Privatizing Collective Farms in Russia.  NY Times reports on the potential for expansion of agricultural output in Russia.  "A decade after capitalism transformed Russian industry, an agricultural revolution is stirring the countryside, shaking up village life and sweeping aside the collective farms that resisted earlier reform efforts and remain the dominant form of agriculture....Today, roughly 7 percent of the planet’s arable land is either owned by the Russian state or by collective farms, but about a sixth of all that agricultural land — some 35 million hectares — lies fallow....Russia also has millions of acres of untouched, pristine land that could be used for agriculture....Yields in Russia, however, are tiny. The average Russian grain yield is 1.85 tons a hectare — compared with 6.36 tons a hectare in the United States and 3.04 in Canada. (A hectare is about two and a half acres.)"

posted August 31, 2008 at 8:00 a.m.

The World is Poorer than we Thought.  According to a new study from the Chen and Ravallion at the World Bank,  the appropriate standard for poverty is not $1 a day, but $1.25 a day.  Therefore the number of  people living in poverty is not less than 1 billion, but about 1.4 billion.   Tim Harford has some interesting thought about defining poverty here.

posted August 29, 2008 at 7:50 a.m.

Declining Fertility in Japan.   Japan's fertility rate is 1.22 children born per woman.  This news report puts this in context of Japanese culture. 

"Feminine foot-dragging on the way to the altar has been identified by demographers as perhaps the primary reason for the region's plunging birthrates....Most working women in Japan face a stark choice: the career track, in which they will acquire financial independence while remaining single and childless, or the family track, which makes them full-time mothers until they are in their mid- to late 40s.  ...  Still, marriage remains almost universal in Japan. Only 4 percent of women older than 45 have never married. It is also exceedingly rare for women here to have children outside marriage (less than 2 percent of all births). The cultural taboo against single parenthood is far stronger than in the United States, where about 37 percent of births are outside wedlock. Cohabitation is also rare in Japan, and single women almost never adopt."

posted August 28, 2008 at 9:00 a.m.

Russia's Worst Famine.  Opera fans (and fans of Rocky and Bullwinkle), take note:  The overthrow of Boris Godunov was instigated by his failure to come to grips with climate change (though not anthropogenic climate change).  The Russian famine of 1601 was probably caused by the eruption of a volcano in Peru in 1600, which changed Russian climate, and caused crop failure."

Through a chance meeting on an airplane, Verosub found that Huaynaputina may have triggered substantial social upheaval as well. While he chatted with a seatmate about his research on the effects of volcanic eruptions, a fellow seated in the row behind — Chester Dunning, a historian specializing in Russian history at Texas A&M University in College Station — overheard the conversation and introduced himself.  “So,” Verosub asked Dunning later in the chat, “did anything interesting happen in Russia in 1601?” The reply: “Oh, yeah. That was a terribly cold time in Russia.” That cold spell was just the beginning of the nation’s woes, Dunning continued  Large portions of Russia received heavy rains in the summer of 1601, and by the end of the growing season it was clear that most crops would fail. In that age, Dunning explains, most farmers expected to occasionally experience a bad year and stockpiled accordingly, so farmers and their families didn’t suffer immediately. However, another agricultural failure the following year led to widespread starvation in both 1602 and 1603.  This lengthy famine — Russia’s worst, says Dunning — claimed the lives of an estimated 2 million people, or about one-third of the population, and more than 100,000 died in Moscow alone. Government inability to alleviate both the calamity and the subsequent unrest eventually led to the overthrow of Czar Boris Godunov, a defining event in Russian history.

posted August 27, 1008 at 7:50 a.m.

"Consensus" on Strategies for Economic Growth.  Dani Rodik looks forward and sees a new consensus developing around the Spence report.    John Williamson looks backward and sees some redemptive qualities in the old Washington Consensus.

posted August 26, 2008 at 7:10 p.m.


Climate Change and Agricultural Yields.      A short essay published by the San Francisco Fed reviews some recent papers on this subject.  The Deschenes and Greenstone paper from the AER concluded that climate change would not have much impact on aggregate agricultural output in the US.  However a new unpublished paper by Schlenker and Roberts  estimates that rapid declines in yields occur as temperatures rise above the optimum temperature for the crop. Under the most severe climate change scenario, they estimate that crop yields could drop by as much as 70-80%.  However, these estimates do not tell us much about how aggregate output would change, because farmers would modify their cropping choices to crops more suitable to the new climate conditions.   If Kansas's climate becomes more tropical, wheat and corn will be replaced with more tropical crops.   In addition, some northern latitudes that are currently climatically unsuitable for corn or soybeans because of too-short growing seasons could become suitable for those crops.

posted August 25, 2008 at 9:40 a.m.


Child Undernutrition in India.  LATimes article

"Astonishingly, an estimated 40% of all the world's severely malnourished children younger than 5 live in this country, a dark stain on the record of a nation that touts its high rate of economic growth and fancies itself a rising power....Already, the proportion of malnourished children is several times greater than in China, Asia's other developing giant, and double the rate found in most countries of sub-Saharan Africa. "This is a stunning fact," said Abhijit Banerjee, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ... The World Bank estimates that malnutrition and its negative effects on health and productivity cost India as much as 3% of GDP a year."

posted August 26, 2008 at 7:30 a.m.


AIDS in Malawi.  This brief news item says that AIDS-related deaths have declined by 75% over the last four years in Malawi, due to "greater access to free medicine."

posted August 26, 2008 at 7:20 a.m.

Benefits of Free Trade.   Reducing tariffs increased GDP growth by about 1 percent per year since 1990.    Link found thanks to Marginal Revolution.

posted August 22, 2008 at 9:50 a.m.


Soil.  September 2008 National Geographic is devoted to soil .  An article by Charles Mann cites some examples from China;  a sidebar on Haiti;  fantastic photos, as you might expect from NG.   (Link found thanks to Marginal Revolution, who thank Kottke).

posted August 22, 2008 at 9:40 a.m.


Food Waste.  According to this article, one-third of food produced each year in the US is discarded.  The impact of food waste on water use is described in a report (referred to in the article) “Saving Water: From Field to Fork — Curbing Losses and Wastage in the Food Chain,”  (report pdf here)   The article also links to this NYT article from May, which includes the following graph, illustrating that food is income inelastic.


posted August 22, 2008 at 9:05 a.m.


Vitamin D Reduces Heart Disease and Cancer.  According to a report in the Archives of Internal Medicine, described here.

posted August 22, 2008 at 9 a.m.

Conformity of Thought in Economics.   In this essay, one example of challenges to economic orthodoxy is Bill Rees's Ecological Footprint Analysis.   Here's a quote from Rees, relevant to future food supply and demand prospects:  "Until society realizes the flawed, growth-oriented neoclassical lens it has been using to guide economic decisions distorts reality and is leading to an ecological disaster, I am not very optimistic about humanity's long-term prospects."    Here's a quote from one of Rees's undergraduate students:   "It seemed like the only thing economics was good for was to argue against my political views." 

posted August 21, 2008 at 5:00 p.m.

Biofuels and Food Prices and Current Policy.  A recent decision by the US EPA denied a request from the state of Texas that would have allowed a smaller percentage of ethanol in gasoline.  Ted Gayer of Georgetown University argues that  "EPA has missed a golden opportunity to alleviate high global food prices."

posted August 20, 2008 at 11:00 a.m.


History of World Population Control Efforts.  A recent book by Columbia University historian Matthew Connelly.  From publisher comments:  "Though promoted as a way to lift people out of poverty -- and perhaps even to save the earth -- family planning became a means to plan other people's families. ...  Connelly's withering critique uncovers the cost inflicted by a humanitarian movement gone terribly awry."

posted August 19, 2008 at 8:55 a.m.


Use of Urban Wastewater for Agricultural Irrigation.    The New Scientist reports"An estimated one fifth of the world’s food is growing in urban areas, with perishables like vegetables to the fore. But a 50-city study by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) – a World Bank-backed research agency based in Sri Lanka – finds that often the only source of the essential irrigation water to grow many of those crops is city sewage. Half of urban fields are irrigated with sewage, suggesting that a tenth of the world’s food is already grown this way."

posted August 19, 2008 at 8:40 a.m.

The Evolution of Corn.  Courtesy of economist Brad DeLong,  biologist Stephen Matheson describes how corn was developed by generations of "genetic engineering." 

Corn is a grass, but a grass that's been so extensively modified genetically that it's barely recognizable (to non-specialists like me) as a member of that family. Wait...genetically modified? Yes, and I'm not talking about the really modern tricks that gave us Bt corn or Roundup Ready corn. In fact, the wonderful stuff they grow in Iowa is quite different from the plants that humans first started to harvest and domesticate in Central America a few millenia ago. Corn as we know it is the result of a major evolutionary transformation, driven by selection at the hands of humans.

posted August 18, 2008 at 1:10 p.m.


August WASDE.  USDA's monthly estimate of world agricultural supply and demand conditions estimates projects world grain production for 2008/09 at 2190 million MT.  This is up about 10% from output two years ago in 2006/07.  The current projection is higher than those of past months;  for example, the projection in May for 2008/09 was 2159 MMT.

posted August 13, 2008 at 8:00 a.m.


China's Great Leap Forward Famine.  An as-yet-untranslated book by Chinese author Yang Jisheng is described in this op-ed piece by Anne Applebaum.  Here's a brief passage from the column.

Based on a decade's worth of interviews and unprecedented access to documents and statistics, "Tombstone" -- in two volumes and 1,100 pages -- establishes beyond any doubt that China's misguided charge toward industrialization -- Mao's "Great Leap Forward" -- was an utter disaster.   A combination of criminally bad policies (farmers were forced to make steel instead of growing crops; peasants were forced into unproductive communes) and official cruelty (China was grimly exporting grain at the time) created, between 1959 and 1961, one of the worst famines in recorded history. "I went to one village and saw 100 corpses," one witness told Yang. "Then another village and another 100 corpses. No one paid attention to them. People said that dogs were eating the bodies. Not true, I said. The dogs had long ago been eaten by the people."

posted August 11, 2008 at 9:00 a.m.


Land Redistribution in Zimbabwe.    White-owned farms seized with violence.

posted August 7, 2008 at 9:20 a.m.


A Reporter Visits Punjab Agricultural University.   From

"[The academics with whom the reporter spoke] argued passionately that Punjab was caught in a global crisis in which small farmers around the world were being cut off from collective structures that allowed them to leverage economies of scale by sharing big-ticket items like tractors. ...Incredibly, in a country where 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas and slums are the fastest-expanding part of overloaded cities, India's leaders believe that moving millions of people off the land so that large-scale factory farming can be established with private investment is the way to go. ...The Indian government gets a lot of encouragement for this scenario from institutions such as the World Bank that favor export-oriented agriculture; from transnational agribusiness giants clamoring to get into India, a country with the second-largest amount of arable land after the United States; and from India's own big companies eager to get into a new business area some experts predict will eclipse the billions made from outsourcing and information technology. India's minister of finance, Palaniappan Chidambaram, envisions a future where 85 percent of India's population lives in cities and only 15 percent are engaged in agriculture, an India with a heartland as empty as that of the United States with its few remaining farmers completely beholden to the agribusiness giants who sell them their seeds, their fertilizers, and their pesticides, and then buy their harvests.  This is not the vision I found at PAU. One dean lamented: "We've been told you have to push people off the farm, that that is the solution." Clearly, he disagreed."

posted August 5, 2008 at 2:00 p.m.

Potatoes.  It is the "year of the potato,"  and here's an article explaining that crops importance.   UMD students can access the full document through the library's researchport.  Find the journal New Scientist, 01 August 2008.

posted August 4, 2008 at 9 a.m.