Friday, 24 August 2012

Reading Between the Soybean Lines

The news release is virtually unintelligible... example:  "The Harper Government fully supports moving research innovation from the lab to the marketplace so it can benefit farmers, producers, and the Canadian economy. This project will test soybean varieties developed during ECODA's 2010 Eastern Canada Oilseed Development Initiative, which received $3.2 million from AAFC's Developing Innovative Agri-Products (DIAP) Initiative, bringing these new varieties closer to marketability."

You can have a go at the whole thing here:

Anyway, this is really good news, and it's what's NOT said in the press release that may be the most important thing of all.

Essentially a number of soybean varieties will be tested not just for their suitability in the normally cooler, shorter-season climate of Eastern Canada, but for the colour, taste, texture etc. of the beans themselves according to the customers in the all important Japanese market.  What's not stated in the release is that the Japanese only want non-gmo soybeans. You may say so what, but consider this. More than 85% of the soybeans grown in the United States are gmo's, designed to tolerate the use of herbicides produced by the same agri-chemical giants like Monsanto,  that supply the soybean seed.  The fierce debate over the safety and environmental impact of genetically modified food continues (written a lot about it in this blog, there's a search window at the bottom, and of course lots elsewhere). What this new research means is that farmers growing these soybean varieties don't have to be in the pockets of the big agri-chemical companies, giving PEI a little more breathing room to decide if it wants to be GMO free.  But there's something else that's just as important. "Round-up Ready" soybeans are by far the most widely used soybean seed in North America, so much so that the active ingredient in Round-up, glyphosphate, is no longer effective on so called "super-weeds". It's a victim of its own success, and the ability of pests of all kinds to adapt to the over-use of pesticides.  So for every field of non-gmo soybeans planted here, it gives glyphosphate, a relatively safe and effective herbicide, a chance to be useful  for one more day.

That's not to say that sophistictated bio-engineering techniques won't play a role in this plant breeding. Scientists will be looking for genetic markers for the variety characteristics the Japanese want.  The bottom line: researchers will use conventional plant breeding techniques, crossing one variety with another, what humans have been doing for thousands of years,  but armed with much better knowledge of what a variety  brings to the table, and whether this characteristic has been passed on to the new variety.  It will make the plant breeding much more effective and quicker to get results.

So it's not surprising that the Harper Government isn't bragging about supporting research into non-GMO crops,  and really if there is a group of people to thank it's discriminating Japanese consumers who continue to insist they don't want GMO's in their food supply. So Monsanto et al get to sit on the sidelines, while PEI farmers grow profitable non-GMO crops for a wealthy market. That's good news all around.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Reality Check

It's so easy during a PEI summer to get an incredible sense of well-being.  Yes many have to do their year's work during these few months of warmth, but the eyes can't help but be drawn to a lush and very connected landscape: even with the drought farmers markets are packed with fresh local stuff, shellfish is abundant, and our energy debate here is over which community will be home to a new wind farm. That's a totally different debate than is happening in most of the world. There was a very sobering article in a rather obscure journal about coal, that rather than coming to the end of the "king coal", it's use continues to ramp up (I'm just including the beginning of the article, the rest costs) . As well George Monbiot of the UK Guardian  (as he often does) reminds us that the decisions of the rich have a profound impact on the poor. We think we're doing the right thing, but we really have to think again.

Cleaning Up Coal

Coal, the rock that fueled the industrial age, is once again remaking the global energy landscape. Over the past decade, while most of the world stood transfixed by the gyrations of the oil markets, the promise of alternative energy, and the boom in cheap natural gas, coal left all other forms of energy in its dust, contributing nearly as much total energy to the global economy as every other source combined.
That explosive increase in coal use came not from the developed world, where demand is plateauing, but from the developing world, where the fuel remains the cheapest, most reliable source of electricity. This year, the market in globally traded coal used to generate electricity is expected to reach 850 megatons -- twice the total in 2000. If current trends continue, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), China and India alone will drive 75 percent of the growth in coal demand before 2035, and coal will become the world's single largest source of energy before 2030.
But just as coal is remaking energy markets, it is also remaking the climate. Coal combustion is the world's largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, responsible for almost 13 billion tons per year. (By comparison, oil and natural gas account for 11 billion tons and 6 billion tons, respectively.) With demand for coal ballooning in Asia, between 2010 and 2035, fully half the total increase in global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel use will come from coal use in the region. The climate problem, in other words, is a coal problem.
For the last two decades, economists and diplomats have tended to favor one solution to that problem: putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions, which would allow markets to find the cheapest route to a cooler climate. But so far, doing what may be economically optimal has proved politically infeasible in most economies. Another strategy, promoting renewable power, is a necessary part of solving the climate problem but will not be enough on its own. Developing economies are adding new coal plants on a scale that still dwarfs the contribution of renewable energy, and those plants will continue churning out more and more emissions for decades to come.

Hunger Games

The rich world is causing the famines it claims to be preventing.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 14th August 2012
I don’t blame Mo Farah, Pele and Haile Gebrselassie, who lined up, all hugs and smiles, outside Downing Street for a photocall at the prime minister’s hunger summit(1). Perhaps they were unaware of the way in which they were being used to promote his corporate and paternalistic approach to overseas aid. Perhaps they were also unaware of the crime against humanity over which he presides. Perhaps Cameron himself is unaware of it.
You should by now have heard about the famine developing in the Sahel region of West Africa. Poor harvests and high food prices threaten the lives of some 18 million people. The global price of food is likely to rise still further, as a result of low crop yields in the United States, caused by the worst drought in 50 years. World cereal prices, in response to this disaster, climbed 17% last month(2).
We have been cautious about attributing such events to climate change: perhaps too cautious. A new paper by James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, shows that there has been a sharp increase in the frequency of extremely hot summers(3). Between 1951 and 1980 these events affected between 0.1 and 0.2% of the world’s land surface each year. Now, on average, they affect 10%. Hansen explains that “the odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small”(4). Both the droughts in the Sahel and the US crop failures are likely to be the result of climate change.
But this is not the only sense in which the rich world’s use of fuel is causing the poor to starve. In the United Kingdom, in the rest of the European Union and in the United States, governments have chosen to deploy a cure as bad as the disease. Despite overwhelming evidence of the harm their policy is causing, none of them will change course.
Biofuels are the means by which governments in the rich world avoid hard choices. Rather than raise fuel economy standards as far as technology allows, rather than promoting a shift from driving to public transport, walking and cycling, rather than insisting on better town planning to reduce the need to travel, they have chosen to exchange our wild overconsumption of petroleum for the wild overconsumption of fuel made from crops. No one has to drive less or make a better car: everything remains the same except the source of fuel. The result is a competition between the world’s richest and poorest consumers, a contest between overconsumption and survival. There was never any doubt about which side would win.
I’ve been banging on about this since 2004(5), and everything I warned of then has happened. The US and the European Union have both set targets and created generous financial incentives for the use of biofuels. The results have been a disaster for people and the planet.
Already, 40% of US corn (maize) production is used to feed cars(6). The proportion will rise this year as a result of the smaller harvest. Though the market for biodiesel is largely confined to the European Union, it has already captured seven per cent of the world’s output of vegetable oil(7). The European Commission admits that its target (10% of transport fuels by 2020) will raise world cereal prices by between 3 and 6%(8). Oxfam estimates that with every 1% increase in the price of food, another 16 million people go hungry(9).
By 2021, the OECD says, 14% of the world’s maize and other coarse grains, 16% of its vegetable oil and 34% of its sugarcane will be used to make people in the gas guzzling nations feel better about themselves(10). The demand for biofuel will be met, it reports, partly through an increase in production; partly through a “reduction in human consumption.”(11) The poor will starve so that the rich can drive.
The rich world’s demand for biofuels is already causing a global land grab. ActionAid estimates that European companies have now seized five million hectares of farmland – an area the size of Denmark – in developing countries for industrial biofuel production(12). Small farmers, growing food for themselves and local markets, have been thrown off their land and destituted. Tropical forests, savannahs and grasslands have been cleared to plant what the industry still calls “green fuels”.
When the impacts of land clearance and the use of nitrogen fertilisers are taken into account, biofuels produce more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels do(13,14,15). The UK, which claims that half the biofuel sold here meets its sustainability criteria, solves this problem by excluding the greenhouse gas emissions caused by changes in land use(16). Its sustainability criteria are, as a result, worthless.
Even second generation biofuels, made from crop wastes or wood, are an environmental disaster, either extending the cultivated area or removing the straw and stovers which protect the soil from erosion and keep carbon and nutrients in the ground. The combination of first and second generation biofuels – encouraging farmers to plough up grasslands and to leave the soil bare – and hot summers could create the perfect conditions for a new dust bowl.
Our government knows all this. One of its own studies shows that if the European Union stopped producing biofuels, the amount of vegetable oils it exported to world markets would rise by 20% and the amount of wheat by 33%, reducing world prices(17).
Preparing for the prime minister’s hunger summit on Sunday, the international development department argued that, with a rising population, “the food production system will need to be radically overhauled, not just to produce more food but to produce it sustainably and fairly to ensure that the poorest people have the access to food that they need.”(18) But another government department – transport – boasts on its website that, thanks to its policies, drivers in this country have now used 4.4 billion litres of biofuel(19). Of this 30% was produced from recycled cooking oil. The rest consists of 3 billion litres of refined energy snatched from the mouths of the people that David Cameron claims to be helping.
Some of those to whom the government is now extending its “nutrition interventions” may have been starved by its own policies. In this and other ways, David Cameron, with the unwitting support of various sporting heroes, is offering charity, not justice. And that is no basis for liberating the poor.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Maine Might Solve It's Own Lobster Problems

In the last post I wrote about the risks and economic impact of tons of poor quality Maine lobster being imported to Maritime processing plants. The news has been full of the protests and blockades by Maritime fishermen getting ready for their Fall season. The big catches of poor quality lobster has driven down prices, and fishermen here want a "made in Canada" price that can at least cover their costs.

This is the time of year when lobsters molt and go through their reproductive cycle, and the meat quality deteriorates for a few months.  Other shellfish like mussels go through a similar stretch, and it's a huge challenge to harvesters and processors to keep good quality on the shelves. The best mussels and oysters are in the Fall, but that's long after the summer tourism rush.

Maine lobstermen depend entirely on Maritime processors to buy their catch at this time of the year, and the handful of Maine processors and local Maine politicians are beginning to ask why. Notice in this story the "old reliable" excuse used by U.S. processors that Canadian plants are government subsidized.  There's no question that with the EI rules in place, Maritime fish plants want to provide enough work to help people qualify for benefits, and cheap Maine lobster fills the gap between the end of the Spring season and this week's opening of the Fall season. To that extent Canadian government rules do play a role in a U.S. harvest that's not good for the lobster stock, or it seems Maritime fishermen.

Governor meets with Maine lobster processors

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine could have more jobs and add more value to its lobster industry if it processed more of its catch in-state rather than shipping it to Canada to be processed, Maine lobster processors said Friday.
Gov. Paul LePage met with lobster processors in Augusta on Friday to discuss what can done to increase the volume of lobsters processed in Maine. The meeting was spurred by protests by Canadian lobstermen who blocked truckloads of Maine lobsters from being delivered to processing plants in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
John Hathaway, owner of Shucks Maine Lobster in Richmond, told The Associated Press that Maine processors need more marketing to draw more customers. It makes no sense, he said, for Maine's lobster industry to send tens of millions of pounds of lobsters to Canada each year and have Canadian companies create products that are sold back in the U.S.
"That's what I would call a foolish business model," Hathaway said. "What we need to do is add value and jobs here."
Maine each summer and fall ships millions of pounds of lobsters to Canada, where they're turned into a variety of frozen and meat products that are sold for retail and foodservice markets, mostly in the U.S.
In the past week, groups of lobstermen in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island blockaded several processing plants, demanding that they not process lobster from Maine. The fishermen blame the large volume of Maine lobsters for the low prices they've been offered for their catch when their fishing season begins Monday.
By Wednesday, every lobster processing plant in New Brunswick had shut down operations, New Brunswick fishery officials said. Deliveries of Maine lobster have since resumed after a New Brunswick judge issued a 10-day injunction Thursday preventing fishermen from blockading the plants.
Lobster processing plants in New Brunswick resumed operations Friday, and lobster dealers in Maine said they've resumed shipments to Canada.
After the protests began, LePage said his administration was exploring ways to drive down energy costs and provide incentives to increase the lobster-processing capacity in Maine. Canada has more than two dozen plants, while Maine has only three of any size.
Entering the lobster-processing industry can be a challenge because of high capital costs for equipment, high energy costs and the difficulty in finding enough seasonal workers, said Linda Bean, founder and owner of Linda Bean's Perfect Maine LLC, which has a processing plant in Rockland with 80 seasonal workers.
But the biggest obstacle is that Canadian processors can undercut Maine processors on price because they receive government assistance, she said.
Bean said she'd like to sell her products to large theme parks and cruise lines, but it's hard to match the prices that Canadian companies can offer. She said she'd support having the federal government place on tariff on processed lobster imports from Canada.
"I'm not a protectionist, but we need protection or else we won't be able to sell in volume," she said.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Asking the Right Questions about Lobster

I've been diverted by some summer projects, mostly fun, including golf and going to the beach.  PEI is a very special place in the summer.

Fires in grain fields remind us how hot and dry it is, and of course it's much worse in many other places.  We'll  hear a lot about "yields" in the next few months, something that took me a while to understand.   It's potato growers who sell to the french fry plants that will be especially hard hit. They negotiate a price based on normal harvest yields, and the profit level is already slim.  In a "per pound" payment system, fewer pounds, and smaller potatoes (don't get those quality bonuses that can help the bottom line),  will hurt. For those selling into fresh markets things should be better. The last time there was a drought in 2001, fresh table prices were over 20 cents a pound, three to four times higher than normal. It doesn't mean a big payday because farmers have fewer potatoes to sell, but the higher prices will help, and some farmers with reasonable yields admit  they  never made so much money.  As consumers we may see smaller potatoes allowed in consumer packs, and pay a little more, but compared to cost increases in everything else,  this will hardly be noticed.

Thinking about supply and demand, I can't ignore the challenges faced by lobster fishermen getting ready for what's called the Fall Season. I did a lot of reporting on the lobster industry, and met a lot of smart people who taught me a thing or two that seem very relevant to what's going on now.

We've heard a lot about "soft-shell" lobsters and "shedders" referring to the tons of lobster coming up from Maine to plants in the Maritimes.  Unlike Canadian lobstermen (I explained once why I just can't use the term "fisher"), those in Maine  can fish year-round, with as many as 1200 traps. That compares to 300 or so in the Maritimes, with sharply defined seasons.   Creatures like lobster with hard shells on the outside can only grow by shedding their skin, and growing a new one. It's also the time when female lobsters lay their eggs which sit on the outside shell (they're called berried lobster). Fishermen are supposed to throw them back in the water.  But here's the thing, the soft shelled lobsters that are caught in Maine are of poor quality,  and are then processed here and labelled  a "Product of PEI".  So what we've ended up with is very depressed lobster prices because of the poor quality of the U.S. lobster, and sub-standard product going to the marketplace from PEI. Presumably Maritime processing plants have made some money buying cheap lobster with a high Canadian dollar, but it's hard to see any other winners in this.  Throw in the risk of lobster diseases coming North, with waste water going untreated from plants here back into local waters, and there are even more questions.  Yes there would be less work for plant workers, and Maine lobstermen would lose a traditional market, but biologically, and economically what's going on now doesn't make any sense.

Perhaps the more important question is whether there should be a fall lobster season at all.  It started I'm told because a century ago there weren't the kinds of holding facilities now in use that can keep lobster in suspended animation and in excellent quality for months.  Having a Fall season back then spread out the marketing opportunities over a longer period of time. There were also a lot of farmers who needed to do Spring work, and wanted to fish later in the Summer. None of these things apply any more, it's simply tradition. Lobster scientists insist that this is not the right time to be catching lobster while they go through molting, and their reproductive cycle. I don't know how this question gets some serious consideration, but it should.

One more thing to think about. Ever since the downturn in the economy in 2008 lobster has changed from a luxury food with a high price available at white table cloth restaurants, to a much lower priced commodity. This has helped move lobster into burgeoning Asian markets, but it's turned lobster fishing from a pretty lucrative business, into something very marginal (now fishermen understand what farmers have been going through).  Again our old economic pals "supply and demand" are at play.  We understand demand going down, but it's the supply side that many miss. Like all shellfish, lobsters can reproduce at incredibly high levels, millions of eggs laid every year. It used to be that most of these tiny lobster larvae would be food themselves for groundfish like cod, but with the groundfishery in steep decline, more and more of these lobster larvae are surviving to maturity.  A lobster biologist once told me that while we all celebrate sustained and higher lobster catches, from an ecological point of view it's an indication of an ecosystem totally out of balance. 

It's an extraordinary sight every Spring to see  boats heading out, and another twenty million pounds of  lobster taken out of PEI waters. Talk about a renewable resource. Maybe now with stocks in good shape, and the Spring price at least reasonable,  fishermen and processors can ask some harder and more basic questions. Traditions are good, common sense can be even more important.