According to Corn World, the national corn growers’ website, the sale price of corn is up to an all time high. That’s probably due to ethanol. It’s really quite impressive that corn is finally almost worth growing again. After all, corn is the largest U.S. crop by acreage (76million acres), the U.S. grows more corn than any other nation (even China) and exports farm more than any other nation (more than all the other nations combined.) Corn yield haven’t changed significantly either. Holding steady at nearly 12 bushels per acre (now almost 15 bushels per acre) for 20 years. In spite of all that growth, there are fewer and fewer corn farmers each year.
Today, the Congress will vote on the Farm Bill. Lobbyists from the National Corn Growers and others will argue that agriculture is a dangerous business with unpredictable yields, even though that 20 year run described on their own website says otherwise. They will argue that the Farm Bill keeps our nation’s food supply safe and cheap. And at the end of the day the administration will sign the bill saying that they added money for renewables (a 1.2% increase! Wow! Um, or not) but that they kept the bill from getting too much larger. When President Bush signs the bill, he’ll be signing a check (in your name!) for:
Let’s repeat that. $623 billion dollars.
$439 billion is for the food stamp program, to be fair, but most cheap foods have corn in the one way or another anyway, so Cargill and the few other huge growers still get their cut.
It turns out that the Farm Bill is really the great Uniter. As reported on NPR, the left and the right find common ground in their dislike for it. The left points out that two thirds of the left over $1.8 bil goes to biggest, wealthiest 10% of the “farmers.” Farmers is in quote because the National Corn Growers Association and others would like you to picture a wholesome middle American family in overalls, but the reality is that it’s big, big agribusiness who’s getting your hard earned tax dollars. David Beckman of Bread for the World stresses the Farm Bill keeps prices artificially low which hurts foreign farmers and does little for the poor in this nation because most of your billions of dollars go to agribusiness. Meanwhile, on the far right, Damien Moore of Taxpayers With Common Sense (follow that link, they sum it up well) points out that “the market is kinder to poor people than badly spent government money.”
The farm bill causes or contributes to the following:
• Distorts the market price for food, particularly corn.
• Leads to over production.
• Hurts the environment by fostering factory farming, monoculture growing and over fertilization (a fossil product which pollutes our nation’s water).
• Subsidizing for the already wealthy agribusiness
• Encouraging food with little nutritional value.
The goal of the Farm Bill is ostensibly to keep the nation’s food supply safe and cheap. It has failed on both counts. Food borne illness from E. Coli and others is on the rise. Highly concentrated, centralized food production increases threat of damage or even terrorism to our food supply. Food has remained cheap over the last few decades. Americans pay less for their food as a percentage of income than nearly every other nation. In fact, food is quite a bit cheaper than it ought to be (although, food prices, now so dependent on fossil fuels, show a variation and dependance on, of all things, foreign oil!) Except, it isn’t actually cheaper. In addition to the $1.8 bill tax premium each of us helps to pay to keep the food cheap, we haven’t begun to account for environmental damage, global warming, and health costs that may be attributed to our centralized, industrialized food system.
There is no need to go organic, or become vegetarian, although those things might reduce the risks we face. Instead, simply dismantling this subsidized enemy of free trade known as the Farm Bill would go a long way towards changing the broken system we find ourselves a part of. Food prices at the grocery store would increase, to be sure, but we’re already bearing that cost in unseen ways. Perhaps if we could actually see it, we would be better informed about the critical decisions we make everyday about what we eat.
Don’t bet on it though. No one thinks that the Congress will do anything but yield to the tremendous bi-partisan pressure of the industrial food lobby.
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I’ve only just begun reading a book handed to me: Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan but it looks like such promising blog fodder that I figured I’d start writing about it even before I finished. (I’m on page 47 now–I’ve got a little while.)
Today’s news; the Federal Reserve Chairman, Berneke released today that inflation would remain at bay with the exception of food and fuel prices which are rising. Are these connected? In more ways than we realize. Only a century ago, yield for an acre of corn was nearly 20 times less than it is today. To what do we owe this increase in production? In part it’s due to scientific advancement and hybridization which has enabled corn to be harvested more easily and be grown in tighter and tighter spaces. But even rich Iowa soil wouldn’t be able to support such an increase in natural production without a little help.
Naturally, energy to grow corn comes from the sun. The sun powers the photosynthesis that produces the stalk, leaves, silk, cob and kernels. The sun powers the the bacteria that live on the soybean roots and combine nitrogen in the air with water in complex chemical reaction to make amino acids. Bacteria don’t live long though so their nitrogen enriches the soil that the corn to grow in the next time it’s planted. Unfortunately, soybeans can only foster so many bacteria per area of soil and only so much nitrogen is removed from the air, combined with hydrogen and made useful to the plants.
That’s where fossil fuels come in. Fossil fuels are essentially old dead plants and animals. Millenia long, dinosaurs and ferns lived and died and were buried and crushed by the weight of new soil, ferns and dinosaurs. Today we uncover these remnants as coal, oil and natural gas, but really, it’s stored up solar energy. And this stored up energy, for example as natural gas, can be used to create high temperatures and pressures that create usable nitrogen, which we usually just call fertilizer. Bacteria use enzymes and biological processes to create this fertilizer at lower temperatures and pressures, but our method is quicker.
Unfortunately, our method may be quicker, but there is loads of demand for that fuel, so it isn’t cheap. And as it get’s scarcer it won’t be getting any cheaper. Even Iowa soil can only provide so much nourishment for Iowa corn on its own. Add some super concentrated sun in the form of natural gas to create fertilizer and suddenly 2 million subsidized farmers can feed a nation of 250 million.
The beauty of physics is that one really only need to memorize a few laws and everything else follows. In this case, it’s conservation of energy. We can grow more food per acre, but the energy to do so has to come from somewhere. According to Pollen it takes about 50 gallons of oil per acre of corn, or about two calories of fuel for every calorie of food. Doesn’t it seem ironic, then, that we’re considering growing corn 50 gallons per acre, to plant, grow, harvest and deliver, in order to make ethanol to power our cars?
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Silly, but, when I was younger and a good friend of mine collected records from obscure alternative music groups, we we’re often a bit disappointed when suddenly those bands became popular. Then, later, I remember thinking about philosophy and coming up with what I thought to be clever and innovative ideas, only to finally get around to reading what philosophers had actually been writing for a couple of millennia and being a bit crestfallen that I wasn’t as original as I initially imagined.
Fortunately, these days, I rather enjoy the ego boost I get when I read a book that confirms much of what I already thought. It’s especially nice (and imminently more valuable) when the ideas are better articulated, more thoroughly researched and quite expanded. That is exactly the case with the quirky Fooled By Randomness by Nassim Taleb.
Taleb is something like a financial analyst and trader cum elitist snob philosopher. Anyone who knows me, readily recognizes we’d probably either like or hate each other instantly upon meeting, but we’d have plenty to talk about either way. His book discusses the many, many ways, we are fooled by randomness in the world. Our very brains are likely programmed to misjudge the visible victories of the few (as opposed to the sheer quantity of the many failed) and assume their success is due more to their efforts than inherent randomness in nature. Being obsessed by randomness for so long, Nassim has collected hundreds of anecdotes, examples, and quotes illustrating his point and he has even developed a resigned affection for it too.
I made my way through this occasionally, I think unnecessarily, dense and confusingly organized book because it captured and explained many of the issues I struggle with when trying to explain complex observations. Here’s one of mine that could have easily made it into Taleb’s book.
The CEO Club
From early on in my career (my first professional job actually) I noticed that in North American business there is a club with an exclusive membership but almost no real requirements of its members. Once an individual through skill, tenacity, charisma or chance, is promoted to CEO, he (most of them are still ‘he’ today) may remain in the club regardless of performance for the rest of his career.
Imagine an incredibly talented CEO, who makes all the right decisions, only to have a terrorist attack trigger a stock market crash which, in turn, destroys his company’s stock value. If his unfortunate company goes bankrupt and he winds up looking for a job he won’t have to for long. After all his resume mentions his experience running a multi-million dollar firm.
Imagine a very tall, good looking CEO with no real qualifications other than his fashion sense and the ability to remember names. Assume his company performs well and he makes many important decisions along the way, even though he’s been guessing the whole time. How many of those decisions will truly end up being critical to the success of his company? We’ll never be able to separate his choices from the thousands of internal and external forces that guided the company towards success but he’ll be able to take credit just the same.
In fact, once you’ve reached the point of CEO for a company (provided that company is bigger than, say, you and a couple of your beer drinking buddies) you’ve got a pretty good chance that your experience alone, regardless of your performance will ensure good jobs from here on out, so long as you’re willing to work hard (or at least look like you do.) Simply stated, once a certain position is achieved, the captain of the ship will still be able to negotiate a new ship, even if his last one sinks spectacularly.
Of course, there are entrepeneurs who truly take risks and affect change in their environments, and there are plenty of excellent talented CEOs out there. It’s just that it may not be so easy to tell who’s who. Being talented is no more guarantee of success than being an idiot is a guarantee of being of failure. (Being talented just stacks the odds in your favor.) I think Taleb writing a whole book about makes me feel very clever and validated. Maybe it was just luck that I found it.
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Back in the day, air passengers used to fear seeing toddlers on the plane. Imagining a flight disturbed by constant crying and fussing they wished only to be as far away as possible. Good news! Kids don’t cry all the time any more. One of the side effects of the generation of toddlers being babysit by DVDs, is that they seem to have developed a need for constant entertainment which, it turns out, can be disturbing when they’re sitting next to you on a plane. They’re quite happy watching Dora the Explorer on portable DVD players (nice of the creators of that show to familiarize kids with slant rhyme so early in their development, but I digress). Unfortunately, I get to ‘enjoy’ it too, because three year olds aren’t very good at wearing earphones, it seems, and neither are their little brother’s sitting behind them. (Wow, one DVD player per child!)
The parent of my little Barney-the-Purple-Dinosaur-watcher kept pointing out that it was loud and turning it down, but even the quiet player still emitted enough tinkling bells, kazoos, and happy voices to make most any tired traveler nauseous. I wish I could have at least seen her screen. She didn’t seem all that interested anyway and mostly turned around to look at her brother and ask what he was watching. If I could least I could have enjoyed an epispode of Barney that I’d missed while away.
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