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May 2009: Notes of Interest

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Notes of Interest

Farm Production Falls
The White House Garden

The True Cost of Ethanol
Earth Hour

  • According to the South African National Agricultural Marketing Council, 2007 marked the first time in 20 years that  South Africa became a net importer of agricultural products. Local food output simply failed to keep pace with a growing population. Also the number of farms in active production fell by 12.7 percent to fewer than 40,000 in the span of just five years, according to Statistics SA. Agriculture experts attributed the decline to consolidation, while discounting a government view that food-producing land was being bought up for golf courses and game farms. From South Africa Business Report,


  • United States First Lady Michelle Obama is becoming known as an outspoken advocate for organic foods and healthy diets. For the first time since Eleanor Roosevelt's World War II Victory Garden there is a sizable garden (1,100 square feet) on the White House grounds. According to a New York Times article by Marian Burros, “the Clintons grew some vegetables in pots on the White House roof; the Obamas’ garden will far transcend that, with 55 varieties of vegetables — from a wish list of the kitchen staff — grown from organic seedlings started at the Executive Mansion’s greenhouses. The Obamas will feed their love of Mexican food with cilantro, tomatillos and hot peppers. Lettuces will include red romaine, green oak leaf, butterhead, red leaf and galactic. There will be spinach, chard, collards and black kale. For desserts, there will be a patch of berries. And herbs will include some more unusual varieties, like anise hyssop and Thai basil. A White House carpenter, Charlie Brandts, who is a beekeeper, will tend two hives for honey.” A group of twenty-three elementary school students helped break ground on the new garden, further solidifying Mrs. Obama's commitment to educating children about nutrition, and may help spur on the already active national movement of school-yard farms and gardens.


  • David Pimentel, Professor of Ecology and Agricultural Sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca NY, is one of the world’s experts on crunching the numbers for energy inputs and outcomes. He has used his extensive research to weigh in on many of the important issues facing global agriculture. In a brief summary on the logistics of ethanol production he has broken down the global impacts and viability of biofuel from corn and cellulosic biomass. He states, “ Using corn or any other biomass for ethanol requires large land areas of fertile soil, and sunlight for green plant production plus significant quantities of water. ... Enthusiasts suggest ethanol produced from corn grain and cellulosic biomass, like grasses, could replace much of the oil used in U.S. Consider that 33% of the U.S. corn crop was converted into 9 billion gallons of ethanol in 2009, but that amount replaced only 1.3% of U.S. oil consumption. If the entire corn crop were used, it would replace a mere 4% of oil consumption and not make the U.S. independent of foreign oil!” He continues by explaining the inefficiencies of cellulosic processing which uses non-food crops, “Unfortunately, cellulosic biomass contains less than 1/3 the amount of starches and sugars in corn and requires major fossil energy inputs to release the tightly bound starches and sugars for ethanol conversion. About 170% more energy (oil and gas) is required to produce ethanol from cellulosic biomass than the ethanol produced. ...  The environmental impacts of corn ethanol are serious and diverse. These include severe soil erosion of valuable cropland, plus the heavy use of nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides that pollute rivers. …  Each gallon of ethanol requires 1,700 gallons of water (mostly to grow the corn) and releases 12 gallons of noxious sewage effluent from the fermentation process into the environment. Using food crops, such as corn grain, to produce ethanol also raises major nutritional and ethical concerns. Nearly 60% of humans in the world are currently malnourished, so the need for grains and other basic foods is critical. Growing crops for fuel squanders land, water, and energy resources vital for the production of food for people.” Pimental's studies have shown quite clearly that ethanol requires more energy to produce than it releases when burned as fuel. The subsidized experiments in ethanol production have greatly impacted global shortages and contributed directly to a 75% increase in world food prices according to the World Bank.


  • On March 28, 2009, between 8:30 and 9:30 pm, a voluntary blackout rolled across global time zones. The World Wildlife Fund's Earth Hour campaign began as a way to highlight the growing concerns of global warming and provides a simple positive act that sparked unified action all over the world. Earth Hour began in Sydney in 2007, when 2.2 million homes and businesses switched off their lights for one hour. In 2008 the message had grown, with over 50 million people switching off their lights. Global landmarks such as the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Rome’s Colosseum, the Space Needle in Seattle, London's City Hall, Thailand's Wat-Arun-Wararam Temple, and the Sydney Opera House all stood in darkness for 60 minutes. According to the WWF, “Earth Hour 2009 was a tremendous success, as over 4000 cities and towns in 88 countries, along with millions of people, dimmed their lights for this important occasion.”  The Earth Hour webpage has more information on how to join this ongoing movement and displays a moving before-and-after lights out slide-show of Earth Hour participation from around the world at




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