Sunday, April 27, 2008

Global Food Crisis

This week, the head of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Josette Sheeran called for "urgent action to tackle the 'silent tsunami' of rising food prices which threatens to push more than 100 million people worldwide into hunger."

The PBS broadcast, News Hour reported a stern warning from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. "If not handled properly, this crisis could result in a cascade of others ... and become a multidimensional problem affecting economic growth, social progress and even political security around the world." More than 34 countries experienced protest, unrest, or food riots within the last month.

Today, the Washington Post began a multi- part series, Global Food Crisis: The New World of Soaring Food Prices, with at least four daily reports, online videos, chats, and background information.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Bloggers Unite

One of my fellow-bloggers, Anthony Schutz recently conducted one of our LL.M. classes at the University of Arkansas School of Law via video conference from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Law. We dialed in to Nebraska, and Anthony conducted an excellent class, engaging the students in full live discussion. The opportunity for video conferencing offers specialty areas of the law such as agricultural and food law, as well as schools with smaller faculties the possibility of bringing topical experts into the classroom with ease and with little cost. We look forward to increasing collaboration with Anthony and with others in the law of food and agriculture. Thanks, Anthony!
For more information on the class, visit the Ag Law LL.M blog.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Is Cash the Only Thing Green about the Renewable Fuel Standard?

In December 2007, the United States adopted a renewable fuel standard (RFS), which mandated expanded use of biofuels, including ethanol, even though corn and soybean prices were already increasing. Rather than providing a well-reasoned approach to U.S. fuel concerns, the RFS appears to reflect Merton’s "imperious immediacy of interest" problem. That is, proponents of ethanol wanted it to succeed so badly, they were willing ignore to any unintended effects such as higher food and feedstock costs and the potential for lost rangelands and forestlands.

The initial appeal of ethanol and other biofuels seems reasonable. As a recent Time Magazine article notes, “It make intuitive sense: cars emit carbon no matter what fuel they burn, but the process of growing plants for fuel sucks some of that carbon out of the atmosphere.” So corn-based ethanol should be green, or at least greener, than oil, right? Seems like it, but that is not always the case.

The studies that led to calculations deeming ethanol greener than petroleum-based fuels were based on the added carbon sequestration that would that take place because of the crops planted for fuel. However, it seems those studies failed to consider whether the fuel crops would be replacing rangelands or forestlands that were already sequestering carbon, without concomitant carbon outputs (such as those from tractors and other farm equipment) related to crop growth.

There are some indications that cellulosic-source ethanol is a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional fuels, but there is nothing requiring that the RFS be met with only ethanol from cellulosic sources. Despite some claims of “green” motivations, the current biofuel-promotion policies are predicated more on producing additional biofuel stores than addressing or even considering the environmental and human impacts of such policies.

A better ethanol policy would include requirements and incentives linked to new or emerging technologies that don’t create new competition for other already viable (e.g., corn) crops with established markets or lead to cleared tropical forests or savannas. Policies should instead promote only ethanol derived from growing high-diversity prairie hay grown on degraded lands, for instance, or from corn cobs. It would be more aggressive than current programs, but then, changing the status quo is never easy.

Sunset at the South Saint Paul stockyards

South St. Paul stockyards
This CAFO had become a doozy of a LULU. And now it's SOL and DOA. RIP, South Saint Paul Stockyards:
In a place that no longer belongs where it has always been, there rises from wood-slat pens the farewell lows and bellows of cold, wet cows. So long, so long, they call out to the oblivious human bustle. The stockyards of South St. Paul say goodbye.

The cattle adieu has been years in the planning, but now it is time. No longer can the end be forestalled by milk-and-meat memories of 122 years; by the boast that these trampled grounds once constituted the largest stockyards in the world; by the vital daily ritual of muck-flecked yardmen coaxing muck-flecked cows into the sales barn, where the auctioneer’s sweet serenade only hardens those bovine expressions of uh-oh.

Times have overtaken the stockyards, for reasons too obvious to dispute. Higher costs. Farms lost to suburban sprawl. The increasingly awkward presence of livestock in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, accustomed now to more sophisticated aromas than what wafts from the pens. . . .

Friday, April 11, 2008 [was] the last day, closing a deal struck over a year ago when the owner of the stockyards, the Central Livestock Association, sold off the last 27 acres of what was once 166 acres of mooing, bleating, undulating commerce. The new owners will soon bulldoze everything to make room for more buildings of light industry — pens for people.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Pharyngula, we are here

PZ Myers of Pharyngula has asked bloggers everywhere to help build a Google bomb that promotes the National Center for Science Education's website, Expelled Exposed. The project consists of embedding the word Expelled inside a matched pair of <a> and </a> tags. Here is a snippet of .html code that will do the trick:
<a href="" target=_blank style="font-style:italic">Expelled</a>
A blow against creationism is a blow for enlightenment, and we are pleased to help Professor Myers promote Expelled Exposed.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Center Rural Affairs on the Farm Bill: Rural Development Needs Unmet

The Center for Rural Affairs has a blog that it calls the Blog for Rural America. It provides a good example of the "bitterness" with which some members of the rural community view the farm bill negotiations. The post, Slap in the Face, is their latest reaction to Congress' efforts to provide increased payments to farming operations, while little is provided for rural development efforts.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Obama on Rural America - A Welcome Discussion

American political campaigns are infamous for providing sound bytes rather than addressing the complexity of the problems we face. Media coverage works hand in glove.

Yesterday, we caught a glimpse of a candidate attempting to discuss some of the problems facing small towns in rural America. Kudos to Senator Barack Obama.

Obama, rejecting the notion that rural voters would not vote for him because of his race, addressed the economic frustrations of the small town resident straight on. As reported in the Washington Post, he said that the theme of his campaign – change and hope for the future - was a difficult sell in "places where people feel most cynical about government." He said they were "bitter" and drew sharp criticism from his rivals, Senator Clinton and Senator McCain. Enter the sound bytes.

Although Obama has been criticized for his characterizations, aren’t many small town residents bitter about what their government is and is not doing?

Although it was clearly not the focus of the Obama speech, consider the farm bill - the legislation that should address the problems that face rural America, including small towns. Once upon a time, farm program payments helped rural communities, as the numerous local farmers spent their farm program dollars in nearby small towns. This does not describe today's reality. Because of the consolidation of farms, the concentration of payments, and the failure to link payments to farming communities, this is no longer the case.

Rural communities now are in competition with farmers for farm bill dollars. And, they do not do well in this competition. Current versions of the 2007 farm bill continue to allow the wealthiest of farmers to collect government payments; they still allow farm program payments to non-farmers living off the farm; and rural development programs continue to be the step child of policymakers.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer from Oregon was quoted in Lansing Farmer for his criticism of Congressional efforts to take money from other more worthy programs to fund a disaster assistance trust fund for farmers that would supplement the other assistance already provided. “Congress has had many chances to reform the Farm Bill, but up until now it has missed the mark. Our priorities should be conservation, nutrition, and rural development, not increased subsidies that do very little for the vast majority of farmers, with 60 percent of them getting nothing at all."

And this from "Tucked into" the disaster aid package pushed by Senators Baucus and Conrad is a "$489 million capital gains depreciation tax break for thoroughbred horse breeders."

I’d say small town residents may have a right to be bitter.

Let's have a discussion about rural America.

Friday, April 11, 2008

First Impressions Publishes Online Symposium

The Michigan Law Review's companion journal, First Impressions, published an online symposium on Agriculture Animals and Animal Law.

Contributors included Professor Joseph Vining (Michigan); Angela J. Geiman (Cargill Meat Solutions Corp.); Nancy Perry & Peter Brandt (Humane Society of the United States); Steven M. Wise (President of Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights); Professor Neil Hamilton (Drake University); Professor Bernard Rollin (Colorado State University), and Kyle Landis-Marinello (J.D. Candidate -- Michigan).

Congratulations to First Impressions on an impressive symposium!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Applied Ag Law

While many discussions on this blog involve policy issues and “big picture” agricultural law, it is good to remember that agricultural laws impact farmers as well as others on a personal level. And, the interaction of different laws may be complex. A reader’s recent question provided an example.

A farmer had farmed for 50 years along a river, with drainage pipe for his fields running to the river. Over the years the pipe had become clogged and the tide gate was eroded. He said that when the snows melted and the river rose, his fields flooded. He asked if he could make repairs to the system without permission from the local permitting authority.

My response to him was perhaps not that satisfying, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances. I replied as follows:
I cannot give you a yes or no answer to your question, nor can I advise you on this legal matter. I am not a licensed attorney in your state. However, the situation you described may well involve your local drainage laws, state water law and federal law under both the Clean Water Act and the Swampbuster provisions of the federal farm programs. Given the potential penalties that maybe involved, it is always safest to obtain permission from local authorities as well as your Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Natural Resources Conservation (NRCS) offices. Otherwise, you should contact an attorney in your state that is familiar with these types of issues. The American Agricultural Law Association sometimes serves as a good referral for attorneys interested in agricultural law issues. There is a public member search available by state. Your state bar association may also have an agricultural law or water law section that would be a good resource to you in finding an attorney. Good luck to you, and thanks for checking out the aglaw blog.
Just another reminder that there is a need for good agricultural law attorneys!

Friday, April 04, 2008

Meat Processing for Specialty Producers

This interesting information is from Marne Coit, J.D., LL.M., Agricultural Law. Marne serves as Research Fellow at the National Agricultural Law Center, University of Arkansas School of Law.

Consolidation in the meat packing industry as well as the predominance of large industrialized livestock and poultry operations have made it difficult for producers of "niche meat" products such as locally grown, certified organic, grass-fed, antibiotic-free and certified humane to find meat processors for their products. The Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network (NMPAN) is a new, national network which is currently forming. NMPAN's goal is to address some of the challenges facing meat processors. They are in the process of gathering information from people and/or organizations across the country. Their goal is "to strengthen and expand processing capacity, nation-wide, for niche meats," a win-win for specialty producers and interested consumers.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Energy & Agriculture: Beyond Corn

For my first post, I wanted to introduce myself. I am Josh Fershee, and I am a professor at the University of North Dakota School of Law, where I teach Energy Law and Policy, Business Associations I and II, and Labor and Employment Law. My research areas include all of my teaching areas, but have primarily focused on energy law, climate change, and renewable energy issues. And, as has become quite clear, U.S. policies for energy law and agricultural law have never been more intertwined.

The obvious overlap comes with corn and other crops used for ethanol. But energy law and agricultural law overlap on far more just ethanol policy. Various state renewable portfolio standards (and proposed federal programs) include biomass as one of the approved generation sources. And, according to the Union of Concern Scientists: “Tripling U.S. use of biomass for energy could provide as much as $20 billion in new income for farmers and rural communities and reduce global warming emissions by the same amount as taking 70 million cars off the road.” That’s no small potatoes.

Similarly, as wind energy gains momentum, many farmers are looking at wind as another cash “crop.” Wind energy supplies only about 1% of all power in the United States, but the potential is staggering. North Dakota (in theory) alone could supply about one quarter of all U.S. demand. (Getting that power to consumers would be an entirely different issue). And with the price of wind energy production dropping about 80% in the past two decades, the trend is likely to continue for a while.

Thank you for having me, and I look forward to your comments and input as I explore the intersection between energy law and agricultural law.