Category Archives: Agriculture

Chart of the day III: Animal ag greenhouse gases

From the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, which estimates that our hunger for meat produces 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases:

Tackling Climate Change through Livestock: A global assessment o

Map of the day: Land cover in the United States


From the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Land Cover Database, and here’s the key to all those colors:


Map of the day: Health of the planet’s vegetation

From the government’s National Integrated Global Drought Information System, with red being worst and blue best:


Monsanto buys Bayer; Big Agra consolidates

In a move that should chill the hearts of farmers across the globe, the two leading manufacturers of pesticides and herbicides, as well as dozens of GMO crops, are merging, with German-based Bayer taking over the U.S. giant Monsanto.

The takeover is the largest corporate consolidation of the year, and is certain to face critical scrutiny from governments and NGOs.

From Deutsche Welle:

After four months of public negotiations, US seed and weedkiller maker Monsanto agreed on Wednesday to be bought by German drug and farm chemical company Bayer.

The $128-a-share deal, up from Bayer’s previous offer of $127.50 a share, has emerged as the signature deal in a consolidation race that has roiled the agribusiness sector in recent years, due to shifting weather patterns, intense competition in grain exports and a souring global farm economy.

“Bayer’s competitors are merging, so not doing this deal would mean having a competitive disadvantage,” said fund manager Markus Manns of Union Investment, one of Bayer’s top 12 investors.

Grain prices are hovering near their lowest levels in years amid a global supply glut, and farm incomes have plunged.

“The combination with Monsanto represents the kind of revolutionary approach to agriculture that will be needed to sustainably feed the world,” Bayer chief executive Werner Baumann told investors in a conference call.

As Brad Plummer notes in a critical commentary for Vox:

That would put the new firm in a commanding position vis-à-vis our food supply. Which is why European Union regulators and the US Department of Justice are likely to scrutinize this deal more closely than usual, to make sure it doesn’t create an all-consuming monopoly that can crank up prices on farmers and shoppers. The deal comes amid a blurry rush of agribusiness consolidation in recent months, with ChemChina-Syngenta and DuPont-Dow Chemical forming their own multibillion-dollar Voltrons.

Some onlookers are fretting that the reduced competition could shrivel up innovation, leading to slower improvements in crop yields. Others worry that these new agricultural giants may have outsize political power. “They’ll have more ability to lobby governments,” says Phil Howard of Michigan State University, who studies consolidation in the food industry. “They’ll have a lot more power to shape policies that benefit themselves at the expense of consumers and farmers.”

It’s a big story, and not just because Monsanto is such a famous (or infamous, if you prefer) brand. The consolidation of the world’s seed, chemical, and fertilizer industries over the past two decades has been astonishing, with potentially large ripple effects for farms and food systems all over the globe.

Back in 1994, the world’s four biggest seed companies controlled just 21 percent of the market. But in the years since, as crop biotechology advanced, companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, and Dupont went on a feeding frenzy, buying up smaller companies and their patents. Today, the top four seed companies and top four agrochemical firms command more than half their respective markets.

The merged corporate giant will exercise even more control of the political and regulatory processes of nations across the globe, something that should worry all of us.

The Great British Bee Pesticidal Massacre

A sad story, and ominous, via Quartz:

Since around 2002, farmers in the English countryside have been using neonic insecticides to protect their abundant oilseed crops spanning 8.2 million hectares. Now, scientists are linking the chemicals, also called neonicotinoids, to the death of half of the wild bee population in the country, according to a new study published in Nature Communications [open access].

Many bee species forage on the bright yellow oilseed crops that grow in the UK. The seeds for these crops are coated with neonicotinoids upon planting. Then, the chemical systematically expresses itself in all cells of the growing plant. Bees that feed on the plant ingest the chemical through the pollen or nectar.

Researchers studied 62 species of wild bees across England from 1994 to 2011. Over the last nine years, the decline in population size was three times worse among species that regularly fed on oilseed plants compared to others that forage on different floral resources, the study found. Five species showed declines of 20% or more, with the worst-hit species experiencing a 30% drop in its population.

In Europe, 9.2% of the continent’s almost 2,000 bee species are facing extinction, according to one assessment. But until now, it’s been hard to quantify how seriously chemicals have impacted bees. “Pesticides and beekeeping have been butting heads for 50-plus years,” David R. Tarpy, a professor at North Carolina State University’s department of entomology, told Quartz.“[Pesticides are] clearly part of the equation, but we don’t know the relative magnitude.” Habitat loss and mites also have a hand in the declining bee populations but the latest findings is hard to ignore. Especially since neonic pesticides may also harm birds, butterflies, and water-borne invertebrates, according to Mother Jones.

Monsanto’s GMO cotton loses luster in India

The American agricultural giant, which has bet its future on crops genetically engineered to resist pests and herbicides, is suffering a major setback in the world’s second most populous land.

Farmers resent the company in part because they are no longer able to save seeds at the end of the harvest to plant the following year, but instead must honor the company’s patents and buy new every year, inflicting yet more economic hardship on hard-pressed smallholders.

But the main reason India’s farmers no longer buy the proprietary seeds is that they simply don’t work as promised.

From New Europe:

India is dumping Monsanto’s genetically modified Bt cotton in favor of “desi”, an indigenous variety, which comes at half the cost and farmers are allowed to save seed to plant next year.

Sales of the seed are down by 15% year on year, worth $75 million according to Reuters.

Monsanto stands losing the world’s biggest cotton producer and second largest exporter of the fiber. While Monsanto’s Genetically Engineered cotton variety remains dominant, the government is promoting indigenous varieties. Monsanto may have lost as much as 5% to indigenous varieties this year alone.

Additional losses come from Indian farmers dumping the water-intensive cotton in favour of other crops, like pulses and lentils; there has been a 10% drop in cotton production year-on-year.

The main competitive advantage of the Monsanto seed is resistance to pest such as the bollworm, but not to the whitefly, especially common in India during dry seasons. Local varieties appear more resistant to whitefly, while Monsanto’s resistance to bollworm is declining.

California groundwater supplies still in danger

 Amount of rain and snow (as water equivalent) for the state of California over December – March each year since 1948, shown as the departure from the 1981-2010 average (dark gray bars; scale on left). The December – February Niño3.4 Index (Oceanic Niño Index) is shown in overlay (scale on right). Pink bars = El Niño conditions, blue bars = La Niña, light gray = neutral. Data from NOAA Climate Divisions data, graph by

Amount of rain and snow [as water equivalent] for the state of California over December – March each year since 1948, shown as the departure from the 1981-2010 average [dark gray bars; scale on left]. The December – February Niño3.4 Index [Oceanic Niño Index] is shown in overlay [scale on right]. Pink bars = El Niño conditions, blue bars = La Niña, light gray = neutral. Data from NOAA Climate Divisions data, graph by

While rains have brought some relief to a drought-stricken California, the fact remains that the state’s groundwater supplies have plunged and last winter’s modest rains and snow have brought no relief.

That’s seriously bad news for the state’s Central Valley, the source of many of the foods gracing America’s tables.

And the odds are that this winter will bring a return of La Niña conditions, meaning lower than average precipitation and an intensification of the drought.

From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

This past winter, most water agencies across California were counting on the strong El Niño to produce surplus water, helping to increase groundwater and make up for what’s been pumped out due to the severe drought.  Unfortunately, precipitation during the winter of 2015-16 was barely above the long-term average in the state, despite stormy weather in the northern part of California.

Recent patterns in groundwater

The drought was somewhat alleviated in Northern California, thanks to these rains. However, new evidence suggests that the groundwater level in California’s Central Valley will continue to decline this year. We examined about 55 years of data from nearly 500 wells, and also used estimated water storage from Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites.

Historically, drought and reduced groundwater storage occurred almost hand-in-hand in the Central Valley. When drought conditions ended, groundwater storage would normally rebound – this is the relationship we see in records from about 1960 – 2000.  But our recent study found that this relationship has changed over the last decade and a half.

In the data from the past fifteen years or so, scientists found that groundwater storage continued to decline for a full year after drought has ended.  So, whereas previously when drought ended, groundwater resources would begin to recover, now groundwater continues to decline, even through a wet period. It will take more research to understand exactly why this is happening, but it’s possible that the recent tendency toward more intense, longer-lasting droughts in this region has changed the way rainfall and snowmelt are taken up by the soil and recharge groundwater.

California’s groundwater has been used to supplement the water supply for households, agriculture, and industry for many years, and there’s been a downward trend in groundwater storage since at least the middle of the 20th century. However, this trend doesn’t explain the recent change in the effect of drought on groundwater supply.

The effect of ENSO

It’s well known that precipitation in California is somewhat tied to the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Roughly speaking, El Niño tends to bring rain, and La Niña tends to withhold it. [Although this past winter is an excellent example of how what’s expected doesn’t always happen.]

There’s more, after the jump. . . Continue reading