Category Archives: Resources

Greed, drought threaten America’s farmland


For generations, immigrants left their homes for a new land, and of homesteading farms on some of the millions of acres of virgin soil.

But now the land is under threat from giant agribusiness corporations, many of them owned by investment bankers, real estate developers, and, more ominously, by the threat of climate change, which is literally squeezing th last drops of water out of once-fertile soils.

While the first threat seeks to end the role of the smallholder, the latter two change the very nature of the land itself.

We come from a long line of farmers. The first Brennemans were political refugees, fleeing religious persecution in Europe in the 1600s in search of farmland in Pennsylvania, a colony founded by a religious dissident to provide a safe haven for other religious dissidents.

We know that small farmers care about their land, developing intimate relationships with each contour, learning which patches of soil bring the highest yields and which need special care, while investment bankers obsess only over the bottom line.

Many farmers agonize over the growing corporate control of their own land in an age when companies genetically alter the crops they plant by retaining ownership of the seeds themselves, barring farmers from doing what farmers have done for millennia — saving seeds from this year’s crop to grow next year’s harvest.

And then there are the patented chemicals made by those same corporations, chemicals needed to grow those same patented crops.

The investment funds move in

Like vultures, investment funds circle America’s wounded businesses and institutions, waiting for the opportunity to swoop in and harvest “troubled assets” everything from apartments and newspapers to — since the crash of 2008 — America’s farmland.

At the University of California, Santa Cruz, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Madeleine Fairbairn has been looking at the change of ownership of America’s farmland, as the university reported last year:

“We’re seeing growing interest in farmland acquisition, and we are seeing new investment vehicles being developed, but we have no idea what it means for small and mid-sized farmers,” said Fairbairn, who received a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study “farmland financialization” in areas of peak agricultural production in California and Illinois.

Until about 2008, financial services companies looked askance at buying farmland, but today, they are snapping it up at an impressive pace: As an example, Fairbairn says TIAA, the leading retirement investor for the academic community, owned no agricultural land before about 2007; today, TIAA controls $8 billion worth of farmland globally, investing on behalf of itself as well as other institutional investors.

“We’re in the beginning stages of what could be a significant shift in land ownership,” said Fairbairn. “Pension funds have enormous resources because they manage money for so many individuals. This has potentially major implications, since access to affordable land is a cornerstone of American agriculture.”

A rural sociologist, Fairbairn has tracked the trend since it first emerged. She has attended agricultural investment conferences where “farmland funds” were pitched to potential investors, and witnessed the development of investment vehicles that cater to the phenomenon, including publicly traded real estate investment trusts (REITs) that first came on the U.S. market in 2013.

“Land ownership is a really important part of agriculture, but one that most people spend very little time thinking about,” said Fairbairn.

California and Illinois represent two poles of U.S. agriculture: California is dominated by high-value specialty crops and “permanent crops” like almonds and wine grapes; land is very expensive; and corporations already are major players. Illinois produces commodity row crops like corn and soybeans, and is home to more small, family-owned farms.

There’s another force at work too, and that’s overseas investors.

Consider, for example, the Saudi royals, who have been scooping up American soil, buying acreage to raise hay to feed the imperial horses.

But the extent of the land grab is much greater, as the Midwest Center for for Investigative Reporting revealed in a 22 June 2017 account:

[B]etween 2004 and 2014, the amount of agricultural land held by foreign investors doubled from 13.7 million acres to 27.3 million acres — an area roughly the size of Tennessee.

While representing only about two percent of total farmland, the value of the foreign-owned U.S. farmland soared from $17.4 billion (in today’s dollars) to $42.7 billion during that same time period, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Most of today’s foreign investment in agricultural land began to increase in 2005, according to the Midwest Center’s analysis.

Of the top foreign investors who own agricultural land, nine bought most of their land between 2004 and 2014, about $8.1 billion worth of farmland, the Midwest Center found.

The final threats: Destruction of the soil itself

Worse still are those threats that destroy the land itself.

Of the two, we’ll consider the less threat first — the destruction of land through development.

We begin with a map, depicting the amount of farmland lost to the bulldozer between 1992 and 2012, as revealed in Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farmland, a new report from the American Farmland Trust [click on the image to enlarge]:

Conversion of agricultural land to urban and low-density residential development between 1992 and 2012

The development of agricultural land is shown in relationship to the low-to-high continuum of productive, versatile, and resilient values for agricultural land. The conversion of agricultural land to urban and low-density residential uses between 1992 and 2012 is shown as high (dark brown-red, > 25% conversion within a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) radius], moderate [light brown-red, 10–25% conversion] and low [tan, 5–10% conversion]. Urban areas are shown in gray.

From the report:

  • Our analysis, the most comprehensive ever undertaken of America’s agricultural lands, shows that nearly twice the area of farmland was lost than was previously known. Additional major findings, include:
  • Between 1992 and 2012, we lost nearly 31 million acres of land. That’s 175 acres an hour, or 3 acres every single minute
  • 11 million of those acres were among the best farmland in the nation—classified as the most productive, most versatile and most resilient land
  • Development disproportionately occurred on agricultural lands, with 62 percent of all development occurring on farmland
  • Expanding urban areas accounted for 59 percent of the loss. Low-density residential development, or the building of houses on one- to 20-acre parcels, accounted for 41 percent

And the temperature’s rising

The final threat up for consideration today is the long-term and destructive impacts of global warming on the soil itself.

As any farmer can attest, soil is more than just inert dirt. Each soil is a complex ecosystem, harboring microbes that process soil minerals, digest dead organic matter, and release carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gasses.

Crops favor specific soil types as well, requiring significant levels of fertilizers when planted in less-favorable soils. A considerable body of science reveals that changing water levels changes the microbial community, and the drier soils become, the fewer species of soil microbe can thrive, resulting in a collapse of soil biodiversity.

And now a new study reveals that drier soils also play a direct role in global warming, as starkly captures in these maps, with the upper maps reflecting the regions average temperature increases between 1965 and 2014 compared. to a 1902-1951 baseline period. The lower maps feature of projection of temperature rises for 2050-2099 compared to a 1951-2000 baseline [click on the image to enlarge]:

More from the University of California, Irvine:

Dry months are getting hotter in large parts of the United States, another sign that human-caused climate change is forcing people to encounter new extremes.

In a study published today in Science Advances  [open access], researchers at the University of California, Irvine report that temperatures during droughts have been rising faster than in average climates in recent decades, and they point to concurrent changes in atmospheric water vapor as a driver of the surge.

“Available soil moisture can remove surface heat through evaporation, but if the land is dry, there is no opportunity to transport it away, which increases the local temperature,” said lead author Felicia Chiang, a UCI graduate student in civil & environmental engineering. “Atmospheric conditions can influence soil, and we argue that they’re shaping the temperatures we experience during droughts.”

UCI’s research team analyzed observed temperature and precipitation data from the early and late 20th century and discovered that regions undergoing droughts warmed more than four times faster than areas in the southern and northeastern United States with average weather conditions. In addition, climate models showed a significant warming shift in Southern states between the late 20th century and early 21st century.

These changes point to a greater number of droughts and heat waves co-occurring. This can lead to such calamities as wildfires and loss of crop yields. Widespread conflagrations, spurred on by abnormally high summer temperatures, are currently burning around the world, including in parts of California, Scandinavia and Greece.

“Heat waves and droughts have significant impacts on their own, but when they occur simultaneously, their negative effects are greatly compounded,” said co-author Amir AghaKouchak, UCI associate professor of civil & environmental engineering and Earth system science. “Both phenomena, which are intensifying due to climate warming, are expected to have increasingly harmful consequences for agriculture, infrastructure and human health.”

He suggested that society has a responsibility to respond to the challenges presented by this new climate reality.

“The observed escalation in the number and intensity of wildfires is likely caused by the increase in frequency of hot droughts,” AghaKouchak said. “We need to bolster our resiliency against these threats to protect our population health, food supply and critical infrastructure.”

This study was partially supported by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

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Mapping America, the very rich, unhappy bully


We love Worldmapper, a website run by some British cartographers who look at the world in very interesting ways.

Whilst exploring their extensive collection of maps, we came across three that reveal some very interesting connections, revealing a deeply troublesome portrait of the country Donald Trump wants to “make great again.”

In fact, the nation is already great, in a deeply and very troubling way.

First, it’s the world leader, as revealed in this graphic, in which the nations of the globe are resized according to they number of their billionaire inhabitants, with America leading the way:

Billionaires 2018

“Part of the beauty of me is that I am very rich.”

— Donald Trump in ABC TV’s ‘Good Morning America’ [2011]

 In 2018, “Forbes found a record 2,208 billionaires, collectively worth $9.1 trillion. Among them are 259 newcomers who made their fortunes in everything from wedding dresses to children’s toys to electric cars.” [Quoted from the Forbes World’s Billionaires 2018 Ranking]

Another graphic shows another field another field of American greatness, with each nation resized according spending on another field dominated by Old Gory:

Military Spending 2017

The biggest spender – by far- are the United States, followed by China, Saudi Arabia, India, France and Russia. The United States spent more than double than China on military expenses. The United Kingdom, Japan, Germany and South Korea complete the top 10 spenders. Six of the top spending countries are also nuclear powers.

Some countries have no military, thus no military spending, like Iceland or Costa Rica. Iceland is a member of NATO nonetheless and contributes to NATO operations with both financial contributions and civil personnel. How much of their GDP NATO members are spending on military has always caused discussions within the alliance.

Finally, another map resizes nations according to population,shaded according to their relative happiness as reported in the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index [HPI]:

The Happy Planet Index

This map shows the results of the most recent Happy Planet Index 2016 report from the perspective of people. The gridded population cartogram, showing world resized according to the number of people living in each area, combined with the national HPI score.

The indicators that are used for calculating the HPI score cover life-satisfaction, life expectancy, inequality of outcomes and the ecological footprint. As argued in the report, “GDP growth on its own does not mean a better life for everyone, particularly in countries that are already wealthy. It does not reflect inequalities in material conditions between people in a country.” This explains, why consumption patterns are seen as more important for well-being than production. It also acknowledges that inequalities in well-being and life expectancy are important factors in the overall happiness of the population in a country.

When taking these notions into account, the rich industrialised countries score much worse in achieving sustainable well-being for all. Of the 140 countries included in the HPI, Luxembourg is the most extreme example for a wealthy nation scoring very badly: The country does well on life expectancy and well-being, and also has low inequality, but sustains this lifestyle with the largest ecological footprint per capita of any country in the world. It would require more than nine planets to sustain this way of life if every person on Earth would live the same way, showing that the standard of living comes at a high cost to the environment.

Chart of the day: How Americans use the land


From Bloomberg, a look at how the nation uses it’s land, with each color representing the total of land occupied by the accompany usage [click on the image to enlarge]:

Map of the day: Western Hemisphere happiness


From Views of the World, the always informative blog of British geographer Benjamin Henning, a look at how the nations of the Western Hemisphere fare on the Happy Planet Index [click on the image to enlarge]:

From the blog post, where you can find the full map, which is based on a remapping of the world to show the nations resized to match their relative populations:

March, 20th is the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness, recognising ‘the importance of happiness in the lives of people around the world’. Bhutan is credited as the first country to have implemented the concept of ‘Gross National Happiness’ as an official measure for the state of a nation, introduced in 1972. After the global financial crash in 2008, ideas about giving the ‘spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of [people] and natural environment’ more prominence over mere economic development are reflected more and more in international efforts towards a sustainable future.

The Happy Planet Index (HPI), developed by the New Economics Foundation, takes a rather radical approach on this issue. It aims to measure well-being and happiness by taking a universal and long-term approach to understanding, how efficiently people in a country are using their environmental resources to live long and happy lives.

This cartogram maps the results of the 2016 Happy Planet Index from the perspective of people. The gridded population cartogram shows the world resized according to the number of people living in each area, combined with the national HPI score:

The indicators that are used for calculating the HPI score cover life-satisfaction, life expectancy, inequality of outcomes and the ecological footprint. As argued in the report, ‘GDP growth on its own does not mean a better life for everyone, particularly in countries that are already wealthy. It does not reflect inequalities in material conditions between people in a country.’ This explains why consumption patterns are seen as more important for well-being than production. It also acknowledges that inequalities in well-being and life expectancy are important factors in the overall happiness of the population in a country.

When taking these notions into account, the rich industrialised countries score much worse in achieving sustainable well-being for all. Of the 140 countries included in the HPI, Luxembourg is the most extreme example for a wealthy nation scoring very badly – it does well on life expectancy and well-being, and also has low inequality, but sustains this lifestyle with the largest ecological footprint per capita of any country in the world. It would require more than nine planets to sustain this way of life if every person on Earth lived the same way, showing that the standard of living comes at a high cost to the environment.

Among the positive stories is Costa Rica, which is also highlighted on the map. The country has persistently scored highest in all HPI releases (the 2016 edition is the third, after 2009 and 2012). More of a surprise might be the high score for Mexico (second), which is credited to massive efforts at improving health and environmental sustainability. Despite challenges with tackling inequality, well-being is perceived higher than in the wealthier northern neighbour, the United States. Quite a few Central and South American nations, as well as some Asian and Pacific countries do better than many wealthy nations. However, the African continent shows that at the bottom end extreme poverty can be a limiting factor in achieving sustainable well-being.

Suit: ‘Ghosts’ wrote Monsanto Roundup™ research


Explosive allegations rising from a California lawsuit charge that Big Agra corporate giant Monsanto used ghost writers to created research the company used to win federal approval of  glyphosate, the weed-killer in Monsanto’s market-leading Roundup™ herbicide.

With the EPA poised for massive cuts under the new administration, the litigation reveals problems calling for stronger, rather than weaker, enforcement powers for the agency created by Republican Richard M. Nixon.

The disclosure comes just as a federal court upheld a law mandating their product carry a cancer warning.

From teleSUR English:

Agrochemical giant Monsanto used ghostwriters on scientific reports to cover up the risk of cancer from its flagship weedkiller, plaintiffs in a case in a U.S. Federal Court in San Francisco have claimed in a lawsuit.

Lawyers suing Monsanto on behalf of farmers and others in the mass litigation presented documents to the court claiming that the company had failed to warn the public that exposure to its most popular weedkiller, Roundup, was known to cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer. Roundup is the most-used weed killer in history.

Employes at the company were accused of writing reports that were used to determine if one of the key ingredients in Roundup, glyphosate, was not carcinogenic. The company’s toxicology manager is accused of ghostwriting sections of a scientific report in 2013 under the names of other scientists and another manager was seen to ghostwrite sections of another report from 2000.

On the back of the false reports, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deemed that Roundup posed no cancer risk. The company has denied that it carried out such activities and says that the claims the allegations are based on “cherry-pick” from one email.

In the email in question, an executive from the company said that ghostwriters could help cut down on costs and researchers “would just edit & sign their names so to speak.”

While court filings said that the EPA “may be unaware of Monsanto’s deceptive authorship practice,” former deputy director of the EPA, Jess Rowland, was accused of colluding with Monsanto to bury the real scientific research on glyphosate and its links to cancer.

Citing an email from a Monsanto employee, Roland reportedly said, “If I can kill this (the study) I should get a medal.”  Rowland has been the central figure in more than 20 lawsuits in the U.S.

In a separate lawsuit, a district court ruled that California could classify glyphosate as a cancer risk. The World Health Organization had previously upgraded glyphosate as a carcinogen.

Global warming linked to massive coral reef dieoffs


Donald Trump and his crew of wreckers may believe climate change is a hoax, but nearly all of country’s scientists disagree huuugely.

So, too, does the American public, which is growing increasingly worried about what lies ahead, as new polling from Gallup reveals:

Yet mroof of the power of global warming to devastate vast ecosystems comes from new research from the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies:

Coral researchers are remobilising to conduct aerial and underwater surveys along the Great Barrier Reef and elsewhere in Australia as coral bleaching reappears for the second year in a row. The decision coincides with the release today of a study [$32 to read] in the prestigious journal Nature warning the Reef’s resilience is rapidly waning.

Scientists and Reef managers from ten research institutions across Australia, representing the National Coral Bleaching Taskforce, have returned to the Reef only one year after scorching temperatures caused the worst coral bleaching event on record in 2016. Teams will spend the next few weeks in the air and underwater measuring the extent of the damage from this summer compared to last.

“We’re hoping that the next 2-3 weeks will cool off quickly, and this year’s bleaching won’t be anything like last year. The severity of the 2016 bleaching was off the chart,” explains lead author and Taskforce convener, Prof. Terry Hughes (ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies). “It was the third major bleaching to affect the Great Barrier Reef, following earlier heatwaves in 1998 and 2002. Now we’re gearing up to study a potential number four.”

Dead staghorn coral killed by bleaching on the northern Great Barrier Reef, November 2016. Credit: Greg Torda, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

“We have now assessed whether past exposure to bleaching in 1998 and 2002 made reefs any more tolerant in 2016. Sadly, we found no evidence that past bleaching makes the corals any tougher.”

While protecting reefs from fishing, and improving water quality is likely to help bleached reefs recover in the longer term, the study also revealed that it made no difference to the amount of bleaching during the extreme heatwave of 2016.

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Charts of the day: Latin American land inequality


Two significant graphics from Unearthed: land, power and inequality in Latin America, a major study of land distribution in Latin America, reveal the gross inequalities of land distribution in the Americas.

First, a look at agricultural land tenure rates, featuring the percentage of farms in each country owned by the top one percent of landowners:

More from the report:

Latin America is the world’s most unequal region in terms of land distribution. The Gini coefficient for land—an indicator of between 0 and 1, where 1 represents the maximum inequality—is 0.79 for the region as a whole, 0.85 in South America and 0.75 in Central America. These figures indicate much higher levels of land concentration than in Europe (0.57), Africa (0.56) or Asia (0.55).

According to this indicator, Paraguay (with a Gini coefficient of 0.93) is the country where land is most unequally distributed, followed by Chile (0.91) and Venezuela (0.88). At the other end of
the spectrum is Costa Rica (0.67), which has the most equitable land distribution in the region. Most Latin American countries have extremely high levels of concentration with Gini coeffi-
cients above 0.80, while the ratio is over 0.90 in Chile and Paraguay.

Compared with the distribution of income—for which Latin America is also the most unequal region in the world—land distribution is even more inequitable. The regional Gini coefficient for income is 0.48 compared with 0.79 for land, and is higher than in Sub-Saharan Africa (0.43), North America (0.37) or the East Asia-Pacific region (0.37).

And, next, a look at what crops are planted on those vast latifundias:

Note particularly the vast acreage devoted to soybeans.

The great majority of those acres are planted with Monsanto’s genetically modified soybeans, according to this September report from Reuters:

South American farmers are expected to sow 57 percent more area with Monsanto Co’s second-generation, genetically modified soybean seed Intacta RR2 Pro in the new planting season, a company executive said.

Intacta, which tolerates the herbicide glyphosate and resists caterpillars, was planted on 14 million hectares in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay in 2015/2016.

Farmers are expected to plant 18 million to 22 million hectares this season, Maria Luiza Nachreiner, head of South American soy operations, said in an interview before Monsanto announced it would accept a $66 billion takeover bid from rival Bayer.

“We have a positive outlook this crop,” Nachreiner said.

Intacta will account for 31 percent to 38 percent of the planted area in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, up from 24 percent this season, she noted.

Monsanto does not release specific numbers about the area planted with its seeds in Brazil, the world’s largest soybean exporter. For years, its Roundup Ready Soybeans dominated the regional GMO seed market, peaking in 2013/14 with 84 percent of Brazil’s soybean area, according to data from local consultant Celeres.

To maintain those crops, farmers are also basically forced to use Monsanto weed-killers, most notably glyphosate, the main chemical ingredient in the company’s Roundup,.

Roundup has been linked with a growing number of human health problems, but weeds have been growing tolerant, forcing the company to create new blends featuring even more toxic chemicals, including 2,4-D, one of two chemicals used in the toxic Agent Orange blend sprayed over much of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, resulting in a growing number of severe infant deformities.