Food

Slave ethanol?

Amnesty International: forced labor in Brazil’s sugarcane fields

As the case for corn-based ethanol unravels, a lot of pundits and green-minded investors have settled on a new panacea: ethanol from sugar cane, which thrives in the tropics. Thomas Friedman has been blustering about it for years now; Richard Branson recently hinted he might start investing in it. Sugarcane is a deeply ironic crop on which to hang a “sustainable energy revolution.” Historically, the spread of sugarcane in Caribbean islands and South America involved vast clear-cutting of coastal forests. Socially, its legacy may be worse. To run the bustling cane plantations of the Americas during the colonial period, European …

One hundred percent whole-wheat troubles

WSJ: ‘Fungus strain menaces global wheat crop’

I hate to sound like a broken record, but remember in the winter, when a fertilizer magnate warned that the world faced the threat of famine if any major crop didn’t do well? The magnate was William Doyle, CEO of a company that has aptly been dubbed the “Saudi Arabia of Fertilizer,” Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan. Here’s what he said: If you had any major upset where you didn’t have a crop in a major growing agricultural region this year, I believe you’d see famine. … We keep going to the cupboard without replacing and so there is enormous pressure …

Grass-fed milk: better for you

So says U.K. study

Another study has confirmed that organic milk, from cows that feed on pasture, delivers significantly more nutrition than feedlot milk. The U.K. Independent reports that grass-fed cows offer “60 per cent higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA9), which has been linked to a reduced risk of cancer.” Omega-3 fatty acids (39 percent higher) and vitamin E (33 percent higher) are also more abundant in milk from grass-fed cows. Unlike in the U.S., U.K. organic standards make sure that organic milk come from cows with access to grass when it’s abundant in the summer. Here is the Independent: [In England] …

Peru’s guano supply threatened by overfishing

Peru is in deep shit. No, seriously: thanks to an exceptionally dry climate, islands off the Peruvian coast are awash in preserved bird guano, which the country has long exported as non-chemical fertilizer. But while 60 million seabirds were pooping on Peru in the 19th century, the birds now number 4 million; with synthetic-fertilizer costs and interest in organic food rising, the Peruvian government is concerned that guano supply will be depleted by high demand. Guano collection has been restricted to two islands per year, lizards have been introduced to eat seabird-bothering ticks, and armed guards have been posted to …

Industrial ag-onistes

The WSJ on fertilizer markets so manipulated, they might make a Saudi prince blush

For all the misery it has caused, the global food-price crisis has at least forced people to think more seriously about food production. I can think of few things more taken for granted in modern post-industrial society than fertilizer. Few people know people know what fertilizes the fields that produce the food they eat — fewer, I’d bet, than know the source of their drinking water or electricity. To modern consumers, all of these things appear as if by magic. But with food prices hovering at elevated levels and hunger protests simmering in the global south, stuff like fertilizer is …

Farming with smarts and humor

An NC farmer makes the radio

Listen Play the interview One of my favorite things about small-scale farming has been meeting other small-scale farmers. In short, you’ve got to be a bit of a character to decide to spend your days playing in the dirt while also trying to squeeze a living out of it. Gallows humor is a typical characteristic, as is a certain joie de vivre, at least when the the stress level isn’t too high. One of the best and funniest farmers I’ve ever met is John Soehner, who runs Eco Farm with his wife Cindy near Chapel Hill. I was delighted to …

Researchers aim to turn animal waste into plastic

File this under “ew”: Researchers in New Zealand have developed a process to convert animal protein waste — that’d be blood and feathers — into plastic. “The material we can produce has the strength of polyethylene, the plastic used in milk bottles and plastic supermarket bags, but it’s fully biodegradable,” says Dr. Johan Verbeek, adding, “Plant proteins have successfully been used to make bioplastics, but animal protein has always ended up gumming up the extruder.” Mmm — pass that milk bottle! The bioplastic would actually likely end up as agricultural sheeting, seedling trays, plant pots, and the like. Says Verbeek: …

Toward a civil, inclusive national conversation on food — over a savory tart

As the date for Slow Food Nation — the big sustainable-food conference scheduled in San Francisco this coming August — draws near, I’ve been thinking about attitudes toward food in the erstwhile Fast Food Nation. Like a big pot of water that’s been on high heat seemingly forever, our national conversation on food seems to be reaching a boil at long last. Slow Food Nation. Now, my world revolves around food, so I may not be the most reliable gauge of such things. I have a tendency to assume everyone shares my obsession — to the point where I am …

U.N. report forecasts continued high food prices for the next decade

Food prices worldwide are likely to remain relatively high for at least the next decade, according to an analysis by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Biofuel demand, high energy costs, and commodity speculation will continue to keep food prices high in the long term, despite periodic dips in price. Climate change is also expected to increase food prices by driving down future crop yields. The FAO forecast that wheat prices could be up to 60 percent higher in 2017 and vegetable oil prices could rise up to 80 percent. “Biofuels are the largest new source of demand for …

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