Commodity Corner

Views on commodities and energy

Millions Fed: some solutions close at hand

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More than a billion people go hungry each day — about the same number as did in the late 1950s. That’s both a “tragedy on a grand scale” and an “astounding success,” according to a new report called “Millions Fed,” produced by the International Food Policy Research Institute and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
    
While the absolute number of hungry people is the same as it was 40 years ago, the proportion is dramatically smaller — one in six today, compared to one in three then, the report said. It illustrates 20 successful case studies where progress has been made in the fight against hunger.

Some solutions come from science: new varieties of wheat, rice, beans, maize, cassava, millet and sorghum. Others deal with markets, government policies, or the environment.
    
Two farmers from the Sahel region of Africa, oft plagued by drought and famine, visited Washington last month to talk about solutions they found close to home — one of the success stories trumpeted in “Millions Fed.”
    
Almost 30 years ago, farmers in Burkina Faso experimented with a traditional technique called “zai,” digging pits in their plots and adding manure to improve soils before the rainy season, resulting in dramatically better yields.
    
Yacouba“There was a long period of drought in my village,” Yacouba Sawadogo told reporters. “Many people left because their life was very, very difficult. But I decided to stay,” he said, explaining how he taught others the technique.
    
In Niger, farmers manage trees on their land to prevent erosion, improve yields, and provide livestock fodder. Before, women had to walk 6 miles to get firewood, but now they have enough for themselves and to sell to others, said Sakina Mati, who coordinates tree projects in six villages.
    
The projects have improved 13 million acres of farmland and fed 3 million people, said Oxfam America, a development group that works with the farmers.
    
It’s food for thought as rich nations ramp up efforts to help small farmers grow more food in poor countries. “In our approach toward solutions and programs, we really need to listen as well as talk,” said Gawain Kripke of Oxfam.
    
“Solutions don’t always come from us.”


    

PHOTO CREDIT: Yacouba Sawadogo on his farm in Burkina Faso /Courtesy of Oxfam America

Blanche Lincoln and her committee of chairmen

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On the congressional scale of measurement, Blanche Lincoln got a plum of a birthday present — the gavel as Senate committee chairman. She is the first woman to head the Agriculture Committee. Amid the congratulatory banter on Sept 30, Lincoln’s 49th birthday, were reminders of the enduring power of its members, past and present.

LincolnAs Lincoln noted, her committee includes the chairmen of four other committees — Budget, Judiciary, Finance and Health. It is a higher number of sitting chairmen than most Senate committees and allows a useful melding of interests.

Vilsack rips media over swine flu, I mean, H1N1

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Hog markets are depressed. Farmers struggle to put food on the table. Hard times are seeping into the rural economy, hurting owners of grocery and hardware stores.

Blame the media, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, unleashing several lengthy rants about the evils of oversimplification during a 25-minute teleconference with reporters on Thursday.

U.S. soy planting record possible, corn out of reach

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U.S. farmers could set a record for soybean plantings this year, topping 2008′s 75.7 million acres. The Agriculture Department will release its initial projection of seedings later this week. Some economists see plantings of 79 million acres (32.9 million ha) given that market prices and production costs currently favor soybeans.

Most expect corn plantings to lose ground as global recession takes the shine off demand from livestock and ethanol. But it would be daunting to break the U.S. corn plantings record even if the biofuels boom were re-ignited.

The answer is 99,439. Pass it on.

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During his first week on the job, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said no one knows for sure how many people work at the Agriculture Department. Speaking to USDA employees and later to reporters, he used that startling anomaly as an argument to update USDA’s computer equipment.

Like the admonition against saying “never” or “always” during an argument, there could be a corollary: Never say “no one knows” in a bureaucracy.