Saturday, September 30, 2006

Spinachgate, Chapter 6...

Great article about the spinach problem and food safety:
Critics decry modern outbreaks of foodborne illness as the alleged consequence of "factory farming." However, the demise of small family farms over the past century has coincided with a substantial reduction in foodborne illnesses. In 1900, 30 million farmers (nearly 42 percent of the country's population) lived on 5.7 million farms. By 2002, only 1.9 million (less than 1 percent of the population) Americans described farming as their primary occupation and they worked on 2.1 million farms, half of which are under 100 acres in size. Also during the 20th century, the rise of national and regional grocery chains and industrial food processors saw dramatic improvements in overall food safety. Such companies had a lot more to lose if urban dwelling consumers believed that the companies were poisoning them. Natural Selection Foods is learning this lesson now. And it must be said that more centralized food production and distribution also enabled more effective regulatory oversight. [More]
Ron Bailey, the author sees it much the way I do. In a recent Top Producer column I came out of the closet as an industrial farmer. One reason I have outgrown my fear of being seen as non-agrarian is the myth that somehow small farms were more "wholesome".

Such attributes accrue to the actions of the operator - not the techniques used in food production. And if we use real epidemiological evidence, as pointed out above, industrial is "wholesomer".

Don't get me wrong - most large scale food production struggles to match the taste and variety of home-grown. But fair is fair - it's certainly safer.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Let's hear it for energy dependence...

I have blogged before about how we can't "replace Mideast oil with ethanol". We can replace oil with ethanol, to be sure, but there is no way to tell which supplier will be reduced. In fact, the most likely provider would be our own expensive domestic production.

But it could be that energy independence is not all what it's cracked up to be anyway.
Thus whatever other arguments there might be for boosting domestic oil production, national security is not one of them. While this might seem counter-intuitive, it is really part of the overall logic of trade: The mutual dependence that trade breeds fosters peace because it gives hostile trading partners an incentive to refrain from acting on their hostility. Energy independence would weaken that incentive. [More]
I am reminded of American agriculture's relationship with China as one of our largest export markets. Given the angst of that partnership, who is really the controller? We want to sell beans to China, and when we don't bad things happen to our soybean industry. Do we want other nations working to become grain or meat independent?

Free trade is good for both sides - even oil. Characterizing trade as dependency doesn't help us appreciate the benefits.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Me not understand...

Too much testosterone kills brain cells. I know that means something but I just can't figure out what...
It's like owning a pit bull...

Dennis Avery from the Hudson Institute has been a favorite on the ag lecture circuit as "one of our" science guys. The problem, however with science guys is their commitment to science first, and then (in this case) a political philosophy (free market capitalism), and then issues like ethanol.

Now Avery has written a new paper on ethanol that corn farmers should read, if only because it seems to be part of a nascent ethanol backlash. At the very least, depending on whether "pocketbook conservatives" can gain any traction this fall, we may be growing ethanol under more competitive economics (no blender tax credit) and possibly lower direct subsidies simply because the food vs. fuel argument begins to balance the energy argument. I don't think this is a problem - economics are not our enemy.
There are significant trade-offs, however, involved in the massive expansion of the production of corn and
other crops for fuel. Chief among these would be a shift of major amounts of the world’s food supply to fuel
use when significant elements of the human population remains ill-fed. Even without ethanol, the world is facing a clash between food and forests. Food and feed demands on farmlands will more than double by 2050. Unfortunately, the American public does not yet understand the massive land requirements of U.S. corn ethanol nor the unique conditions that have allowed sugar cane ethanol to make a modest energy contribution in Brazil.
The United States might well have to clear an additional 50 million acres of forest—or more—to produce
economically significant amounts of liquid transport fuels. Despite the legend of past U.S farm surpluses, the only large reservoir of underused cropland in America is about 30 million acres of land—too dry for corn— enrolled in the Conservation Reserve. Ethanol mandates may force the local loss of many wildlife species, and perhaps trigger some species extinctions. Soil erosion will increase radically as large quantities of low-quality land are put into fuel crops on steep slopes and in drought-prone regions.
But wait - there's more:
If the U.S. wants to divorce its energy sources from the unstable Middle
East, it would make more sense to suspend the 54-cent-per-gallon import
tariff on ethanol and buy its ethanol from Brazil. The ethanol import
strategy is further supported by the fact that Brazil is the only country in
the world with lots of good, underused cropland. Brazilian Agriculture
Minister Luiz Fernando Furlan claims that the country could costeffectively
grow sugar cane on 225 million acres of land. 44 Only its
southern regions are too cool for the cane.
While ethanol may not be peaking, it is naive to assume a change of this magnitude will not generate some resistance - and not just from our favorite bogeyman: Big Oil. Mandated markets are tough to portray as anything but a government guarantee to make money regardless of the economics. Huge investment returns will not escape envious notice.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

What's next, chinch bugs?

You'll never guess who I slept with last night!

No, not Ann Coulter.

[Sheesh - no more guesses for you.]

The answer is: bedbugs. Got the bites to prove it.

Yup, apparently they are back - and they are not just in the sleazy places like 4 Seasons, either.

A local bedbug expert is Brian Cabrera, assistant professor of entomology at the University of Florida's Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center. ''They are definitely back,'' he says.

``Whereas before, pest control companies would see two cases in a year, they're now seeing 20, 50, 75 cases a year. Definitely an increase, but it won't constitute an epidemic.''

Cindy Mannes, vice president for public affairs with the National Pest Management Association, says between 2000 and 2006, pest control companies have seen a 71 percent increase in the number of calls about bedbugs, some receiving as many as 30 or 40 a week. And some companies, she says, are setting up bedbug divisions.

[Boy, that would be a coveted department head position! "Honey, I'm in charge of bedbugs now."]

The experts added that they don't know why the bedbugs are swarming into New York City, but say that increased international travel, a recent ban on powerful pesticides such as DDT that had all but eliminated them, and the market in used furniture have all been factors.

It seems that bedbugs, like mobsters involved in a turf war, go to the mattresses. The International Sleep Products Association, the trade association for mattress manufacturers, told the Times that it supports a ban on the sale of reconditioned mattresses. "The filth from the used mattress that lies just beneath the new fabric cover of a reconditioned product can be astounding,” said Ryan Trainer, a lawyer for the association. [More]

Well, any way. Sleep tight...
Keep looking up...

Great collection of weird cloud photos

More here.

[via Neatorama]
Some foodies will never be happy...

Not long ago there began a complaint about overfishing certain species. These ourcries definitely had merit, but when aquaculture began to fill the gap, suddenly that wasn't a good idea either.

Now we have an agricultural answer to the threat of depleting the parent species of caviar production - the sturgeon.
In Bulgaria, Canada, China, Israel and the middle of a desert in Abu Dhabi, fledgling caviar farmers are breaking ground on new production facilities. Marky's, a caviar distributor in Florida, is importing and breeding beluga, the finest sturgeon species, with a goal of having 500,000 fish by 2009.
If estimates are to be believed - and producers tend to be optimistic - farmed caviar production will almost double, from about 64 tons in 2005 to 125 tons in 2010. [More]
My guess is that somehow, some way this ingenious idea won't sit well either.

Look - these pristine food faddists have every right to argue for just-so food supplies.
Where I differ with them is a supporting a free market for people to express their choices.

Besides - have you ever tasted caviar? Hoo-boy, no wonder they drink a lot of vodka first.
One less thing to worry about...

Like many of you I often wake up at night worrying about our Sun going supernova and in the process wiping out all intelligent life on earth, as well as most professional football players. Well, you can imagine my relief when this report came out:
Even so, explaining supernovae is still a major challenge for astrophysicists. Computer simulations have had trouble reproducing the explosions, let alone their detailed properties. It is reassuringly hard to get stars to explode. They regulate themselves, remaining very stable for millions or billions of years. Even dead or dying stars have mechanisms causing them to peter out rather than blowing up. Figuring out how these mechanisms are overcome has taken multidimensional simulations that push computers to, and beyond, their limits. Only very recently has the situation improved. [More]

A supernova is truly "going out in a blaze of glory". They are spectacular astronomical sights as well, if you have a small telescope or a giant one in space.

Great - now I'm concerned about flesh-eating bacteria...

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The magic of $60 oil...

As predictions for alternative fuels glow brightly on the horizon, it is useful to scan the footnotes of the forecasts. Just as farmers have been told corn (or beans or whatever) have "reached a new plateau" before, much of our planning for the future has been based on a world where oil remains stubbornly expensive.

While it can be argued this is the most conservative case, it may be that an assumption of expensive oil is just the opposite. Many alternative fuel ideas collapse when cheap petroleum becomes available. Note the comments on this idea:

Researchers at UC Riverside have unveiled a new process that can convert sewer sludge, wood, agricultural waste, plain old trash or even plastics into diesel oil for $1.00 a gallon. Viresco Energy, will pay $15 million for a pilot plant to be built in the next two years. [More]

If alternative fuels are successful in significantly reducing oil demand, what would that mean to oil-producing countries? Now it starts to get interesting:

It is possible that we see well over a 20% reduction in oil consumption by 2020 due to a combination of alternative energy production, carbon taxes, political considerations, oil peaking and (of course) greater use efficiency. 50% seems outrageously high, but I'm not willing to say that's impossible; the situation we're in now, with the overlap of climate crisis, energy security concerns, and markets looking for new sources of innovation seems ripe for a "tipping point" transition. With a big chunk of oil revenues gone, the nations with economies built entirely upon petroleum exports would find themselves in serious economic and political straits.

This is not hard to predict; in fact, it's almost a certainty (few of the major oil exporting countries have demonstrated a real aptitude for managing rapid change). The OPEC ministers would see this as readily as we do. This is a tremendous threat to their well-being. Some of the oil exporting nations will become more accommodationist in order to secure support from richer countries (although it strikes me as likely they'll turn to China before they turn to the US or Europe). But some will spiral apart, using the increasingly-common tools of global disruption to weaken neighbors and trip up the West. [More]

Two points:

  1. We are not running out of oil - we're just tired of paying so much for it.
  2. As we are successful with other energy sources, the returns for them will diminish.
The big factors are the BRISC [Brazil, Russia, India, South Korea, China] nations. (Note the snappy new acronym - I think I saw it in the Financial Times). Most forecasters are counting on their demand to soak up all the oil we don't use - and more. That seems reasonable, but so much money is being bet on these assumptions that a small hiccup in the balance of supply and demand could cause enormous energy price swings.

This will not be an easy road for farmer-energy producers. Even with the goverment guarantee of a market, ethanol prices could fluxuate wildly. Nor will the handsome profits of ethanol producers in recent months go unnoticed by investors who have increasing few attractive places to put their money.

The fuel future for agriculture will have to be earned, not won.

[Thanks, Tim]
Global warming and a man of science and integrity...

As some of you know, I have long been a fan of Ron Bailey, chief science correspondent for Reason magazine. Reason is a libertarian publication, and I find the libertarian approach to many issues both logical and fair.

A while back, he changed his mind about man-assisted global warming. In fact, his change of heart triggered my own. Nonetheless, many saw all manner of motive behind his new stance. Bailey has written a typically straightforward and eloquent answer to those critics and in the process shown us , I believe how people of conscience and science confront a challenge.

So if corporate shilling doesn't explain my stubborn skepticism about global warming, what does? Looking back over my reporting on the issue, I would argue the consistent theme is my reliance on temperature datasets as a way to either validate or invalidate the projections of computer climate models. Up until the last year or so, the satellite data and weather balloon data pointed to relatively modest global warming much below the trends predicted by most climate models. If those trends were correct then there was no imminent "planetary emergency." When the trends were shown to be incorrect last year, I "converted" into a global warmer. In the past year, a great deal of new evidence-reductions in arctic ice cover, growing Siberian lakes and so forth--has also tended to confirm the conclusion in my mind that man-made global warming may become a problem. Because of this accumulating evidence I am much less certain than Christy and Spencer are that the future warming is unlikely to be a significant problem.

And then there is also the matter of my intellectual commitments. We all have them. Since I work for a self-described libertarian magazine that should indicate to even the dimmest reader that I tend to have a healthy skepticism of government "solutions" to problems, including government solutions to environmental problems. I have long argued that the evidence shows that most environmental problems occur in open access commons-that is, people pollute air, rivers, overfish, cut rainforests, and so forth because no one owns them and therefore no one has an interest in protecting them. One can solve environmental problems caused by open access situations by either privatizing the commons or regulating it. It will not surprise anyone that I generally favor privatization. That's because I believe that the overwhelming balance of the evidence shows that centralized top-down regulation tends to be costly, slow, often ineffective, and highly politicized. As a skeptic of government action, I had hoped that the scientific evidence would lead to the conclusion that global warming would not be much of a problem, so that humanity could avoid the messy and highly politicized process of deciding what to do about it. Unhappily, I now believe that balance of evidence shows that global warming could well be a significant problem. Since it doesn't seem pertinent to the purpose of this column, I will leave the policy discussion of how to handle man-made climate change to another time. [More]

The essay is more than worth reading, it is uplifting.

I would pay real money to be able to write (and think) like him.

'Splain this to me one more time...

Offered for your consideration:
  1. Item: Susan Schwab, US Trade Representative suggest the US might be willing to make deeper cuts in ag subsidies.
  2. Item: House Speaker Hastert and Majority Leader Bohner demand budget offsets for any emergency ag aid.
  3. Item: USDA Secretary Johanns endlessly repeats no farm bill extension and fairer (wider) distribution of loot are must have provisions of the next farm bill.
Now tell me again why all those "farm states" are colored red.

If they go Republican again, doesn't that suggest a majority of farmers, like your humble blogger, are ready for America's Peter Pan farmers to grow up and stand on their own two feet?

I think some will read it that way.

I hope.

Why Toyota is kicking butt...

I have written before about pen spinning, but behold some masters do their stuff. Crafty ol' Japanese.

Imagine being able to do this in the middle of an endless FB board meeting.
Free phone calls - anywhere...

Give this a try. Then you will have mastered VOIP.

Works with cell phones too.

[Thanks, Jack]
Goliath of the moment...

Who doesn't hate the big guy? It's so American to root for the team from Hickory. So when Smithfield Farms, the largest US pork producer announced they were buying #2 Premium Standard the reactions were almost scripted.
Any American history of pork — the meat, that is — shows a steady concentration of more and more hogs in the hands of fewer and fewer producers. That is what modern agricultural “efficiency” looks like. It’s good for the bottom line of the big industrial players, but bad for farmers, hogs, the environment and, ultimately, consumers. That history took another step in the wrong direction when Smithfield Foods — the biggest pork packer — agreed to buy the second biggest pork packer, Premium Standard Farms. [More]
The pork industry is highly concentrated. But then so are automaking, airplane construction, pharmaceuticals, steel, and as we have discovered recently spinach. The instinctive leap from big to bad is made courtesy of your American farmer, who has effectively offered the agrarian producer as the paradigm of virtue for all things agricultural. Interestingly, this merger could actually be better for independent producers.

Critics may be right, but for reasons other than moral rectitude, which I find self-righteously woven throughout their arguments.

It is hard to operate extremely large organizations. That they work at all is amazing, that they work well - like UPS or ADM - is astonishing. At the same time the simple size imbalance between consumer and corporation has seldom fostered any sense of commitment from the buyer. Being big does not make you omnipotent. Nor is it easy to stay big. Ask the Tribune Co.

The small but growing segment of the food-buying public who are uneasy with how our food is supplied constitute a significant enough force to keep afloat all manner of farms. Community supported agriculture (CSA) has devoted adherents. The popularity of gardening keeps alive what a tomato should taste like. Dismissing these segments as helpless against industrial ag underestimates the power of the US consumer to roil the markets of any sector.

Lest you think I digress, this all impacts the concentration in the pork industry. It is my belief that the consumer now has more avenues to express his/her dissatisfaction than ever before. Hence, market concentration will be decided not in boardrooms but grocery stores, one shopper at a time.

In fact, I think we are moving rapidly toward a multiple-stream food supply, with consumers in command. Allowing Smithfield to a 31% market share means little more than "allowing" GM 31% market share. It could be 10% or 50% a year from now.

The market giveth, and the market can taketh away.

[Thanks, Dan]

Friday, September 22, 2006

The races from poll to poll...

It's not just harvest season, it's election season. Like you haven't noticed. If you get worked up about election polls or hate them you can boost your position by checking out

This site gives the widest coverage of all the polls, but more importantly does great work comparing and contrasting. If you are a number geek (I heard that) you can wander through the fine print as well. Some sample analysis:

The pattern is now strong and obvious: While the precise level of approval shows the usual variation across pollsters, eight of the nine pollsters show some small increase in the Bush job rating between August and September. That is a highly improbable result by chance alone, analogous to flipping a coin and having it come up heads eight of nine times (roughly 2% according to my favorite binomial calculator).

Third, consider one issue that everyone overlooked except one very alert MP reader: On previous Gallup polls, the Bush job rating came first on the questionnaire, or at least before questions about congressional vote preference. This is the first pre-election poll in which Gallup switched the order, asking the congressional ballot question first and then the Bush job rating.

There is a growing sense that polls represent a kind of scoreboard where we can see how the races are going. While this suits the media and provides plenty of content, I am not sure it enhances the quality of the process that much.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Seriously, though...

Everybody's a comedian now. In fact, being funny is an important part of modern business culture [great video!]. The larger question is why?
Another possible contributor is television and the fact that we mimic what we watch. There is more comedy being broadcast today than ever before, thanks to the full flowering of the Seinfeld effect (everyday existence is funny) and the comedic explosion inspired by the show. An endless array of cable offerings now besiege the populace daily with comedy in the form of hackneyed sitcoms (both rerun and original content), predictable stand-up routines, and clichéd cultural commentators in love with decades of the late 20th century. "So what?" you might say. "People are experiencing more comedy. It beats a kick in the teeth." But just as reality television blurs the line between entertainment and actual life, this avalanche of televised humor may be giving the viewing public the misguided idea that comedy is easy. [More]

Humor may be overrated, but it could just be that we are trying too hard.

Take my wife...oh, never mind.
Greek calamities, Part ii...

If the play wasn't enough for you culture-vultures, I suggest you listen alertly to this masterfully performed, um, opera by P. D. Q. Bach: Oedipus Tex.

For drama lovers...

I am all the time getting e-mails wanting more posts about classic Greek tragedies starring vegetables.

I hear you. Behold Oedipus Rex (with vegetables)

WARNING: Contains (believe it or not) suggestive vegetable love scenes.

Also, for more even more culture see following post.
Truth wins out, but slowly...

When Rachel Carson published "Silent Spring" back in my youth, she sparked the beginning of the modern environmental movement.

Now some 40 years later, the main target of her book, DDT is being re-evalauted to combat the continued scourge of malaria in Africa. In fact, spraying will re-commence in 2007.
The World Health Organization on Friday called on more developing countries, particularly in Africa, to begin spraying the controversial pesticide DDT to fight malaria. The difference: DDT, longed banned in the United States because of environmental damage, is no longer sprayed outdoors. Instead it's used to coat the inside walls of mud huts or other dwellings and kill mosquitoes waiting to bite families as they sleep. A small number of malaria-plagued countries already use DDT, backed by a 2001 United Nations treaty that set out strict rules to prevent environmental contamination. But the influential WHO's long-awaited announcement makes clear that it will push indoor spraying with a number of insecticides and that DDT will be a top choice because when used properly it's safe, effective and cheap. "We must take a position based on the science and the data," said Dr. Arata Kochi, the WHO's malaria chief. "One of the best tools we have against malaria is indoor residual house spraying. Of the dozen insecticides WHO has approved as safe for house spraying, the most effective is DDT." "It's a big change," said biologist Amir Attaran of Canada's University of Ottawa, who has long pushed for the guidelines and described a recent draft. "There has been a lot of resistance to using insecticides to control malaria, and one insecticide especially. ... That will have to be re-evaluated by a lot of people." [More]

Carson's masterwork brought to the public's attention the idea of humankind as the destroyer of nature, whereas before nature was seen as something needing "taming" with our technology. While her message resonated with both the social and technological unease in much of the West, her arguments were fairly weak:

Carson was also an effective popularizer of the idea that children were especially vulnerable to the carcinogenic effects of synthetic chemicals. "The situation with respect to children is even more deeply disturbing," she wrote. "A quarter century ago, cancer in children was considered a medical rarity. Today, more American school children die of cancer than from any other disease [her emphasis]." In support of this claim, Carson reported that "twelve per cent of all deaths in children between the ages of one and fourteen are caused by cancer."

Although it sounds alarming, Carson’s statistic is essentially meaningless unless it’s given some context, which she failed to supply. It turns out that the percentage of children dying of cancer was rising because other causes of death, such as infectious diseases, were drastically declining.

In fact, cancer rates in children have not increased, as they would have if Carson had been right that children were especially susceptible to the alleged health effects of modern chemicals. Just one rough comparison illustrates this point: In 1938 cancer killed 939 children under 14 years old out of a U.S. population of 130 million. In 1998, according to the National Cancer Institute, about 1,700 children died of cancer, out of a population of more than 280 million. In 1999 the NCI noted that "over the past 20 years, there has been relatively little change in the incidence of children diagnosed with all forms of cancer; from 13 cases per 100,000 children in 1974 to 13.2 per 100,000 children in 1995." [More]

Both views are likely flawed, but oddly we seem to be drifting farther from embracing compromise solutions. In order to prove our passion we embrace black/white, good/evil postures, and treat even-handedness as weakness.

The DDT episode should serve as a lesson, at least in matters of technology. Perhaps the bravest thing, and the most productive is to find a workable compromise.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Now this is a margin call...

So you think you've had a bad day trading the board. You don't know what bad is:
A Calgary trader who lost $5 billion US in a week was dealing with the fallout of the huge loss yesterday, as the hedge fund he works for stripped him of his duties as head of the energy trading desk. [More]
I'm still trying to get mind around the idea of a 32 year-old guy with control of that kind of loot. What the heck did they think would happen? He's a Canadian, fer cryin' out loud! They have denomination of currency called a loonie! That should have been a hint.

Still, whaddaya wanna bet he's back in the saddle soon, a la Michael Milkin?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Heard of the "Elephants Graveyard"? Wecome to the "Elephant's Nursing Home"...

Who doesn't love elephants?
Well, it seems that some people in Tennessee like 'em enough to open an elephant sanctuary in the middle of some of the most scenic countryside in America.

The size and power of the animal-lover element of America is a testimony to its wealth and freedom. Few other societies devote the resources we do to the care of other species.

Of course, few other societies deplete the ranks of other species the way we do, too.

Monday, September 18, 2006

It's not all Gandalf and sheep...

I am a big Kiwi fan. Any country who can host Lord of the Rings and compete globally in the dairy biz with no subsidies is OK in my book.

But it gets better. Look how they handle car insurance:

I've mentioned before that New Zealanders don't sue each other. Part of this is because of the ACC (Accident Compensation Corporation), which is funded through tax dollars, and pays all claims regarding any sort of "Accident" in the country, regardless of fault or visa status. So if I were to trip on the stairwell of the local bar and break my arm, ACC would cover it, and some portion of my lost wages for being unable to type, and so on.

Because of this, Kiwis aren't inclined to sue each other or place blame -- that's up to the authorities. This creates some interesting side-effects. [More]

If only New Zealand was about 5000 miles closer. Or business class was cheaper.
Dog and cats sleeping together...

It could be a sign of end times, just as Dan Akroyd warned us. GM and Ford are reported to have discussed a merger.

If this is even faintly true, do you realize what horrifying unnatural unions could come to pass?

Cubs and Sox
JD and CNH
Coke and Pepsi

and worst of all

Apple and Microsoft
(Wait a minute...)
Badly needed correction #38...

Thanks to a well-informed reader, it has been called to my attention I have confused Miscanthus with switchgrass. I guess I sorta switched grasses, heh-heh...

OK, OK - let's sort this out. Here is some switchgrass in Italy (Europe seems to be in front of this idea):

Here is more info. And more on carbon sequestration here.

The miscanthus I wrote about in an earlier post is also a candidate for biofuels.

[Thanks, John]

Sunday, September 17, 2006

People - can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em...

I have written before about the growing separation of sex from procreation. I was sadly behind the curve it seems. Thanks to PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) parents at risk and those simply with money and a progeny specification list are considering choices our ethical system never envisioned.
Probability and life span aren't the only standards we're relaxing. We're also applying PGD to less serious diseases. Encouraged by Britain's ruling on colon cancer, a London hospital is proposing to prevent autism by eliminating male embryos, which are more likely than females to get the disease. Two weeks ago, the New York Times described an American patient who plans to screen her embryos for an arthritis gene. The probability that the gene will cause the disease is only 20 percent, and if it does, the disease is highly manageable.
As we become wealthy enough to afford all the marvels that science can provide we raise our standards. Why accept what the gene-pool lottery will produce when you can rig the results? I'm not sure I blame young couples for choosing, nor am I sure what I would do in their place.

But I do know this, while we in the developed world are agonizing over whether our 2.1 children will be all they can be, developing country parents are using old-fashioned reproduction to put twice as many or more little feet on the ground. Do we need one more impediment to having children?

We still don't get it. It doesn't matter if you have all the stuff in the world or the easiest existence possible if it ends with you. Unless you are all that matters.

The flap over immigration is an argument we are having with ourselves to justify a fading ethnic group too busy to think of the future. History shows (and economics confirms) that the power of people wins out over wealth.

Assimilating immigrants to an "American culture" will slow when the dilution factor starts working the other way. This is not necessarily a problem, just a sign that cultural norms likely will be modified to accmodate the gravitational pull of a large and growing immigrant sector. Those "designer babies" could be designed for the wrong future.

The US is not the only nation facing this kind of quiet changeover. Economies need people, and our growth imperative (not to mention our collective debt) won't let us tread water.

It is fair to say the surprising election results in Sweden yesterday will be typical of the concern voters will show over how this economic demand for people is met. It will be interesting to see how nations with different approaches like Sweden and Japan solve their culture longevity problems even at the risk of fading economically.

The 22nd Century will belong (unsurprisingly) to those who show up.
Reno Balloon Race 2006...

How the heck do they get back to the same place?
"Toxic Texan"? Whoa - that's harsh...

Word is leaking out that Pres. Bush is about to reverse course on emissions control.
Over the past few days rumours swept the capital that the "Toxic Texan" would announce his conversion this week, in an attempt to reduce the impact of a major speech tomorrow by Al Gore on solutions to climate change.
This oughta give fits to the many global warming critics who were secure in the belief that our "stay the course" President would never embrace an inconvenient truth. The possibilities for large-government conservatives to throw borrowed dollars at this alleged problem (in political toss-up states) are considerable.

Prompted no doubt by examples like AHnold in California, and reassured by evangelical environmentalism, Pres. Bush (backed by serious polling from Karl Rove, I'll bet) could very well do a flip-flop and deny ever having another position. However, the whiplash in the beaucracy of the administration will be considerable, I would think.

Of course, the big question for farmers is "Can I get a check for sequestering carbon without really doing anything?"

When presidents start working on a "legacy", all bets are off. I can imagine the Bush adminstration causing serious apoplexy among ag supporters when the farm bill debate begins, especially in Texas. If he can go green, he can veto big subsidies.
Spinachgate - Chapter 2...

Little ole e. coli may do more damage to the structure of farming than the health of the nation. The calls to raise enforcement standards will only increase if more cases are reported.
In looking hard at America's regulation of food handling from farms to dinner tables, the process generally gets high marks - and has been improved in recent years to reduce the risk of bioterrorism, experts say. But this latest incident, taken with earlier reports of E. coli contamination in greens, exposes a glaring weakness, they add: effective health standards and cleanliness enforcement on the farm itself.
While agrarian farmers may attribute this to industrial production methods, they too will be subject to any new farming oversight. Adding a layer of health-related regulations will hit smaller farms hardest - who has the time and expertise to even do the proper paperwork? Plus testing, certifying, inspecting, and documenting hardly fit the cherished lifestyle of agrarian fans.

The problem is unlike OSHA regs, for example, I doubt if any new food safety rules would have an exemption for small producers. Throw in the dubious over-hyping of agroterroism (my opinion) and we have forces blending to make food producers - especially horticultural and meats - jump through a whole mess of new hoops to ensure food safety. Enough to make NAIS look like a trivial exercise.

If agriculture is going to use fear to ensure a place in the political sun (and access to "security" pork-barrel funds) then it may be surprised by the cost of attention.

Our food is safe compared to other everyday risks. Moreover,the overwhelming origin (97%*) of food contamination is in the kitchen - either at home or a restaurant.

But because of our current "atmos-fear", it may be hard for voices of reason to prevent a stifling and expensive food safety regime from being established.

[* Danger Ahead - The risks you really face on life's highway by Larry Laudan]
Reasons to get broadband - #37...

Check out this cool new technology for linking lots of unrelated photos (like Flickr) in a seamless way to get the BIG picture.

[Thanks, Jack]
It's hard to keep organic cute...

The premium price for organic products induces a natural, logical response in growers to capture as much of it as they can. Some of them are good producers and managers and become big winners in this competition. Hence the stunning statistic that has been revealed as "Spinachgate" unfolds.
Earthbound sells more than 70 percent of the country's bagged organic salad and processes about 30 million salad servings each week, according to the company. Its produce can be found in nearly three-quarters of U.S. supermarkets and in all 50 states and Canada. [More]
Various reports differ on the source of the contamination, with at least one suggesting it is in the irrigation water - which means you can't wash it off - the bacteria are in the spinach leaves. Worse yet for growers, the timing creates a "perfect spinach storm".

It may take some time to sort out the real origin, and then more to restart the supply chain. Coaxing consumers back could take considerably longer. Regardless, just when organic is seeing some market progress, revelations that organic doesn't necessarily mean small agrarian farms may erode their pricing power.

That's the trouble with selling an image - not a product.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Beyond the bumber sticker...

Magnetic bullet holes. Put 'em on your grain trucks to enliven conversation at the elevator this fall.
The guy better get an ambassadorship in Tahiti for this...

USDA Secretary Mike Johanns keeps trying to get the administration message out - NO FARM BILL EXTENSION. He's been broadcasting the same story (along with his lieutenants) to little avail. However, I have grown to admire his straightforward manner and exceptionally civil perseverance in the seemingly hopeless efforts to change US farm policy. There hasn't been a job this challenging in agriculture since Hercules had to clean out the barns.

The fall elections will tell us much about whether the administration matters or not. My read is if Pres. Bush continues to insist on his way, every day, Congress will ignore even Johanns' best efforts. The current rhetoric about interrogation methods seems to be an odd thing to bet your presidency on, for example. Loss of the House will put farm policy up for grabs as well as escalate the antagonism between Congress and the executive branch.
That view was endorsed by a top White House strategist, who forecasts a postelection spread of 52-48 or 53-47 in the Senate, with Republicans maintaining their majority, and a loss of eight to 12 seats in the House, but with the GOP still in charge. With the president's approval numbers slowly rising to the mid-40s, the strategist says all Republicans need is a couple more points to be OK. The strategist, who spoke at an off-the-record lunch, predicted Hillary Clinton will get the Democratic nomination in 2008 and will run against a very good Republican. [More]
I still wonder what Republican king-makers offered Johanns to leave a secure and well-liked governorship in Nebraska to become the administration's chief spear carrier and obvious target.

Probably another cush job in show biz. Johanns is a natural for Tinseltown, dontcha think?
Put your farm on the map...

Software behemoths Google and Intuit (Quicken/QuickBooks/TurboTax) are teaming up to offer a new range of services to QB users. Most of the stuff is useless to me, but one idea seemed to fit:

Having my farm pop up on Google Maps could save me - oh- 5 hours a year giving directions to my farm.

Of course, there are concerns whenever monster companies start fooling around with your data, but I have few complaints with either one.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Opening beer bottles with a helicopter

Pilots are all the same - showoffs. I notice they didn't try a twist-off.
They're not selling candy bars...

Unlike fundraisers I am familiar with, Cilion - a venture ethanol company - has raised $200 million in three months for next-generation ethanol plants:

The company plans to have 8 plant units in production by 2008 for a total of 440 million gallons per year capacity. By using a variety of innovations they claim that these plants will be cheaper and greener than standard corn-to-ethanol plants, substantially reducing the need for fossil fuels in ethanol production.

They claim the plants will have an energy balance advantage that is 2X that of gasoline with a greater than 90% reduction in petroleum use. They also claim that Cilion will be able to produce environmentally friendlier ethanol in California at a lower cost than ethanol produced in the traditional Midwest corn ethanol plants and delivered to California; and that the ethanol produced is expected to be price competitive per mileMandated markets offer a great deal of assurance to investors. Especially when the buzz on commodities seems to have been killed. driven with gasoline even if oil prices drop to $40 per barrel.

The thrust seems to be to leapfrog corn and win big with switchgrass (miscanthus x giganteus - sounds like an ancient Roman pro wrestler, doesn't it?).
In Khosla's simple arithmetic, with irrigation and other inputs, it would be possible to grow 20 tons of crops per acre and each ton of crop would yield 100 gallons of ethanol. Thus 50 million acres would generate as much as 100 billion gallons. Corn was expensive as the choice of crop; it would do only in the short run. He recommended switching over to a tall grass called miscanthus in the US, which would yield a higher profit. [More]
Somebody somewhere has got to be frantically growing switchgrass for seed. But I still don't get what growing switchgrass would be like:
It is a sterile cross, which means that it is not invasive as some varieties are, and it is propagated from rhizomes, similarly to irises. After planting, Miscanthus takes three years to mature for harvesting. It is left standing in the field to dry and is harvested from November to February with the same machinery that is used to harvest corn. It is very low in sulfur and carbon neutral so it has strong environmental benefits. The grass is one of the most efficient crops for growing in cold weather and is very drought resistant. Energy input to growing it is much lower than row crops since it is only planted once every 10 to 20 years. It improves soil by adding large amounts of organic matter to it. It requires little or no herbicides or fertilizer and no cultivation once it is established. [More]

Wait a miscanthus-picking moment - harvest from November to February? With a combine??? This stuff?

We gotta be talking big ole baler here. And one honkin' windrower - I'd say about 400 hp. 20 Tons/A? That's like 700 bu/A. - a LOT of stuff to handle/store/ship!

Maybe for ethanol you chop it?
Any ideas anybody??

Think about this - we'd have farming to do in the winter. We'd have to handle enormous volumes of stuff - which means more big shiny machines, and we'd only buy seed every decade or so.

I love it already!!!
Grass-fed beef meets ethanol...

There is considerable buzz about grass-fed beef - which I admit I don't think I have tasted. Now the USDA wants to standardize the term. Yeah, this is going to go smoothly...

Understandably, the farmers who have pasture-raised cattle don't like the proposal because it devalues the "grass fed" label, barely separating it from conventional beef as far as consumers are concerned. They propose a more specific definition of "grass" and a minimum amount of time that the cows must spend grazing in pasture each day. The Agriculture Department says those rules are too strict and that their standards put less strain on ranchers, particularly in years of bad weather or drought when pastures may suffer.

Under the Agriculture Department's standards, more beef labeled "grass fed" will reach the market. But will consumers want it, or be willing to pay a premium for it, if it has no distinction from conventional?

From Michael Pollan's new book, Omnivore's Dilemma to a flood of newspaper articles, the much-talked-about image of pastured cows can be attractive to upper-scale consumers worried about their food - who are more numerous than you might think.

While I would like to see some results from sources like America's Test Kitchen, it should not preclude a personal taste test. I'm not even sure where to get the stuff locally. meanwhile we have been eating less beef anyway. Actually that's working out OK as well, but then I'm prime heart-attack material, so maybe I'm talking myself into changing my tastes. Anyhoo, most of the tests I have seen don't show much enthusiam by the consumer, but that could change.
The flavor of grass-fed is different from grain-fed beef. Grass-fed beef will have a more wild taste and, as with wine, the flavor varies by region. In a blind taste test at University of Nebraska comparing top grass-fed beef from Argentina to grain-fed U.S. beef, about 50% of the study's participants preferred the grain-fed, but 20% preferred the grass-fed. [More]
The larger question is how the beef industry will respond to the growing corn appetite of ethanol plants. Will grass fed beef be a way to cut feed costs as corn prices rise? Where will all this high-quality pasture come from as we plant more and more corn?

This could be interesting.
One more reason to avoid Barry Manilow concerts...

The Air Force Secretary want to test weapons on unruly American crowds.

The object is basically public relations. Domestic use would make it easier to avoid questions from others about possible safety considerations, said Secretary Michael Wynne.

"If we're not willing to use it here against our fellow citizens, then we should not be willing to use it in a wartime situation," said Wynne. "(Because) if I hit somebody with a nonlethal weapon and they claim that it injured them in a way that was not intended, I think that I would be vilified in the world press."

Plus if something goes wrong the lawsuits will all be in English.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Look, I'm, wait...

Maybe you can breeze through the University of Illinois football defense, but nobody gets through O'Hare Airport. Trying to get to Pittsburgh to speak the the Penn Ag Industries tomorrow, some pesky rainshowers brought things to a crawl. Still, anticipating trouble, I had allowed for delays, since I now miss a flight at ORD about 50% of the time.

What did surprise me was the uneasiness of both airline workers and travelers on this 5th Anniversary of 9/11. Since the airport TV's were carrying non-stop coverage and retrospectives, it hard not to be reminded of that tragic day.

My own reaction was troubled as well. 9/11 has become so politicized in the US that sorrow can often give way to anger, much of it misplaced. Indeed, we often categorize others based on their reactions to that day. Oddly for me the sense of loss has grown greater as the longer term costs begin to appear: distrust, dissension, vengefulness, and the abiding sense of fear that colors too many lives too deeply.

We will go on, of course, but we are all changed.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Global warming - the story so far...

OK, stay with me. I don't care if you think it is a hoax or a left-wing plot, if we ignore the causes for just a second, there is some interesting information coming out about the possible consequences. It's not all end-of-the-world stuff, just what happens when glaciers melt, etc.
Inconveniently, the earth is getting warmer. Polar ice caps are melting, oceans are rising, coasts are eroding, and weather patterns may be shifting. Scientists are predicting increased droughts, floods (not a contradiction), wildfires, a massive disruption of agriculture and the food chain, and more severe storms, especially hurricanes. The sea level might rise by several feet in this century alone. The best-case scenarios look pretty awful. [More]

Some believe the "sham science" of human-assisted global warming could place an onerous burden on farmers. But if memory serves me correctly, farmers tend to think everything places an onerous burden on them.

Some farmers could make out like bandits. F'rinstance, those wily Scots:
Climate change could be good news for Scottish farmers, according to ESRC funded research at the University of Stirling. Rising temperatures and increased CO2 levels could mean increased yields and a boost to local economies, according to Professor Nick Hanley, who led the project. The research findings are based on a series of interlinked models, which analysed the effects of projected changes in Scotland's weather on land use, regional economies and biodiversity. The possible effects of reform to the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) were also taken into account. [More]
Some farmers, however, may lose everything.

But today's prophets of climate change are not quite so sanguine as Arrhenius about the prospect of anthropogenic forcing. This is because, according to some models, even a relatively small rise in global mean temperature would result in dramatic changes in local climate patterns. While climate modelers generally agree that farmers in subarctic latitudes will benefit from warmer summers and milder winters, their forecast for the rest of the planet approximates the apocalypse: famine, drought, hurricanes, floods, mass extinctions—the list goes on. Most of these calamities, said to be of such a scale that they could threaten the viability of human civilization, are predicted to result from changes in weather patterns that would follow from rising temperatures in the oceans and the lower atmosphere. [More]

Should we care? I mean, anyone reading this will be dead before the predict cataclysms occur.

This is an individual answer. Doubtless, many who picture themselves as virtuous will choose to sacrifice before the reason is clear. This is the proof of faith, after all. Others will embrace action as a response to their discomfort with a world they see as sadly self-interested. Embracing the fight against global warming can be a way of demonstrating a concern for strangers and the future - hardly a bad thing. In fact, opponents of anthropogenic global warming are losing the PR battle - looking all the world like self-obsessed misanthropes.

The result is, I believe, a scientific debate that has taken on the added baggage of discontent with individual lives. This is not unprecedented. Prohibition was a not just about alcohol, but undisciplined lives. Evolution is not just about anthropology, it is about religious principle.

The difference for this argument is a flood of real-world data will confirm or deny our beliefs much faster than previous debates. The trick is to be gone before you are proven wrong.
Technology solves problems - yeah, that works as a TV theme...

Reason's Tim Cavanaugh has penned a beautiful and thoughtful 40th Anniversary salute to Star Trek that is both touching and realistic.
It seems very wistful, very un–Star Trek, to be looking back fondly on that mythic past, but on this one occasion, we can let our human halves overpower our Vulcan halves. Once upon a time, when our nation was in trouble, many brilliant people came together to produce a humble entertainment that was more than a sum of its parts: The most retrograde and prescient, the most religious and agnostic, the most male and female, the most heroic and absurd, the most rarefied and popular, the most American television show ever made.
I don't even mind being kidded about it any more, I'm just glad I got to experience it.
News: Weekend miscellania
  • Castro is still alive, and so apparently is one of the largest private farms in Cuba in Cuba. Seems the owners helped out Fidel in the early days and thus avoided being collectived.
  • Just like in the US, wind farms are meeting with some backdraft. In Scotland, Ike's windfarm is the target of environmentalists who predictably, think turbines will ruin the view. I didn't know Pres. Eisenhower had a Scottish getaway.
  • This is what worries me about all the excitement over horticultural crops. A considerable macadamia surplus is depressing prices and growers in Hawaii. It looks like the same scenario - cheap imports from Australia and East Asia.
  • We're not the only ones who think organic production may lift poor farmers. Should the organic market become a significant sector, cheap labor could overcome transportation costs to give US organic growers a stiff challenge. While industrial producers can use technology to compete, organic producers will bein more of a bind.
"We have started exports of organic pepper, ginger and turmeric produced in Wayanad in tie-up with exporters of organic produce. So far 350 farmers have been certified for organic produce and are marketing their products through groups like Pyramid," the official said.

"The result is our organic produce like coffee and tea are reaping better profits through exports to the Middle East in particular. We are now encouraging expansion of organic farming to cover banana, cashew, cocoa, mango among others," Chandran said.
  • Good to see home grown American crop circles right here in the Midwest on Ohio farms . Of course ours are made with monster trucks and lack the umm, elegance of British field art, but at least our yahoos are trying.

Compare to the crop circles of the UK. Can't beat that Old World craftsmanship!

Of course maybe we are just being visited by less artistic aliens.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Blogger's note:

Sorry about the font silliness in the last few posts. I have been using Mozilla's Firefox browser, which I love. It seems to have fewer hangups with Blogger than Internet Explorer. You might want to try Firefox for yourself.

But as per my sorry history, I forgot my computer when I drove to South Bend to tape the show. Could have been worse - like no pants. Anyhoo, I don't have my own computer and it's like using somebody else's toothbrush - a little uncomfortable.

Things should straighten out soon. Do not adjust your set.
TV on my terms...

A frequent complaint from viewers of USFR is the "somewhat early" viewing time on their local station. I usually recommend three things:
  1. Call their local station and share their opinion. Amazingly just a few calls can have an impact.
  2. Watch on-line at
  3. Look into getting a TiVo

TiVo recently won a judgment against Echostar which enhances the future for the company. Although there are some business questions about TiVo, the technology benefits are now clear. And if you are a fantasy footballer (I don't get football - I'm from Illinois), TiVo has just made your season.