Environmental News Archive

An almost weekly update of environmental news, particularly marine updates, with occasional splatters of transportation, indigenous, ideas of sustainability and sustainable development from around the world.


Shortages Threaten Farmers’ Key Tool: Fertilizer

April 30, 2008
New York Times

XUAN CANH, Vietnam — Truong Thi Nha stands just four and a half feet tall. Her three grown children tower over her, just as many young people in this village outside Hanoi dwarf their parents.

The biggest reason the children are so robust: fertilizer.

Ms. Nha, her face weathered beyond its 51 years, said her growth was stunted by a childhood of hunger and malnutrition. Just a few decades ago, crop yields here were far lower and diets much worse.

Then the widespread use of inexpensive chemical fertilizer, coupled with market reforms, helped power an agricultural explosion here that had already occurred in other parts of the world. Yields of rice and corn rose, and diets grew richer.

Now those gains are threatened in many countries by spot shortages and soaring prices for fertilizer, the most essential ingredient of modern agriculture.

Some kinds of fertilizer have nearly tripled in price in the last year, keeping farmers from buying all they need. That is one of many factors contributing to a rise in food prices that, according to the United Nations’ World Food Program, threatens to push tens of millions of poor people into malnutrition.

Protests over high food prices have erupted across the developing world, and the stability of governments from Senegal to the Philippines is threatened.

In the United States, farmers in Iowa eager to replenish nutrients in the soil have increased the age-old practice of spreading hog manure on fields. In India, the cost of subsidizing fertilizer for farmers has soared, leading to political dispute. And in Africa, plans to stave off hunger by increasing crop yields are suddenly in jeopardy.

The squeeze on the supply of fertilizer has been building for roughly five years. Rising demand for food and biofuels prompted farmers everywhere to plant more crops. As demand grew, the fertilizer mines and factories of the world proved unable to keep up.

Some dealers in the Midwest ran out of fertilizer last fall, and they continue to restrict sales this spring because of a limited supply.

“If you want 10,000 tons, they’ll sell you 5,000 today, maybe 3,000,” said W. Scott Tinsman Jr., a fertilizer dealer in Davenport, Iowa. “The rubber band is stretched really far.”

Fertilizer companies are confident the shortage will be solved eventually, noting that they plan to build scores of new factories. But that will probably create fresh problems in the long run as the world grows more dependent on fossil fuels to produce chemical fertilizers. Intensified use of such fertilizers is certain to mean greater pollution of waterways, too.

Agriculture and development experts say the world has few alternatives to its growing dependence on fertilizer. As population increases and a rising global middle class demands more food, fertilizer is among the most effective strategies to increase crop yields.

“Putting fertilizer on the ground on a one-acre plot can, in typical cases, raise an extra ton of output,” said Jeffrey D. Sachs, the Columbia University economist who has focused on eradicating poverty. “That’s the difference between life and death.”

The demand for fertilizer has been driven by a confluence of events, including population growth, shrinking world grain stocks and the appetite for corn and palm oil to make biofuel. But experts say the biggest factor has been the growing demand for food, especially meat, in the developing world.

Recently, Ms. Nha, the tiny Vietnamese woman, stood in a field outside her village, her weather-beaten face shielded from the drizzle by a big straw hat. She took a break from wielding her wood-handled hoe and described the meager diets of her youth.

Her family, including six brothers and sisters, struggled to survive on rations from the commune where they lived, eating little protein. The occasional pigs they raised on rice stalks and mush “fattened very slowly,” Ms. Nha recalled.

But with market reforms, better seeds and increased fertilizer use, Vietnam’s rice yields per acre have doubled and corn yields have tripled, allowing farmers to fatten a growing herd of livestock.

Several times a season, Ms. Nha and her neighbors walk down their rows of corn with battered metal buckets full of chemical fertilizer, which looks like coarse gray sand, sprinkling a bit at the base of each plant. Ms. Nha’s husband, Le Van Son, remembers villagers’ amazement in the 1990s when they learned that a pound of chemical fertilizer contained more of the major nutrients than 100 pounds of manure.

Overall global consumption of fertilizer increased by an estimated 31 percent from 1996 to 2008, driven by a 56 percent increase in developing countries, according to the International Fertilizer Industry Association.

“Markets are asking farmers to step on the accelerator,” said Michael R. Rahm, vice president for market analysis and strategic planning at Mosaic, a fertilizer producer in Plymouth, Minn. “They’ve pressed on it, but the market has told them to step on it harder.”

Fertilizer is plant food, a combination of nutrients added to soil to help plants grow. The three most important are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The latter two have long been available. But nitrogen in a form that plants can absorb is scarce, and the lack of it led to low crop yields for centuries.

That limitation ended in the early 20th century with the invention of a procedure, now primarily fueled by natural gas, that draws chemically inert nitrogen from the air and converts it into a usable form.

As the use of such fertilizer spread, it was accompanied by improved plant varieties and greater mechanization. From 1900 to 2000, worldwide food production jumped by 600 percent. Scientists said that increase was the fundamental reason world population was able to rise to about 6.7 billion today from 1.7 billion in 1900.

Vaclav Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba, calculates that without nitrogen fertilizer, there would be insufficient food for 40 percent of the world’s population, at least based on today’s diets.

Initially, much of the increased production of fertilizer went to grains like wheat and rice that served as the foundation of a basic diet. But recently, with world economic growth at a brisk 5 percent a year, hundreds of millions of people began earning enough money to buy more meat from animals fattened with grains. That occurred at the same time that rising production of biofuels, like ethanol, put new pressure on grain supplies.

These factors translated into rising fertilizer demand. Prices at a terminal in Tampa, Fla., for one fertilizer, diammonium phosphate, jumped to $1,102 a ton from $393 a ton in the last year, according to JPMorgan Securities, which tracks the prices. Urea, a type of granular nitrogen fertilizer, jumped to $505 a ton from $273 a ton in the last year.

Manufacturers are scrambling to increase supply. At least 50 plants to make nitrogen fertilizer are under construction, many in the Middle East where natural gas is abundant, and phosphorous and potassium mines are being expanded. But these projects are expensive and time-consuming, and supplies are expected to remain tight for years.

Fertilizer is vitally important in Iowa, whose farmers grow more corn than in any other state and depend on fertilizer to increase yields.

But the combination of high prices and spot shortages has forced some farmers to revert to older methods of fertilization, making hog manure a hot commodity. Farmers are cutting deals to have hog barns built on the edges of their corn and soybean fields.

On a tour of his rolling farm in Oxford Junction in eastern Iowa, Jayson Willimack pointed to the future sites of two buildings that will hold 2,400 hogs. Their manure will eventually replace commercial fertilizer on 400 acres, about 10 percent of his farm, and save him perhaps $50,000 annually. “Every little bit helps,” he said.

Such a strategy has severe limits — manure contains so little nitrogen that tons are required on each acre. That means farmers in Iowa and abroad have little choice but to pay the higher prices for commercial fertilizer.

In many countries, those cost increases have so far been offset by record high prices for crops. But fertilizer inflation has created a crisis in countries that subsidize fertilizer use for farmers. In India, for instance, the government’s subsidy bill could be as high as $22 billion in the coming year, up from $4 billion in 2004-5.

Once new supplies become available, the rising use of fertilizer will still pose difficulties.

Environmental groups fear increased use, particularly of nitrogen fertilizer made using fossil fuels. Because plants do not absorb all the nitrogen, much of it leaches into streams and groundwater. That runoff has long been recognized as a major pollution problem, and it is growing.

A barometer of the pollution is the rising number of dead zones where rivers meet the sea. In the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, nitrogen runoff from fields in the Corn Belt washes downstream and feeds plant life in the gulf. The algae blooms suck oxygen from the water, killing other marine life.

More than 400 dead zones have been identified, from the coasts of China to the Chesapeake Bay, and the primary reason is agricultural runoff, said Robert J. Diaz, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

“Nitrogen is nitrogen,” Professor Diaz said. “If it’s on land, it produces corn. If it gets in the water, it produces algae.”

This month, a United Nations panel called for changes in agricultural practices to make them less damaging. The panel recommended techniques that offer some of the same benefits as chemical fertilizer, like increased crop rotation with legumes that naturally add some nitrogen to the soil.

But others say those approaches, while helpful, will be not be enough to meet the world’s rapidly rising demand for food and biofuel.

“This is a basic problem, to feed 6.6 billion people,” said Norman Borlaug, an American scientist who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his role in spreading intensive agricultural practices to poor countries. “Without chemical fertilizer, forget it. The game is over.”



Punjab reaps a poisoned harvest

By David Loyn
BBC News, Punjab
26 April 2008

The governments of many poor nations are alarmed at the rise in food prices. There are even problems in the Indian region of Punjab, where science once seemed to have found answers for a hungry world.

The first thing Satpal Singh sees when he walks out of his bedroom door in the morning is a gleaming tractor, without a speck of mud on it.

It is given pride of place and washed down before being put away for the night in its garage built into the middle of his house.

This is a sign of the wealth that has made this the richest farmland in India.

In Mr Singh's front yard, half a dozen cows chew contentedly on a maize-based mix, processed in his own machine in the corner.

But behind this idyll serious questions are being asked about farming practices in Punjab, which have consequences for the looming crisis in world food supplies.

Pesticide fears

Before Mr Singh's father died young of cancer in 1992, none here suspected that the technology that had brought wealth to these farmlands in the 1970s might have a downside as well.

The new strains of seed and chemical pesticides and fertilisers, certainly brought high yields.

They called it the Green Revolution.

But today the food the cows eat and the milk they produce, along with the water the cows and Mr Singh's family drink, all show high levels of pesticide residue.

As well as being a successful farmer, he works part-time as a health co-ordinator in the village.

He took me to meet a group of farmers, who all spoke of health problems and knew of deaths they believed came from the use of pesticide sprays.

No protection

The problem here, as in many other places in the world, is that the benefit of high yields from new seed types was not long-lasting, and the pests kept ahead of the pesticides.

An old man, suffering from cancer, told me that in recent years he has had to spray round the clock to keep the pests off his wheat.

The sprays all have instructions demanding that they should only be used with face masks and protective clothing.

But the farm workers here do not use protective equipment, and they spray far more than the recommended amount.

The cause of cancer is always a contentious issue, but a new study from the Punjabi University at Patiala ruled out other potential factors like age, alcohol intake and smoking, concluding that the way the sprays are used is causing cancer.

Organic ignorance

The farmers told me that they wanted the same agricultural scientists who had given them the high yields of the 1970s to come up with something else.

They know that what they are doing now is unsustainable, because they are getting lower yields despite using more spray and paying more for fertiliser because of the high oil price.

None had heard of organic farming.

In neighbouring Pakistan, the local TV news carries interviews every night from flour mills and farms, as well as a daily check on the market price of flour.

The police have intervened to stop hoarding.

Ration cards have been issued, and the World Food Programme (WFP) talks about a crisis as the number of people who do not have enough to eat has risen to 77 million, half of the population of Pakistan.

The WFP describes the food price rise as a "tsunami" affecting the poorest in the world and there are many poorer countries than Pakistan.

The political consequences are already apparent in the troubled regions of the North West Frontier, where the Taleban and al-Qaeda have significant support.

They are more easily able to recruit by saying the government is failing to make affordable food available.

And on the other side of the border on a recent trip to Afghanistan, I heard the US-led occupation squarely blamed on the streets of Kabul for the high price of food.

Radical solution

High oil prices, drought, over-intensive farming leading to lower yields, increased food demand in India and China and the loss of land to biofuels have all played their part in ending the long period of cheap food that the world has enjoyed for the past 30 years.

One radical solution now being talked about is direct payment of subsidies to farmers.

Until recently Malawi was dependent on food aid.

Back in 2002, I remember going from village to village, walking through fields where stunted maize plants had failed to grow.

Children climbed a tree to show me the tiny indigestible hard fruits which were all they had to eat.

At that time Malawi was one of a number of southern African nations at the centre of a worldwide appeal for aid.

When it introduced a voucher scheme to provide cheap fertiliser to farmers, the big donors opposed it.

Hunger victory

Memories of corruption and belief in economic orthodoxy that allowed the market to decide prices had given subsidies a bad name.

But now international donors are starting to change their minds and back the scheme.

Malawi has turned the corner, its farms are producing food for domestic consumption as well as for export, and few go hungry.

It is a stark contrast to the picture in 2002. And maybe an example some countries currently experiencing food shortages could follow.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 26 April, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



More S'poreans use coupons and opt for house brands to cut spending

By Asha Popatlal, Channel NewsAsia
25 April 2008

SINGAPORE: With Singapore's March inflation hitting a 26-year high at 6.7 per cent, many are starting to use a variety of ways to make their dollar stretch further.

One customer said: "I try to buy home brands like NTUC home brand. I try to cut down, I know things are not cheap these days. Everything is very expensive, so we have to cut down."

House brands, with its lower costs, are proving to be more popular. A spokesman for NTUC Fairprice said since its discount scheme was introduced last December, sales of house brand products have increased by about 25 per cent.

The supermarket chain has also been promoting frozen meat as a cheaper alternative to fresh meat. In the last two months, sales of frozen chicken and beef grew by up to 30 per cent, while frozen pork has seen a threefold increase in sales.

Many also look out for various discounts, purchase-with-purchase and rebate schemes.

One shopper said: "Sometimes we choose all those promotions and try to think again and again what I can afford. Now it's really very difficult."

"Plan accordingly - so cut out unnecessary items like entertainment because we can't live without food," said another shopper.

Over at Giant Hypermarket, one of the popular items to stretch one's dollar is the big savings catalogue. It was launched in 2007 and due to its popularity, it was launched again this year.

The catalogue contains a whole series of vouchers and using up all of them can amount to more than a thousand dollars in savings.

Shop N Save supermarket also has an ongoing five per cent rebate promotion. Its spokesman said that the supermarket has seen a ten to fifteen per cent rise in the number of customers using this scheme in recent months.

To help consumers cope with rising prices, more schemes are expected to be announced next week. - CNA/vm


Government prepared to do more to soften impact of rising food prices

By Dominique Loh, Channel NewsAsia
26 April 2008

SINGAPORE: The Singapore government is prepared to do more to soften the impact of rising food prices - if necessary - in the next Budget.

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong revealed this when speaking to Marine Parade residents at a community event on Saturday.

Mr Goh believes food prices will remain high in the next year or so because it may take time for supply to adjust to the demand of higher consumption levels worldwide.

SM Goh added that it is a situation that is beyond Singapore's control as Singapore is dependent on food imports.

He said that since 2006, global food prices have spiked by 43 per cent. With crude oil getting more expensive, it only compounds the problem. This means that transportation as well as the energy needed to process food are now more expensive.

Between 2000 and 2006, global food prices rose by only about five per cent annually.

But with crops being converted to bio fuels because of rising crude oil prices, it's a double whammy, as this has reduced food supply by some 40 per cent.

Mr Goh said: "As far as Singapore is concerned, we (are) price takers. We have no control over the prices of the imports. But we have done a couple of things where we allowed the Singapore dollar to strengthen through monetary policy.

"A stronger dollar means we can buy things cheaper. Foreign currencies are cheaper as compared to the Singapore dollar."

Another strategy is diversifying the sources of food imports from all over the world.

However, Singaporeans are still feeling the pinch. The low income families are most affected as they spend a large proportion of their household income on food.

Colin Yap, a Marine Parade resident, said: "Pay have not been going up much recently and we got a big family to feed. Our weekly expenditure at the supermarket has gone up quite a bit. My wife is asking for more allowance to spend (on) marketing now."

Jason Lim, another Marine Parade resident, said: "I think the government is also looking into how they can help the lower income. So I think that is a good move. The increase in prices is expected. Even the countries that can produce their own food are facing the problem."

Already, the government is giving out some S$3 billion to help Singaporeans tide over the Goods and Services Tax increase and the escalating food prices.

While it is difficult to estimate how long the problem will last, Mr Goh said the government is willing to give more help.

SM Goh said: "If necessary, next year, provided we have the surpluses in the budget, we can do some of this. We can do perhaps even more of this to cushion the rising food prices for Singaporeans.

"But more importantly, the job you have to do is to ensure stability. There is co-operation between employers and unions and government to create an environment which allows us to attract more investors to Singapore to create jobs."

Mr Goh said healthy increases in wages is one effective way for Singaporeans to overcome the rising prices of food. - CNA/vm



As Prices Rise, Farmers Spurn Conservation Program

New York Times
April 9, 2008

Out on the farm, the ducks and pheasants are losing ground.

Thousands of farmers are taking their fields out of the government’s biggest conservation program, which pays them not to cultivate. They are spurning guaranteed annual payments for a chance to cash in on the boom in wheat, soybeans, corn and other crops. Last fall, they took back as many acres as are in Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

Environmental and hunting groups are warning that years of progress could soon be lost, particularly with the native prairie in the Upper Midwest. But a broad coalition of baking, poultry, snack food, ethanol and livestock groups say bigger harvests are a more important priority than habitats for waterfowl and other wildlife. They want the government to ease restrictions on the preserved land, which would encourage many more farmers to think beyond conservation.

Kerry Dockter, a rancher in Denhoff, N.D., has about 450 acres of grassland in the program. “When this program first came about, it was a pretty good thing,” he said. “But times have definitely changed.”

The government payments, Mr. Dockter said, “aren’t even comparable anymore” to what he could make by working the land. He plans to devote some of his conservation acres to growing feed for his cows and some to grazing. He might also lease some land to neighbors.

For years, the problem with cropland was that there was too much of it, which kept food prices low to the benefit of consumers and the detriment of farmers.

Now, because of a growing global middle class as well as federal mandates to turn large amounts of corn into ethanol-based fuel, food prices are beginning to jump. Cropland is suddenly in heavy demand, a situation that is fraying old alliances, inspiring new ones and putting pressure on the Agriculture Department, which is being lobbied directly by all sides without managing to satisfy any of them.

Born nearly 25 years ago in an era of abundance, the Conservation Reserve Program is having a rough transition to the age of scarcity. Its 35 million acres — about 8 percent of the cropland in the country — are the big prize in this brawl.

Groups like Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever want the government to raise rental rates to keep the same amount of land in the program or even increase it. While offering more money to farmers might be a difficult sell in a year of record farm profits, Jim Ringelman of Ducks Unlimited said, “There are overriding environmental issues here.”

The bakers and their allies have a different set of overriding issues: high commodity prices. The rising cost of feed is hurting ranchers, the rising cost of corn is hurting ethanol producers and the rising cost of wheat is hurting bread makers.

“We’re in a crisis here. Do we want to eat, or do we want to worry about the birds?” asked JR Paterakis, a Baltimore baker who said he was so distressed at a meeting last month with Edward T. Schafer, the agriculture secretary, that he stood up and started speaking “vehemently.”

The Paterakis bakery, H&S, produces a million loaves of rye bread a week. The baker said he could not find the rye flour he needed at any price. That gives him two unwelcome options: close half of his operations starting in July, or experiment with a blended flour that will yield a different and possibly less-than-authentic rye bread.

Such problems were never contemplated when the Conservation Reserve was conceived as part of the 1985 Farm Bill. Participants bid to put their land in the program during special sign-ups, with the government selecting the acres most at risk environmentally. Average annual payments are $51 an acre. Contracts run for at least a decade and are nearly impossible to break — not that anyone wanted to until recently.

“Older farmers put their land in the program rather than renting to a younger farmer or selling,” said Dale Schuler, who grows wheat in Fort Benton, Mont. That made it difficult for farmers who wanted to expand as well as farm equipment dealers, supply co-ops and other services, which suffered declines in business.

“It’s certainly been a polarizing issue,” Mr. Schuler said. “Half the people love it and half the people hate it.”

While few urban dwellers ever heard of Conservation Reserve, it found support among two important constituents: hunters had more land to roam and more wildlife to seek out, with the Agriculture Department estimating that the duck population alone rose by two million; and environmentalists were pleased, too. No one disputes that there are real environmental benefits from the program, especially on land most prone to erosion.

The program peaked late last summer, with more than 400,000 farmers receiving nearly $1.8 billion for idling 36.8 million acres. Put all that land together and it would be bigger than the state of New York.

The group doing the most to undermine this amiable coexistence is the farmers themselves. Last fall, when five million acres in Conservation Reserve came up for renewal, only half of them were re-entered. While the program has gained some high-priority land in the last few months, in part from an initiative to restore bobwhite quail habitats, the net loss is still more than two million acres.

That is just the beginning, warns Ducks Unlimited, a politically potent organization with more than half a million members in the United States. Ducks Unlimited is concerned about the three-quarters of a million acres of grassland that were removed from the program last year in the so-called duck factory in the Upper Midwest.

“We foresee a dramatic reduction,” said Mr. Ringelman, a conservation director for the association.

Ardell Magnusson, a farmer in Roseau, Minn., shows the changing mood. He said the program was “a godsend” when he put 300 of his 2,300 acres into it eight years ago. “I needed some guaranteed income or my banker was going to tell me to find another occupation,” Mr. Magnusson said. It is not exactly a bonanza: he gets about $12,000 a year.

He calculates he can make more than that by farming sunflowers or wheat or soybeans. When his contract expires in two years, he plans to withdraw about half his land. It would not be a shock if the Agriculture Department cut him loose sooner. “Another nine months of wheat at today’s prices and there will be political pressure on this program like you wouldn’t believe,” Mr. Magnusson said.

That pressure is exactly what the bakers and their allies are aiming for, saying the Conservation Reserve costs taxpayers and hurts consumers.

“This program is taking money out of your pocket twice a day,” said Jay Truitt, vice president for government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “Do you think it’s right for you to pay so there’s more quail in Kansas?”

The cattlemen and bakers argue that farmers should immediately be allowed to take as much as nine million acres out of the Conservation Reserve without paying a penalty, something they say would not harm the environment.

“The pipeline for wheat is empty,” said Michael Kalupa, a bakery owner in Tampa, Fla., who is president of the Retail Bakers of America. Mr. Kalupa said the price he paid for flour had doubled since October. He cannot afford to absorb the cost and he cannot afford to pass it on. Sales have been falling 16 percent to 20 percent a month since October. He has laid off three employees.

Among farmers, the notion of early releases from conservation contracts is prompting sharp disagreement and even anger. The American Soybean Association is in favor. “We need more food,” said John Hoffman, the association’s president.

The National Association of Wheat Growers is against, saying it believes “in the sanctity of contracts.” It does not want more crops to be grown, because commodity prices might go down.

That is something many of its members say they cannot afford, even with wheat at a robust $9 a bushel. Their own costs have increased, with diesel fuel and fertilizer up sharply. “It would decrease my profit margin, which is slim,” said Jeff Krehbiel of Hydro, Okla. “Let’s hurt the farmer in order to shut the bakers up, is that what we’re saying?”

Mr. Krehbiel said his break-even last year was $4 a bushel. This summer it will be $6.20; the next crop, $7.75.

In the struggle between those who would shrink the program and those who would bolster it, the Agriculture Department is leaning toward the latter. When Mr. Schafer spoke recently before wildlife and hunting groups in Phoenix, he opened the door to significantly raising rents on new land.

Randy Schuring, a dairy farmer with 200 acres in the program, said there was no possible solution that would make everyone happy.

“If the government lets the land out and then crop prices fall, that’s going to hurt a lot of farmers,” said Mr. Schuring, whose farm is in Andover, S.D. “If it doesn’t let the land out and prices keep going up, that will hurt a lot of consumers. If only we had a crystal ball.”


A Drought in Australia, a Global Shortage of Rice

New York Times
April 17, 2008

DENILIQUIN, Australia — Lindsay Renwick, the mayor of this dusty southern Australian town, remembers the constant whir of the rice mill. “It was our little heartbeat out there, tickety-tick-tickety,” he said, imitating the giant fans that dried the rice, “and now it has stopped.”

The Deniliquin mill, the largest rice mill in the Southern Hemisphere, once processed enough grain to meet the needs of 20 million people around the world. But six long years of drought have taken a toll, reducing Australia’s rice crop by 98 percent and leading to the mothballing of the mill last December.

Ten thousand miles separate the mill’s hushed rows of oversized silos and sheds — beige, gray and now empty — from the riotous streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, but a widening global crisis unites them.

The collapse of Australia’s rice production is one of several factors contributing to a doubling of rice prices in the last three months — increases that have led the world’s largest exporters to restrict exports severely, spurred panicked hoarding in Hong Kong and the Philippines, and set off violent protests in countries including Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Italy, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, the Philippines, Thailand, Uzbekistan and Yemen.

Drought affects every agricultural industry based here, not just rice — from sheepherding, the other mainstay in this dusty land, to the cultivation of wine grapes, the fastest-growing crop here, with that expansion often coming at the expense of rice.

The drought’s effect on rice has produced the greatest impact on the rest of the world, so far. It is one factor contributing to skyrocketing prices, and many scientists believe it is among the earliest signs that a warming planet is starting to affect food production.

It is difficult to definitely link short-term changes in weather to long-term climate change, but the unusually severe drought is consistent with what climatologists predict will be a problem of increasing frequency.

Indeed, the chief executive of the National Farmers’ Federation in Australia, Ben Fargher, says, “Climate change is potentially the biggest risk to Australian agriculture.”

Drought has already spurred significant changes in Australia’s agricultural heartland. Some farmers are abandoning rice, which requires large amounts of water, to plant less water-intensive crops like wheat or, especially here in southeastern Australia, wine grapes. Other rice farmers have sold fields or water rights, usually to grape growers.

Scientists and economists worry that the reallocation of scarce water resources — away from rice and other grains and toward more lucrative crops and livestock — threatens poor countries that import rice as a dietary staple.

The global agricultural crisis is threatening to become political, pitting the United States and other developed countries against the developing world over the need for affordable food versus the need for renewable energy. Many poorer nations worry that subsidies from rich countries to support biofuels, which turn food, like corn, into fuel, are pushing up the price of staples. The World Bank and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization called on major agricultural nations to overhaul policies to avoid a social explosion from rising food prices.

With rice, which is not used to make biofuel, the problem is availability. Even in normal times, little of the world’s rice is actually exported — more than 90 percent is consumed in the countries where it is grown. In the last quarter-century, rice consumption has outpaced production, with global reserves plunging by half just since 2000. A plant disease is hurting harvests in Vietnam, reducing supply. And economic uncertainty has led producers to hoard rice and speculators and investors to see it as a lucrative or at least safe bet.

All these factors have made countries that buy rice on the global market vulnerable to extreme price swings.

Senegal and Haiti each import four-fifths of their rice, and both have faced mounting unrest as prices have increased. Police suppressed violent demonstrations in Dakar on March 30, and unrest has spread to other rice-dependent nations in West Africa, notably Ivory Coast. The Haitian president, René Préval, after a week of riots, announced subsidies for rice buyers on Saturday.

Scientists expect the problem to worsen. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, set up by the United Nations, predicted last year that even slight warming would lower agricultural output in the tropics and subtropics.

Moderate warming could benefit crop and pasture yields in countries far from the Equator, like Canada and Russia. In fact, the net effect of moderate warming is likely to be higher total global food production in the next several decades.

But the scientists said the effect would be uneven, and enormous quantities of food would need to be shipped from areas farther from the Equator to feed the populations of often less-affluent countries closer to the Equator.

The panel predicted that even greater warming, which might happen by late in this century if few or no limits are placed on greenhouse gas emissions, would hurt total food output and cripple crops in many countries.

Survival Techniques

Paul Lamine N’Dong, an elder in Joal, Senegal, worries that hot weather and failing rains have already crippled his village’s crop of millet, a coarse grain eaten locally and traded for rice.

Sitting on a concrete dais reserved for elders, Mr. N’Dong said on a recent morning, “The price rises very quickly, which means we really have to go and look for money.”

“It is live or die,” he said.

For farmers in a richer nation like Australia, the effects of the current drought are already significant.

The rice farmers who do not give up and sell their land or water rights are experimenting with varieties or techniques that require less water.

Still, Australia’s total rice capacity has declined by about a third because many farmers have permanently sold water rights, mostly for grape production. And production last year was far lower because of a severe shortage of water; rice farmers received one-eighth of the water they are usually promised by the government.

The accidental beneficiaries of these conditions have been the farmers who grow wine grapes in the river basin where the Deniliquin mill stands silent.

Even with the recent doubling of rice prices, to around $1,000 a metric ton for the high grades produced by Australia, it is even more profitable to grow wine grapes. All told, wine grapes produce a pretax profit of close to $2,000 an acre while rice produces a pretax profit around $240 an acre.

Also selling water rights to grape growers are ranchers like Peter Milliken, who raises sheep on 37,500 acres near Hay, Australia. Some ranchers have water to sell because they are reducing the water they use. Mr. Milliken is installing a buried nine-mile pipe to replace an irrigation canal that lost up to 90 percent of its water to evaporation — and is planning for the day when he does not irrigate at all.

Sheep farmers have already worked out cooperative arrangements to send flocks to whatever fields have recently received rain, sometimes herding or trucking them long distances. Keeping an eye on a flock, Frank Cox, a drover, said recently, “We had to move the sheep because they were dying of starvation, and truck them down here.”

The drought is making rice harder to find. For instance, SunRice, the Australian rice trading and marketing giant owned by the country’s rice growers, began preparing to mothball the Deniliquin mill five months ago, when it noticed that Australian farmers were planting almost no rice. To make sure that it could continue supplying the domestic market, as well as export markets in Papua New Guinea, South Pacific island nations, Taiwan and the Middle East, SunRice stepped up rice purchases from other countries, said the chief executive, Gary Helou.

The SunRice purchases became one among the many factors that are making it harder for longtime rice importers elsewhere to find supplies.

Researchers are looking for solutions to global rice shortages — for example, rice that blooms earlier in the day, when it is cooler, to counter global warming. Rice plants that happen to bloom on hot days are less likely to produce grains of rice, a difficulty that is already starting to emerge in inland areas of China and other Asian countries as temperatures begin to climb.

“There will be problems very soon unless we have new varieties of rice in place,” said Reiner Wassmann, climate change coordinator at the International Rice Research Institute near Manila, a leader in developing higher-yielding strains of rice for nearly half a century.

The recent reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change carried an important caveat that could make the news even worse: the panel said that existing models for the effects of climate change on agriculture did not yet include newer findings that global warming could reduce rainfall and make it more variable.

Seeking Hardier Rice

Many agronomists contend that changes in the timing and amount of rain are more important for crops than temperature changes. Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chairman of the panel, said long-range climate forecasts for precipitation would require another 5 to 20 years of research.

In addition to drought, climate change could also produce more extreme weather, more pest and weed outbreaks, and changes in sea level as polar ice melts. Most of the world’s increase in rice production over the last quarter-century has occurred close to sea level, in the deltas of rivers like the Mekong in Vietnam, Chao Phraya in Thailand and Ganges-Brahmaputra in Bangladesh.

Yet the effects of climate change are not uniformly bad for rice. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, can actually help rice and other crops — although the effect dwindles or disappears if the plants face excessive heat, inadequate water, severe pollution or other stresses.

Still, the flexibility of farmers and ranchers here has persuaded some climate experts that, particularly in developed countries, the effects of climate change may be mitigated, if not completely avoided.

“I’m not as pessimistic as most people,” said Will Steffen, the director of the Fenner School of Environment and Society at Australian National University. “Farmers are learning how to do things differently.”

Meanwhile, changes like the use of water to grow wine grapes instead of rice carry their own costs, as the developing world is discovering.

“Rice is a staple food,” said Graeme J. Haley, the general manager of the town of Deniliquin. “Chardonnay is not.”

Keith Bradsher reported from Australia last month and later added updated information. Rose Skelton in Fadiouth, Senegal, contributed reporting.



Food prices have risen but not expected to spike sharply

By Wong Mun Wai, Channel NewsAsia
6 April 2008

SINGAPORE : The prices of some food items are up because energy and commodity prices have risen.

But according to Senior Minister of State for National Development and Education Grace Fu, prices are not expected to spike sharply.

Speaking to reporters after launching a web portal, Ms Fu added that the government will consider importing pork from countries like Malaysia.

"We look at each of these countries... on a risk-managed perspective... Not only do we look at the supply of meat from a certain country, we will also accredit the abattoir as well as the way the meat is being processed," said Ms Fu. - CNA /ls



Recycling That Harms the Environment and People

April 15, 2008

Recycling is supposed to be good for the environment. But if it’s not carried out properly, certain kinds of recycling — notably the dismantling of electronic circuit boards, which contain lead, zinc, copper and other metals — can cause environmental harm.

It can also be dangerous to human health, as a new study of electronics recycling in China shows.

Anna O. W. Leung and Ming H. Wong of Hong Kong Baptist University and colleagues went to the town of Guiyu in southeastern China, home to a cottage industry of family-run recycling workshops. These are typically set up inside homes, where family members melt the tin-lead solder on the boards to remove chips and other components for sale, with only small household fans for ventilation.

The researchers collected surface dust samples in and around these workshops, at local markets and schools and in other nearby residential areas.

As reported in Environmental Science and Technology, they found extremely elevated levels of lead, zinc and other metals in the workshops. Lead levels, for example, were up to 2,400 times commonly accepted optimum levels.

The contamination extended beyond the workshops into adjacent streets. Lead levels were still high, although about one-fifth the levels inside the homes. But even neighborhood schoolyards and markets were affected, suggesting that people spread contaminated dust as they walk around.



Government announces plans for Jurong Lake District

By Wong Siew Ying, Channel NewsAsia
04 April 2008

SINGAPORE: Singapore is planning to have its very own lake district in Jurong, which will be a magnet for business and leisure.

The Jurong Lake District – made up of two precincts, Jurong Gateway and Lakeside – will offer a potential development area of 360 hectares or about the size of Marina Bay.

National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan announced this when he unveiled the government's Draft Master Plan 2008 on Friday. This plan will guide Singapore's land use over the next 10 to 15 years.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) said the Jurong Lake District is expected to attract investments worth billions of dollars.

Under the proposed plan, some 750,000 square metres of land will be set aside at Jurong Gateway for offices, hotels, food and beverage, and entertainment uses.

It is also expected to add about 2,800 hotel rooms, equivalent to the hotel belt at the Singapore River area. Land to build 1,000 new private homes will be available as well.

URA said the Jurong Gateway is set to be the biggest commercial hub outside the city centre – nearly 2.5 times the size of the Tampines Regional Centre.

Lakeside, which is the other component of the Jurong Lake District, has been earmarked to be the next waterfront playground.

Urban planners said there will be plenty of leisure options there, including nature-themed and edu-tainment attractions.

But the centrepiece will be a new world-class Science Centre to be located next to the Chinese Garden MRT station.

Visitors can also look forward to lush greenery and water-based activities like kayaking and dragon boating at Lakeside.

- CNA/so

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Online barter exchange sites gain popularity

By Ng Jing Yng, TODAY
02 April 2008

SINGAPORE: It's an online exchange site that allows you to trade your unwanted items for someone else's — and it is part of a growing Web community that believes in cash-free recycling.

While auction sites like eBay have long allowed people to sell off their second-hand stuff, YouSwop.com abides by the ancient practice of barter trading that does away with hard cash.

Such barter sites have been gaining a following — on www.u-exchange.com, for instance, users trade across countries on items ranging from clothes to garden appliances.

YouSwop, launched last August, already lists more than 6,000 registered users who post photographs of items they wish to trade for virtual credits or "YS dollars". Each member tags a value to his or her item and can use credits earned to "purchase" items from other members.

But how does this system compare to the popular Singapore Freecycle, or SgFreecycle, where users simply give away their used items freely?

Items put up for offer on the two-year-old site range from baby clothing to computer accessories and household furniture, and interested parties can contact the person making the offer to collect the items.

According to the moderator of SgFreecycle, 30-year-old Varun Arora, a recent poll was conducted on whether bartering should be allowed. Members did not subscribe to the idea.

"While YouSwop might be an alternative for some, the vast majority who give away items on SgFreecycle do so with altruistic motives and not because they want something in exchange," said Mr Arora.

Secretary Gerry Khoo, 30, who has been using both sites for six months, says each serves a different purpose. "But in both cases, I felt that the items would benefit someone else who really needed them."

According to one of YouSwop's three creators, Mr Patrick Lim, 33, using virtual credits for bartering purposes makes for easier exchange and fair play for both buyer and seller.

The idea was sparked off by Mr Lim's wife, who had too many items that were rarely used and taking up storage space.

"Initially, we just wanted to have a platform which enabled us to swap for things that we need," said Mr Lim. He now hopes the site will help save the environment by recycling unused items. - TODAY/sh


No simple solutions to food price hikes

By Neo Chai Chin and Alicia Wong, TODAY
02 April 2008

SINGAPORE: In theory, importing food from many sources sounds like a good way to keep rising prices in check — apart from hedging one's bets against supply disruptions due to, say, natural disasters.

But reality is rarely so simple.

With food prices going up around the world, economists point out - diversification will not be enough to avoid inflation in Singapore, which imports about 90 per cent of its edibles.

The theory works only if there is a "disconnect between two markets", said Forecast's economist Vishnu Varathan. For instance, if Australia is facing a drought, dairy prices here can be kept stable if imports are still coming in from other regions.

That's not the case with the brewing Asian rice crisis, however. Noting shortages reported from Cambodia to the Philippines, rice importer Hong Lian Gim Kee said: "How can you negotiate prices?"

On Tuesday, the World Bank said that inflation poses a bigger challenge to East Asia than the current credit crisis does. For one, it has led to higher fuel prices — which leads to higher freight costs that could negate cost-savings from food sourced further afield, said a spokesman from the Singapore Cereal Oils Foodstuffs and Native Products Import and Export Association.

Said Mr Varathan: "We can get some limited relief from inflation by changing consumer patterns, but unless we have a backyard to plant some crops, there's little we can do."

But, how far are consumers here willing to adapt?

Importer See Hoy Chan's operations manager E K Lim believes "people want higher quality rice". For instance, Vietnamese rice is often too rough, and Chinese, Australian and American rice too sticky for the fussy Singapore palate.

NTUC FairPrice's director of integrated purchasing Tng Ah Yiam said sales of its house-brand rice from Vietnam have doubled since its launch last October, partly because it is 20-per-cent cheaper than Thai rice.

Yet there are those like housewife Pauline Wong, 59, who would "switch to a cheaper brand of Thai rice" easily but fuss over the standards of Vietnamese rice. It is difficult for consumer tastes to change within a short time, said associate research fellow Ng Sue Chia of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Likewise, diversifying food sources may also take time. Sheng Siong supermarket will "definitely" look for other rice suppliers, but it could take years to build a working relationship if mutual benefits cannot be found, said its international business development deputy general manager Wong Heng San.

Conversely, it only took two to three months to form a working relationship with Thailand's rice suppliers as the supermarket has worked with them before.

Meanwhile, what Singapore can do seems to have already been done.

According to the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), the government requires all white rice traders to stockpile twice their monthly import quantities. The growth dividends and GST credits to be paid out later this year will also help to offset inflation, an MTI spokesperson told TODAY.

Also, said Assistant Professor Tomoki Fujii of the Singapore Management University's School of Economics: "With little control over the price of food it buys from other countries, the government can let the Singapore dollar appreciate against other currencies to mitigate inflation -- which is indeed being done."

FairPrice – the island's largest supermarket chain -- said it tries to help consumers by being the last retailer to adjust prices. While it raised the prices of three in-house rice brands last Friday by 10 to 15 per cent, it eliminates middlemen costs by importing directly from countries like Thailand and Vietnam, said Mr Tng. FairPrice is also studying setting up budget outlets for the needy, possibly next year.

Sheng Siong supermarket – with 21 outlets – imports some of its rice directly, and will keep promotional prices for rice constant until stocks run out.

Prof Fujii suggested coping with short-term price fluctuations by making long-term contracts with food-exporting countries.

Freezing food prices, like what Thailand is considering, would create a "disastrous situation" with insufficient food to meet demand. But increasing food subsidies for the poor could be considered, he said.

Prof Fujii also mooted the idea of imposing a tax on restaurants for food wastage, with the money going to the poor. Households could also be taxed according to how much waste they generate. But such an idea would be hard to implement, he admitted. - TODAY/sh



Gore Group Plans Ad Blitz on Global Warming

April 1, 2008
New York Times

Former Vice President Al Gore and a nonprofit climate group have begun what they say will be a three-year $300 million advertising blitz to recruit 10 million advocates to seek laws and policies that can cut greenhouse gases.

The campaign was introduced in a “60 Minutes” appearance by Mr. Gore on Sunday. The first ad, posted online at wecansolveit.org , compares the challenge of fighting global warming to the invasion of Normandy and the civil rights movement.

That advertisement will start appearing on television Wednesday, according to the Alliance for Climate Protection, a group created by Mr. Gore in 2006. It will be followed by ads tailored to particular audiences and media, including the Internet.

About half the anticipated budget has been raised from donations, mostly from anonymous benefactors, people involved in the campaign said.

In a presentation on the campaign last week, Cathy Zoi, who heads the alliance and was formerly a Clinton administration environmental aide, said the goal was to replicate the marketing success of enduring public service ad campaigns like the frying egg depicted as “your brain on drugs” and the 1971 advertisement featuring a tearful American Indian considering a polluted landscape.

John P. Murry Jr., an associate professor of marketing at the University of Iowa who has studied public service advertising, said the campaign might be spending too little.

“I think the global warming project media budget should be 10 times as high,” he said. “Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi spend over a billion dollars each year to promote brand preference for soft drinks. In this light, the $100 million per year to change our lifestyles seems pretty small.”

Pollsters and communications experts have noted that the public remains deeply divided along party lines over global warming and that the issue rarely shows up on voters’ lists of worries.

Ms. Zoi said the goal was to recruit people she described as “influentials.” She added: “These are people who talk to five times as many people a day as the typical person, who derive self-esteem from having new information.”

The ads will be coordinated with outreach through organizations like the United Steelworkers union and the Girl Scouts.

On various blogs on Monday, reactions ranged from strong support to complaints that the money would be better spent on energy research and that the effort would mainly swell coffers of environmental campaigners and carbon traders.

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Food Prices Rise, Farmers Respond


April 1, 2008

CHICAGO — Faced with strong worldwide food demand and the accompanying higher prices, American farmers are beginning to respond to the signals of the market. In a new government report, farmers said they would make significant cuts in corn acreage this year in favor of soybeans.

If they carry through with their intentions, the resulting additional soybean oil could help alleviate global shortages of cooking oil that have led to sharply higher prices, hitting poor countries hard.

But a smaller corn harvest would most likely raise prices for that crop, which could also increase the prices Americans pay for meat. Most corn is used as animal feed.Higher corn prices may also compound the difficulties of companies that use corn to produce ethanol as a motor fuel. Despite government mandates for the use of ethanol, those companies are struggling. They expanded so rapidly in recent years that an oversupply of ethanol depressed prices, even as the cost of their main feedstock — corn — was rising.

The release Monday morning of the Agriculture Department’s report on farmers’ plans, based on interviews with growers during the first two weeks of March, caused the price of corn in the commodities markets to rise past $6 a bushel for the first time, before falling back. Soybean prices, meanwhile, fell 70 cents to $10.89 on expectations of a greater supply.

The commodities markets have been extremely volatile recently, with prices swinging more widely in a few days than they used to move in a year. Overall the trend has been sharply upward, making for an uneasy winter.

Consumers are confronting sticker shock at the grocery store, while farmers insist they are not getting rich because their own costs, like diesel fuel, are up. Wheat and soybean stockpiles have fallen in the last year, the government said in a separate report, meaning there is little buffer if the weather is not favorable this year and harvests are disappointing.

“We’re hoping for good yields,” said David Orden, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. “If we get bad yields and tight commodity markets are pushed even tighter, we’ll get food prices skyrocketing, inflationary pressures and food riots in developing countries, and countries cutting off their exports.”

Many of those unfortunate trends, Mr. Orden said, are happening already.

Soybean producers told the government they would plant 74.8 million acres, up 18 percent from last year and just below the record high in 2006. Corn growers said they would plant 86 million acres, down 8 percent from 2007.

The soybean number was a little higher than analysts had been predicting, while the corn number was a little lower. The 2007 corn crop was the biggest since 1944 as growers rushed to capitalize on the government-mandated demand for ethanol. Three years ago, before the ethanol mandates, the price was less than $2.50 a bushel.

“In February, we were thinking farmers would plant as much as 90 million acres of corn,” said the Agriculture Department’s chief economist, Joseph Glauber. But the relatively high prices of soybeans might have caused some of them to switch. Soybeans also require less fertilizer, another commodity whose prices have been breaking records.

Mr. Glauber cautioned that the planting report not only reflected the intentions of farmers, but could affect them too. Last year’s report underestimated actual corn plantings by three million acres. A rise in corn prices and a drop in soybean prices might inspire other farmers to change their minds.

That is what the ethanol industry is hoping. “We do certainly use corn and it is going to have an impact,” said Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association. “But I’m sure the marketplace will respond to this signal.”

Joe Victor, an analyst with the market research firm Allendale, said he expected corn to rise as high as $7.50 by summer.

Farmers are not necessarily planting less corn for economic reasons, Mr. Victor said: “They’re going back to a more normal crop rotation. They needed to give their corn acres a bit of a rest.” Next year, he predicted, the ratio will shift again, and farmers will cut back on soybeans in favor of corn.

A handful of farmers, principally in Texas and California, told the government they were planning to grow more corn. But in the heart of the Corn Belt, it was a different story. Indiana is projected to be down 800,000 acres, Illinois 600,000, Nebraska 600,000, Iowa 1 million.

Ray Gaesser in Corning, Iowa, said he would devote about 48 percent of his 6,000 acres to corn, down from 52 percent last year. The rest would be soybeans.

“Last year, the price ratio of corn to soybeans was telling us we should plant more corn,” said Mr. Gaesser, a former president of the Iowa Soybean Association. Now the ratio is more in line with historical norms. The result is that “many of the increased corn acres in 2007 are going back to soybeans,” he said.

Mr. Gaesser sells his corn to the local ethanol plant, where he is an investor. “If corn prices get low, we make money at the plant,” he said. “If they’re high, we make money in our core business, which is agriculture.” He had already contracted to sell his corn, he said, which meant he would not benefit from any further price rises.

For bakers worried about the price of flour, the plantings report offered a little relief. Wheat farmers said they planned to plant 63.8 million acres, up 6 percent, about what the commodities markets had been expecting. Cotton plantings are expected to fall 13 percent to 9.39 million acres. Cotton farmers have been abandoning the crop for corn and wheat.

The Agriculture Department said farmers would devote 323.8 million acres to 19 principal crops this year, up 3.8 million acres from last year and 7.8 million acres from 2006. Some of the increase has come from land pulled out of conservation programs, some from pasture, and some from the double-cropping of wheat and soybeans.

Despite the back-to-back increases, the number of acres under cultivation is still about six million below the level of a decade ago. The government is not entirely sure why that is happening, but one possibility is that some land has been swallowed up by suburban construction.