JUNE 2008


Food Aid to North Korea.  Following last week's diplomatic breakthrough on Korean nuclear facilites, North Korea now agrees to allow foreign aid personel freer access to the country, and a shipment of US food aid arrives.  "[T]he North Korean agreement to invite an additional 50 international relief experts ... came as internal and external factors drive the country toward a major food crisis. Two consecutive years of bad harvests and rising grain prices make it harder for the impoverished North to import food, and bilateral assistance from South Korea and China, traditionally its two most generous aid providers, is dwindling.."

posted June 30, 2008 at 12:35 p.m.


Grain export restrictions contribute to high global prices.  The NYTimes series "The Food Chain"  focuses on this aspect of the current food price run-up.  "When it comes to rice, India, Vietnam, China and 11 other countries have limited or banned exports. Fifteen countries, including Pakistan and Bolivia, have capped or halted wheat exports. More than a dozen have limited corn exports."

posted June 30, 2008 at 12:30 p.m.


Vitamin D reduces Mortality rates.  Archives of Internal Medicine article concludes:  "Low [vitamin D] levels are independently associated with all-cause and cardiovascular mortality. A causal relationship has yet to be proved by intervention trials using vitamin D."

posted June 29, 2008 at 8:30 a.m.


Low Fertility Rates in Europe.   An essay in the New York Times Magazine. 

[The mayor of the Italian town of Laviano, Rocco Falivena,] racked his brain and came up with a desperate idea: pay women to have babies. And not just a token amount, either; in 2003 Falivena let it be known he would pay 10,000 euros (about $15,000) for every woman — local or immigrant, married or single — who would give birth to and rear a child in the village. The “baby bonus,” as he calls it, is structured to root new citizens in the town: a mother gets 1,500 euros when her baby is born, then a 1,500-euro payment on each of the child’s first four birthdays and a final 2,500 euros the day the child enrolls in first grade.

Later in the essay,  Arnstein Aassve of Bocconi University in Milan explains why fertility rates in Scandanvia are higher than those in southern Europe.

As women advanced in education levels and career tracks over the past few decades, Norway moved aggressively to accommodate them and their families. The state guarantees about 54 weeks of maternity leave, as well as 6 weeks of paternity leave. With the birth of a child comes a government payment of about 4,000 euros. State-subsidized day care is standard. The cost of living is high, but then again it’s assumed that both parents will work; indeed, during maternity leave a woman is paid 80 percent of her salary. “In Norway, the concern over fertility is mild,” Aassve told me. “What dominates is the issue of gender equity, and that in turn raises the fertility level. For example, there is a debate right now about whether to make paternity leave compulsory. It’s an issue of making sure women and men have equal rights and opportunities. If men are taking leave after the birth of a child, the women can return to work for part of that time.”

What Aassve found in Italy was strikingly different. While Italian women tend to be as highly educated as Scandinavian women, he said, about 50 percent of Italian women work, compared with between 75 percent and 80 percent of women in Scandinavian countries. Despite its veneer of modernity, Italian society prefers women to stay at home after they become mothers, and the government reinforces this. There is little state-financed child care, especially for new mothers, and most newlyweds still find homes close to one or both sets of parents, the assumption being that the extended family will help raise the children. But this no longer works as it once did. “As couples tend to delay childbearing,” Aassve says, “the age gap between generations is widening, and in many cases grandparents, who would be the ones relied upon for child care, themselves become the ones in need of care.”

...If this reading of southern European countries is correct — that their superficial commitment to modernity, to a 21st-century lifestyle, is fatally at odds with a view of the family structure that is rooted in the 19th century — it should apply in other parts of the world, should it not? Apparently it does. .... The head of Thailand’s department of health announced in May that his country’s birthrate now stands at 1.5, far below the replacement level. “The world record for lowest-low fertility right now is South Korea, at 1.1,” Francesco Billari told me. “Japan is just about as low. What we are seeing in Asia is a phenomenon of the 2000s, rather than the 1990s. And it seems the reasons are the same as for southern Europe. All of these are societies still rooted in the tradition where the husband earned all the money. Things have changed, not only in Italy and Spain but also in Japan and Korea, but those societies have not yet adjusted. The relationships within households have not adjusted yet.”

But what about the US? 

“Europeans say to me, How does the U.S. do it in this day and age?” says Carl Haub of the Population Reference Bureau in Washington. According to Haub and others, there is no single explanation for the relatively high U.S. fertility rate. The old conservative argument — that a traditional, working-husband-and-stay-at-home-wife family structure produces a healthy, growing population — doesn’t apply, either in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world today. Indeed, the societies most wedded to maintaining that traditional family structure seem to be those with the lowest birthrates. The antidote, in Western Europe, has been the welfare-state model, in which the state provides comprehensive support to couples that want to have children. But the U.S. runs counter to this. Some commentators explain its healthy birthrate in terms of the relatively conservative and religiously oriented nature of American society, which both encourages larger families. It’s also true that mores have evolved in the U.S. to the point where not only is it socially acceptable for fathers to be active participants in raising children, but it’s also often socially unacceptable for them to do otherwise.

But one other factor affecting the higher U.S. birthrate stands out in the minds of many observers. “There’s much less flexibility in the European system,” Haub says. “In Europe, both the society and the job market are more rigid.” There may be little state subsidy for child care in the U.S., and there is certainly nothing like the warm governmental nest that Norway feathers for fledgling families, but the American system seems to make up for it in other ways. As Hans-Peter Kohler of the University of Pennsylvania writes: “In general, women are deterred from having children when the economic cost — in the form of lower lifetime wages — is too high. Compared to other high-income countries, this cost is diminished by an American labor market that allows more flexible work hours and makes it easier to leave and then re-enter the labor force.” An American woman might choose to suspend her career for three or five years to raise a family, expecting to be able to resume working; that happens far less easily in Europe.

So there would seem to be two models for achieving higher fertility: the neosocialist Scandinavian system and the laissez-faire American one. Aassve put it to me this way: “You might say that in order to promote fertility, your society needs to be generous or flexible. The U.S. isn’t very generous, but it is flexible. Italy is not generous in terms of social services and it’s not flexible. There is also a social stigma in countries like Italy, where it is seen as less socially accepted for women with children to work. In the U.S., that is very accepted.”

posted June 29, 2008 at 8:10 a.m.

Agricultural Price Dissemination in India.  A pilot project from Reuters.

“[T[here was a clear market inefficiency,” said Mans Olof-Ors, a Reuters employee who had the idea for Market Light three years ago. “The farmer would decide which market to travel to, then would just sell to that market. So there was no competition between markets.” Reuters has dispatched about 60 market reporters to the region to report on the going price for, say, oranges or onions, and to package the data into a text message that is sent to subscribers. The service is signing up about 220 subscribers a day at a price of 175 rupees, or about $4.10, for three months at post offices throughout Maharashtra. (The average monthly income of a farm household is about $50, according to the Indian government.) The service has about 40,000 customers so far — a tiny portion of India’s farm population, which is in the hundreds of millions, but it proves that many farmers are hungry for more information.

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


Child Marriage in YemenOne effective way of reducing population growth is to increase the age at which girls/women become married.  The publicity surrounding the marriages of two girls -- 9 and 10 years old -- in Yemen is causing that country to take a closer look at laws and customs that allow child marriage.

posted June 29, 2008 at 7:40 a.m.



Drug Production and Land Use.  Students sometimes ask if worldwide production of illegal drugs is contributing to a worldwide food shortage.  A recent annual survey by the United Nations on drug production shows that the impact is small.  Poppy production in 2007 used 201,500 hectares (up 17% from 2006), coca production used 157,000 hectares (up 16% from 2006) and cannabis production used approximately 520,000 hectares (this is the 2006 number, but the general trend seems to be flat or slightly declining).  The total amount is 0.14% of the land on which cereals were harvested.

posted June 27, 2008 at 4:10 p.m.


Agricultural Prices in the US for June 2008.   Available here.  



June 2007

May 2008

June 2008

% change

June 08 over May 08

% change June 08 over June 07







Index of Prices Received






Index of Prices Paid






























wheat all







posted June 27, 2008 at 3:20 p.m.


Brazilian Cerrado and its Promise for Increase Agricultural Production.  US News and World Report writes:  "What is unfolding on the plains at the center of South America probably qualifies as the most important transformation of land since the breaking of sod in the Midwest during America's westward expansion. With comparatively little unused, arable land left in the world's temperate zones, including in the United States, no other country on Earth has Brazil's surge capacity in food production."

posted June 27, 2008 at 3:00 p.m.


French Winemakers Find a Solution to the Cost-Price Squeeze.  Set fire to police cars.

posted June 27, 2008 at 11:20 a.m.


Supporting an end to the US tariff on Brazilian ethanol.  The Economist makes the case for Brazilian ethanol, and opines:  "To Brazilians, outsiders who want to block their ethanol in the name of environmentalism or concern about food prices or labour conditions look like old-fashioned protectionists in hypocritical disguise. ... [T]he tariff should go."

posted June 27, 2008, 10:40 a.m.


Agriculture on Mars?  The Phoenix Mars Lander finds:  "Plants that like alkaline soil — like asparagus — might readily grow in the Martian soil, provided that other components of an Earth-like environment including air and water were also present."  Transportation costs are anticipated to be high, however.

posted June 27, 2008, 9:40 a.m.


Population Control Policy in Mexico:  When is an economic incentive coercive?  In the 1990s, 14 men were "coerced" (the word used in the news report) into having vasectomies by promises of homes and scholarships for their existing children.    This week, the state of Guerrero agreed to compensate these men by paying them $3400 apiece.  The article does not explain whether the "coercion" resulted from the promise not being fulfilled, or whether the promise, even if delivered, should be considered coercion.

posted June 27, 2008,  9:30 a.m.


Chinese Peasant Organizer Gets Results.  Lu Banglie fights land seizures and rural taxes. 

"Although China's peasants have repeatedly resorted to violence in recent years, most confrontations have been spontaneous uprisings over local land seizures, unconnected to eruptions elsewhere. But Lu, under the guidance of Beijing-based democracy advocates, sought to apply the experiences of his own village to the struggles of others, taking his activism national.   His main weapon was Chinese law, the letter of which offers many guarantees that, in practice, are often set aside by party leaders. In a country where the Communist Party crushes any attempt at forming associations outside its control, Lu's goal of spreading the word on how to use law books to oppose local leaders amounted to a relatively novel political challenge. ...


The peasant agitation Lu helped promote has caused the party leadership in Beijing to emphasize that farmers and their fields must be protected from headlong economic development turning much of the countryside into an extended suburb.  With Premier Wen Jiabao as the most vocal proponent of the new protections, the central government has poured subsidies into farming villages and imposed restrictions on the land seizures that are at the heart of most violence.


Beijing two years ago abolished the ancient crop taxes that had been the bane of China's farmers since imperial times. It also began to control the multi-tiered system that forced farmers to pay annual fees to village, county, municipal and provincial authorities as well as the national tax. Partly as a result, violent protests in the countryside have diminished significantly. ...


[Lu's future effort] is likely to focus on the suburbs of large cities, ... where the price of land is so high that local officials often find it irresistible to confiscate fields and resell them to developers. Such sales -- in which the price paid by developers far exceeds the compensation given farmers -- have become a major source of funding for many localities, according to official accounts. According to Lu and other disgruntled farmers, they also have become a major source of graft for local party leaders, the stuff of struggles to come."

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


Privately Funded Ag Research:  The New Chocolate.  Mars Candy Company announces a plan to invest $10 million to develop cacao plants that are drought and disease resistant.  The research group (including IBM and USDA) intends "to sequence and analyze the entire cocoa genome. The team will be identifying the characteristics that make a better cacao tree. Then it plans to breed the genetically superior specimens to battle the foes that have shrunk the number of beans to make chocolate over the years....  Once scientists identify the useful genes, they'll be able to accelerate the breeding process.'You don't have to wait an entire crop cycle to find out if you selected the right plant or not.' ...  Mars plans to make the research results free and accessible through the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture." 

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

Headline of the Day:  "Rising Costs of Food Leave Some Looking for Other Optionss."

posted June 25, 2008 at 6;20 p.m.


Biofuels from Abandoned Farmland.   From Scienceblog.

"Researchers estimate that globally up to 4.7 million square kilometers (approximately 1.8 million square miles) of abandoned lands could be available for growing energy crops. The potential yield of this land area, equivalent to nearly half the land area of the United States (including Alaska), depends on local soils and climate, as well as on the specific energy crops and cultivation methods in each region. But the researchers estimate that the worldwide harvestable dry biomass could amount to as much as 2.1 billion tons, with a total energy content of about 41 exajoules. While this is a significant amount of energy (one exajoule is a billion billion joules, equivalent to about 170 million barrels of oil), at best it would satisfy only about 8% of worldwide energy demand."

posted June 25, 1008 at 9:40 a.m.

Pennsylvania Millionaire bequeaths most of his estate to help poor children in Panama.  Lawsuits (inevitably) ensue.

posted June 25, 2008 at 7:10 a.m.


Policy and the Tradeoff between Agricultural Production and the Environment II.   Brazil acts to halt cattle grazing in the Amazon.  "Officials carted off 3,100 head of cattle that they said were being raised on an ecological reserve in the state of Para, in an operation intended to serve as a warning to other ranchers grazing an estimated 60,000 head on illegally deforested land in Amazonia."

posted June 25, 2008 at 7:00 a.m.


Policy and the Tradeoff between Agricultural Production and the Environment I.  State of Florida buys agricultural land to extend the area of the Everglades.    "Florida will pay $1.75 billion for United States Sugar, which would have six years to continue farming before turning over 187,000 acres north of Everglades National Park."  

posted June 25, 2008 at 6:50 a.m.

Agricultural Subsidies in Saudi Arabia.  From the Middle East Review of International Affairs.

Within 12 years, between 1980 and 1992, wheat production grew 29-fold--from 142,000 tons in 1980 to 4.1 million tons in 1992--making the Saudi desert the world's sixth-largest wheat exporting country. Such a quantity was well in excess of the self-sufficiency requirement of a country of 17 million in population at that time...  To achieve this enormous growth, wheat-producing areas were increased by 857,000 hectares; or by 14-fold, from 67,000 hectares in 1980 to 924,000 hectares in 1992. ...Beginning in 1993, however--under pressures from low oil prices since the second half of the 1980s, heavy spending on defense and security, the cost of the Iran-Iraq (1980-1988) and 1991 Gulf wars, and the cost of maintaining the expensive lifestyle of some 4,000 immediate members of the al-Saud ruling family--the government had to scale down its wheat-growing subsidy program.... Within four years, by the end of 1996, 76 percent of the new wheat-growing surface added between 1980 and 1992 were abandoned--650,000 hectares out of the 857,000 hectares Wheat production dropped during the same period by 70 percent, from 4.1 million tons in 1992 to 1.2 million tons in 1996. By 2005, however, wheat production increased to 2.65 million tons.On January 8, 2008, Reuters and other news agencies, quoting officials from the Saudi Arabian agriculture and finance ministries, reported that purchases of wheat from local farmers would be reduced by 12.5 percent, with the aim of relying entirely on imports by 2016.

posted June 24, 2008 at 2:00 p.m.


Failed States Index, 2008.   The journal Foreign Policy has published its failed states index.  The most unstable states, according to this listing are:  1.  Somalia;  2.  Sudan;  3.  Zimbabwe;  4.  Chad;  5.  Iraq;  6.  D.R. Congo;  7.  Afganistan;  8.  Ivory Coast;  9.  Pakistan;  10.  Central African Republic. 

posted June 24, 2008 1:45 p.m.


Famine in Ethiopia.  The Boston Globe has a photo essay, including this of a boy watching the arrival of his sister's body.  The sister died of malnutrition;  the boy is being treated for malnutrition at Doctors Without Borders.

posted June 24, 2008 at 1:40 p.m.



World Bank Data on Trade Restrictions.   A new World Bank data set -- World Trade Indicators -- is a source of data on tariffs, but also includes data on other factors that influence trade.   "Institutional Environment" indicators include cost of starting and closing a business,  and indices of government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law and control of corruption.  "Trade facilitation" indicators include international transport cots, domestic transport cots, efficiency indicators for export and import regulations, telephones, internet, education.  From the press release"[I]n 2007 most developing countries continued to improve trade policies supporting greater integration. Data... also show that, over the past decade, countries with lower barriers tended to have stronger, more consistent trade and export performance."

posted June 24, 2008 7:40 a.m.


Health Care in Africa.   From the BBC.  "Researchers conducting a study in six African countries have found that a third of the malaria drugs they tested were either fake or sub-standard."

posted June 24, 2008 at 6:30 a.m.

Ethanol and the 2008 Presidential Election.  New York Times.

Ethanol is one area in which Mr. Obama strongly disagrees with his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain of Arizona. While both presidential candidates emphasize the need for the United States to achieve “energy security” while also slowing down the carbon emissions that are believed to contribute to global warming, they offer sharply different visions of the role that ethanol, which can be made from a variety of organic materials, should play in those efforts. Mr. McCain advocates eliminating the multibillion-dollar annual government subsidies that domestic ethanol has long enjoyed. As a free trade advocate, he also opposes the 54-cent-a-gallon tariff that the United States slaps on imports of ethanol made from sugar cane, which packs more of an energy punch than corn-based ethanol and is cheaper to produce.   ...  Mr. Obama, in contrast, favors the subsidies, some of which end up in the hands of the same oil companies he says should be subjected to a windfall profits tax.

posted June 23, 2008 at 6:50 a.m.

Argentine Farmers Strike to Oppose New Taxes on Grain Exports.  From the Los Angeles Times.

"Growers on Saturday ended their fourth strike this year, but the battle rages on more than 100 days after it erupted when the government imposed new tariffs on farmers selling grain abroad.  Road closures, export shutdowns and a sense of looming calamity have replaced the relative calm and prosperity of recent years.  ...  Amid soaring global commodity prices, vast quantities of Argentine soybeans, corn and wheat sit while ships waiting to transport grain to Asia and elsewhere float offshore, their holds empty. Growers rejecting the tariffs have held back grain in silos and used trucks and farm machinery to block trucks that transport foodstuffs to ports. The shutdown is adding to world food prices while costing the country billions and dismaying foreign buyers and investors."

           Update:  Coverage from NYTimes here,  and from the Economist here.

postetd June 23, 2008 at 6:30 a.m.

updated June 24, 2008 at 6:40 a.m.

Collateral in Microfinance.  Tyler Cowen in a blog post, notes that:

"It is a common myth that microfinance loans have no collateral.  I sooner worry that the process of collateralization is too thorough.  Remember that microfinance loans are made to small groups of five to ten people, typically neighbors.  If you don't pay up, your associate has to.  The reality is that the person left holding the bag -- who knows you well -- will come seize your TV set or in some cases the process is a bit less pleasant.  Part of the efficiency of microfinance is simply the separation of the lending and the "thug" functions.  Banks can lend to high-risk individual borrowers without themselves resorting to the illegal intimidation practices of the village moneylender.  The dynamics of cooperative behavior in the village are not always pretty but overall it works better than the moneylender; if nothing else the person seizing the collateral knows that next time around he or she may be the non-payer." 

posted June 22, 2008 at 5:30 p.m.

Indian Agriculture:  Problems and Potential.    The New York Times series on "The Food Chain" gives an overview of problems in Indian agriculture.  There is too much in this article for a summary to do it justice, but here are a few snippets:

"With the right technology and policies, India could help feed the world. Instead, it can barely feed itself....Experts blame the agriculture slowdown on a variety of factors....   [S]ince the 1980s, the government has not expanded irrigation and access to loans for farmers, or to advance agricultural research. Groundwater has been depleted at alarming rates.  The Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington says changes in temperature and rain patterns could diminish India’s agricultural output by 30 percent by the 2080s. Family farms have shrunk in size and quantity, and a few years ago mounting debt began to drive some farmers to suicide. Now many find it more profitable to sell their land to developers of industrial buildings.  Among farmers who stay on their land, many are experimenting with growing high-value fruits and vegetables that prosperous Indians are craving, but there are few refrigerated trucks to transport their produce to modern supermarkets.   A long and inefficient supply chain means that the average farmer receives less than a fifth of the price the consumer pays, a World Bank study found, far less than farmers in, say, Thailand or the United States.  ...

This had been the Green Revolution’s other pillar — a fixed government price for grain. A farmer could sell his crop to a private trader, but for many small tillers, it was far easier to approach the nearest government granary, and accept their rate. For years, those prices remained miserably low, farmers and their advocates complained, and there was little incentive for farmers to invest in their crop. “For farmers,” said Mr. Swaminathan, the plant geneticist, “a remunerative price is the best fertilizer.” Mr. Swaminathan’s adage proved true this year. After two years of having to import wheat, the government offered farmers a substantially higher price for their grain: farmers not only planted slightly more wheat but also sold much more of their harvest to the state. As a result, by May, the country’s buffer stocks were at record levels.

How to address these challenges is a matter of debate. From one quarter comes pressure to introduce genetically modified crops with greater yields; from another come lawsuits to stop it. And from yet another come pleas to mount a greener Green Revolution."

The NYTimes article refers to this study from the Peterson Institute for International Economics on impacts of climate change on international agriculture,  to this study from the World Bank on horticulture in India  (why is everything so hard to find on the World Bank website?),  and to this paper by Alex Evans of Chatham House. 

posted June 22, 2008 at 8:30 a.m.


Global Warming Increases Agricultural Land in Canada.  Source here.

posted June 20, 2008 at 2:30 p.m.


The International Politics of Global Warming.  Conservative columnist Rich Lowry argues that even if global warming is "real", the US should not do anything about it.  "The cost-benefit analysis of battling global warming is never going to make sense for Americans.  The places that would be hurt by global warming tend to be warm, wet, and low-lying. Think Bangladesh. For the U.S., warming isn't much of a threat. So, stringent measures against global warming are really a massive foreign-aid program, but an intangible and speculative one. ...No matter what the price of gas is, the most sensible policy in the U.S. is to avoid costly schemes to fight global warming. " 

posted June 20, 2008 at 8:30 a.m.


You Say "Potato" ...  It is of course the international year of the potato.  Nunn and Qian  have a recent paper estimating the impact of the introduction of the potato from the Americas to Europe.  "According to our estimates, the adoption of potatoes can explain up to 26% of the observed post-1700 increase in population and 55% of the increase in the urban population share." 

posted June 19, 2008 at 7:20 p.m.


Easterly and Pfutze on Best Practices in Foreign Aid.  A Brookings Report.ranks aid agencies according to five measures of practices:  1.  Transparency;  2.  "Fragmentation" -- do agencies split their assistance into "too many" different projects;  3.  "Selectivity" -- does aid go to poor countries, or does it go to corrupt or autocratic countries;  4.  "Effectiveness" -- does aid take ineffective forms (tied aid, food aid, technical assistance);  5.  Overhead costs (and employees per dollar distributed).  Based on these  the top three ranked aid agencies are  World Bank (IDA),  United Kingdom, and African Development Bank.  The US's AID ranks 16 out of  37, tied with Nordic Development Fund and others.  World Food Programme ranks last, perhaps not surprisingly given how food aid enters into the "effectiveness" ranking  -- though the US and WFP both score 0 for effectiveness.

posted June 19, 2008 7:15 p.m.


Peter Singer on Charity.   Is charity a consumer good

One of the most significant factors determining whether people give to charity is their beliefs about what others are doing. Those who make it known that they give to charity increase the likelihood that others will do the same. Perhaps we will eventually reach a tipping point at which giving a significant amount to help the world's poorest becomes sufficiently widespread to eliminate the majority of those 25,000 needless daily deaths.  That is what Chris and Anne Ellinger hope their Web site, www.boldergiving.org, will achieve. The site tells the story of more than 50 members of the 50 percent League - people who have given away either 50 percent of their assets or 50 percent of their income in each of the last three years. Members ... are a diverse group of people. ... Most donors see giving as personally rewarding. Hsieh says that whether or not his giving has saved the lives of others, it has saved his own: "I could easily have lived a life that was boring and inconsequential. Now I am graced with a life of service and meaning." When people praise Hal Taussig for his generosity, he tells them, "Frankly, it's my way of getting kicks out of life."

posted June 19, 2008 3 p.m.


Report:  IPCC underestimated likely sea-level rise  According to a recent analysis published in Nature, the 2007 IPCC report "underestimated its effects concerning ocean temperature and associated sea level increases between 1961 and 2003 - by 50 percent." 

posted June 19, 2008 11:50 a.m.


UN:  Food Crisis in Zimbabwe.   From today's Washington Post.    Because of woeful governance and partly because of widespread flooding.

The United Nations estimates that more than 2 million people in Zimbabwe will need food assistance between July and September; that number is expected to rise to 3.1 million in October and peak around 5.1 million between January and March.   The latest crisis has been exacerbated by the rising costs of key imports, including food and fuel, and by government-imposed price controls that discourage farmers from growing basic staples such as corn.   But it also follows a decade-long economic decline that has shrunk the country's economy by about 44 percent since 1998 and led to the highest rates of hyperinflation in the world. Mugabe's land reform policies -- which transferred white-owned commercial farms to landless black farmers -- have dramatically undercut agricultural productivity. "The key economic indicators since 2001 paint a picture of rampant unemployment and underemployment," the report states. "For agriculture . . . 2008 may turn out to be one of the worst years since 1992."

posted June 19, 2008 7:50 a.m.

Morality of Fighting Hunger.  A note in May 2008 Harvard Law Review cites Peter Singer approvingly, and argues that law grads should choose careers that serve justice and reduce inequality.  The article does not address the question of whether it is moral to devote $200,000 of resources to attend Harvard Law School when that amount of money could save the lives of 1,000 children (using the articles own figure of $200 cost per life saved).   The note takes its title from a Boston statue dedicated to the memory of the Irish Potato Famine --  "Never Again Should a People Starve in a World of Plenty."

posted June 18, 2008 at 9 a.m.


How to Double Rice Yields.   Norman Uphoff of Cornell has developed a System of Rice Intensification. 

Harvests typically double, he says, if farmers plant early, give seedlings more room to grow and stop flooding fields. That cuts water and seed costs while promoting root and leaf growth.   ...“The claims are grossly exaggerated,” said Achim Dobermann, the head of research at the international rice institute. ...  Vernon W. Ruttan, an agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota .... once worked for the rice institute and doubted the system's prospects.  Dr. Ruttan no calls himself an enthusiastic fan, saying the method is already reshaping the world of rice cultivation.  "I doubt it will be as great as the green revolution,"  he said.  "But in some areas it's already having a substantial impact."

posted June 17, 2008 at 3:10 p.m.


Land Reform.  How can small farms be more efficient than large farms?  Read the comments.

posted June 17, 2008 at 2 p.m.


Neo-Malthusians or the Singularity?   The New York Times quotes, among others, Tyler Cowen of George Mason: 

Americans are attracted to Malthusian doom-saying, Dr. Cowen argues, “because it’s a pre-emptive way to hedge your fear. Prepare yourself for the worst, and you feel safer than when you’re optimistic.”  Dr. Cohen, of Rockefeller University, sees it in more sinister terms: Americans like Malthus because he takes the blame off us. Malthus says the problem is too many poor people.  Or, to put it in the terms in which the current crisis is usually explained: too many hard-working Chinese and Indians who think they should be able to eat pizza, meat and coffee and aspire to a reservation at Chez Panisse. They get blamed for raising global prices so much that poor Africans and Asians can’t afford porridge and rice. The truth is, the upward pressure was there before they added to it.  America has always been charitable, so the answer has never been, “Let them eat bean sprouts.” But it has been, “Let them eat subsidized American corn shipped over in American ships.” That may need to change.

John Tierney, also writing in the NY Times, approvingly quotes Robin Hanson (also of George Mason):  "Dr. Hanson... takes a long look at economic history and sees fairly steady growth punctuated by two “economic singularities”–the invention of agriculture and the Industrial Revolution–that caused dramatic accelerations in growth.  Dr. Hanson extrapolates from these trends to suggest that we’re due for another economic singularity sometime between now and 2075."   Tierney asks:  "Whom you would bet on: the Malthusians or the Singularitarians?"

posted June 17, 2008 at 8:30 a.m.


Pro-Fertility Population Policy in Singapore.  Reason Magazine writes on "underpopulation hysteria"

"These days the official slogan of Singapore’s baby-making campaign is “Three or More.” But Singaporeans of childbearing age grew up listening to an altogether different appeal: “Stop at Two.” As in much of East Asia, the tiny island’s population exploded after World War II—by more than 90 percent between 1957 and 1970 alone. In the Age of Aquarius, billboards and posters warned young couples “the more you have, the less they get” and “girl or boy, two is enough.” Parents who agreed to be sterilized after having two children got priority placement for their kids in elementary school.  Since then, demographic conditions have changed radically, but the state has maintained its intense interest in procreation. Singapore’s “total fertility rate,” a crude prediction of how many children a woman will bear in her lifetime if current patterns persist, is among the lowest in the world at 1.07. ... Governments far less authoritarian than Singapore’s are intruding into childbearing choices. "

Two additional asides:  The Singaporean government's Social Development Unit (SDU) is described as an  "official matchmaking agency ... known to snarky islanders as 'Single, Desperate, and Ugly'."  And how's this for a "reality TV" series:  "'super baby making show,' which would pit 10 couples against one another to see who could conceive first."  

posted June 17, 2008 at 7:40 a.m.


Flooding in the Midwest and Crop Yields.  Replanting in mid-to-late June will cause a significant drop in corn and soybean yields,  contributing to high grain prices during 2008-09.

"Illinois growers who plant corn or soybeans near the end of June can expect a 50 percent reduction in crop yield....In Illinois, 95 percent of the corn is planted and 88 percent has emerged, but less than half of that is reported to be in good or excellent condition. Fully 14 percent of the acres planted are in poor or very poor condition, with another 38 percent reported as "fair." Those acres in poor or very poor condition may have to be replanted...Some growers -- in southern Illinois especially -- will have to replant as wet conditions have caused some seed to rot.  Despite the poor conditions, Nafziger finds it encouraging that 95 percent of Illinois corn acres have already been planted. While some acres will have to be replanted, high temperatures should help boost the growth rate of what has survived so far, he said.  Soybeans are further behind. Only 66 percent of the soybean crop was in the ground as of June 9 in Illinois, compared to an average 92 percent planted by this time in recent years."

photo by Lori Mehman, Orchard, IA, June 10, 2008.  linked here.

posted June 17, 2008 at 7:10 a.m.


Ozone and Crop Yields.  Considerable attention has been given to potential effect of greenhouse gases on crop yields;  but some new research finds that elevated ozone levels can reduce crop yields.

posted June 17, 2008 at  6:40 a.m.


Dynamic Data Presentation.  Steven Levitt at Freakonomics Blog points to this site where you can watch "animated graphics" that how data relationships change over time.  Here's one that shows how infant mortality declines with income growth.  Just push "play." 

posted June 16, 2008 at 3 p.m.


Rachel Carson and DDT.  John Quiggin points out that people who claim that Rachel Carson is responsible for millions of deaths from malaria don't really know what they are talking about.

posted June 16, 2008 at 12:40 p.m.


Does Socialized Ownership of Resources lead to Laxer Environmental Rules?  A Wall Street Journal columnist notes that Brazil is much more open to offshore oil drilling than is the US.  Is it because in Brazil profits from drilling go to the government and in the US profits go to private companies?

posted June 16, 2008 at 12:20 p.m.


TV and Fertility Rates.  Here's a suggestion that we could lower fertility rates by subsidizing access to television, especially soap operas

"We focus on fertility choices in Brazil, a country where soap operas (novelas) portray families that are much smaller than in reality. We exploit differences in the timing of entry into different markets of Rede Globo, the network that has an effective monopoly on novelas production in this country. Using Census data for the period 1970-1991, we find that women living in areas covered by the Globo signal have significantly lower fertility. The effect is strongest for women of lower socioeconomic status and for women in the central and late phases of their fertility cycle, consistent with stopping behavior. The result is robust to placebo treatments and does not appear to be driven by selection in Globo entry."

posted June 16, 2008 at 11:10 a.m.

The Precautionary Principle.  Doesn't it require us to ban cell phones?

posted June 16, 2008 at 9:50 a.m.


July 2009 corn futures.  Are over $8/bushel today.  This link apparently automatically updates to a daily report on grain prices.  $8/bushel occured on June 16.

posted June 16, 2008 at 7:50 a.m.


G-8 meetings.  Industrialized countries decry high food prices and are urged to increase aid to Africa.

posted June 16, 2008 at 7:50 a.m.

Accidental Seed Bank.  A 2000 year old seed has germinated.

posted June 14, 2008 at 12:35 p.m.


BBC program "Nature, Inc."...  is described as "The series that attempts to put a monetary value on the services the earth’s living systems deliver."

posted June 14, 2008 at 12:30 p.m.

A New "Washington Consensus"?   Prof. Dani Rodik of Harvard reports on the Spence Commission.  "The Spence report reflects a broader intellectual shift within the development profession, a shift that encompasses not just growth strategies but also health, education, and other social policies. The traditional policy framework, which the new thinking is gradually replacing, is presumptive rather than diagnostic ....By contrast, the new policy mindset starts with relative agnosticism about what works. Its hypothesis is that there is a great deal of "slack" in poor countries, so simple changes can make a big difference. As a result, it is explicitly diagnostic and focuses on the most significant economic bottlenecks and constraints. Rather than comprehensive reform, it emphasises policy experimentation and relatively narrowly targeted initiatives in order to discover local solutions, and it calls for monitoring and evaluation in order to learn which experiments work.   The new approach is suspicious of universal remedies"

posted June 13, 2008 at 11:30 a.m.


The End of Food.  The New Yorker reviews Paul Roberts's book of this name.  "Roberts’s work is part of a second wave of food-politics books, which has taken the genre to a new level of apocalyptic foreboding."

posted June 13, 2008 at 9:40 a.m.


A New Law in Japan Sets Waistline Standards.  "Under a national law that came into effect two months ago, companies and local governments must now measure the waistlines of Japanese people between the ages of 40 and 74 as part of their annual checkups....Those exceeding government limits — 33.5 inches for men and 35.4 inches for women... — and having a weight-related ailment will be given dieting guidance if after three months they do not lose weight. If necessary, those people will be steered toward further re-education after six more months."  NY Times.

posted June 13, 2008 at 9:15 a.m.


A New Report on the Impact of Globalization.  Specifically -- the impact of off-shoring jobs in Britain..     "One of the main worries about offshoring is its effect on employment. Some domestic jobs have certainly been discarded as a result: in 2005 offshoring accounted for 3.5% of job losses. But companies have also been able to produce more because offshoring has made them more competitive, and the resulting job gains have more than made up for the losses. The authors reckon the surge in offshoring since the mid-1990s has created 100,000 extra jobs. Another worry about offshoring, and globalisation more generally, is that it bears down on wages in developed economies. The report finds no such impact in manufacturing but in the services sector offshoring has lowered average wages a bit. This seems to reflect the fact that service employers are dispatching more skilled and well-paid work to foreign locations."

posted June 13, 2008 at 9:10 a.m.


Famine Threatens Ethiopia.    The Economist reports:  "The land is green but hailstorms, rains that came too late, then rains that fell too heavily, as well as infestations of insects, have left Goru Gutu starving. As you head deeper into the hills, the animals get thinner, the children more listless. The food in the market is too expensive, and there are no informal sales on the roadside. No one is eating. Where wheat and maize should have been growing in the terraces that slice back and forth along the slopes, there is nothing. The average daily labouring wage, equivalent to 80 American cents, is not enough to survive on.   ...The result is that an extra 4.5m of Ethiopia's 80m people need emergency food, on top of the 5m or so who already get it, according to the UN's World Food Programme.   The government says a recovery is possible if the rains expected later in the year are good. Foreign aid specialists say that the food shortages are “going in the direction of high mortality”. The government is supposed to have 450,000 tonnes in a grain stockpile, with 100,000 tonnes in reserve to keep prices from rising too much. But it has only 65,000 tonnes left.   If Goru Gutu district is an indicator, things will get far worse; many people will starve to death. Ibsaa Sadiq, a local government official, reckons that nearly half of the 116,000 people who live here, especially women and children, need food aid to survive....Hindiya, 18 months old, is puffed up by edema, a protein deficiency. Even if she survives, she may suffer mental and physical stunting, heart disorders and a weakened immune system. Her mother, Fatima, gently peels back a dirty cloth to show how the skin along Hindiya's calves and heel has split wide open. She is in excruciating pain. Her three siblings survive on a bowl of maize-meal porridge a day, with no milk or sugar; no one in the family has ever eaten meat. ...Meteorologists say that the problem is not just the amount of rain but the climate's increasing volatility.  The government has also failed. After several good harvests since the last big famine, in 2003, Ethiopia had a chance to progress. Instead, it dithered over reforms to promote private business and overhaul the country's sclerotic banking system and mobile-phone sector. Aside from coffee, qat (a narcotic leaf chewed by Somalis), horticulture and a little tourism, Ethiopia is one of Africa's very few countries that still has virtually no serious private business—and thus few jobs—outside the state sector. Almost three-quarters of the population may be under- or unemployed."

posted June 13, 2008 9 a.m.

Rule of Law and Food Production.  Pirates Terrorize Nigeria's Fishing Fleet.  "The surge in deadly attacks on fishing crews caused the Nigerian Trawler Owners Association to call the fleets of its members, nearly 200 vessels, back to shore in February. That meant a work stoppage for an estimated 20,000 workers and the drying up of the bulk of the local fish market."  NY Times.

posted June 12, 2008 at 10:40 a.m.


Corruption in Food Aid Delivery   "Zimbabwean authorities confiscated a truck loaded with 20 tons of American food aid for poor schoolchildren and ordered that the wheat and pinto beans aboard be handed out to supporters of President Robert Mugabe at a political rally instead, the American ambassador said Wednesday."  NY Times.

posted June 12, 2008 10:40 a.m.


New Atlas of Africa Catalogs environmental changes.  The UN's Environmental Programme just released an Atlas of Africa.  "The Atlas also shows that erosion and chemical and physical damage have degraded about 65 per cent of the continent’s farmlands. In addition, slash and burn agriculture, coupled with the high occurrence of lightning across Africa, is thought to be responsible for wild fires.  Over 300 million people on the continent already face water scarcity, and areas experiencing water shortages in Sub-Saharan Africa are expected to increase by almost a third by 2050."

posted June 12, 2008 at 8:40 a.m.

Factors Contributing to Recent Increases in Food Prices.  Ron Trostle of USDA's Economic Research Service has a report on what is causing the recent food price spike.   Here's a slide from  his presentation yesterday to the USDA Economists Group.

 posted June 11 at 10:30 a.m.


Comparative Resource Use.  A report from China comes up with a measure of land and water use by country and concludes:  "China, which has 22 percent of the world's population, uses 15 percent of the world's total biological capacity of 14 billion hectares. The United States with 300 million people consumes 20 percent.."  However, "China is now consuming more than twice as much as what its ecosystems can supply, having doubled its needs since the 60s."

posted June 11, 2008 at 10:20 a.m.


Fussy Eaters An American living in China explains why his children will eat anything (scorpions for breakfast).  I like this observation:  "[I]n poor countries like China, people learn to eat what’s available or they starve. Fussiness never enters the picture. (As I write this, a crew of construction workers who migrated from distant villages is squatting outside my window eating a lunch of rice and boiled cabbage. No meat. These men toil all day on what I would consider a starvation diet.)"

posted June 11, 2008 at 7:40 a.m.


Calculating Percentage Change.  This is only peripherally related to AREC 365 subjects, but we do deal frequently with percentage change.    For example, if population of a country  was 1,000,000  in 1995and is 1,350,251 in 2008, then population has grown by 35.0251% during that 13 year period.  But a lot of people don't know how to compute percentage changes.  Here is a television reporter who states:  truck mileage without the device was 9.4 MPG;  truck mileage with the device was 23.2 MPG;  this represents a 61% improvement.  If you are not saying "Hunh??" right now, you should take remedial math.  An improvement of 9.4 to 23.2 is a 100*[(23.2/9.4) - 1] = 146.81% improvement in gas mileage.   (Use common sense to check your calculation:  a 100% improvement would increase it from 9.4 to 18.8,  and the additional 4.4 is about 50% of 9.4, so the 150% (ok 146.81%) looks about right.)   This television reporter re-convinces me that I do need to continue requiring these kinds of calculations in course homeworks.   All students earning college degrees should know how to do this computation.

posted June 10, 2008 at 7:45 p.m.


Quality of Medical Advice in Poor countries.  A recent paper by Jishnu Das, Jeffrey Hammer, and AREC's own Ken Leonard has this disturbing and heartbreaking story: 

In rural Tanzania, Ms M, brings her 9 month old to the local health clinic, carrying the child on her back. When she enters, Dr. K (an Assistant Medical Officer ...) asks her what the problem is. Still standing in front of his desk, she replies that her daughter has a fever. Dr. K fills a prescription for malaria based on this statement, even though he cannot see the child, much less observe her condition. The consultation and medicine are both free and Ms. M leaves the facility with the prescribed medicine. During the exit interview a nurse on our team notes that the child is suffering from severe pneumonia. The health facility has the medicine to treat both malaria and pneumonia. Dr. K is trained in the diagnosis and treatment for these diseases and saw only 25 patients that day. Yet, but for the intervention of the nurse on our research team, the child would have died. Indeed, a survey in rural Tanzania found that 79 percent of children who die of malaria sought care at modern health facilities.

posted June 10, 2008 at 11:00 a.m.

Food Consumption and Greenhouse Gas Emissions.  Of the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with food consumption, 83% of the emissions come from food production and only 11% come from transportation,  according to a recent paper by Carnegie Mellon engineers, Christopher Weber and Scott Matthews.  (Link via Tyler Cowen at marginal revolution.)

posted June 10, 2008 at 10:40 a.m.


World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates.    USDA's monthly report WASDE was released today.   Total grains production in the world:  The June projection for 2008/09 is 0.15% higher than the May projection.  2008/09 production is projected to be   2.26% higher than the estimated output in 2007/08, and 7.84% higher than the output in 2006/07.  Wheat and rice show steady growth over the three years; course grains (primarily maize) shows a big jump between 2006/07 and 2007/08, and then a slight drop off to 2008/09.  (Context:  US Census projects that world population grows at about 1.15% per year currently.)   Even though crop output per person is expected to increase, crop prices are expected to continue to increase as shown in the table below.  Per capita demand for crops grows, because of (a) increased income per capita;  (b) increased demand for animal products per capita -- related to increased income;  and (c) increased use of crops in biofuel production. 


Past and expected future crop prices in the US.



2007/08 Est.

2008/09 June projection

Wheat ($/bushel)




Corn ($/bushel)




Rice ($/cwt)





posted June 10, 2008 at 9:40 a.m.


World Food Blog.   The blog "Stuffed and Starved" is by author Raj Patel (of a book by the same name).  It has some amusing links (pointing out the ominous similarity between maps of Germany showing GM test plots and showing strength of extreme right wing political parties -- does GM food cause Nazism?)  and some serious links (for example, to this collection of news stories and opinion pieces on agriculture in Africa).

posted June 19, 2008 at 7:20 a.m.


Prospects for 2008 crops. New York Times front page story.In a year when global harvests need to be excellent to ease the threat of pervasive food shortages, evidence is mounting that they will be average at best. Some farmers are starting to fear disaster.  American corn and soybean farmers are suffering from too much rain, while Australian wheat farmers have been plagued by drought."

posted June 10, 2008 at 6:20 a.m.


Economists Discuss the Impacts of Globalization on the US.  Especially focusing on the impacts of freer international trade on income inequality.  Tyler Cowen starts things out with this NYTimes oped piece in favor of free trade, stating "trade with China has already eased hardships for poorer Americans."  Mark Thoma argues that "the net impact is more negative than Tyler indicates..., [therefore] maintaining political support for increased openness will require that the gains from trade and technological change be shared more equitably."    Brad DeLong points out that trade theory does predict that there will be losers from trade --the losers will be the owners of relatively scarce resources.  The question for DeLong is therefore, are these owners of relatively scarce resources more likely to be large numbers of relatively poor people, or small numbers of relatively rich people?  His conclusion is that trade has "been unfavorable to the working class when all the costs, including reduced economic security, reduced health care coverage, etc. are taken into account."    It is interesting to read the example of income distribution in India posted just below here in the light of the discussion of these economists.

posted June 9, 2008 at 12:15 p.m.


$7 a bushel Corn??  Corn prices hit record June 9.

posted June 9, 2008 at 11:50 a.m.


An Example of Income Distribution in India.  From the NYTimes.

postetd June 9, 2008 at 8:40 a.m.


Cultural Differences in Attitudes toward "fairness".  In a commonly used experiment to determine people's attitudes toward fairness, people are matched up in pairs and the pair is given a sum of money (say $100).  One person (chosen at random) makes an offer to the other:  "I will keep $x and you will get $100 - $x.  Do you agree to that?"  If the second person agrees, that is how the money is split up.  If the second person rejects the offer, both people get zero.  So the real choice facing the second person (most of the time) is between an option that is "fair but poor" -- both people earn zero -- or unfair but rich -- one person earns more than the other, but both earn something.  The Washington Post reports on a cross country study.  "In many ways, fairness seems to matter more than absolute measures of how well they are faring -- people seem willing to endure tough times if they have the sense the burden is being shared equally, but they quickly become resentful if they feel they are being singled out for poor treatment."  The article cites a paper in the journal Science by anthropoligist Joseph Henrich, et al.  A (gated?) version of that paper is here.     Related:  Seratonin levels in the brain influence attitudes toward fairness.  Especially on point for "hungry and angry":  "The findings highlight why some of us may become combative or aggressive when we have not eaten. The essential amino acid necessary for the body to create serotonin can only be obtained through diet; our serotonin levels naturally decline when we don't eat."

posted June 9, 2008 at 7:15 a.m.


Immigrants to U.S. help relatives in the home country deal with the world food crisis.  From the Washington Post's Metro section.

"Filipinos in the Washington region say the unthinkable has become fairly common in recent months: Migrants are stuffing sacks of rice into care packages known as balikbayan boxes and shipping them to the Philippines, where shortages have led to soaring prices and rationing. Area immigrants from Haiti, where skyrocketing prices have sparked riots, are boosting orders of food from U.S.-based money transfer agents. The orders are plucked from the shelves of warehouses in Haiti and delivered to recipients within hours....  Only some immigrant groups also have well-established systems for the transfers of goods, said Manuel Orozco, a remittance expert at Georgetown University. Among them is the Filipino practice of sending 23-by-20-by-17-inch boxes packed with U.S. products, which are typically shipped for a flat rate of about $100 no matter what's stuffed inside. Another is the Haitian food transfer system, a method experts say has never taken off in other nations. Both are now facilitating family-level food aid.  On a recent afternoon, Jimmy Alazi paid $107 at Taptap Inc. on Georgia Avenue in the District, a one-desk office where Haitian expatriates can select from a product list that includes 24 cans of tomato paste ($42) and one live goat ($76). Alazi had chosen basics for friends in Port-au-Prince: 55 pounds of rice, three gallons of cooking oil, 25 pounds of black beans, 20 packets of spaghetti and 27.5 pounds of sugar. "When you send money they can use it for other things," said Alazi, 38, a Fort Washington insurance agent. "I want them to eat." "

posted June 9, 2008 at 6:40 a.m.

Eating Bugs to end World Hunger.  From Slate:  "That global food crisis you've been reading about? No problem. An Asian expert reports that in Thailand, each family can raise crickets independently on a tiny parcel of land. In a pair of villages, 400 families are cranking out 10 metric tons of crickets during the peak season."   (Thanks to Emily Sze for the pointer.)

posted June 8, 2008 8:10 a.m.


Child Labor in Egyptian Cotton Fields.   The Guardian presents this photo essay.  "more than 1 million children aged between 7 and 12 are employed in its production each year."

posted June 8, 2008 7:10 a.m.


Can Science Save the Banana?   From Scientific American Website.  "[G]enetic engineering is really important. The banana is a very slow-to-grow fruit. I mean, in order to develop a new fruit, there have to be a lot of cycles, first in the lab and then in the field. So genetic engineering is really important because you [have] got to jump-start those needed qualities. If you don't use genetic engineering, you have to have many generations of hybridization, conventional hybridization, so we need advanced techniques to jump-start that and get test bananas out in the field to look for resistance to the Panama disease."

posted June 8, 2008, 7:10 a.m.

World Food Prices on the Front Lines.  The Washington Post publishes a series of short vignettes about how the food price run-up of the last couple years is affecting lives of people around the world.  Click on "READ+" at the bottom to find these links.

South Africa:  "A bag of spinach that was 25 cents last year is now 50 cents. Bananas once sold for 7 cents but now are 13 cents and soon will be 16 cents. A bunch of grapes has gone from 50 cents to 65 cents."

Uganda:    "Kasirye, who is married and has two children, said her weekly shopping bill has jumped about 20 percent.  There are no shortages at the large grocery store in Kampala where Kasirye buys food for her family. But the price of rice, sugar, milk and other staples has increased drastically."

Peru:  "The price of rice more than doubled in the first quarter of this year and is just now coming down -- about 20 percent in the last month. As they did with wheat earlier this year, Peruvian authorities have called on residents to switch from rice to potatoes.   Lopez does not believe that people will make the switch.   "People are accustomed to eating rice," she said. "They aren't going to switch, even though it is more expensive. They are buying less but still buying." "

India:  "I have a food ration card, but the ration shops are always understocked.  ...  Things are more expensive this year. We will vote out the government this year. If they cannot take care of the poor, why should we vote for them?"

posted June 8, 2008, at 6:45 a.m.

Psychological Barriers to Trade. South Koreans fear that imported beef is unhealthy (because of Mad Cow Disease). 

"'I would never, never buy American beef. I have stopped buying Australian beef. I buy only Korean beef, although it is more expensive.'

Expensive it is. At the meat counter of the E-Mart supermarket in central Seoul, Min paid $20 for slightly less than a pound of medium-quality sliced beef. That's about triple the price of imported Australian beef, which was on sale a few feet away. American beef, if it ever returns to grocery store shelves here, would be as cheap as or cheaper than Australian meat, experts say. "

posted June 7, 2008 at 7 :20 a.m.

Nanotechnology in Food and Agriculture.  A seminar by Mihail Roco, Hongda Chen, and Guillame Gruere on Nanotechnology, Food, Agriculture, and Development will be given at IFPRI in Washington on June 18.  The abstract of the seminar promises this: 

"Imagine eating foods without absorbing harmful allergens and cholesterol into your body.  Imagine farmlands  in developing countries with environmental sensors that automatically release pesticides and fertilizers only when absolutely necessary.  Imagine going to your nearest market and being able to modify the foods you purchase to suit your nutritional needs and tastes.  The first two concepts are fast becoming a reality. The third appears to be on the horizon. These are some of the revolutionary means by which nanotechnology* promises to transform the way we grow, process, and eat food.".

More here.   And here.  Some find the prospects of nanotechnology in food "disturbing".

posted June 6, 2008 at 11:20 a.m.


IFPRI's webpage on Food Prices.  With lots of links to IFPRI research.  Click here.

posted June 6, 2008 at 11 a.m.


Neo Malthusian prediction.  A recent demonstration that Malthus's big idea is not dead.  The Coming Famine.

posted June 6, 2008 at 8:30 a.m.


Bt Crops do not harm non-pests.   "Genetically modified (GM) plants that use Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis),,,to kill pests won't harm the pests' natural enemies, according to...Cornell entomologists....Much of the debate surrounding the use of GM crops focuses on their effect on organisms that aren't pests.  The research showed that GM plants expressing Bt insecticidal proteins are not toxic to a parasite that lives inside the caterpillar of the diamondback moth, a devastating worldwide vegetable pest."  More here.

posted June 6, 2008 at 7:50 a.m.


Water Scarcity:  The Real Food Crisis  An opinion piece by British journalist Fred Pierce,  author of When Rivers Run Dry.

posted June 6, 2008 at 7:45 a.m.


Global Warming Legislation.  Lieberman-Warner with cap-and-trade to come for a vote today.  "“This bill is going down in flames."  Senator Bob Corker, R-Tennessee.

posted June 6, 2008 at 7:30 a.m.


Watered Down Resolution Agreed to at Emergency Food Summit in Rome.  "A world summit on hunger veered near collapse. ... Ultimately the declaration was adopted pledging to ... eliminate hunger ... through actions including easing of trade barriers and the supply of seed and fertilizer to poor farmers."  More here.

posted June 6, 2008 at 7:20 a.m.


Rebecca Blackwell Photos from Senegal.    Search Washington Post for "Senegal"  and follow links.

posted June 6, 2008 at 7:10 a.m.


Pascal Lamy WTO Chief.  Doha Revived.  "We are almost there on agricultural goods."  But what US concessions will be acceptable to a Congress that just enacted a new farm bill after months and months of struggle, and that just refused to approve a Colombia US free trade agreement?

posted June 6, 2008 at 7 a.m.


Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army.  One reason economic progress in sub-Saharan Africa is difficult to achieve.  From Michael Gerson's oped column in the Washington Post.

"A friend, the head of a major aid organization, tells how his workers in eastern Congo a few years ago chanced upon a group of shell-shocked women and children in the bush. A militia had kidnapped a number of families and forced the women to kill their husbands with machetes, under the threat that their sons and daughters would be murdered if they refused. Afterward the women were raped by more than 100 soldiers; the children were spectators at their own private genocide."

posted June 6, 2008 6:40 a.m.

Biofuels and food prices:  Reconciling the different estimates of the relationship.  Econbrowser has this attempt to reconcile the CEA view that ethanol subsidies are a small factor and the World Bank/IMF view that biofuels production is a major cause.

posted June 5, 2008 at 4:10 p.m.


Amartya Sen on the World Food Crisis.   "The global food problem is not being caused by a falling trend in world production, or for that matter in food output per person (this is often asserted without much evidence). It is the result of accelerating demand. However, a demand-induced problem also calls for rapid expansion in food production, which can be done through more global cooperation.". Link via Greg Mankiw's blog.  Original article here.

posted June 5, 2008 at 9:30 a.m.


Bono:  What Africa can learn from Ireland.  "He said that while Ireland now enjoys some of the world's highest salaries, '20 years ago our economy was down the toilet, the IMF was telling us what to do and the World Bank was down our pants'."  More here.


posted June 5, 2008 at 9:10 a.m.


What's on the Menu at the Emergency Food Summit in Rome?  Unlike 2002 Conference, no foie gras and no lobster

posted June 5, 2008 at 9 a.m.


Future Water Shortages.  "A catastrophic water shortage could prove an even bigger threat to mankind this century than soaring food prices and the relentless exhaustion of energy reserves, according to a panel of global experts."  More here.

posted June 5, 2008 at 8:30 a.m.


Oil Prices, Food prices, Biofuels.  One of the causes of the recent run-up in food prices is that energy prices have also skyrocketed.  What are long term prospects for energy prices?  The Bakken field in Montana (link via Instapundit) contains as much oil as the main oil field in Saudi Arabia, and recent technological advances may make the Montana oil recoverable.  Another reason for optimism:  The possibility of making biofuel from algae grown in tanks in the desert.  UPDATE.  The euphoria over the Bakken formation is "nonsense".   UPDATE 2:  what about cold fusion?

posted June 5, 2008 at 7:20 a.m

update posted June 6, 2008 at 9:30 a.m.

update posted June 9, 2008 at 8:30 a.m.


Thursday at the Emergency Food Summit in Rome.  "Political squabbling put a U.N. summit on the global food crisis at risk of closing on Thursday without a powerful declaration on how to stop millions more people going hungry."  Reuters.

posted June 5, 2008 at 7:10 a.m.


Wednesday at the Emergency Food Summit in Rome.  Quotable quotes from the NY Times.

“The era of food aid is over — there is no more sending food from America to Africa.”  Kofi Annan

Transport costs  soak up 50 percent of US  food aid money.  Henrietta Fore, administrator of USAID.

“I doubt there will be a positive agreement on biofuels”   US Secretary of Agriculture  Ed Shafer.

Money is crucial for food aid to feed the world’s hungry. But preventing food crises will require more difficult policy changes. World Bank President Bob Zoellick.

“...absurdly protectionist farm policies in rich countries...” Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio (Lula) da Silva.

posted June 5, 2008 at 6:35 a.m.

Institutional Investors Discover Agriculture.  If futures market regulators place restrictions on institutional investors, but exempt farmers from these restrictions,  institutional investors buy a farm and become farmers.  More here.

[T]hree institutional investors, including the giant BlackRock fund group in New York, are separately planning to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in agriculture, chiefly farmland, from sub-Saharan Africa to the English countryside.  “It’s going on big time,” said Brad Cole, president of Cole Partners Asset Management in Chicago, which runs a fund of hedge funds focused on natural resources. “There is considerable interest in what we call ‘owning structure’ — like United States farmland, Argentine farmland, English farmland — wherever the profit picture is improving.”  These new bets by big investors could bolster food production at a time when the world needs more of it.  The investors plan to consolidate small plots of land into more productive large ones, to introduce new technology and to provide capital to modernize and maintain grain elevators and fertilizer supply depots.   But the long-term implications are less clear. Some traditional players in the farm economy, and others who study and shape agriculture policy, say they are concerned these newcomers will focus on profits above all else, and not share the industry’s commitment to farming through good times and bad.  “Farmland can be a bubble just like Florida real estate,” said Jeffrey Hainline, president of Advance Trading, a 28-year-old commodity brokerage firm and consulting service in Bloomington, Ill. “The cycle of getting in and out would be very volatile and disruptive.”  By owning land and other parts of the agricultural business, these new investors are freed from rules aimed at curbing the number of speculative bets that they and other financial investors can make in commodity markets. “I just wonder if they need some sheep’s clothing to put on,” Mr. Hainline said.

posted June 5, 2008 at 6:20 a.m.


Water Shortages in California.  Schwartzenegger threatens rationing.  NYTimes

posted June 5, 2008 at 6:10 a.m.


Water Conservation through Precision Agriculture in Kenya.    “In some areas of Kenya, localised variations in growing conditions can cause severe fluctuations in crop yields. Our ...project is about providing the right information at the right time to farmers.  This means they can use available water more efficiently, minimising wastage and helping to optimise their harvests to feed their families.”  More here.

posted June 5, 2008 at 6 a.m.


The Biological Basis for Altruism.    "The contentious debate about why insects evolved to put the interests of the colony over the individual has been reignited by new research from the University of Leeds, showing that they do so to increase the chances that their genes will be passed on."  More here.

posted June 5, 2008 at 6 a.m.


"Curing" genetic mutations with micronutrients.  A report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is described here.

posted June 5, 2008 at 5:50 a.m.

Mugabe and Food Distribution.  Washington Post editorializes:  "Mugabe turns from beating the people of Zimbabwe to starving them."

posted June 5, 2008 at 5:40 a.m.


Water Shortages in Spain.   Report from the NYTimes.    "[F]armers are fighting developers over water rights. They are fighting one another over who gets to water their crops. And in a sign of their mounting desperation, they are buying and selling water like gold on a rapidly growing black market, mostly from illegal wells."  UPDATE.  "Strawberries v. Golf Courses."

posted June 5 at 5:40 a.m.

update June 7, 2008 at 7:20 a.m.


Support for Increased Funding of Ag Research.  I am struck as I surf the net today by the statements and articles supporting the idea that the current world food price spike should be addressed by increasing national and international support for agricultural research. 

            Kofi Annan, Chairman, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

            Ed Shafer, US Secretary of Agriculture.

            Food and Agriculture Organization.

posted June 4, 2008 at 9:50 p.m.


Personal stories with Photos from FAO.  The whole series is here.  Here's a sample of a 15 year old in Gambia.  Notice that his family's income is about $1300 per year.

Photos by Djibril Sy/FAO   

"Here I am on the right helping harvest my father's groundnuts. They grow deep in the ground and it's hard work pulling them out, then threshing them. That's a friend working with me.

My father grows groundnuts to sell. We also grow millet, sorghum and maize to eat ourselves.

When everything goes right, we sell around 10 bags of groundnuts at 3 750 dalasis (about 125 US dollars) each. That's my father's main income for the year."

posted June 4, 2008 at 9:00 p.m.


Saudis pledge Half a Billion Dollars for Food Aid.  Current pledges to the UN's World Food Programme are $2 billion, compared to a planned budget of over $4 billion for the calendar year.

posted June 4, 2008 9:00 p.m.


From New York Times Links of the Day.   Is it "agreement unlikely"  or "deal possible"?  Or are they the same thing?


June 4, 2008

Brazil's Lula Rebuffs Biofuels Critics at World Food Summit

Fox News Channel

June 4, 2008

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Says Biofuels Deal Possible at U.N. Summit


June 4, 2008

Food Futures: Biofuels under fire at summit; agreement unlikely

posted June 4, 2008  8:40 p.m.

The Doha Round.   News reports some incremental progress toward agreement on agriculture in the Doha round of GATT.   To what extent has the farm bill tied the negotiating hands of the Bush administration?     The veto override enacts a bill that fundamentally eliminates the possibility of further cuts or modifications to US farm subsidies.  But "lawmakers said they would take up the farm law's trade section as a separate bill and pass it after their Memorial Day break."  And Congress shows no willingness to succumb to pressure to approve trade agreements (Colombia Free Trade Agreement)..

posted June 4, 2008 8 p.m.


Biofuels and World Agricultural Prices.    The Council of Economic Advisers has this assessment of the impact of ethanol production on world food prices: 

"We estimate that the increase in U.S. corn-based ethanol production accounts for approximately 7.5 percentage points of the 37% increase in corn prices over the past twelve months. The increase in corn-based ethanol production in the rest of the world this past year accounts for as much as an additional 5.5 percentage points. Combining the increases in ethanol production in the U.S. and the rest of the world, we estimate that the total global increase in corn-based ethanol production accounts for about 13 percentage points of the 37% increase in corn prices, or about one-third of the increase in corn prices over the past year....Because corn only represents a small fraction of the IMF Global Food Index, we estimate that the increase in total corn-based ethanol production has pushed up global food prices by about 1.2 percentage points of the 43% increase in global food prices, or about 3% of the increase over the past twelve months. This estimate includes the indirect effects of the increase in corn-based ethanol production, through crop substitution and spillover effects into other food products. Looking back to 2005 and 2006, the effect of increased ethanol production on food prices during these two years taken together has been of similar magnitude."

posted June 4, 2008 6:00 p.m.


Global Warming and Agriculture  USDA has released a study of the impact of global warming on agriculture in the US over the next 25 to 50 years.  The executive summary is full of "on the one hand this, on the other hand that" kind of analysis.  But deep in the report -- Table 2.6 on page 30 -- we see estimates of the relative sizes of the (generally negative) impact of higher temperatures on crop yields, and the (positive) impact of higher CO2 concentrations on crop yields.     The prediction is that as a result of global warming, US corn and rice yields will decrease, soybean yields will increase, and wheat yields will be unaffected.    The report does not attempt to estimate the behavioral impacts of changing crop yields -- that farmers who now produce corn in the midwest may find it profitable to switch to soybean production. 

posted June 4, 2008 5 p.m.


Does Money Make you Happy?  The (Richard) Easterlin Paradox is that wealthy people are not happier than poor people.  But a recent paper by Stevenson and Wolfers of University of Pennsylvania casts doubt on this. 

"Easterlin has examined the relationship between happiness and GDP both across countries, and within individual countries through time. In both of these exercises, he finds no significant evidence of a link between income and happiness. In contrast, there is robust evidence that within countries those with more income are happier. These two findings—that income is an important predictor of individual happiness and yet apparently irrelevant for aggregate happiness—have spurred researchers to seek a reconciliation through evidence of reference-dependent preferences and the importance of relative-income comparisons.  Indeed, Frank infers that these recent findings from the happiness literature “are not only consistent with the view that relative income is a far better predictor of happiness than absolute income, but they also seem to suggest that absolute income may not matter at all.” The conclusion that absolute income does not impact happiness invites far reaching policy implications. If economic growth does little to improve social welfare, then it should not be a primary goal of government policy.  ...

Our key result is that the estimated income-happiness gradient is not only significant, but also remarkably robust across countries, within countries, and over time. These comparisons between rich and poor members of the same society, between rich and poor countries, and within countries through time as they become richer or poorer all yield similar estimates of the well-being-income gradient.  ...  Across the world’s population, variation in income explains a sizeable proportion of the variation in subjective well-being. There appears to be a very strong relationship between subjective well-being and income, which holds for both rich and poor countries, falsifying earlier claims of a satiation point at which higher GDP is not associated with greater wellbeing."

As reported at the Economist blog Free Exchange,  the evidence is consistent with a declining marginal utility of income hypothesis, so taking $1000 from a person making $100,000 (reducing his income by 1%) and giving the $1000 to a person making $10,000 (increasing her income by 10%) will increase the poor person's happiness more than it decreases the rich person's happiness.

posted June 4, 2008 at 4:50 p.m.

Biofuels and Food Prices.  A good short review of the biofuels-food price link can be found at the European Affairs website.

posted June 4, 2008 at 3:10 p.m.


Norman Borlaug.   Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution links to a decade old speech by Norman Borlaug. 

"Yields can still be increased by 50-100% in much of the Indian sub-Continent, Latin America, the former USSR and Eastern Europe, and by 100-200% in much of sub-Saharan Africa, providing political stability is maintained, bureaucracies that destroys entrepreneurial initiative are reigned in, and their researchers and extension workers devote more energy to putting science and technology to work at the farm level...."

posted June 4, 2008  at 1:30 p.m.

End Poverty with Economic Growth??  Abhijit Banerjee from MIT writes about the Illusions of Macroeconomics.

"Don’t we know that all that matters for reducing poverty is growth, especially after China? And therefore we development economists should focus on the things that make growth happen: Macro policy and creating the right institutional environment. And not bother with the micro evidence… No, no, and, as the expression goes, no. Every step in that syllogism is wrong, and, I will argue in this essay, each step is probably more obviously wrong than the previous one."

posted June 4, 2008 at 1:30 p.m.

Approaches to Environmental Policy.  Deal with global warming through reduced consumption, or new technology?  Instapundit, linking to Ron Bailey, favors the latter.

posted June 4, 2008 at 12:45 p.m.

Copenhagen Consensus.  50 leading economists met to recommend actions to improve the world.  The top recommendation:  reduce micronutrient malnutrition by distribution of vitamin A capsules and zinc supplements.  Cost:  $60 million per year.  Benefit:  $1 billion per year.

posted June 4, 2008 at 12:10 p.m.

Why Europeans are getting taller, but Americans are notA New  Yorker article on "anthropometric history" appeared in April.

"Holland’s growth spurt began only in the mid-eighteen-hundreds, Drukker found, when its first liberal democracy was established. Before 1850, the country grew rich off its colonies, but the wealth stayed in the hands of the wealthy, and the average citizen shrank. After 1850, height and income suddenly fell into lockstep: when incomes went up, heights went up (after a predictable lag time), and always to the same degree.... [T]he essential equation is the same: when the G.N.P. grows, everyone grows.  ...

As America’s rich and poor drift further apart, its growth curve may be headed in the opposite direction. ...

Steckel has found that Americans lose the most height to Northern Europeans in infancy and adolescence, which implicates pre- and post-natal care and teen-age eating habits. ...

Inequality may be at the root of America’s height problem, but it’s too soon to be certain. ..."

posted June 4, 2008 at 12:10 p.m.

Ahmadinejad and Mugabe diagnose the world food problem.  This morning’s NPR had a report on a meeting to consider the causes and reaction to high food prices.  In an interview, Lester Brown points to increased food demand in China as a possible cause.  His book “Who Will Feed China?”  is available at Amazon.  Meanwhile, Mugabe has halted private food aid distribution efforts in Zimbabwe until after the election.  “Food distribution is not only a matter of life and death to recipients, but it’s a strategic political resource that the government deploys to promote its political agenda.”

posted June 4, 2008 at 11:55 a.m.

Bubbles?  Are the high food prices of the last two years a result of a speculative bubble?  CFTC is considering the possibility.

“The portion of each commodity market held by index funds varies by product, from 40 percent of cattle futures to 15 percent of other goods, [CFTC chair] Lukken said. Rising concern over higher agricultural prices justifies the CFTC's inquiry, said Lukken”

NYTimes and Scott Irwin of the University of Illinois were on the story in March

Wheat and Corn
The New York Times


posted June 4, 2008 at 11:50 a.m.