of Cape Wind from the Army Corps as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Studies of how birds will be affected were also inadequate, Wattley said.

Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers countered the project's potential impact on the avian world is well documented.

"It's important to point out that Cape Wind has undergone, already, more avian studies than any wind farm on the planet prior to construction," Rodgers said. "For some, there's never enough data."

Despite the criticisms of the MMS report, the vast majority of comments submitted will be in favor of the project, Rodgers predicted.

In their comments, national and local environmental groups such as the Conservation Law Foundation and Clean Power Now praised Cape Wind and the MMS draft report.

"To meet the challenge of reducing fossil fuel emissions and the associated threats to public health, our oceans, other natural resources and the global climate, we must embrace clean renewable energy generation," a group of ten environmental organizations wrote in a letter on the project. "Cape Wind is one of the nation's most promising clean energy projects."

Cape Wind supporters are confident the wind farm will get the permits needed for construction to begin, executive director for Clean Power Now, Barbara Hill, said yesterday.

Patrick Cassidy can be reached at

What's next

The U.S. Minerals Management Service will continue to count and organize comments on the Cape Wind proposal.

  • Comments are expected to be posted on the MMS Web site ( by Friday.
  • The agency will work with Cape Wind, a third party contractor and cooperating agencies to create a final environmental impact statement that is due out by the end of the year.
  • A record of decision from the agency indicating approval or disapproval of the Cape Wind project is expected to be released sometime in the winter.

Futures ain't what they used to be

In his 1991 classic "Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West" historian William Cronin (who also wrote "Changes In the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England" ) wrote about one of the most historic developments for American agriculture:
"By 1859, then, Chicago had acquired the three key institutions that defined the future of its grain trade: the elevator warehouse, the grading system and, linking them, the privately regulated central market governed by the Board of Trade. Together they constitute a revolution...The changes in Chicago's markets suddenly made it possible for people to buy and sell grain not as the physical product of human labor on a particular tract of prairie earth but as an abstract claim on the golden stream flowing through the city's elevators."
This system effectively transformed grain from a product into capital, and that made possible the creation of the futures market. (GW)

New Threat to Farmers: Crop Futures

Fred Grieder has been farming for 30 years on 1,500 acres near Bloomington, in central Illinois. That has meant 30 years of long days plowing, planting, fertilizing, and hoping that nothing happens to damage his crop.

“It can be 12 hours or 20 hours, depending,” Mr. Grieder said.

But Mr. Grieder’s days on the farm in Carlock, Ill., are getting even longer. He now has to keep a closer eye on the derivatives markets in Chicago, trying to hedge his risks so that he knows how much he will be paid in the future for crops he is planting now. And the financial tools he uses to make such bets are getting more expensive and less reliable.

In what little free time he has, Mr. Grieder attends Illinois Farm Bureau meetings to join other frustrated farmers who are lobbying officials in Chicago and Washington to fix a system that was designed half a century ago to reduce uncertainty for food producers but is now increasing it.

Mr. Grieder, 49, is shy about complaining amid so much prosperity. Prices for his crops are soaring on the updraft of growing worldwide demand, and a weak dollar is making those crops more competitive in global markets.

But today’s crop prices are not just much higher, they also are much more volatile. For example, a widely used measure of volatility showed that traders in March expected wheat prices to swing up or down by more than 72 percent in the coming year, three times the average volatility for that month and the highest level since at least 1980. The price swing expected in March for soybeans was three times its monthly average, and the expected volatility in corn prices was twice its monthly average.

Those wild swings in expected prices are damaging the mechanisms — like futures contracts and options — that in the past have cushioned the jolts of farming, turning already-busy farmers into reluctant day-traders and part-time lobbyists.

One measure of the farming industry’s frustration is the overflow crowd expected at a public forum on Tuesday at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in Washington. Interest is so high that the commission, for the first time ever, will provide a Webcast of the forum, which it says is being held to gather information about whether key markets for hedging the price of crops “are properly performing their risk management and price discovery roles.” The Webcast link is available on the commission’s Web site,

The additional costs that stem from volatility in grain prices — higher crop insurance premiums, for example — are not just a problem for farmers. “Eventually, those costs are going to come out of the pockets of the American consumer,” said William P. Jackson, general manager of AGRIServices, a grain-elevator complex on the Missouri River.

Prices of broad commodity indexes have climbed as much as 40 percent in the last year and grain prices have gained even more — about 65 percent for corn, 91 percent for soybeans and more than 100 percent for some types of wheat. This price boom has attracted a torrent of new investment from Wall Street, estimated to be as much as $300 billion.

Whether new investors are causing the market’s problems or keeping them from getting worse is in dispute. But there is no question that the grain markets are now experiencing levels of volatility that are running well above the average levels over the last quarter-century.

Mr. Grieder’s crop insurance premiums rise with the volatility. So does the cost of trading in options, which is the financial tool he has used to hedge against falling prices. Some grain elevators are coping with the volatility and hedging problems by refusing to buy crops in advance, foreclosing the most common way farmers lock in prices.

“The system is really beginning to break down,” Mr. Grieder said. “When you see elevators start pulling their bids for your crop, that tells me we’ve got a real problem.”

Until recently, that system had worked well for generations. Since 1959, grain producers have been able to hedge the price of their wheat, corn and soybean crops on the Chicago Board of Trade through the use of futures contracts, which are agreements to buy or sell a specific amount of a commodity for a fixed price on some future date.

More recently, the exchange has offered another tool: options on those futures contracts, which allow option holders to carry out the futures trade, but do not require that they do so. Trading in options is not as effective a hedge, farmers say, but it does not require them to put up as much cash as required to trade futures.

These tools have long provided a way to lock in the price of a crop as it is planted, eliminating the risk that prices will drop before it is harvested. With these hedging tools, grain elevators could afford to buy crops from farmers in advance, sometimes a year or more before the harvest.

But that was yesterday. It simply is not working that way today.

Futures, for example, are less reliable. They work as a hedge only if they fall due at a price that roughly matches prices in the cash market, where the grain is actually sold. Increasingly — for disputed reasons — grain futures are expiring at prices well above the cash-market price.

When that happens, farmers or elevator owners wind up owing more on their futures hedge than the crops are worth in the cash market. Such anomalies create uncertainty about which price accurately reflects supply and demand — a critical issue, since the C.B.O.T. futures price is the benchmark for grain prices around the world.

“I can’t honestly sit here and tell you who is determining the price of grain,” said Christopher Hausman, a farmer in Pesotum, Ill. “I’ve lost confidence in the Chicago Board of Trade.”

“We know that the current global environment is creating challenges for many of the traditional users of our markets, and we are very concerned,” said David D. Lehman, director of commodity research and product development for the C.B.O.T.’s owner, the CME Group. “But there are a lot of things that are changing and there is no silver bullet, in terms of a solution.”

Many farmers and people in related businesses blame the tidal wave of investment pouring in from hedge funds, pension funds and index funds for the faulty futures contracts and rising volatility. . But those institutional investors’ money actually adds liquidity to the market, which in theory should reduce price volatility, Mr. Lehman noted.

In any case, at current levels of volatility, options trading becomes riskier, and therefore more expensive — too expensive for many farmers like Mr. Grieder, who now has to hedge with the recently less reliable futures contracts.

That exposes him to the risk of having to put up more cash — to maintain his price protection — whenever a weather threat, shipping disruption or a fresh surge of money from Wall Street suddenly pushes up grain prices.

“If you’ve got 50,000 bushels hedged and the market moves up 20 cents, that would be a $10,000 day,” he said. “If you only had $10,000 in your margin account, you’d have to sit down and write a check. You can see $10,000 disappear overnight.”

On an unusual day, he said, he might get four phone calls a day from his broker seeking additional margin. “But usually, the margin calls come in the mail, in a little blue envelope,” he said. “You don’t have to open it to know what it is.”

When it arrives, he sometimes has to rely on his bank to advance him the margin he needs to keep those hedges in place — a worrisome requirement even for a successful farmer in an economy already beset by a credit squeeze.

“The nightmare scenario is when you have to make margin and you’re looking out your back door and seeing, maybe, a crop problem,” he said. “Everybody has a story about a guy they know getting blown out of his hedge” by unmet margin calls.

Farmers used to leave the market-watching to traders who work for big grain elevator companies. But with some of those companies now refusing to buy crops in advance because hedging has become so expensive and uncertain, farmers have to follow and trade in those markets themselves.

“This is something the farmer didn’t have to worry about before,” said Curt Kimmel, a commodity broker at Bates Commodities, the advisory service Mr. Grieder uses. “It’s a cruel and unforgiving market.”

John Fletcher, a grain elevator operator in Marshall, Mo., started pressing the C.B.O.T. to address the flaws of futures contracts almost two years ago — even before his futures hedge on a million bushels of soybeans failed to fully protect him last September, hitting him with a cash loss of $940,000.

Mr. Fletcher does not blame the big institutional investors stampeding into the market. “But they have contributed to the problem by making these markets so much larger — so large that they have outgrown their delivery system,” he said. “And that has detached the futures market from the cash market.”

Frustrated over the flawed futures contract, Mr. Fletcher is voting with his feet. Last year, he entered into a contract with A.I.G. Financial Products, a leading sponsor of commodity index funds, which allows him and the index fund to hedge their risks without using the C.B.O.T.

Instead of using futures or options, A.I.G. simply buys the commodity directly from Mr. Fletcher, who stores it for a fee and buys it back six months later. His storage fee is lower than the one built into the C.B.O.T. contract, so A.I.G. pays less for its stake in the market. And he has a hedge he can rely on.

“I did a deal with them for corn a year ago, and this year I’m doing a deal on soybeans,” he said.

But private deals like these do not provide pricing data to other farmers and to the rest of the food industry that has long relied on the Chicago Board of Trade as the best measure of supply and demand. If such bilateral contracts become more common, it will be harder for everyone in the industry to anticipate costs and potential profits — which could also push prices up.

This growing uncertainty about prices and hedging “just makes the market less efficient,” said Jeffrey Hainline, president of Advance Trading, an agricultural advisory and brokerage service in Bloomington, Ill. “And anything that makes these markets less efficient increases the cost of food.”

Robert E. Young 2d, chief economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, has held meetings on this topic around the Farm Belt over the last month and has gotten an earful from distressed food producers and elevator owners, he said.