Invasion of the agro-bread-heads

This blog — or more accurately the topic it covers — has seen a recent flurry of economic activity. And while that may not be attractive to all, the fact is that money does make the world go round. Make something cheaper or more profitable, and people are liable to do more of that thing.

Latest entrant is a Policy Forum piece in Science1 that argues that policies that favour “multifunctional production systems” — systems that produce standard commodities and ecological services — will be profitable and will support a more sustainable agriculture.

The argument is reasonably straightforward. First, the authors note the trend towards growing biomass. Then they note that monocultures of fuel are likely to be just as bad as monocultures of food and fibre. They look at the amount handed out in subsidies and the often perverse impacts that has on the environment and on societies.

Despite troubling implications of these current trends, research and development (R&D) and policy have focused on maximizing biomass production and optimizing its use, with far less emphasis on evaluation of environmental, social, and economic performance. This imbalance may provoke many interest groups to oppose growth of such an agricultural bio-economy.

After examples of the kinds of multifunctional production systems they have in mind they outline some of the various ways in such biodiversity delivers valuable benefits.

There is mounting evidence that these systems can produce certain ecological services more efficiently and effectively than agroecosystems based on annual crops. Examples include (i) soil and nitrogen loss rates from perennial crops are less than 5% of those in annual crops; (ii) perennial cropping systems have greater capacity to sequester greenhouse gases than annual-based systems; (iii) in certain scenarios, some perennial crops appear more resilient to climate change than annuals, e.g., increases of 3°to 8°C are predicted to increase North American yields of the perennial crop switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); and, among species of concern for conservation, 48% increased in abundance when on-farm perennial land cover was increased in European Union incentive programs.

The final plank in the argument is a rough and ready survey of the value of those benefits, which I won’t quote. Take it from me, they are large.

So much for the foundations. On them Jordan and colleagues build a solid policy suggestion. Build a couple of large projects — 5000 square kilometres — and put some of the government money that naturally flows farming’s way into establishing genuine multifunctional systems and assessing properly the pros and cons of this approach from a variety of perspectives.

Seems like a pretty sound idea, and one on which I feel comment is largely superfluous. If the US government really wants to burnish its green credentials, it should just do it.

Agricultural subsidies in 2005 exceeded $24 billion, and the 2007 farm bill deliberations should highlight how these federal dollars could better achieve national priorities. In particular, the new farm bill should provide the agricultural R&D infrastructure with incentives to evaluate multifunctional production as a basis for a sustainable agricultural bio-economy. We judge that this can be done with very modest public investments (~$20 million annually). A variety of strong political constituencies now expects a very different set of outputs from agriculture, and the U.S. farm sector could meet many of these expectations by harnessing the capacities of multifunctional landscapes.

Oscar Wilde said that “a cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. I say that those responsible for farm subsidies know neither costs nor values.

  1. Jordan et al. (2007), Sustainable Development of the Agricultural Bio-Economy. Science 316:1570-1. DOI: 10.1126/science.1141700 []

Fidel lashes out … again

While he may have been too ill to attend the Mayday parade in Havana, for only the third time since 1959, Cuban leader Fidel Castro has found the strength to pen yet another diatribe against the current craze for turning food into fuel. His reflections on the sugar harvest are fascinating, but I wonder whether he will have any impact on the rest of the world. And what would he have made of the latest advance: a genetically engineered sorghum, modified to yield better in the long growing seasons of Texas and Kansas.

Biofuel prospects muddled

Biofuel boosters have admitted that what we really need is cellulosic conversion — turning the bulk of plants like corn, not to mention inedible plants, into ethanol rather than relying on their seeds. Now comes news from the USDA that to do so threatens the soil in which those biofuels will grow. If farmers harvest the stovers, or corn stalks, rather than leaving them on the land, they risk depleting the organic matter in the soil in addition to severe soil erosion. That cuts the value of maize for ethanol even more.

Meanwhile, AllAfrica.com carries a long report on the recent FAO meeting on biofuels. FAO tried very hard to be balanced:

Joseph Schmidhuber, Senior Economist at FAO’s Agricultural Development and Economics Division, explained that the impact of the new bioenergy market on food security could be negative or positive, depending on whether a country’s economy was a net exporter or importer of food and energy. The same held true at household level, indicating that the rural landless and the urban poor were most at risk, and special measures would be needed to protect both countries and groups.

Everything is possible, no? But I find it hard hard to conclude that the emphasis on turning food for people into fuel for cars and trucks will be a good thing on balance.

Science weighs in on biofuels

Donald Kennedy, Editor-in-Chief of Science magazine, thinks there is a “biofuels conundrum”. He agrees that growing corn for ethanol results in huge distortions and problems elsewhere. Ethanol from sugar cane is better, but blocked by corn-state Senators in the US. Palm oil, as biodiesel, is better yet, but still carries considerable downsides. So, Kennedy says, we need more investment on research into biofuels derived from cellulose. Fair enough. But not a single mention of actually reducing consumption of liquid fuels. Not one word. I guess Kennedy, like so may others, isn’t quite ready to sign the bio-temperance pledge.