Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The African ag problem (I)...  

I've been trying to assemble my thoughts and conclusions from my Africa trip and I think there is one consistent theme emerging: we still have not found a truly workable solution to improve agriculture there as well as advance the lives of the overwhelmingly rural poor.

First of all, food aid is a flat out bad idea. I cannot understand how farmers of all people cannot appreciate what surplus grain being dumped onto local markets would do to local farmers. By dampening price rises, consumers may briefly benefit, but the economic incentives to produce more are depressed.
Scandalous barely covers it. Since America began donating surplus wheat, corn meal, vegetable oil and other farm commodities to the world’s hungry six decades ago, the programme has been captured by an “iron triangle” of farm interests, shippers and voluntary organisations, with plenty of help from Congress. Rules state that most food aid must be bought from American farmers and processed in America. At least half must then be carried on American-flag ships. With competition severely curbed, ocean shipping eats up 16% of the budget for the largest food-aid programme, Food for Peace.
In a related scandal called “monetisation”, involving non-emergency aid (which represents about 30% of Food for Peace), charities and non-governmental outfits receive American produce, sell it on local markets abroad and then use the proceeds for good works. Compared to directly funding projects, “inherently inefficient” monetisation on average wastes 25% of the money sent, according to the Government Accountability Office. And the food supplied often floods fragile markets, hurting local farmers. [More]
Our food aid program is a pretty blatant form of export subsidy intended to help American farmers under the guise of humanitarian concern. If the government did not pay for the grain farmers wouldn't be donating it, that's for sure. Even the modest reforms urged almost unanimously by economists have hit strong political headwinds in Congress.

This is the first thing that we know doesn't work, and while I don't blame the original efforts years ago, or the times when food is needed NOW! it is time to stop ignoring the harmful and wasteful aspects of such programs.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

This keeps popping up...  

No wonder the food industry is a tough market - consumers are a restless bunch. One particular idea that keeps popping up in new forms is the anti-carb concept. Three anecdotes:
  1. A former NCGA president is dropping white carbs from his diet.  When I raised my eyebrows he ascribed it lamely to his wife, but did say he felt better and had lost weight. The better mental attitude was the claim that struck me.
  2. At dinner the other night in a slightly too-trendy-for-me restaurant in the Chicago suburbs, I had to ask what the abbreviation "gf" stood for. (Gluten-free) The waiter explained it wasn't that people were gluten-sensitive, but rather a range of reasons why they wanted to avoid it.
  3. Then there was this hidden note in an article about the most-highlighted passages in Kindle books. [For those who don't use a Kindle, it shows you how many people have highlighted a given passage, and of course, Amazon keeps track of such things. I have always been mystified by most of the selections]:
The bleakness of the worldview suggested by those passages is striking. It’s no surprise then, to find self-help passages appearing alongside them: They help us cope with our inherently flawed human selves. Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People appears several times—“It’s not what happens to us, but our response to what happens to us that hurts us”—as does Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People. Quotes about the healing power of God also make a strong showing, as do musings on the nature of marriage, and work, and leadership, and white carbohydrates. [More] [My emphasis]

Really? Carbs are one of the existential questions of our day? The fact this curious aversion has been around now since the Adkins diet suggests it may have enough penetration and longevity to seriously affect the American diet. Jan has decreased our potato/bread/rice intake surreptitiously enough I haven't really noticed anything except a deeper apprecation for French fries at the occasional meal out.

Like other seemingly hopeless trends in the US, perhaps a series of relatively small adjustments, rather than a massive campaign can actually affect a curve bending change. The last thing anyone expects is for people to solve the obesity problem on their own, but it's not impossible, I guess.

Downgrading the gun debate...  

As fast as folks seem to be buying weaponry, they may be becoming lame. In an outcome I certainly didn't imagine, the macho-ness of personal firepower could become quaint, like being able to chop a tree with an ax or cultivate corn.
TrackingPoint, a startup tech company in Austin, Tex., has just started selling the most advanced long-distance rifle available on the civilian market. The weapon incorporates laser and computer technology, as well as a three-dimensional color graphics display, to allow even a novice shooter to hit moving targets at 500 yards (five football fields) or farther. Its Wi-Fi transmitter permits the user to stream live video and audio to an iPad (AAPL) and post impressive kill shots on Facebook (FB) or YouTube (GOOG).
“This is a weapon that will get the Call of Duty generation into the real shooting sports,” says TrackingPoint’s chief executive, Jason Schauble, a 38-year-old decorated special-ops officer who formerly served in the Marines. A genial, smooth-talking ballistics pro who retired from the military after being seriously wounded in Iraq, he is making the rounds in New York and elsewhere to promote TrackingPoint. Schauble readily acknowledges that to make the transition from pretend shooter games to the real-life range or hunting grounds will require serious money. TrackingPoint’s customized rifles sell for $22,000 to $27,000 apiece, depending on just how tricked-out consumers want their weapons.
The gun part of the TrackingPoint system resembles a modern military-style bolt-action rifle. The science-fiction part looks like a three-headed long-range scope. Shooter tracks targets on the graphics display. By pushing a small button near the trigger, they lock a red laser dot on their quarry—a deer or bear, for example. The red laser tag remains on the target, even if it moves. Shooters then align the red dot with a blue cross-hair, or reticle, which also appears on the screen. They depress the trigger. The gun “decides” exactly when to fire. That happens only when the cross-hair aligns perfectly with the red dot, taking into account the distance, barometric pressure, temperature, the curvature of the earth, and other variables. [More]
So as I understand it, you find the target in the scope, pull the trigger, and wave the gun until it passes the optimal firing point. Kinda takes the sportsmanship out of hunting, I would say.  It reminds me of straight rows nowadays - just not a big deal or the sign of ag prowess it used to symbolize.

Or worse still, why bother to pick up the firearm at all?
The Super aEgis 2 is an automated gun tower that can find and lock on to a human-sized target in pitch darkness at a distance of up to 1.36 miles (2.2 kilometers). It uses a 35x zoom CCD camera with 'enhancement feature' for bad weather, in conjunction with a dual FOV, autofocus Infra-Red sensor, to pick out targets.
Then it brings the pain, either with a standard 12.7mm caliber machine-gun, a 40mm automatic grenade launcher upgrade, or whatever other weapons system you want to bolt on to it, including surface-to-air missiles. A laser range finder helps to calibrate aim, and a gyroscopic stabilizer unit helps correct both the video system's aim and the direction of the guns after recoil pushes them off-target. [More]
Knowing the South Koreans, there will be  a home model available someday, and then we'll see an interesting Supreme Court case. For that matter, I wonder what the NRA will do about such advanced weapons. While they seem to be OK with laser weapons, taking the human out of the firing decisions doesn't strike me as the best membership program ever conceived.

Like so many seemingly intractable public debates, maybe this one will simply fade into irrelevance as technology advances beyond what we think are the defining parameters.  After all, think of all those knights who were good at riding down peasant while wearing tons of armor and wielding a whacking sword. Did we think guns were the last word on killing?

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Junkbox, Episode MMXIII☈...  

Almost can get in the field. Almost.
An amazing year for dandelions, though.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Live long...  

Made my day.  Especially since we won't be planting soon.


Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Technology answers...  

One of my greatest reasons for optimism about the future is the flood of new adaptations of novel technologies to surprising problems.

I don't think we can begin to envision the scope and ingenuity of such ideas, nor evaluate their impact.  Which makes any long term prediction or analysis suspect.

Monday, May 06, 2013

SNAP in your backyard...  

A very cool interactive graphic for discovering how SNAP affects those around you.

Check it out here. I doubt the reason it has grown so much in Edgar County is because they are Obama supporters. In fact, check out some of the reddest counties in WV or IN for comparison.

SNAP use is up because people are unemployed or don't make much money.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Time to stop sniggering?...  

Maybe the feral pig problem isn't just redneck reality show fodder. Maybe it's something we should take a little more seriously.
In southern states like Texas, backyard encounters with feral swine have become routine. The pigs — ill-tempered eating machines weighing 200 pounds or more — roam city streets, collide with cars, root up cemeteries and provide plot lines for reality TV shows like “Hog Hunters.”
But the pig wars are moving north. In Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon and Pennsylvania — states where not long ago the only pigs were of the “Charlotte’s Web” variety — state officials are scrambling to deal with an invasion of roaming behemoths that rototill fields, dig up lawns, decimate wetlands, kill livestock, spread diseases like pseudo-rabies and, occasionally, attack humans.
In 1990, fewer than two million wild pigs inhabited 20 states, according to John J. Mayer, the manager of the environmental science group at the Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, S.C., who tracked the state populations. That number has now risen to six million, with sightings in 47 states and established populations in 38 — “a national explosion of pigs,” as Dr. Mayer put it.
The swine are thought to have spread largely after escaping from private shooting preserves and during illegal transport by hunters across state lines. Experts on invasive species estimate that they are responsible for more than $1.5 billion in annual agricultural damage alone, amounting in 2007 to $300 per pig. The Agriculture Department is so concerned that it has requested an additional $20 million in 2014 for its Wildlife Services program to address the issue.
There is wide agreement that the pigs are undesirable — like the Asian carp that is threatening to invade the Great Lakes, but far bigger, meaner and mounted on four legs. But efforts to eradicate or at least contain them have been hampered by the lack of a national policy to deal with invasive species as a whole, the slowness of states to recognize the problem and the bickering between agencies about who is responsible for dealing with them.
“As a nation, we have not thought through this invasive species problem, and we just have disaster after disaster after disaster,” said Patrick Rusz, the director of wildlife services at the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy. Dr. Rusz, who travels around the state educating farmers about the menace posed by the wild pigs and encouraging them to set traps on their land, is so avid a hog-hater that in the early stages of Michigan’s invasion, he went to bars to eavesdrop on hunters who might have spotted the porcine invaders. [More]
What woke me up was mentioning Michigan - not some southern swamp. If they are breeding up there, it wouldn't take much for Illinois to enjoy this pest.
The wild pigs’ destructive feeding behavior poses a particular threat to sensitive wildlife species and their habitats. According to studies by researchers at Texas A&M University, wetlands and riparian areas suffer the most damage from wild pigs. In some areas, nearly 50 percent of the habitat is significantly degraded by the hogs’ rooting and wallowing. Additionally, these wet areas also are experiencing increased bacterial contamination in the form of E. coli and fecal coliform from the ever-present pigs.
“Hogs are deadly to anything that nests on the ground,” stated West.  “One of the best examples is the depredation of sea turtle eggs on Ossabaw Island.” Before the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GDNR) began an intensive wild pig removal program on Ossabaw, a barrier island south of Savannah, sea turtle nests on the islands’ sandy beaches suffered greater than 30 percent mortality. Today, as a result of the GDNR removing nearly 3,000 hogs from the island annually, those nests experience less than 5 percent mortality.
Interestingly, researchers also documented a significant increase in the body weight of Ossabaw’s white-tailed deer following wild pig reduction efforts. This fact, along with other research conducted in southeastern hardwood forests, demonstrates that wild pigs present a formidable source of competition for dozens of native wildlife and plant species. Largely due to the pigs’ habit of bulldozing seedlings and rooting for mast crops, such as acorns, these forested areas are experiencing dramatic change.  Hardwood regeneration has nearly halted and many wildlife species are outcompeted for critical resources.
Unfortunately, the wild pig’s impact on native mammals is not restricted to increased competition or habitat destruction. Hogs harbor numerous diseases as well as internal and external parasites that are transmissible to wildlife, livestock and even humans. Many of these diseases, such as brucellosis, tuberculosis and the pseudorabies virus have been the target of national disease-eradication programs for livestock. As wild pig numbers continue to increase and spread to new areas, biologists are concerned that their efforts to eradicate or reduce the prevalence of these diseases in wild and domestic animals will be in vain. In addition, researchers at the USDA National Wildlife Disease Center note the possibly insurmountable challenge of controlling an “accidental or intentional outbreak of a foreign animal disease, such as foot and mouth, rinderpest, African swine fever or classical swine fever” if those diseases were ever to find their way into the wild pig population. [More]
I suppose this is one of those problems too outlandish to consider soberly until your poodle gets eaten by one. But it seems to me climate change will favor their spread. Or maybe this species doesn't need any help.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Junkbox, Episode MMXIII⚗..  

We just might sneak some grains into the ground Thursday.
 I'm converting some life insurance and discovered I don't have to pay any more premiums after age 121. Sweet!