Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Something Else To Think About

Don't know what wakes me up at 4 A.M. everyday, but  I often listen to CBC Radio overnight. There's now a Radio Australia program on at that hour, and today (Aug 3) a really interesting interview with a man called Dr. James Barnard. It was all about phosphorus (stay with me this is important). He not only presented why we should be thinking about this (necessary component to grow food, only a habdful of countries producing it, limited supplies of a non-renewable resource, etc) but he's worked out a way of recovering nutrients like phosphorus  from waste water. That's huge. So a bit more on phosphorus and a link to the interview, and a piece on regulating Micky D, not likely to happen with the teabaggers in charge now in Washington.  
(look for the "Listen to Latest Program" button on the right.. choose  Part 2 of 3/08/2011 show, and about 60% through that section)

Peak Phosphate Ahead?
July 28, 2011 •

If you ask a biologist or organic chemist what the necessary elements for life are here on earth, he or she will probably reply “CHON,” meaning carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. But then the answer will quickly be qualified with, “And you need sulfur and phosphorus too.”

It’s that last element, phosphorus, that I’d like to discuss today because in addition to being an essential component of DNA, RNA, and ATP/ADP, it also plays a major role in our global food supply – and we may be facing a shortage that could spell the end of cheap food.

To quote a recent article from Foreign Policy magazine:

Our dwindling supply of phosphorus, a primary component underlying the growth of global agricultural production, threatens to disrupt food security across the planet during the coming century. This is the gravest natural resource shortage you’ve never heard of.

Phosphorus is one of the three macronutrients that crops require in large amounts in order to grow (the other two being nitrogen and potassium, neither of which is facing a supply issue). In nature, we generally find phosphorus in the form of a phosphate, in which each phosphorus atom is bonded to four oxygen atoms. Phosphate is present at relatively high concentrations in “phosphate rock,” the geological deposits that are mined in fertilizer production. It’s this phosphate rock that many now worry is in short supply. The term “peak phosphate” has even crept its way into the agricultural sector’s lexicon.

Studies from the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative (GPRI) estimate that peak phosphate could occur by 2030, and that high-grade reserves could be depleted in as few as 50 years.

Obviously, fertilizers are vitally important to food production, and a phosphate shortage could lead to skyrocketing agricultural prices and food insecurity. If we are facing a phosphate shortage, the situation seems all the more grim when one considers some of the factors affecting supply and demand for food globally.

For starters, the global population is growing by about 75 million people per year. That means we have to figure out how to feed a new population the size of Egypt’s or Germany’s each year as the existing supply of arable land per capita declines. One way to try to solve this problem is to convert land from other uses to farmland. The problem is that this process requires a tremendous amount of phosphate, further weighing on what many worry is a dwindling supply.

What’s more, as the Asian middle class shifts to a more meat-based diet, demand for grain to produce that meat (and thus demand for phosphate to grow that grain) will skyrocket. Consider the example from Japan: Its meat consumption per capita jumped by about 1,000% over the past fifty years as it grew into a developed country. If the rest of Asia followed that example, demand for phosphate would go through the roof, as it requires anywhere from 3-6 lbs of grain to produce 1 lb of pork and 7-13 lbs of grain to finish and produce 1 lb of beef.

Further complicating the issue is that the bulk of the world’s phosphate is tied up in just five countries. According to the GPRI, 90% of the world’s remaining phosphate rock reserves is controlled by China, Morocco, S. Africa, Jordan, and the U.S. Imagine how quickly these countries would ban phosphate exports in the face of a food crisis, leaving the rest of the world with basically no way to grow crops.

This discussion would suggest that phosphate might make a compelling speculation in the years ahead. And it might. But I do have to warn you that not everybody views the supply situation as dire.

The International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC) recently carried out a study that reassessed the phosphate rock reserves and resources of phosphate-producing countries. This study, released late last year, concluded that global phosphate rock resources suitable for phosphate-based fertilizers were far more extensive than previously estimated. According to the study, at current extraction rates, these resources would be available for several centuries. Then, earlier this year, mostly based on the IFDC report, the USGS upped its reserve estimate for Morocco and Western Sahara from 5.7 billion metric tons to 50 billion metric tons, which contributed substantially to an upward revision in global reserves from 16 to 65 billion metric tons. Meanwhile, mine production of phosphate rock reached 176 million metric tons last year… So the situation may not be as ominous as many in the agricultural sector fear.

Nevertheless, whatever the “real” supply situation of phosphate is, we can still be fairly certain that demand is going to continue to increase as the global population grows and the emerging world shifts to a more meat-rich diet. So plays in phosphate are probably a worthwhile area for investors to explore.

Opinionator - A Gathering of Opinion From Around the Web
August 2, 2011
Can Big Food Regulate Itself? Fat Chance

Mark Bittman on food and all things related.

Life would be so much easier if we could only set our own guidelines. You could define the average weight as 10 pounds higher than your own and, voilĂ , no more obesity! You could raise the speed limit to 90 miles per hour and never worry about a ticket. You could call a cholesterol level of 250 “normal” and celebrate with a bag of fried pork rinds. (You could even claim that cutting government spending would increase employment, but that might be going too far.) You could certainly turn junk food into something “healthy.”

    A Happy Meal with a piece of apple is still a box of branded, overpriced junk food.

That’s what the food industry is doing.

Back in May I wrote about the voluntary guidelines for marketing junk food to kids developed by an interagency group headed by the Federal Trade Commission. These non-binding suggestions ask that the industry market real food to kids instead of the junk they so famously favor selling. But the industry argues that the recommendations are effectively mandatory because non-compliance would lead to retaliation and eliminate all food advertising to adolescents, as well as 74,000 jobs.

On the phone last week, Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut,  told me that even though the guidelines are “without teeth,” the pushback from the industry has been formidable: “We have seen political showmanship, misinformation about the impact of these voluntary guidelines, insistence that the industry has been successful in self-regulation and that these efforts would violate the First Amendment.”

That voluntary guidelines could curb the right to free speech is absurd, but not as wacky as letting the industry set its own standards. Yet that’s what has happened: The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a group of food manufacturers that includes McDonald’s, Burger King, PepsiCo and Kraft Foods came up with its own guidelines defining foods healthy enough to market to kids. (It’s worth mentioning another group, too — if just to admire its name,  The Sensible Food Policy Coalition — led by PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, General Mills and other big companies,  evidently created solely to prevent the voluntary guidelines from gaining a foothold.)

CFBAI is a champion of “self-regulation,” which means repeating a series of mantras that include “facts” like “there is no such thing as good food and bad food,” or that Cookie Crisp cereal (or dozens of others) “can be a part of a balanced diet,” all the while micro-adjusting hyper-processed food so that “more fiber” and “less sugar” aren’t outright lies, even though the food itself can hardly be claimed to be “less junky.” With self-regulation, even Kraft Singles can be considered “part of a balanced diet.”

And guess what? In general, the companies fare well in meeting their own standards (which, pathetically, the F.T.C. sees as a “significant advance”): two-thirds of the products they advertise are A-O.K., with the remainder requiring just modest adjustments. See? Mission accomplished! Corn Pops are now healthy!

Another example: last week, McDonald’s promised a minor tweak of its Happy Meal, (which, of course, “can be part of a well-balanced diet for kids”) adding a few apple slices, removing a few French fries and making milk — chocolate or regular — a more prominent option. It still comes with a toy, and soda will remain a choice. (I’m not sure anyone is claiming soda is part of a healthy diet, but stay tuned.) The move received widespread praise, with Michelle Obama leading the cheers.

    Self-regulation may be immediate, non-threatening and magical, but it doesn’t work.

But despite the seal of approval of our first lady/self-appointed nutrition expert, a Happy Meal with a piece of apple is still a box of branded, overpriced junk food sold not by its value but by its marketing scheme. (Forty percent of McDonald’s advertising budget is spent on marketing to kids.)

This is not “progress,” but a public relations victory along with — as Michele Simon points out in her blog — an attempt to short-circuit regulations and laws that have some guts, like the one in San Francisco that forbids the inclusion of toys in meals that don’t meet reasonable nutrition standards. The last thing McDonald’s or any like corporation wants to see is a strong, activist government protecting consumers, whether or not they’re  capable of adult judgment or are habituated (a harsher word is “addicted”) to self-destructive products.

Self-regulation may be immediate, non-threatening and magical, but it doesn’t work. A study published earlier this week in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine by Dr. Lisa Powell and other researchers at  the University of Illinois at Chicago tracked changes in exposure for all food, beverage and restaurant TV ads seen by kids from 2 to 11 years old, from 2003 to 2009. It found that, overall, daily exposure to the ads declined but the percentage among companies that had pledged to self-regulate was higher than those that didn’t. And in 2009, 86 percent of these ads still featured unhealthy foods.

What’s worse? Self-serving self-regulation or toothless guidelines set by an agency that appears to be complicit in maintaining the status quo? Hard to say. What’s better is having grass roots movements that drive agencies toward real regulation.

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