Good news on the food front

As you might know from reading past
issues of Population News, agricultural production in the United States
and the world has fallen over the past few years, leading some groups
such as WorldWatch Institute to predict we are finally at the beginning
of the end of cheap, abundant food. Critics like myself, however, contend
that such oscillations are temporary and an inherent part of agricultural
markets which correct themselves.

New forecasts by the United States
Department of Agriculture sheds yet more light on the debate, and the
results aren’t good for the gloom-and-doom crowd.

A few weeks ago the USDA announced
that the U.S. soybean crop would set a record, forecasting 1.525 billion
bushels of soybeans would be produced with record exports of 2.9 billion
pounds of soy oil and near-record levels of 7.9 million short tons of
soy meal exported in the coming year.

Now the USDA reports that American
farmers are planting a record 80.8 million acres of corn — the most since
1985 — but only 67 million acres of wheat, the lowest since 1988. The
USDA expects that overall US wheat and corn exports will decline as worldwide
demand for US agricultural exports decline and consequently prices for
wheat, corn and soybeans should decline by 20 to 90 cents a bushel from
last year’s crop.

What exactly is going on here?
Well, don’t you know, it turns out people do respond to market prices
after all. Following the relatively low levels of world production of
corn and soybean the past few years, farmers around the world have apparently
switched large amounts of land to growing corn and soybean. South American
exports of soybean and corn are expected to be a major source cutting
into US exports.

Contrary to a WorldWatch report
that grain prices were headed inevitably up, in fact the opposite has
happened. The cost of a bushel of wheat on the Chicago Board of Trade
recently fell to $2.9850,a 4-1/2 year low. A bushel of corn was up slightly
to $2.4950. Hardly the agricultural disaster predicted by WorldWatch.

Strip-till farming gains support

In the past I’ve mentioned the benefits of no-till
farming which helps cut down on soil erosion. On the downside, however,
are potentially lower yields. Well, according to an Associated Press
report a University of Illinois researcher is exploring what he calls
strip tilling.

Wayne Pederson, a plant pathologist, says strip-tilling
involves tilling in strips that are only 7 inches wide while leaving the
rest of the field undisturbed. This combines the best of both worlds,
with tilling’s warmer and drier soil and no-till’s soil conservation.

“We’re basically finding strip-till is
a hybrid combination,” Pedersen said. “Within that 7-inch strip
it’s a tiled field. Between the 7-inch strips it’s no-tilled and you get
all the benefits of water conservation and erosion control that you’d
get with no-till.”

The practice has been in use in parts of Illinois
since the early 1990s, in some cases producing yields very close to what
would be expected from conventional tillage practices.

North Korea reaches food agreement, declares martial law

On March 27 Reuters reported that Red
Cross officials from North and South Korea reached an agreement on monitoring
of relief aid, clearing the way for a 50,000 ton food shipment to famine-plagued
North Korea. The food will be shipped into North Korea beginning later
this month and extending through May 1998.

The main sticking point was South Korean concerns
that food aid would be used to feed North Korea’s military rather than
starving civilians. No details on what sort of monitoring scheme would
be used were offered.

A March 25 Agence France-Press report
claimed North Korean strongman Kim Il-Jong had imposed martial law and
was beginning a purge of military and political rivals after a shooting
incident between police and the military on March.

Among those rumored to be arrested was Kim
Cong-U who had been charged with liberalizing North Korea’s centrally
planned economy.

It’s too bad Kim Il-Jong doesn’t spend as much
effort feeding his people as he does protecting his privileged political
position.

Can OPEC stop tumbling oil prices?

OPEC nations concerned over the continuing low
market prices for oil met at the end of March to try to bolster prices
by cutting supply. Oil markets let out a collective yawn over the cartel’s
efforts.

In a Reuters story, Steve Wyatt, managing
director of U.S. Petroleum Ltd., noted there is an enormous barrier to
OPEC’s supply cutting efforts. “We are at a 20-year high in stocks
of products and crude oil,” Wyatt said. In order for OPEC to have
any upward effect on oil prices any production quotas would have to be
strictly maintained. Unfortunately OPEC doesn’t have much of a history
in recent years of getting its members to stick to such quotas. For example,
Venezuela’s OPEC quota is 2.583 million barrels of oil per day, but it
pumps nearly 3.2 million barrels per day.

That is unlikely to change any. Two key oil
producing nations, Indonesia and Iran are both unlikely to maintain their
quotas even if they do give public lip service to them — both nations
need the currency garnered by oil sales. In addition Iraq will sell every
bit of oil the United Nations will let it, and Iraqi oil output is only
likely to increase in the foreseeable future.

The bottom line — cheap oil and gasoline are
going to remain a reality for the near term, though gasoline prices may
begin to rise to moderately higher levels in midsummer.

China to reach 1.6 billion by 2050

In mid-March China’s State Family
Planning Commission announced it expected that nation’s population
to peak at 1.6 billion by 2050 and then begin to decline gradually.

According to an Agence France-Presse
report, “China’s population will begin to drop gradually in
the middle of the 21st century when the population structure becomes more
rational and due to better family planning, the commission said.”

Given China’s failure with its one-child
policy, the results of its renewed efforts to promote family planning
are questionable.

El Nino could cause crop loss in California

California, already suffering huge crop
losses late last year from extensive flooding, may experience large crop
losses if El Nino causes rain storms to continue through March.

In an Associated Press report,
farmers and officials said that continued storms through March would make
it very difficult for bees to pollinate blooming trees and plants. The
result could be another year of huge crop losses for California, which
lost $746 million in 1995 to storms.

“If this keeps up and keeps growers
from planting vegetable crops or corn for dairies, it could have a ripple
effect through the entire agriculture economy,” said Modesto nurseryman
Bob Driver.

The most immediate threat is to California’s
$1 billion almond crop, but lettuce growers are also concerned continued
heavy rain will disrupt planting schedules.