Published Jun 11 2009 by Energy Bulletin
Archived Jun 11 2009

Food & agriculture - June 11

by Staff

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Do exports of water-intensive crops hurt drought-prone California?

Melinda Burns, Miller-McCune Magazine
Trading 'Virtual' Water
In the Imperial Valley of California, a region drier than part of the Sahara Desert, farmers have found a lucrative market abroad for a crop they grow with Colorado River water: They export bales of hay to land-poor Japan.

Since the mid-1980s, this arid border region of California has been supplying hay for Japan's dairy cows and black-haired cattle, the kind that get daily massages, are fed beer and produce the most tender Kobe beef.

Container ships from Japan unload electronics and other goods in the Port of Long Beach, and the farmers fill up the containers with hay for the trip back across the Pacific. Since the containers would otherwise return empty, it ends up costing less to ship hay from Long Beach to Japan than to California's Central Valley.

"Everything is done for economics," said Ronnie Leimgruber, an Imperial Valley hay grower who is expanding into the export market. "Japan cannot get hay cheaper. The freight is cheaper from Long Beach than from anywhere else in the world."

Water is cheap for valley farmers, too: urban rates there are four times as high. It costs only $100 to irrigate an acre of hay in the desert for a year.

But what makes economic sense to farmers may not be rational behavior for California in the third year of a severe drought, say some conservationists. At the very least, they contend, the growing state debate over water allocation should take into account the exports of crops such as hay and rice — two of the most water-intensive crops in the West — because they take a toll on local rivers and reservoirs.

"This is water that is literally being shipped away," said Patrick Woodall, research director at Food and Water Watch, an international consumer advocacy group ...
(10 June 2009)

Farm Suicides Turn Children Into Farmers

Jaideep Hardikar, Inter Press Service
YAVATMAL, India - Eleven-year-old Digambar Rathod looks older than his age. Shy and uncertain, he stares disconcertedly at the garlanded photograph of his father Jaideep, a 42-year-old cotton farmer who committed suicide on Jan. 1, 2009 in Tiwsala village, in eastern Maharashtra state's suicide-torn Yavatmal district.

As the new head of the household, the boy-turned-farmer has adult responsibilities like the repayment of a bank loan of 190,000 rupees (roughly 3,960 dollars) that was the cause of his father's death.

Digambar has dropped out of school, says his mother, Sunita, grief-stricken and burdened by the terrible tragedy the family has suffered. His older sister Roshni too has left school to take over the household work. The two younger children, a boy and a girl, are too young to work, says Roshni.

But everyone knows that it won't be long before all four Rathod children join the ranks of Vidarbha's baccha-kisans (child farmers). Here in six districts including Yavatmal, Wardha and Akola, thousands of cotton farmers have taken their lives due to mounting debts and a dramatic decline in farm incomes over the past decade or so, and their children have stepped into their shoes.

According to the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), 40,000 of the 184,000 farmers' suicides reported in India between 1995 and 2007 were from Maharashtra. Over 25,000 of the deaths in the state were registered after 2002.
(10 June 2009)

Canada: Putting food on the table produces greenhouse gases

CBC News
The energy required to put food on the table in Canada produced nearly 46,000 kilotonnes of greenhouse gases in 2003, says a Statistics Canada report.

The amount represented 6.4 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions in Canada that year, the agency said in its annual publication, Human Activity and the Environment, released Tuesday.

Statistics Canada said the numbers are significant because it is the first national estimate of food related greenhouse gas emissions that is comprehensive in scope.

The estimate, which looked at household spending on food, included all energy expended in bringing food from the farm to the table that could be measured, and included energy use in primary food production, food processing, manufacturing, distribution, retailing and advertising.

"We are trying to look at the impact of human activity on the environment," Heather Dewar, managing editor of the publication, said in an interview from Ottawa. "It's certainly an opportunity for us to see the results of our activities.

"We feel that this information is relevant to today. This is the most recent detailed information that we can use. Food system patterns are relatively stable, so even though this information is from 2003, we think it's still useful."

The report said production of fresh and frozen meat produced nearly a quarter, or 23 per cent, of food-related greenhouse gas emissions in 2003, while fish products contributed only two per cent. Beef alone accounted for 15 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions that resulted from household spending on food in 2003.
(9 June 2009)

Biochar newsletter for June

International Biochar Initiative (IBI)
Executive director Stephen Brick's monthly column; updates on IBI and UNFCCC process in Bonn; regional biochar group updates; Practitioner's Profile Dr Paul Blackwell;

Notes from the Executive Director
By Steve Brick.
"Bringing biochar into the mainstream" is shorthand for IBI's mission. What do we mean by that, exactly?

Biochar production systems need to be developed and scaled across a range of potential applications, from the smallest to the largest. In order to do this, we need pilot projects--many, many more than we have at the moment. And to proceed with projects, developers need capital. Lots of it. And the challenge is that, for the most part, biochar production systems cannot be financed conventionally, because markets don't pay for all of the benefits that biochar production systems deliver. In fact, at the moment, markets don't pay for most of them.

In many countries there is no price signal for carbon, so biochar's sequestration benefits go unrewarded. Waste biomass disposal is often unpriced or underpriced, so, there is no economic incentive to use these feedstocks to produce biochar. Until these market imperfections are fixed, biochar production systems will have difficulty standing on their own.

Developers also face a host of regulatory hurdles. Production systems require environmental approvals, and the permitting process can be both costly and time-consuming, especially for new technologies. Widespread use of biochar as a soil amendment is likely to require regulatory approval as well, and this could be a protracted process. New technologies are almost always scrutinized for potential safety risks, and biochar production systems will be no exception as regulators insure that workers are protected.

Like all new technologies, biochar production systems face what is called the "valley of death"--the gap between promising research results and full commercialization. Most technologies don't make it through the valley, and disappear or languish for years--or for decades. More than a year ago, a Reuters news story quoted Dan Reicher (former Clinton Administration Official and now head of Google Inc's green energy efforts) on this problem: "there are even more technologies hitting the Valley of Death and in need of capital... we have a long way to go before we have really cracked the code on this." In the intervening year, markets have tumbled, the global banking system has been brought to its knees, and the world finds itself in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The Valley of Death has become an even bleaker place.

In spite of all this, I'm optimistic about biochar's future. Here's why.

First, I believe that prospects are improving for policies that monetize environmental benefits
(June 2009)