Blue Marble - June 2013

Why Is the Obama Administration Suddenly So Interested in African Farms?

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

A Peace Corps volunteer talks about soy with farmers in Malawi.

This week, President Obama is making his first major visit to Africa since taking office. One topic that's likely high on his agenda: US investment in African agriculture.

With the global population expected to top 9 billion by 2050, the Obama administration is pushing hard to use foreign development funds to expand farming in the developing world, and especially in Africa. Since 2009, when Obama made a pledge at the G8 Summit in L'Aquila, Italy, to devote massive resources to global "food security," Congress has committed more than $3.5 billion to an agricultural development program called "Feed the Future." Congress has since renewed the initiative's funding.

"After decades in which agriculture and nutrition didn't always get the attention they deserved," Obama said in an address last year, "we put the fight against global hunger where it should be, which is at the forefront of global development."

But the US government's motivation for investing such a large sum in Feed the Future isn't entirely altruistic. Here's a look at some of the other reasons behind the sudden enthusiasm for agriculture in the developing world.

I've heard that hunger had something to do with the Arab Spring. Is that true?
Possibly. The impetus for Feed the Future goes back to the food price crisis of 2007-08, when prices for basic commodities like corn rose dramatically all over the world. Among middle-class consumers in the United States and Europe, the spike in prices went largely unnoticed. But in developing nations such as Côte d'Ivoire and Haiti, where families typically spend a large portion of their incomes on food, it led to riots. Some observers theorized that the price spike hastened the start of the Arab Spring

At a May 2008 hearing on the food price crisis, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) predicted that shortages of food "are likely to recur frequently if the United States and the global community fail to open up agricultural trade and invest in agricultural productivity in the developing world." The damage of the food crisis, he added, "likely would have been ameliorated if more of the world's poor farmers had access to better technology, titled land, small loans, extension support, and accessible markets." 

Do US businesses stand to profit from all this new farming development in Africa?
Absolutely. Broadly speaking, the idea behind Feed the Future is to grow more food than ever before by making it easier for global agribusiness companies to invest in poor countries. As USAID head Rajiv Shah indicated at the official unveiling of Feed the Future in 2010, the agency could advocate on companies' behalf to make investment easier in partner countries. 

"If you're from the private sector, tell us what countries and donors can do to reduce constraints on business operations," he said.

The US government appears to already be doing this, as a recent analysis of dumped embassy cables found that the State Department had lobbied governments around the world to adopt policies allowing for the cultivation of genetically modified crops.

"[S]ome may see our work in Africa as philanthropy, but it's much more than that," said General Mills CEO Ken Powell at an event hosted by the World Food Prize Foundation. "It's about creating shared value, and for our African partners, it is about unlocking opportunity—business opportunity—through knowledge-sharing."

What's Feed the Future done so far?
At the end of of 2012, USAID had disbursed slightly more than $1 billion of the $3.7 billion obligated by Congress for Feed the Future. The initiative has supported a wide variety of programs: In 2011, for example, PepsiCo partnered with USAID under the Feed the Future rubric to employ farmers in Ethiopia to grow chickpeas for domestic consumption, as well as for export for use in Sabra hummus. (PepsiCo co-owns the Sabra brand with the Israeli company Strauss Group Ltd.) Similarly, Walmart received USAID funding to train farmers in Guatemala to grow tomatoes for stores in Latin America. In the words of USAID's brochure, USAID and Walmart would steer small farmers to "to more market-oriented production, based on expected consumer demand." In 2012, Powell announced that an organization co-founded by General Mills, Partners in Food Solutions, would join with USAID to make a combined $15 million investment in training for food processors in Southern and Eastern Africa.

What's so bad about that?
In theory, nothing. But similar efforts in the past haven't always turned out as well as hoped. Devlin Kuyek, a researcher for the Barcelona-based nonprofit GRAIN, pointed to one relevant example: In 2007, Swiss agribusiness giant Nestlé joined with the Gates Foundation to make a major investment in the Kenyan dairy industry. According to a statement from Nestlé, the company chose the project's Rift Valley site because of its potential for production growth. They weren't the only ones to see an opportunity: The following year, Land O'Lakes followed Nestlé to Kenya and introduced a USAID-backed program to modernize the country's dairy industry. In the words of Michael Yost, a manager for USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service, the project was part of an effort to help poor countries "participate in world trade" and "bring their agricultural economies into the 21st century."

But Kenya was self-sufficient in milk well before agribusiness came onto the scene, according to a 2003 report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. Moreover, the low-tech dairy industry provided income for an estimated 625,000 people. But by 2010, as production soared on the heels of new large-scale production, Kenya was overloaded with dairy. The price of milk dropped, and rather than sell their product at a loss, farmers began dumping it.

But a glut in production was not the only problem for Kenya's small milk producers. In January 2013, Kenya banned the sale of raw milk, citing both safety concerns, and the need to protect the investments of large milk processors, according to media accounts. Far from supporting an existing (and functional) dairy industry, foreign agribusiness had only helped to undermine it.

But if people are hungry, what's wrong with growing more food?
Though it may seem counterintuitive, some agricultural economists argue that you can't fix a food price spike by growing more food. During the 2007-08 crisis, many attributed the spike to changes in the weather and a slump in global production, but global food supply fell only slightly during that time. In fact, researchers for both Congress and the United Nations have attributed the problem more to a speculative bubble, with hedge funds and investment banks driving up prices by betting on basic commodities.

So is there a better way?
Wouldn't it be nice if we knew? Hans Herren, president of the Millennium Institute, argues that the world's farmers should focus less on growing more food, and more on growing higher quality food with fewer inputs, thereby enriching the soil instead of depleting it with chemicals. As Herren told my colleague Tom Philpott recently, in gross terms, the world already grows enough food today to feed the world two times over.

This article has been revised.

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How President Obama’s Climate Speech Could Have Rocked Even More

| Thu Jun. 27, 2013 11:04 AM EDT

President Obama's speech Tuesday on climate change is getting pretty high marks. Or as Al Gore put it, it was "the best address on climate by any president ever."

At both the beginning and end of the speech the president invoked the historic "Earthrise" image, taken from the Apollo 8 mission on Christmas Eve of 1968 as the craft orbited the moon. That "blue marble" is the namesake of this blog itself, and was a great inspiration to the developing environmental movement in the 1970s.

At the close of the speech, the president put it like this:

…that image in the photograph, that bright blue ball rising over the moon's surface, containing everything we hold dear—the laughter of children, a quiet sunset, all the hopes and dreams of posterity—that's what's at stake. That's what we're fighting for. And if we remember that, I'm absolutely sure we'll succeed.

It looks like Obama here may be channeling the celebrated environmental writer (and longtime Mother Jones contributor) Bill McKibben, who similarly drew upon "Earthrise" to great effect at the opening to his 2010 book Eaarth. Only, McKibben goes considerably further—and arguably achieves a more impressive rhetorical effect—by noting that global warming has literally changed what Earth looks like from space. What this suggests is that the "Earthrise" picture wouldn't be the same today as it was in 1968 (although to be sure, some of the differences might be hard to notice given the distance of the shot).

Here's McKibben:

Consider the veins of cloud that streak and mottle the earth in that glorious snapshot from space. So far humans, by burning fossil fuel, have raised the temperature of the planet by nearly a degree Celsius…A NASA study in December 2008 found that warming on that scale was enough to trigger a 45 percent increase in thunder-heads above the ocean, breeding spectacular anvil-headed clouds that can rise five miles above the sea…

And again:

Or consider the white and frozen top of the planet. Arctic ice has been melting slowly for two decades as temperatures have climbed, but in the summer of 2007 that gradual thaw suddenly accelerated. By the time the long Arctic night finally descended in October, there was 22 percent less sea ice than had ever been observed before, and more than 40 percent less than the year that the Apollo capsule took its picture…Within a decade or two, a summertime spacecraft pointing its camera at the North Pole would see nothing but open ocean. There'd be ice left on Greenland—but much less ice.

Barack, Bill—you guys should talk. Between the two of you, you just might move us to save this rock.

21 Percent of Homes Emit 50 Percent of CO2

| Thu Jun. 27, 2013 6:05 AM EDT

Not all homes pollute equally—even in the relatively homogeneous world of a mid-sized town in Switzerland. A study of a village of 3,000 finds that 21 percent of households belched half the town's greenhouse gases. The biggest factors running up the carbon tabs of the disproportionate polluters: the size of their houses and the length of their commutes. Airline travel wasn't factored into this research.

The energy people use to power their homes and drive their lives accounts for more than 70 percent of CO2 emissions, write the authors in  Environmental Science & Technology. But in addressing that problem policymakers and environmentalists mostly point their fingers at the supply side: power plants, heating and cooling systems, and the fuel efficiency of cars. The Swiss researchers chose to parse it differently and developed a lifecycle assessment model of how energy consumption for housing and car travel, per household and per capita, impacts greenhouse gas emissions.

Their conclusion: ​energy conservation in a small number of households could go a long way to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If the super polluting homes cut their emissions in half, the authors write, "the total emissions of the community would be reduced by 25 percent."

Be interesting to see the model these researchers developed used to compare the larger income and lifestyle gaps typical in US towns and cities.

I wrote more about the power of individual choices in combating emissions in Diet for a Warm Planet.

VIDEO: Ag Gag in Action at Utah Slaughterhouse

| Wed Jun. 26, 2013 5:48 PM EDT

Animal rights activist Amy Meyer was the first person to be prosecuted under an ag gag law for a disturbing scene she caught on tape in February at the Dale T. Smith and Sons Meat Packing Co. in Draper, Utah. 

Meyer was standing on a public easement outside the barbed wire fence that encloses the slaughterhouse and recorded a tractor carrying away a downer cow and flesh coming out of a chute on the side of a building. She was approached by the manager of the company who told her she had to leave, citing Utah's ag gag law: "If you read the rights here and the laws in Utah, you can't film an agricultural property without my consent."

Check out Meyer's footage, first published this week by environmental blogger Will Potter:

Utah's law, enacted in March 2012, makes it illegal to record, "an image of, or sound from, an agricultural operation while the person is committing criminal trespass." Like many other states' ag gag laws, Utah also forbids obtaining, "access to an agricultural operation under false pretenses." As Ted Genoways' reveals in a recent investigation for Mother Jones, laws criminalizing whistleblowing on Big Ag have been sweeping the country in the past few years. Ag gag laws were introduced in 12 states just this year, and are currently pending in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Check out MoJo's map to see where these bills have passed and failed.

Meyer used to pass by the slaughterhouse on her way to volunteer at a local animal sanctuary in Draper, where the mayor is a co-owner of the meat-packing plant, and felt compelled to, "do more to fight what's happening to cows inside factory farms and slaughterhouses," she told Mother Jones. After she filmed the downer cow incident and then a confrontation with Smith and Sons's manager, police arrived to question Meyer, but did not detain her. She was later charged with "agricultural operation interference." As shown by the video, Meyer was standing on public property while recording, which was why the prosecutor ultimately dropped the charges on April 30, after Potter publicized the case

On May 18, hundreds of local activists gathered outside the slaughterhouse to protest the state's ag gag law. A spokesperson for the plant told ABC News, "the meat processing facility is inspected daily and has a good record for animal care," and the company maintained in a written statement that their "animal handling and treatment practices are humane and responsible."

However, as Meyer points out to the plant's manager in the video, more transparency is in order: "Why are you concerned about being filmed, if you think this is a legitimate business?"

Flooded Calgary Warned the Worst Is Yet to Come

| Fri Jun. 21, 2013 3:47 PM EDT
Twitter user @ShaneKeller posts a photo of the Calgary Zoo almost completely underwater. @ShaneKeller/Twitter

Flood waters from two rivers that converge on the Canadian city of Calgary have paralyzed mass transit, shuttered downtown, and closed schools, as thousands received emergency evacuation notices yesterday and this morning. And locals are being told the worst floods in decades are not over yet. "We are still expecting that the worst has not yet come in terms of the flow," Mayor Naheed Nenshi told CBC News on Friday.

You can find a helpful map of the most affected areas here. There have been no reports of fatalities.

In the last 48 hours, more than six inches of rain have fallen in the Calgary area alone, and CBC is reporting that more is on its way, with the highest amounts expected west of Calgary.  The city reports that the Elbow River crested this morning and water levels in Bow River are expected to remain extremely high for several days. That has prompted nearly a dozen emergency warnings of flash flooding, burst banks, and overflowed dams in the province. All Calgarians have been asked by local authorities to refrain from non-essential travel. Locals are also being encouraged to boil their water in seven Calgary communities to stop the spread of infection. According to the officials, 1500 people have sought out emergency shelters across the city.

Fast-moving debris from the flood also ruptured a pipeline carrying "sour gas"—a stinky, toxic gas comprised of one percent hydrogen sulfide that can be deadly if inhaled—in Alberta's Turner Valley, prompting further evacuations. Crews have reportedly contained the leak.

Calgary flooding
Flooded Calgary streets after torrential rainfall caused two rivers to overrun their banks, forcing the evacuation of thousands. Bandit Queen/Flickr

Flooding has also forced the closure of the last two days of the Sled Island music festival, which featured more than 250 bands plus comedy, film and art events at 30 local venues, and stranded its organizers in a generator-powered Calgary hotel. "It is a huge disappointment for all of us for sure, because we've been working so hard to put this together," said Maud Salvi, the event director, by phone. "I think we're just all trying to accept the fact that there's nothing we can do." Logistics are being complicated by wide-spread power outages at venues across the city,

Twitter user Connor Deering seemed to sum up some of the Canadian spirit in the face of adversity: "Since the city is shut down, may as well just start drinking". You can see the power of the flood waters from Thursday in this supercut: 

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Step Inside the World's Largest Solar Boat

| Fri Jun. 21, 2013 1:13 PM EDT

The solar plane will land in New York City soon, but its water-borne counterpart is already here: Early this week the world's largest solar-powered boat steamed into lower Manhattan and docked in small marina, usually reserved for multimillion dollar yachts, in the shadow of the new World Trade Center tower. The three-year-old ship, dubbed "Turanor" after a term for solar power in The Lord of the Rings, is on a tour of the Atlantic from its home base in southern France, documenting how the warming sea is shifting the Gulf Stream, a powerful cross-ocean current that drives the weather of Europe and West Africa.

CHARTS: Republicans and Democrats Treat Fracking Like It's Global Warming

| Fri Jun. 21, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

The more liberals and conservatives know about science, the more they have wildly variant views about the risks of global warming, according to research by Yale’s Dan Kahan. You might call it the "smart idiot" effect—knowledge, itself, seems to make people with diametrically opposed views more sure that they're right, and thus worsens the political fight over what is actually scientifically true.

And recent research suggests that the smart idiot effect isn't limited to climate change—it also applies to public perception of fracking. At the center of a growing number of regional environmental disputes, fracking (short for hydraulic fracturing) refers to the process of blasting water and chemicals down wells at high pressure to crack shale layers and, in the process, release their hydrocarbon goodies.

Why is the fracking issue prime terrain for another smart idiot effect—and another extreme bifurcation of the left and the right over what is factually true and accurate?

Well, first, the issue is clearly growing in political salience—witness the recent Matt Damon film Promised Land—but still falls shy of going fully mainstream. According to a recent poll by the Yale and George Mason projects on climate change communication, less than half of Americans even have an opinion on the issue. But already, the more people know about it, the more they fall into either the "strongly support" or "strongly oppose" camp on the issue.

Indeed, if we turn back to Kahan's research, we find that fracking shows a smart idiot effect that looks comparable to the one seen on global warming.

Here's one figure from Kahan's data, showing the relationship between one's score on a general test of scientific literacy, one's left-right political values, and one's views on how dangerous global warming is. Note that Kahan refers to those on the left as "egalitarian communitarians" and those on the right as "hierarchical individualists," but there is high overlap between these groups and good old "liberals" and "conservatives," respectively:

Now, look at the same analysis when applied to the fracking issue:

Just as in the case of global warming, for people with conservative cultural values (hierarchical individualists), their conviction that fracking is just dandy for the environment increases with an increasing level of scientific literacy. But for those with liberal cultural values—egalitarian communitarians—the movement is in the opposite direction. With increasing scientific literacy, their conviction that fracking harms the environment increases. (To be sure, fracking and global warming are different in one key respect: On fracking, the science is murkier and more contested, and indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency is still trying to resolve the question of how it may affect drinking water supplies.)

In other words, the more scientifically literate you are, the more your values seem to bias you on fracking—and drive you to a diametrically opposed position from the one embraced by your political rivals.

What this means, unfortunately, is that as the fracking issue grows in prominence, people are going to be very hard to move or sway—despite the actual facts. It also means that the people who will be the hardest to sway are those who know a lot about it. The more they know, the more biased and polarized they’ll be, the more likely to double down on their beliefs. And each time some fracking-related news story rises to the level of national consciousness, each side will be ready with its "facts" and its "experts."

House Sinks the Latest Version of the Farm Bill

| Thu Jun. 20, 2013 5:28 PM EDT

Earlier today the House defeated the most recent version of the Farm Bill, a $940 billion piece of legislation that regulates both food stamps and farm subsidies in the US, by a vote of 195-234.

Both Republicans and Democrats voted against the bill: Republicans complained that it didn't create enough savings while Democrats took issue with the bill's deep cuts to food stamps. "What is happening on the floor today was major amateur hour," Nancy Pelosi (who was speaker when the last Farm Bill passed, in 2007) told Politico. "They didn't get results and they put the blame on somebody else."

The House bill would have saved an estimated $33 billion over ten years, with the majority of that savings ($21 billion) coming from cuts to food stamps, which account for almost 80 percent of farm bill spending. Part of those savings would come from requiring "asset tests" that ensure the 48 million Americans who participate in the food stamp program don't have more than $2,000 in the bank, or own a car worth more than $5,000. Democrats including Pelosi have been saying for days that they wouldn't vote for the bill if it included the cuts to food stamps.

The Senate's version of the farm bill, passed last month, cut food stamps but only to the tune of $4 billion dollars. This chart from the congressional research service shows where the cuts would come from in each bill ("Nutrition" is the food stamps program):

Bar chart of two bills

When it comes to farm subsidies, the farm bill's other main set of policies, the bills in the House and the Senate are roughly the same. USA Today explains:

The Senate and House farm bills are largely similar when it comes to farm policy issues, with both measures streamlining conservation programs, expanding the federally subsidized crop insurance program and slashing subsidy paymentsincluding the elimination of the $5 billion a year in direct payments doled out to farmers regardless of whether they grow crops. In a bid to help Southern growers who depend on direct payments, each bill would set higher support prices for rice and peanut farmers, meaning growers would see subsidy payments kick in sooner.

But a significant divide exists between the two chambers in the scope of proposed cuts to the country's food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, that will likely continue to be a sticking point in determining whether the farm bill passes.

Congress now has until January 1st to pass a new Farm Bill, though it's unclear when the House will bring the bill back up for a vote again. "If it doesn't pass, I don't know if it's going to come up again in this Congress," Congressman Frank Lucas (R-Okl.), chair of the House agriculture committee who had steered the bill to a vote today, told the New York Times before today's vote.

CHARTS: You Won't Believe How Much Disasters Cost Last Year

| Thu Jun. 20, 2013 5:14 PM EDT

2012 was the second-worst year on record for extreme weather events, both in number and in cost, according to a tally released this morning by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Eleven major events—including tornadoes, wildfires, droughts, and hurricanes—racked up a collective bill of over $110 billion, with cropland damage from drought in the Midwest ($17.36 billion in crop insurance payments alone) and Hurricane Sandy, with a $60 billion price tag, as the most expensive items.

NOAA

As for this summer, the costs are still piling on: Feed and water scarcity have shrunk the nation's cattle supply to its lowest point since 1952, pushing beef prices to an all-time high, and NOAA scientists predict that pasture conditions will likely be worse this summer than last.

According to the latest forecast, although drought conditions have dropped 21 percent from their peak last September, nearly half of the country is still in some kind of drought, with the worst conditions moving west through the summer into California and Oregon.

"The drought has definitely been pushing westward," Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Nebraska told reporters, adding that the devastating wildfires that have recently hit states like Colorado and New Mexico are "just the start." 

NOAA

Svoboda added that lightning from the upcoming monsoon season in the Southwest created a particular wildfire risk in this still tinder-dry region, although Arizona and the central plains are expected to see some improvement of drought conditions, the result of a relatively wet spring:

NOAA