Archive for the ‘Corn’ Category

Monarchs Decline–More Proof of Man’s “Success”

15 March 2013

I used to see many monarch butterflies each summer since we live in an area that grows a considerable amount of corn and milkweed was a prevalent weed. In fact, we used to have a large patch of milkweed along one of our ditches. I handpulled it all decades ago when I found out milkweed is toxic to horses.

However, a few years ago, when I first started reading about the monarch decline, I planted some milkweed in the fenced and generally horse-free native grass and wildflower garden that surrounds our house. Last year, the single monarch butterfly I saw year landed on the milkweed in my garden.

My few milkweed plants aren’t enough, of course. Articles like this one from NPR assure me of that:

“Monarch Butterfy [sic] Population Falls to Record Low, Mexican Scientists Say”

I read articles like this every day, and it’s getting harder and harder to deal with the cognitive dissonance of those who say everything’s just fine. Monsanto’s just fine. The climate’s just fine. Everyone should buy, buy, buy, eat, eat, eat, breed, breed, breed–but only if they’re white–and then drive, drive, drive.

Everything’s NOT fine. So there.



And Sometimes I Get It Right

27 October 2012

Surprise, surprise!  BP Gives Up On Cellulosic Ethanol In The U.S.

I remember back when BP was touting their ventures into U.S. non-corn ethanol. I thought, oh, right, THAT’ll work.

But then I am a Cassandra, and everyone seemed so optimistic about everything from switchgrass to algae.  The vote’s still out on the algae–I’m still seeing a big NO WAY–but everything I’ve read on the switchgrass and such projects have proven they work in theory but not in practice. That is, coming up with a lab experiment that shows possibilty does not mean it’s a feasible idea for mass production.

Want ethanol?  Move to Brazil.  They have great heaps of cane left over from the sugar harvest.  It makes great ethanol and they don’t have to devote special fields to it or build tanks or whatever.  They just pick up the waste stalks and make ethanol out if it. Big difference.


Handbasket Report: Me, Worry?

13 June 2011

Michael T. Snyder posted an article title “20 Reasons to Be Prepared for a Global Food Crisis” today on Seeking Alpha, a leading financial blog. It reiterates much of what I’ve been saying in many, many posts over the last year or two, so I’m reposting it here in its entirety:

In case you haven’t noticed, the world is on the verge of a horrific global food crisis. At some point, this crisis will affect you and your family. It may not be today, and it may not be tomorrow, but it is going to happen.

Crazy weather and horrifying natural disasters have played havoc with agricultural production in many areas of the globe over the past couple of years. Meanwhile, the price of oil has begun to skyrocket. The entire global economy is predicated on the ability to use massive amounts of inexpensive oil to cheaply produce food and other goods and transport them over vast distances. Without cheap oil, the whole game changes.

Topsoil is being depleted at a staggering rate and key aquifers all over the world are being drained at an alarming pace. Global food prices are already at an all-time high and they continue to move up aggressively. So what is going to happen to our world when hundreds of millions more people cannot afford to feed themselves?

Most Americans are so accustomed to supermarkets that are absolutely packed to the gills with massive amounts of really inexpensive food that they cannot even imagine that life could be any other way. Unfortunately, that era is ending.

There are all kinds of indications that we are now entering a time when there will not be nearly enough food for everyone in the world. As competition for food supplies increases, food prices are going to go up. In fact, at some point they are going to go way up.

Let’s look at some of the key reasons why an increasing number of people believe that a massive food crisis is on the horizon.

The following are 20 signs that a horrific global food crisis is coming….

1. According to the World Bank, 44 million people around the globe have been pushed into extreme poverty since last June because of rising food prices.

2. The world is losing topsoil at an astounding rate. In fact, according to Lester Brown, “one third of the world’s cropland is losing topsoil faster than new soil is forming through natural processes”.

3. Due to U.S. ethanol subsidies, almost a third of all corn grown in the United States is now used for fuel. This is putting a lot of stress on the price of corn.

4. Due to a lack of water, some countries in the Middle East find themselves forced to almost totally rely on other nations for basic food staples. For example, it is being projected that there will be no more wheat production in Saudi Arabia by the year 2012.

5. Water tables all over the globe are being depleted at an alarming rate due to “overpumping”. According to the World Bank, there are 130 million people in China and 175 million people in India that are being fed with grain with water that is being pumped out of aquifers faster than it can be replaced. So what happens once all of that water is gone?

6. In the United States, the systematic depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer could eventually turn “America’s Breadbasket” back into the “Dust Bowl”.

6. Diseases such as UG99 wheat rust are wiping out increasingly large segments of the world food supply.

7.. The tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis in Japan have rendered vast agricultural areas in that nation unusable. In fact, there are many that believe that eventually a significant portion of northern Japan will be considered to be uninhabitable. Not only that, many are now convinced that the Japanese economy, the third largest economy in the world, is likely to totally collapse as a result of all this.

9. The price of oil may be the biggest factor on this list. The way that we produce our food is very heavily dependent on oil. The way that we transport our food is very heavily dependent on oil. When you have skyrocketing oil prices, our entire food production system becomes much more expensive. If the price of oil continues to stay high, we are going to see much higher food prices and some forms of food production will no longer make economic sense at all.

10. At some point the world could experience a very serious fertilizer shortage. According to scientists with the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative, the world is not going to have enough phosphorous to meet agricultural demand in just 30 to 40 years.

11. Food inflation is already devastating many economies around the globe. For example, India is dealing with an annual food inflation rate of 18 percent.

12. According to the United Nations, the global price of food reached a new all-time high in February.

13. According to the World Bank, the global price of food has risen 36% over the past 12 months.

14. The commodity price of wheat has approximately doubled since last summer.

15. The commodity price of corn has also about doubled since last summer.

16. The commodity price of soybeans is up about 50% since last June.

17. The commodity price of orange juice has doubled since 2009.

18. There are about 3 billion people around the globe that live on the equivalent of 2 dollars a day or less and the world was already on the verge of economic disaster before this year even began.

19. 2011 has already been one of the craziest years since World War 2. Revolutions have swept across the Middle East, the United States has gotten involved in the civil war in Libya, Europe is on the verge of a financial meltdown and the U.S. dollar is dying. None of this is good news for global food production.

20. There have been persistent rumors of shortages at some of the biggest suppliers of emergency food in the United States. The following is an excerpt from a recent “special alert” posted on Raiders News Network….

Look around you. Read the headlines. See the largest factories of food, potassium iodide, and other emergency product manufacturers literally closing their online stores and putting up signs like those on Mountain House’s Official Website and Thyrosafe’s Factory Webpage that explain, due to overwhelming demand, they are shutting down sales for the time being and hope to reopen someday.

So what does all of this mean? It means that time is short. For years, many “doom and gloomers” have been yelling and screaming that a food crisis is coming. Well, up to this point there hasn’t been much to get alarmed about. Food prices have started to rise, but the truth is that our stores are still packed to the rafters will gigantic amounts of relatively cheap food. However, you would have to be an idiot not to see the warning signs. Just look at what happened in Japan after March 11th. Store shelves were cleared out almost instantly.

It isn’t going to happen today, and it probably isn’t going to happen tomorrow, but at some point a major league food crisis is going to strike. So what are you and your family going to do then? You might want to start thinking about that.


I haven’t mentioned it here, but Cuba, a country many point to as the model of sustainability, is in the midst of a major drought. Here’s an overview: “Rainy Season Off to a Poor Start” The springs rains haven’t come. Water is being trucked into cities and rationed. Livestock is starving.

Have a nice day.


Corn: It’s the Food Supply, Stupid

28 November 2010

Al Gore finally concluded ethanol isn’t a good idea and conservative sources are gloating, for example “Al Gore’s Ethanol Epiphany: He Concedes the Industry He Promoted Serves No Useful Purpose.” The problem here is that while ethanol isn’t a good idea, both Gore and many of his critics typically fail to mention one extremely significant reason the current American ethanol process is folly: CORN IS FOOD.

In fact, it’s in so many American food products, I won’t even try to list them. Just read some labels at the grocery store if you don’t believe how ubiquitous corn is.

As someone who likes to eat on a regular basis, I worry about the air, the soil, the water, and the weather it takes to produce food and the resources it takes to distribute food. I long ago decided that I’d rather eat corn than drive around with it, but the Gore reversal and the reactions to it did little to convince me that the food supply was on the minds of those in power.

It’s sure on my mind because a number of factors point to lean times–dire times–ahead. How far ahead, I don’t know. Five years? Could be, but I’m not too worried. Ten? Now I’m starting to worry. By 2030 misery, possibly even world-wide misery, looks closer to being a sure thing. By mid-century–oi. Forget corn. Google “commercial fishing 2048” or something like that and find out what a good many project.

The future does not look bright for a number of reasons, among them carbon dioxide emissions that will continue to rise for a thousand years even if we were to stop driving cars and trucks today. However, our fossil fuel use is hardly the problem that worries me most. The rising human population does. Our problem is simple. We all like to eat, and, after eating, a good many of us like to do other things, one of which results in there being too many of us.

Ask any biologist what happens when a population continues to rise. If you don’t already know the answer, I suggest you read William Catton’s 1980 book Overshoot. It’s written for non-scientists and is still the best overview of the future I’ve ever read. When populations overbreed, they then eat themselves out of house and home. Those of us who live in developed countries have been skirting this Malthusian issue for a long time now. Fossil fuel fertilizers and fossil fuel-driven machines have allowed us to produce vast quantities of food and export our surplus to those less able to exploit the planet.

Kinda looks like that’s coming to an end because of increasing confluences of climate, consumption, soil-degradation, and water shortages. What happens if Hundred Year Droughts turn into droughts that come every ten years? We certainly can’t say that Russia’s recent drought was caused by climate change. It’s quite possible it was just a routine, devastating drought, something that happens every fifty or every hundred years or so. But what if it was not? What if climate change models are right and severe droughts become more frequent. We had a nasty drought here in Colorado in 2002.

In 2010, however, the farmers in my locale are rejoicing about the weather. On the 7th of November, an article titled “Crops Yield ‘Once in a Generation’ Payoff” appeared in the Longmont Times-Call. Whether or not they believe climate change is an issue, farmers certainly believe the weather is an issue. And they believe in luck. The article outlined how in 2010 Colorado “[c]rop prices . . . fetched what one expert called ‘once in a generation’ prices.”

“You’re looking at the trifecta: Sugar prices are high; corn prices are high; if you’re a dryland wheat farmer, prices are high,” said Mike Urbano-wicz with Colorado Commodities, an organization that buys and sells crops from Colorado farmers.

“To me, it’s once in a generation to have all this happen in the same year,” Urbanowicz said.

In June, corn producers were looking at getting in the mid-$3-per-bushel for their 2010 crop.

“Four dollars (per bushel) was a goal; $5 was an absolute dream,” Urbanowicz said. Corn is already a little more than $5 a bushel and may hit as high as $6.50, according to the National Corn Growers Association.

“A month ago, we saw a huge spike, and it just seems to be hanging around,” said Kent Peppler, a fourth-generation farmer near Mead who grows wheat, alfalfa, barley and corn, his biggest crop, on about 500 acres.

Urbanowicz said the spike in corn prices is due to a couple of things: The weak U.S. dollar increased the export of corn, and growing conditions in Colorado this year have been outstanding compared to some other states, such as Illinois and Indiana. [emphasis added]

(For comparison’s sake, Colorado is projected to produce about 171 million bushels of corn this year, while the two states mentioned above combine for about 4 billion bushels between them.)

Wheat prices also spiked because of a severe drought in Russia and the Ukraine, Urbanowicz said.

That comment about the Midwest caught my eye. So what happened in the Corn Belt, in states like Illinois and Indiana? According to MarketWatch “Corn and other grains futures shot up Friday after a U.S. Department of Agriculture report pointed to the tightest supply and demand balance for corn in 14 years.”

The Agriculture Department on Friday forecast a 2010-11 corn crop 3.8% smaller than government expectations just a month ago, as a hot Midwest summer preceded by floods in June takes its toll. . . . Following flooding in June, the Corn Belt suffered from a hot summer and, more importantly, warmer-than-usual nights [emphasis added] that interfered with corn’s ability to pollinate as it normally would, he said.

“Warmer-than-usual nights.” Haven’t computer models suggested that global warming results in warmer nights even more than warmer days? Aren’t warmer nights one reason cited for the world-wide decline in the frog population? (Google keywords: frog decline warmer nights) Learning that corn too was threatened by warmer nights was not welcome news.

But again, all this could just be a routine year. It’s still possible that humans and their toys aren’t behind warmer nights and other shifts. The current food prices could just be routine. But what happens if Russia’s drought hits the United states next year?

That would be bad enough without some other factors–like supply lines. For example, with the recent admission by the International Energy Agency that we reached peak oil in 2006 the food transport factor kicks in. It’s now increasingly likely that we will find a way to continue shipping food from one place to another to avoid mass famine. At least it’s becoming clearer to people like Al Gore that ethanol is a porky boondoggle rather than the key to our fossil fuel problems. I just wish it’d become clearer to more people that a planet with fewer people is the answer to our continued survival.

The bottleneck predicted by so many–by Catton, by E. O. Wilson (Google E. O. Wilson bottleneck), by many–approacheth. In a not too distant future, it’s quite possible that famine will sweep the United States the way it routinely sweeps Africa. Sooner or later, our farming luck will run out.


As Corn Goes, So Goes the World

29 May 2010

Sean Carroll’s New York Times article “Tracking the Ancestry of Corn Back 9,000 Years” provides some thought-provoking information on the pivotal historical role of America in the world’s food production:

Native Americans alone domesticated nine of the most important food crops in the world, including corn, more properly called maize (Zea mays), which now provides about 21 percent of human nutrition across the globe.

That ought to humble those of us who believe that Europeans or those who remained in Asia were responsible for all the glories of mankind. How many of us can even name some of the other eight foods that Native Americans domesticated? I came up with only two instantly: pumpkins and tomatoes. After some contemplation, I came up with a few more, but I also discovered my ignorance of crop history.

Here’s a list from “Facts for Kids: Native American Food”:

Other important American Indian crops included beans, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers, wild rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, peanuts, avocados, papayas, and chocolate.

A more detailed list appears on Waepedia.

As usual, the research to cure my ignorance ended up giving me more than just a few facts. I started thinking about how civilizations identify themselves with their dominant resources. Like the ancient cultures whose ancestors transformed teosinte into modern corn, most of us take corn for granted. We modify corn genetics in the laboratory, endanger it further by extensive monoculture, and then wastefully turn it into ethanol. Corn is in an extraordinary number of products. We even use corn to make plastics. So a devastating corn blight or a severe drought would change our world in ways that would dwarf the effects of Great Irish Potato Famine.

In other words, corn can crash civilizations. It already has. The example I have in mind comes from Joseph Tainter’s classic Collapse of Complex Societies. I loaned my copy to friends, so I’m relying on memory here, but I think this recollection is fairly accurate even though I can’t remember specifics.

When the corn crops of this major ancient Native American civilization began to fail, the civilization failed to adapt. Although they had other food crops they could have switched to, they didn’t. They called themselves “the corn people,” and this over-identification cost them dearly. Much of their population perished or scattered. Major cities were already covered by jungle when Europeans “discovered” the “New World.”

So the early Native Americans were typically human. They deserve credit for slowly developing the unpromising little teosinte plant into modern corn. Their careful improvement of this food crop allowed the rise of complex civilizations based on corn. Unfortunately, when times changed, the stubborn, inflexible part of human nature set in and their reliance on what had always worked proved to be their downfall. Instead of ruling their system, they let their system control them until it collapsed around them. So this is also a cautionary tale; for when their pattern of existence became unsustainable, they lacked the time or vision to change or modify their ways.

I wonder if “the fossil fuel” people will suffer the same fate.