May 24, 2012

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Is American agriculture really efficient? Last week, I attended the Sustainable Foods Institute, hosted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. As in the past, the session-packed affair of panels and keynotes did not disappoint, even though the outlook -- for fisheries, for food production, for humanity in general -- was pretty sobering. Among the speakers was Jonathan Foley, a professor of ecology and director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota. He gave a big picture view, noting that agriculture is not only the single biggest factor in global warming but obviously crucial to feeding a growing world. If there was one surprising takeaway, it was that the highly efficient machine of American agriculture -- and modern agriculture in general -- doesn't measure up to the hype. As Foley stated, "yields from the Green Revolution have stagnated and what we're doing isn't sustainable anyway." This discussion of how to feed the world often begins and ends with the question of whether we're maximizing crop production per acre of land -- something American farmers do quite well. But what yield doesn't tell us is whether that land could be used even more efficiently to produce more calories of food. Foley pointed out that crops such as corn and soybeans which are then fed to livestock -- or cars -- amount to a grossly inefficient use of land resources. "The elephant in the room is the cow," was the way he put it. Measured this way, it takes 32 pounds of corn to produce...
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Crop insurance - safety net or $9 billion boondoggle? One of the toughest things about the 1,080 page Farm Bill is to write about it in a way that's accessible to readers, since the policy touches everything from agriculture to food stamps. Rather than cover the whole thing, the Food & Environment Reporting Network, where I serve as editor, decided to focus on one element: crop insurance. The piece by Stett Holbrook, running on msnbc.com, begins: Here’s a deal few businesses would refuse: Buy an insurance policy to protect against losses – even falling prices -- and the government will foot most of the bill. That’s how crop insurance works. The program doesn’t just help out farmers, however. The federal government also subsidizes the insurance companies that write the policies. If their losses grow too big, taxpayers will help cover those costs. In the farm bill now making its way through the Senate, crop insurance will cost taxpayers an estimated $9 billion a year. Never heard of it? This isn't your mother's car insurance, nor the home policy you have to cover disasters. No, this is a program that insures that farmers make the revenue they expect from crop sales. It's hard to imagine anything else like it in the business world, which is why one fund manager who buys farmland in the U.S. was quoted as saying in the Financial Times: "I don’t know of any other business where you can insure 90 per cent of your P and L (profit and loss),” said an adviser to large...

Sam Fromartz

Writer, Journalist focusing on food, environment and bread

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