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Mr English, who has the substance abuse problem?

(First published on The Farming Show July 2012)

At the recent Federated Farmers AGM, Bill English made an off the cuff joke about drug testing beneficiaries. It got some laughs and applause from the audience, no doubt happy to see the government picking on a group other than farmers for a change.

His comment got me thinking. If ever there was a substance that agriculture was addicted to, it’s phosphate. Unlike some of our other inputs, there’s simply nothing that can stand in for it. In the words of the U.S. Geological Survey “There are no substitutes for phosphorus in agriculture”. We currently import most of our phosphate fertiliser from Morocco.

Until recently, Moroccan phosphate seemed to be our only option for importing fertility (locally made urea is our primary source of supplementary nitrogen) but that looks set to change with recent offshore developments. Large deposits of rock phosphate exist on the Chatham Rise and extraction is being investigated now.

Chatham Rock Phosphate has the rights to exploit over 4000 square km of the Chatham Rise sea floor and claim there could be as much as 100 million tonnes of rock phosphate available. They believe it could be extracted using existing technology for much less than the cost of buying and importing it from Morocco. If it pans out, any chance of New Zealand running low on phosphate due to global shortage seems to have been shelved for about 100 years.

Which in some ways is a shame, and potentially a missed opportunity for us. While Kiwis are generally regarded as great problem solvers and innovators, that behaviour tends to be in response to the demands of circumstance. We need to be smarter about how we apply supplements to the land, but it looks like constraint of supply won’t be one of the reasons.

We know that run-off from farming activity is having an impact on the quality of our rivers and lakes. The stats on our stewardship of the environment are not pretty: more than 60% of our native fresh water species are threatened, almost half our lakes are polluted by excess nutrients, and almost all river quality monitoring show things are getting worse.

We are in danger of losing our single biggest marketing asset: the global perception that we produce food in a 100% Pure paradise. With low-cost producers competing with us on every continent, why would global consumers buy food from halfway around the world when they can get it cheaper at home? Our pure branding is our advantage.

But like an addict that says “It’s not that bad”, or “I can give up any time I want”, it’s time to face up to our problems. Arguments like “Councils pollute too”, or “what about the townies?” don’t do us any favours either. All the public see are shirkers, trying to shift blame.

Every media story of fines for effluent discharges undermines our best efforts to do right by the environment and overshadows the examples of the farmers that are doing everything right. The slow progress and dubious results of the Clean Streams Accord are putting more pressure on local bodies to act. It’s a matter of when, not if, water quality factors will be reflected more directly in farming profitability. Just as a drug test subject is asked to “pee in the cup”, councils may yet end up sampling water quality directly at pollution sources and taking a much stronger line with offenders.

Farmers need to consider our dependence on applying fertility to the land, and the downstream impacts our dependence has on the wider ecosystem we operate in. We can wait for more regulation and view it as a future imposition on our business, or we can see it as an opportunity to build sustainable businesses that are cheaper to run now.

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We don’t need to be afraid of 3D Printing

“if we can print ecstasy, we can print asthma meds and warm clothes for children”


My subversive 3D Terror Printer producing a lethal butterfly (also available in sheets)

This headline from Radio NZ caught my attention this morning:  Customs Minister Maurice Williamson says he is extremely worried about what 3D printers will do to border security

It goes on:

Mr Williamson says the printers are actually manufacturers of products and 3D computer files can be emailed or downloaded from the internet.

He says household printers will soon be able to produce drugs and weapons, and the country’s borders are extremely vulnerable.

“If people could print off … sheets of Ecstasy tablets at the party they’re at at that time that just completely takes away our border protection role in its known sense.”

Mr Williamson says the printers will become as common as PCs and he has asked his officials to think hard about how to keep up with this kind of technology.

The news item sparked a fair bit of mirth on social media as well as quite a bit of conversation about the state of the art of 3D Printing. I’d like to clear up a few misconceptions though. 3D Printing is a relatively new field and it’s understandable that it is not always well understood.

A quick primer if 3D Printing is a mystery to you. Wikipedia defines 3D Printing as “a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. 3D printing is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes.”

The material in most cases is plastic, but 3D Printing can also utilise metals, ceramics and even chocolate. Typically, a user will create or download a digital file of the object they want to print. So Mr Williamson’s first sentence is correct. 3D Printers make stuff, and the files to do so can be shared.

His argument departs from reality from this point on. 3D Printing is a wonderful, exciting technology that could pave the way to new products, smarter use of resources, and the end of scarcity if it’s ultimate promise is realised. But for now, and the immediate future, there are plenty of things it is not capable of.

3D printed drugs and weapons are a long way off.

UK researcher Lee Cronin is arguably at the top of the field of on-demand drug creation, but even he admits the idea of a true drug printer “is still essentially at the “science fiction” stage of this process”. Even if such printers did exist, you’d still have to source the precursor ingredients, no matter if you’re making panadol or methamphetamine.

If by weapons, the Minister means firearms, then yes, a few people have 3D printed a few firearm parts. Not the important, subjected-to-great-force parts mind you, just the easy ones. A lower receiver – technically the legal definition of a firearm in the US – is just a box that holds a few moving parts. Likewise, a 3D printed magazine is just another box, with a spring. When someone can 3D print a chamber or barrel that doesn’t kill or maim its first user, I’ll be more concerned. Those tend to be made from machined steel of great strength, not a squiggle of plastic extruded from the high-tech equivalent of a glue gun.

The tools to make firearm parts are already available, relatively cheaply, and don’t require a high degree of specialised skill to operate. Think high school metal work class. Should we consider shutting those down too?

So as to “household printers will soon be able to produce drugs and weapons”, the Minister’s moral panic is misplaced, or at the very least, highly premature.

Perhaps saddest of all, when the Minister thinks we have the technology at hand to produce almost any object imaginable, his first response is to look for ways to regulate it  – rather than rejoice that we had reached the end of scarcity (because if we can print ecstasy, we can print asthma meds and warm clothes for children).

Incidentally, when my 3D Printer arrived in NZ as a kit, I paid GST, customs duty and a biosecurity levy (presumably due to some of the parts being made of plywood). Most of the things I print are objects that don’t currently exist for sale, so no import duties are being avoided. If Mr Williamson is concerned about avoided duty, he shouldn’t be.

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Why this is my last jar of Marmite

It’s fair to say I was raised on Marmite. For the duration of my school life, from age 5 to 18 I took a home made lunch to school every day. It almost always contained sandwiches, and invariably one of those was Marmite and cheese, a combo I still love to this day. Even now, Marmite on toast is as often my breakfast of choice as anything else.

I know plenty of people that love Vegemite just as strongly as I love Marmite. Many find Marmite overly sweet, and if I had discovered them both as an adult, who’s to say I wouldn’t prefer Vegemite’s darker, yeastier flavour now?

When news broke that Sanitarium (Marmite’s producer) had experienced production-stopping earthquake damage to their factory I was quick to lay in stocks to ensure my daily supply would remain uninterrupted. I’m still working through the last 1.2kg jar I purchased, but in all conscience, I cannot buy another jar of Marmite from Sanitarium, or support any of their products any longer.

Sanitarium in New Zealand is wholly owned by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, as is their sister company in Australia. This means they pay no corporate tax in either Australia or New Zealand, as their status as a religious organisation gives them an exemption. Their estimated turnover (because they are not required to divulge such information) is $300 million per annum.

New Zealand has a fairly substantial problem with corporate tax avoidance. While we might get hot under the collar about benefit fraud ($23 million last year), estimates of lost tax range from $1-$6 billion per annum. When the cost of alleviating child poverty in New Zealand is estimated at $1.5-$2 billion per annum you can see what we are missing out on as a society. As Catriona MacLennan puts it; if the rich stopped cheating, we could eliminate child poverty.

I find corporate tax avoidance pretty distasteful, but a legislated tax exemption for particular businesses (and in this case, a very successful, dominant one at that) is a completely avoidable own goal against the nation’s balance sheet.

Until Sanitarium start paying their way, none of their products will grace the shelves of our pantry.

Oh, and as a post script to the story, it seems Sanitarium are also discriminating against independent food retailers. Seen at our local Moore Wilson’s:


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Saving the building industry

The building industry is slated to shed 20,000 jobs as the recession hits construction hard through to 2012. As we’ve already seen in manufacturing in NZ, once jobs and infrastructure leave a country, they are very difficult to re-build when needed.

Meanwhile, the government is stumping up $1.7 billion for the construction of a 38km stretch of “holiday highway” between Puhoi and Wellsford that will achieve little more than allowing tourists to easily avoid some of our our small towns.

What have these two events got to do with each other? We have an industry in strife, needing stimulus and an expensive boondoggle that would be far better spent elsewhere.

If we spent that same $1.7 billion on retro-fitting solar hot water systems to NZ houses we could achieve the following:

  • Install 212,500 solar hot water systems at an average cost of $4,000-$8,000 (I’ve used $8,000 for this calculation so the actual number of installs might be doubled).
  • Create 1000′s of jobs in manufacturing and installation (and mop up those leaving construction).
  • Provide half a million or more Kiwis significant electricity savings (preferably targeted at those most impacted by high power prices).
  • Reduce electricity generation demand roughly equivalent to taking 63,000 homes off the grid (solar hot water provides 75% savings on water heating or about 30% of total bill). Ask the generators how they’d feel if we could give them a Hamilton-sized power load holiday.

While building motorways, bridges and roads will generate some short-term employment, the vast majority of those in the building trade won’t benefit. Wouldn’t it be smarter to foster a vibrant local manufacturing and service industry with a future?

Given the choice of a step towards an energy-secure future or building pointless roads with a limited future, I know which I’d choose.

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Ask Nick Smith to call-in MacKenzie Applications

UPDATE: Cabinet meets on Tuesday January 19 to consider calling in these applications – please send Nick Smith an e-card now! (see below for details)

From the Greens website:

Three companies have applied to Environment Canterbury for consent to establish massive factory farms in the Mackenzie Country, housing 18,000 dairy cows in cubicle stables.

This proposal is bad news for animal welfare, biodiversity, water quality, our iconic high country landscapes and our clean, green image.

Thousands of people made submissions to Environment Canterbury to oppose these applications. Environment Minister Nick Smith has the power to “call in” resource consent applications of national significance, and refer them to an independent board of inquiry or the Environment Court.

The last date for the Government to intervene is 2 February 2010.

Show Nick Smith just how widespread public concern about factory farms in the Mackenzie Country really is.

Send him an e-card asking him to make the right call and call it in.

To send Nick Smith an e-card just go to the Greens website. You can add your own comments if you feel inclined – here are mine (feel free to copy them)

Dear Minister

I am concerned about the negative impact on our international reputation if New Zealand allows the establishment intensive indoor dairy farming in the MacKenzie Basin. As you well know, New Zealand produce is marketed all over the world on the back of our clean, green image – pastoral farming based on grass and sunshine.

Our agricultural and horticultural trade (and to a similar extent, our tourism) relies on the cultivation of our clean, green image in the eyes of the rest of the world. Whether it’s for the sake of ethics, or to protect local producers, many of our overseas markets will not hesitate to marginalise NZ imports given the opportunity. Once we introduce factory dairy farming (or any factory farming) our products will have to compete on price alone as our unique point of difference vanishes.

Just last week, UK supermarket chain Waitrose has declared it will boycott NZ dairy products that are produced using non-pastoral practices. Waitrose has more than 200 branches throughout the UK and is known for its high-quality retailing and its high ethical standards – arguably the perfect outlet for our high-value products. A spokesperson said “Waitrose would not source own-label dairy products from farmers in New Zealand that did not allow their cows to roam freely outside, or to have the best welfare standards.”

Our international market has voiced their concerns – I urge you to call-in these applications as a matter of national concern.

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Factory Dairy Farming – the world responds but will we listen?

What do a UK supermarket chain, Michael Pollan and Jamie Oliver all have in common? They all think factory dairy farming is a bad idea for New Zealand.

In the last days of 2009, the prospect of indoor dairy farming gaining a foothold in the pristine MacKenzie basin got more than a few folks hot under the collar. A Facebook Group in opposition to the three applications attracted more than 25,000 members. Environment Canterbury (ECan) received more than 3000 submissions on the first two applications and the third closes this week.

ECan Chief Executive Bryan Jenkins has asked Environment Minister Nick Smith if he can call-in the applications. Dr Jenkins says there is a stronger argument for considering the detrimental effect on New Zealand’s image abroad from factory farming, but it is unlikely a regional council could place significant weight on this issue.

A call-in under Section 142 of the Resource Management Act, which allows Dr Smith to use the powers if a resource consent is causing widespread public concern about likely impacts on the environment.

What’s interesting is that ECan has told the press that submissions have come in from around the world. While trying to paint opposition as misinformed hysteria, those supporting the expansion of intensive dairying in the MacKenzie Basin seem to have underestimated the world’s response to the prospect of NZ allowing factory dairy farming to become established.

Sadly, Dr Smith’s response has been to appoint a project-coordinator to ECan staff to assist with processing submissions so it appears he is not going to step in with any meaningful response. Labour and the Greens have labelled his action “ducking for cover”.

Whatever you feel about the animal welfare or environmental issues associated with this sort of farming, the negative impact on our international reputation is undeniable. New Zealand produce is marketed all over the world on the back of our clean, green image – pastoral farming based on grass and sunshine.

Our agricultural and horticultural trade (and to a similar extent, our tourism) relies on the cultivation of our clean, green image in the eyes of the rest of the world. Whether it’s for the sake of ethics, or to protect local producers, many of our overseas markets will not hesitate to marginalise NZ imports given the opportunity. Once we introduce factory dairy farming (or any factory farming) our products will have to compete on price alone as our unique point of difference vanishes.

Just last week, UK supermarket chain Waitrose has declared it will boycott NZ dairy products that are produced using non-pastoral practices. Waitrose has more than 200 branches throughout the UK and is known for its high-quality retailing and its high ethical standards – arguably the perfect outlet for our high-value products. A spokesperson said “Waitrose would not source own-label dairy products from farmers in New Zealand that did not allow their cows to roam freely outside, or to have the best welfare standards.”

Unsurprisingly, Fonterra have rushed to reassure Waitrose that “they will continue to graze their herds outside” which seems to be at odds with the circumstances under which Fonterra can legally refuse to collect milk. Fonterra can deny collection only from farms prosecuted for animal cruelty or environmental mismanagement, or because of consistently low quality. In their words in this Q&AFonterra cannot…direct business decisions made by shareholders as the business owners.” Tankers collect from multiple farms on a run so unless they can economically separate out milk from farms that Waitrose (and any others) consider unacceptable, their claims look hollow.

Michael Pollan, internationally acclaimed author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food had this to say in a private communication when I asked him for his comments on the MacKenzie basin applications:

John:
Thanks for your note. All I can say is that it would be a tragedy for New Zealand to turn its back on your land’s greatest resource: its grass. This especially at a time when we’re coming to see that putting agriculture on a foundation of petroleum, rather than sunlight, is unsustainable in the long term. The future is in solar agriculture –which is to say grass-based. To move to feedlots is to tie your food system to the petroleum economy, and that will prove disastrous sooner or later. (Argentina is in the process of doing the same thing.)

Jamie Oliver, celebrity chef and a passionate advocate for local, seasonal food took the time to tweet a brief message for NZ:

jamie_tweet

The world is our market (only 2% of Fonterra milk is consumed in NZ), shouldn’t we be listening to them before risking a large sector of our economy so a handful of farmers can scrape a few more dollars out of land that should never have seen cows in the first place?

Prime Minister John Key has told Parliament that the Government has sought urgent advice on factory dairy farming. The Government will need to act quickly if it is to follow ECan’s advice, with a decision on two call-ins needed by January 15 and a ruling on the third needed a week later.

We need to send Nick Smith and John Key a strong message to call-in these applications now and deal with them as a a matter of national importance.

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Making a submission on factory farming

I’ve made my submissions to Environment Canterbury against the establishment of factory farming in the MacKenzie basin. My previous post lays out some reasons why it is a tremendously bad idea for the entire country.

I encourage everyone that has an opinion on factory farming to go to the Ecan web site and make their own submissions. Every submission counts under the Resource Management Act so your voice will make a difference.

To have your say:

1. Go to the three applications on the Ecan web site:

Williamson Holdings
Southdown Holdings
Five Rivers

Each link takes you directly to the submission form for the applications.

2. Enter your details

3. Tick the support/oppose box for each consent under the application

4. Tick “I want to be heard” (There is no obligation to show up but it gives your submission more weight and you will be notified of hearings later).

5. In the box marked “Your Reasons” enter your submission text. Here’s mine as an example but feel free to copy it (adapted from the excellent Green’s Guide).

I oppose this application in it’s entirety. Issues around environmental degradation, water quality, animal welfare and NZ’s international brand make this application completely inappropriate for New Zealand’s national interest.

Environment

•The Mackenzie Country is an iconic brown tussock landscape. This unique and fragile environment will be radically altered by irrigation and intensive dairying.
•The Mackenzie is important habitat for threatened plants and birds which rely on a dry tussockland habitat.
•The proposed farms will be heavily reliant on supplementary feed being trucked in from elsewhere, with resulting milk produced in large volumes needing to be trucked out.
•Large amounts of fecal solids will be stored above ground to be applied to pasture in specified months. Leachate from these deposits will radically alter the nutrient levels in the surrounding land, making life untenable for much of the native flora and fauna.

Water quality:

•The consent applications include large effluent ponds and plans to discharge large amounts of diluted effluent onto the land every day. This will alter the nutritional balance of streams, waterways and rivers in the vicinity.
•The majestic Upper Waitaki & important recreational lakes such as Lakes Benmore and Aviemore are at risk of contamination from effluent and nutrient runoff.

Tourism and international brand

•The Mackenzie Country is a major drawcard for international tourists, and the gateway to Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park. Over 200,000 international tourists visit the National Park each year
•New Zealand’s tradition of farming animals outside and on pasture is integral to our clean, green image and our competitive advantage. News that New Zealand dairy products come from factory farmed cows will undermine our international brand, which is unfair to the many good farmers who are farming sustainably.

Animal health and welfare:

•It is cruel to house cows inside without fresh air and sunlight for 8 months of the year and for 12 hours a day during summer.
•Animals confined in close quarters are at greater risk of injury and infection and are likely to need controlling with antibiotics.

6. In the box marked “Consent”, enter your desired outcome, for example

I wish Environment Canterbury to decline the application in it’s entirety.

7. Hit the submit button and wait for your confirmation email.

Don’t forget you need to do this for all three applications. If enough people make submissions we can stop factory farming getting a foothold in New Zealand.

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There is still time to prevent Factory Farming in NZ

Three companies have applied for resource consent to establish massive dairy farms in the Mackenzie Basin, otherwise known as NZ’s High Country.

What’s unusual about these applications is that the cows would be confined indoors for most of the year. According to an article in Stuff:

Proposals by the three companies for resource consents for 16 new dairy farm developments managing nearly 18,000 cows housed in cubicle stables are before Environment Canterbury (ECan).

Under the plans, cows will be confined in cubicle stables 24 hours a day for eight months of the year, from March to October, and allowed outside for 12 hours a day from November to February.

Three companies have submitted applications to Environment Canterbury and they are available online; Southdown Holdings 7000 cows, Five Rivers Ltd 7000 cows, Williamson Holdings 3850 cows. The following information is taken directly from the combined numbers in their applications.

Number of cows:  17,850
Size of effluent ponds to be built: 414,000,000 litres
Daily effluent discharge: 1,743,000 litres per day
Water use: not specified but logically must be more than effluent discharge

There are some major problems with the introduction of large-scale factory dairy farming to New Zealand.

Our clean, green image we sell to the world is under serious threat. Already damaged from revelations about our heavy use of Palm Kernel and animal abuse on our largest dairy farms, allowing factory farming to get a foothold could well be the last nail in the coffin of our clean, green mythology and the billions of dollars of export earnings that rely on it.

The McKenzie country is not well suited to dairy farming. The huge amounts of food and water required every day will have to be transported to the cows. Likewise, the millions of litres of resulting effluent will be spread onto the surrounding land. The farms under application are based around the southern end of Lake Ohau, in the middle of what most of the world considers to be pristine, iconic New Zealand landscape.

According to Russel Norman, Greens co-leader:

If the proposals went ahead, vast amounts of cow urine and faeces would be discharged on to land daily, threatening pristine high country lakes and rivers with pollution and algal blooms.

Using Environment Waikato data that cows produced 15 times more waste than humans, it would be “like building a city for 270,000 people in the Mackenzie Basin and having them crap on the ground”.

The animal welfare issues with confining this many cows indoors are well known – the rest of the world already has extensive experience with intensive factory farming and the negative impacts on cow health and wellbeing are well documented.

Demonstrating their usual support for any farming practice that makes a profit, Federated Farmers said “so-called factory farming” cut costs, was environmentally friendly, and would not tarnish New Zealand’s reputation, in a quote to 3News.

You would think that Fonterra would be taking a leadership role, as they are one of the biggest single beneficiaries of New Zealand’s clean, green image we sell to the world (turnover $16B in 2008).

In a recent news article, New Zealand’s largest purchaser of milk, Fonterra is concerned about the damage this development could do to our international clean, green image. Sadly, the terms of their near-monopoly agreement with the government means they must collect milk from any farm that wants to supply them. While they can penalise farmers for poor quality milk, they cannot discriminate on sustainability or animal welfare grounds.

If their flagship indoor dairy farm near Beijing is anything to go by, Fonterra are happy to utilise factory farming in other parts of the world, but when it comes to New Zealand, they can see the problems (at least from a marketing perspective) with factory farming.

Now is the time to have a national conversation about where to draw the line. If we let factory dairy farms become established we will lose so much more than some high country land covered in tussock.

You can stop this happening but you need to act now. Public submissions close on 18th December – you can have your say by submitting your feedback to Ecan online. The three applications are Southdown Holdings, Five Rivers Ltd and Williamson Holdings.

I’ve prepared a guide to making your submision online based in part on the excellent NZ Greens’ Action Alert.

Blog and Press Coverage:

NZ Greens – Action Alert: Factory Farming in the Mackenzie Country
TVNZ – Govt, farmers at odds over factory farming
Stuff – Fonterra fears cow cubicles could mar brand
Foodweek – Greens oppose ‘factory farming’
NZ Greens – Battery cows: coming soon to a farm near you
HomePaddock – We can’t have it both ways
Bright Wings – Proposed dairy factory farming raises alarm
3News – “Factory farms” would harm NZ’s clean image – Greens
Stuff – Indoor cubicles for cows planned

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This is Depression 2.0

While it doesn’t quite feel that bad yet here in NZ, the global data suggest we are in a situation as bad (or worse if you take a literal view) than the 1930′s. Industrial output, stock markets and world trade are all declining faster now than during the Great Depression.

Naked Capitalism lays out the figures in an elegant article.

Just as the Great War became known as WWI when superseded, I suspect we’ll be calling the current event Depression II in hindsight. The question now is how much worse will it get and how long will it last? We’ve been in decline for a year while during the Great Depression there were three years of decline before a slow trip back to recovery.

I’m all for positivity and believe we shouldn’t dwell on the negative, but acknowledging and and facing the full depth of the situation at hand will better help us adapt to it. The pundits that confidently tell us things will pick up this year have no basis for their argument – we are in uncharted territory now and their cheery delusions won’t help any of us in the long run.

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Installing Windows 7 on HP mini 1000

Fulfilling my geek quota for a month or two, I installed Windows 7 on K’s new HP mini 1000. We had the Win7 beta DVD but of course the mini has no dvd drive or ethernet port, ruling out the two most obvious install options.

It does have USB ports but I couldn’t set the BIOS to boot from USB so it was looking a bit ropey. The mini comes with XP installed so I tried copying the contents of the DVD (about 3GB) onto the mini’s C: drive and presto – setup ran from within XP and it installed perfectly!

If in doubt, go with the simplest option first :-)

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The Bailout in Perspective

I thought the bailout was a waste of money on a colossal scale before I came across this comparison of some large chunks US governement spending since WWII. Now I’m just dumbfounded. (via Tim Price’s excellent The Price of Everything blog).

Jim Bianco of Bianco Research recently tried to put just the US figures into context. He concluded that the extent of the US bailout to date is currently bigger than all of the following US government expenditures combined:

  • The Marshall Plan. Cost: $12.7 billion. Inflation-adjusted cost: $115.3 billion.
  • The Lousiana Purchase. Cost: $15 million. Inflation-adjusted cost: $217 billion.
  • Race to the moon. Cost: $36.4 billion. Inflation-adjusted cost: $237 billion.
  • Savings and Loan crisis. Cost: $153 billion. Inflation-adjusted cost: $256 billion.
  • Korean War. Cost: $54 billion. Inflation-adjusted cost: $454 billion.
  • The New Deal. Cost: $32 billion (est.). Inflation-adjusted cost: $500 billion (est.)
  • Invasion of Iraq. Cost: $551 billion. Inflation-adjusted cost: $597 billion.
  • Vietnam War. Cost: $111 billion. Inflation-adjusted cost: $698 billion.
  • NASA. Cost: $416.7 billion. Inflation-adjusted cost: $851.2 billion.

That aggregate total of $3.9 trillion is $686 billion less than the cost of the credit crisis in the US thus far. And as commentator Barry Ritholtz points out, the only event that comes close to the cost of the current financial crisis is World War II, with the inflation-adjusted cost borne by the United States summing to some $3.6 trillion. Bloomberg calculates that the US taxpayer is on the hook for a total of $7.76 trillion of liabilities, which equates to $24,000 for every man, woman and child in the country.

It’s just staggering to imagine all that we could have achieved if that money had been better spent. I suspect history will not judge us kindly for squandering our last chance to create a sustainable, equitable society before all the crises we know are coming arrive.

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The First Useful GM Crop?

Could rice genetically engineered to withstand flooding be the first actually useful GM crop? This article from CNN explains how precision breeding (taking genes from other plants in the same species) has allowed researchers at University of California-Davis to create a flood tolerant variety.

With climate change inducing increasingly unusual weather patterns, flooding could become a major problem to many rice farmers around the world.

“Normal rice dies after three days of complete flooding. Researchers know of at least one rice variety that can tolerate flooding for longer periods, but conventional breeding failed to create a strain that was acceptable to farmers.

So Ronald and her colleagues — David Mackill, senior scientist at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and Julia Bailey-Serres, professor of genetics at the University of California-Riverside — spent the last decade working to find a rice strain that could survive flooding for longer periods. Mackill identified a flood-resistant gene 13 years ago in a low-yielding traditional Indian rice variety.

He passed along the information to Ronald, who isolated the gene, called Sub1, and introduced it into normal rice varieties, generating rice that could withstand being submerged in water for 17 days.”

While “precision breeding” sounds like a euphemism for GM, it is different from what we would regard as classic GM – it does not produce transgenic organisms. The process takes genes from within the same species and uses GM techniques to insert the desired genes into the target organism. Such precision bred organisms would not trigger traditional GM tests (this may be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective). Precision breeding is a technique pioneered in NZ.

The article goes on to say:

“The researchers anticipate that the flood-tolerant rice plants will be available to farmers in Bangladesh and India within two years. Because the plants are the product of precision breeding, rather than genetic modification, they are not subject to the same regulatory testing that can delay release of genetically modified crops.”

I’m not sure I would agree that precision breeding is not GM but I concede the risk of unknown interactions associated with same-species DNA transfer is lower than that of transgenic transfer.

As for the ownership of the technology, it will not be of much benefit to 3rd world farmers if they are forced to buy new proprietary seed every year, rather than saving seed as they have done for thousands of years.

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Peak Phosphate – do we have time to mitigate?

Graphic from The Oil Drum

NZ currently uses about a million tones of phosphate fertiliser each year. Its use underpins our entire agricultural economy so in the context of global shortages of oil and other resources, it should play a big part of our discussions. According to the U.S. Geological Survey “There are no substitutes for phosphorus in agriculture” (organic and permaculture aside). We currently import 80% of our phosphate fertiliser from Morocco.

While Morocco has their name on the manifest of the bulk carriers that regularly stop off at Tauranga, Napier and Port Chalmers, the phosphate in fact comes from West Sahara. This region is under military occupation by Morocco and while the NZ government acknowledges the occupation is illegal, the importation of phosphate from Morocco is allowed.

Ethics aside, we don’t currently have too many options. Morocco controls two thirds of the world’s phosphate resources and are happy to do business with the West, but they themselves are facing “peak phosphate” in the near future. Just like oil, we are a small player at the end of a long, fragile supply chain. We are dreaming if we think we can keep importing it indefinitely in the face of a global shortage.

The price of rock phosphate has gone up tenfold in the last year – from $US50 a tonne to $US490 and this is making a local source of phosphate near Milton, in the South Island a viable option again. The Milton deposit was last commercially mined during World War 2 when Japan took control of Nauru, our source of phospahte at the time. Fertiliser co-operative Ravensdown has signed up mineral and land agreements over 72ha but they are looking at as much as 500ha.

This deposit could provide us with 10 years of self-sufficiency in phosphate if it proves viable to extract it. Once world phosphate supplies start to decline, they are gone forever so surely the smart thing would be to keep ours in the ground as long as possible, giving us a 10 year window to mitigate against peak phosphate by adopting new practices. Industrial agriculture and horticulture will not exist without an abundant cheap supply of phosphates and we know a time is coming when they will be gone.

Something as vital as a 10 year reserve of phosphate should be nationalised as part of a complete food security strategy – this is simply too important to leave it to the markets to decide what to do.

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Who killed the bees? – I think we know

Gaucho, a seed coating used widely around the world has been banned in Germany in the face of compelling evidence that is it responsible for Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The full story is here.

While it’s great news we have a handle on what is causing CCD, the disturbing part is that Gaucho (and its family of related chemicals) is still widely used in NZ. While we haven’t yet seen CCD in NZ to the same degree as other countries, surely now is the time to get this poison out of our eco-system?

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What’s in your pasta sauce?

“We pack garbage for them anyway, and they always take it, but we’ve hit new lows.”

Industrial food has always tended towards lowest cost ingredients. No matter what marketers tell you about their “all-natural” or “premium-quality” ingredients, when you are producing a product made from dozens of commodity ingredients,  cost is king.

A recent example involves the US owners of NZ’s largest tomato processors. Apart from distorting the market, bribery seems to override any concerns over quality. The article from stuff.co.nz is reproduced below as stories tend to disappear after a short while.

NZPA | Monday, 18 August 2008

Bribery claims against broker

A former broker for the American owner of New Zealand’s biggest tomato-processing operation, SK Foods, is under investigation for allegedly offering bribes to sell tomato-based products to buyers for food giants including Kraft, Frito-Lay and Safeway, according to court documents.

An FBI agent said in an affidavit filed in a United States court that SK Foods chief executive officer Scott Salyer encouraged New Jersey-based broker Randall Rahal to offer bribes to buyers over a four-year period, the Monterey Herald reported.

SK Foods bought a 55 per cent stake in Gisborne-based processor Cedenco in May 2001, purchasing the shares of Brierley Investments and Mangatu Investments for $NZ1.52 a share, and in 2003 acquired a 90% stake and forced a compulsory purchase of the rest of the shares at $2.30 each.

The bribery allegations are outlined in a 36-page sworn statement filed by FBI Special Agent Paul Artley in a US District Court in Sacramento in support of the US Government’s seizure of $US600,000 ($NZ870,953.69) from two of Rahal’s bank accounts.

Money used to bribe food buyers flowed through the accounts, Artley said.

The case is being investigated by the FBI, and an Internal Revenue Service spokeswoman, Arlette Lee, said: “Instead of having to bid for and getting people to buy your product from you, you allegedly pay bribes to guarantee the other company will purchase the product from SK Foods.”

SK Foods declined comment beyond a prepared statement that said the company “continues to co-operate fully in the Government’s investigation”.

While the company’s corporate headquarters are in Monterey, California, it is part of the SK Foods Group, which owns Salyer American Fresh Foods, SK Frozen Foods and Cedenco Foods Ltd, of New Zealand, with two processing plants in this country and Australia.

A former SK Foods employee, identified as a witness in the affidavit, told investigators that SK Foods paid bribes to increase its market share, and that Salyer was present during conversations in which Rahal talked about bribes he paid through his company, Intramark, to protect SK Foods from fallout if Rahal was caught.

Payouts from Intramark to several individuals included $US157,000 to a Kraft employee and $US81,000 to an employee of Frito-Lay, according to Artley’s affidavit.

FBI agents intercepted a conversation with an SK Foods employee in which Rahal talked about a discussion he had with a purchaser about the quality of the product being supplied, saying, “We pack garbage for them anyway, and they always take it, but we’ve hit new lows.” NZPA

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A Sustainable Economy?

With the economy now officially in recession (“but only technically!” the pundits point out) it’s worth thinking about what growth really means. Any constant increase over time, even as little as 3% per annum for example, equates to exponential growth. When we think about balloons, fat or debt, (or almost anything except the economy) we know intuitively that unlimited growth is impossible to sustain. Here’s a great little primer…

So if our economy is stagnant, or receding slightly, does that mean we are finally living sustainably? I’m sure a lot of us don’t feel very sustained right now.

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Globalisation in reverse?

With the cost of everything climbing ever upwards, could we be seeing the beginning of the unwinding of globalisation? When manufacturing and assembly jobs start returning home, could we be approaching the point where increased transport costs remove the competitive advantage of 3rd world labour?

I’m sure “free market” types will call for increased transport subsidies to keep the globalisation agenda on track, but at the end of the day the market will do what is most economically sensible, even if that means retreating from a global marketplace.

However it pans out, the way we make stuff, move it to overseas markets and convince people to buy it will all be done differently in the near future. I just hope the decades of degradation our manufacturing infrastructure has endured hasn’t destroyed our ability to bring more industry home. Between the big box retailers, lack of local protection for industry and the woeful state of our trade skills base (and lack of new apprentice skills coming through) we don’t have much local manufacturing to revive.

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Deckchairs on the Titanic…

139…it’s amazing how much fuss a number can generate. With the price of oil reaching a new high last week, the concept of further, unending rises has finally made it’s way half-heartedly into the mainstream media.

With the story is covered by every major news outlet, estimates of $150 to $250 oil are floating around. I suspect both estimates will be correct, given enough time. Coverage or investigation into the actual causes of the situation, or the possible ramifications has been fairly thin on the ground.

It’s ironic that while both the Automobile Association and some NZ banks are calling for relief for motorists in this “extraordinary time” in the form of reduced pump prices and tax relief respectively, the US and other developing countries are crying foul about fuel subsidies in the developing world. Apparently, the current high prices are the fault of India, China, Japan, South Korea etc who subsidize their nation’s fuel use. There is very little mention of the fact that global oil production has been fairly static around 85 million barrels per day for the last 3 years while demand has continued to climb. If Saudi Arabia could produce more oil to increase supplies, don’t you think they already would be?

So if the markets are this jittery now in the face of constrained supply, how will they react when available oil actually starts declining? Once you are at the plateau of the peak curve, there’s only one way to go. The media and most of the public are treating the current high oil prices like an extraordinary event – and sure they are, but not in the way the 70′s oil shock was or the ’87 stock market crash was. The current situation is extraordinary because it is the first time we’ve been in this position (in the 70′s there was plenty of oil available, just not to us), but it certainly isn’t going to be a one-off occurrence.

In addition to the calls for a reduction in tax on food (and just this week, petrol), we’ve just been told each working person will get a few dollars of tax relief a week come October. Even if all of these measures come to pass, the actual benefit to consumers will be completely swallowed up by the continuous march of food and fuel prices over the coming months.

The link between energy prices and our standard of living isn’t being spelled out clearly enough. This week in Spain “the regional government of Catalonia enacted an emergency action plan to bring in fresh food and fuel supplies after nearly half of its forecourts ran dry and supermarkets shelves were left bare. The situation was the result of the second day of an “indefinite” nationwide strike staged by lorry drivers”. Just two days without fuel deliveries and supermarkets were running empty. Admittedly, this was due to local protest action, but it shows how fragile our supply chain has become in the face of any disruptions to fuel availability.

NZ is at the end of a very long, fragile supply chain when it comes to getting most of our energy. We are deluding ourselves if we think we will always have access to plentiful oil (at any price) when the rest of the world it scrabbling to control what is a declining global supply. We urgently need to have the discussion about our food and energy security, but I fear we will have to hit the iceberg before we realise it’s time to change course.

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Happy 300th Chicken Rescuer!

The Chicken Rescue Network is a wee project I set up about 18 months ago after we had re-homed some ex battery hens from the SPCA. It’s just clicked over the 300 member mark and we have re-homed more than 400 chickens, roosters (and the odd duck).

It’s a very small drop in the ocean compared to the millions of chickens raised and kept in terrible conditions in NZ but it’s a start.

I would love to see battery hens as an election issue this year, but with food prices going up, I don’t fancy our chances of getting more people to pay more for ethically produced eggs.

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Farmgeek has moved

Well, no the site is still here, but our physical location has changed. Our long-planned move to a more sustainable life has happened and we are now based in Masterton, in NZ’s beautiful Wairarapa.

Having stepped purposefully of the conveyor of big city life we are settling in to what I hope will be the best of both worlds. I’ve started a new blog to record our challenges, achievements and fun times. Head on over to lifeboat.co.nz to visit lifeboat farm (our escape pod from Auckland :)

I can’t promise there will be much activity on farmgeek, but I will try to keep it alive with the occasional post.

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