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    Mongabay, a leading resource for news and perspectives on environmental and conservation issues related to the tropics, has launched Tropical Conservation Science - a new, open access academic e-journal. It will cover a wide variety of scientific and social studies on tropical ecosystems, their biodiversity and the threats posed to them. Tropical Conservation Science - March 8, 2008.

    At the 148th Meeting of the OPEC Conference, the oil exporting cartel decided to leave its production level unchanged, sending crude prices spiralling to new records (above $104). OPEC "observed that the market is well-supplied, with current commercial oil stocks standing above their five-year average. The Conference further noted, with concern, that the current price environment does not reflect market fundamentals, as crude oil prices are being strongly influenced by the weakness in the US dollar, rising inflation and significant flow of funds into the commodities market." OPEC - March 5, 2008.

    Kyushu University (Japan) is establishing what it says will be the world’s first graduate program in hydrogen energy technologies. The new master’s program for hydrogen engineering is to be offered at the university’s new Ito campus in Fukuoka Prefecture. Lectures will cover such topics as hydrogen energy and developing the fuel cells needed to convert hydrogen into heat or electricity. Of all the renewable pathways to produce hydrogen, bio-hydrogen based on the gasification of biomass is by far both the most efficient, cost-effective and cleanest. Fuel Cell Works - March 3, 2008.

    An entrepreneur in Ivory Coast has developed a project to establish a network of Miscanthus giganteus farms aimed at producing biomass for use in power generation. In a first phase, the goal is to grow the crop on 200 hectares, after which expansion will start. The project is in an advanced stage, but the entrepreneur still seeks partners and investors. The plantation is to be located in an agro-ecological zone qualified as highly suitable for the grass species. Contact us - March 3, 2008.

    A 7.1MW biomass power plant to be built on the Haiwaiian island of Kaua‘i has received approval from the local Planning Commission. The plant, owned and operated by Green Energy Hawaii, will use albizia trees, a hardy species that grows in poor soil on rainfall alone. The renewable power plant will meet 10 percent of the island's energy needs. Kauai World - February 27, 2008.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Cuba allows more private farming to boost food production

Cuba is to put more state-controlled farm land into private hands, in a move to increase the island's lagging food production. The communist island state has a very large agro-ecological potential, so large in fact that it should be a net food and fuel exporter. But the catastrophically low efficiency of state farms and the disastrous effects of decades of mismanagement have prevented the full exploitation of this potential. Because of this, Cuba is now a net food and fuel importer.

In a major policy shift, private farmers who do well will now be able to increase their holdings by up to 40 hectares (99 acres) for a 10-year period that can be renewed. Until now, private farmers have only been able to run small areas of land.

The new move is one of President Raul Castro's most significant reforms to date. Raul, who took over from his ailing brother Fidel, considers reducing costly food imports as a matter of national security.

Since the 1959 revolution, some Cubans have been allowed to run small family farms. But most agriculture has been placed in the hands of large, state-owned enterprises. These have proved extremely inefficient - half the land is unused and today Cuba imports more than half its needs. Government statistics released last month show that the percentage of fallow or underused Cuban farm land increased to 55 percent in 2007, up from 46 percent in 2002. Just 29 percent of land on state farms is actively used.

Rising world food prices will cost the country an extra $1 billion this year. And luckily, these increased prices now trigger a more rational approach to agriculture and land reform.

The presidential decree was published in the country's Communist Party newspaper, Granma.
Decree-Law No. 259 authorizes the handing over in usufruct of idle state land to individuals and legal entities for using in a rational and sustainable form, in line with the land’s suitability for agricultural production.

It adds that the usufruct granted is for a period of up to 10 years in the case of individuals and up to 25 years in the case of legal entities.

It notes that the maximum amount of land to be distributed to individuals without any land is 13.42 hectares [33 acres] and, in the case of those holding land as their own property or in usufruct, they can increase it up to 40.26 hectares [99 acres].
The decree also says that farmers would have to pay taxes on their production, but it did not say how much. The reform has been promised for some time by President Raul Castro:
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Since taking over the presidency, Raul Castro has signed the UN human rights accords and lifted restrictions on Cubans owning mobile phones and computers.

He has also announced that workers can earn productivity bonuses, doing away with the egalitarian concept that everyone must earn the same.

Raul Castro has also hinted at the possibility that Cuba might invest in ethanol production in order to become less dependent on foreign oil imports. According to recent assessments by Cuban researchers, the country has the potential to become the world's third largest ethanol producer, while improving food output (previous post).

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the sugar-for-oil deal that kept Cuba alive for so long, the country's sugar outputs have fallen dramatically. More than half of Cuba's state-owned sugar mills are no longer operational and are rusing away. Sugar output is a tenth of what it used to be.

As is well known amongst development thinkers, bad governance and weak policies are key drivers of food insecurity. A country like Cuba, with its large agro-ecological potential, should be a net food exporter. But decades of mismanagement have prevented it from becoming a country capable of feeding itself. Luckily, the rising food prices are now prompting a more sensible approach to agriculture and land ownership in Cuba.

Granma: Council of State issues new legislation - July 18, 2008.

AP: Cuba allows private farmers to have more land - July 18, 2008.

Biopact: Biofuels could transform Cuba into a prosperous nation - February 20, 2008

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Values determine whether veggie burger tastes as good as beef burger

Many heavy meat eaters believe they eat a lot of meat because of the taste. But according to groundbreaking new research in the Journal of Consumer Research, the reason that a beef burger tastes better than a veggie burger to some people has more to do with values than actual taste.

This is an important finding because it confirms the anthropologists' view that culture, myth and values play at least as important a role in determining food habits as pure biological or utilitarian factors. And this is good news for those who try to make people eat less meat - because culture and values can be changed.

Lowering meat consumption is a worldchanging choice, because meat production requires a lot of land and embedded energy. The industry drives deforesation and contributes heavily to climate change (via methane emissions resulting from raising livestock). Cutting back on meat consumption has direct positive effects on the global environment and the climate.

So what's up with the meat-like veggie burger and its taste? Authors Michael W. Allen (University of Sydney), Richa Gupta (University of Nashville), and Arnaud Monnier (National Engineering School for Food Industries and Management, France) conducted a series of studies that examined the symbolic meaning of foods and beverages. They found that when it came to tasting meat or soft drinks, what influenced participants was what they thought they had eaten rather than what they actually ate.

The authors note that meat has an association with social power, and people who scored high in the authors’ Social Power Value Endorsement measure believed that a meat-containing item tasted better than a vegetarian alternative, even when both products were actually identical (one was mis-represented). Similarly, participants who supported the values symbolized by Pepsi (Exciting Life, Social Power, and Recognition) gave a more favorable rating to the product they thought was Pepsi—even though they were drinking the low-price Woolworth cola.

Participants were told that they would taste either a beef sausage roll or a vegetarian alternative roll, and that they would drink either a Pepsi or a Woolworth Homebrand cola. Some received the item they were told they would receive and some were given the similar-tasting item. Then they filled out a questionnaire about values and taste, along with their current food and soft drink consumption:
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Our present findings may have implications for efforts to promote better eating habits. Heavy meat eaters claim that they eat meat because it tastes better than other foods, such as meat substitutes.

Our results challenge that claim.

Participants who ate the vegetarian alternative did not rate the taste and aroma less favorably than those who ate the beef product. Instead, what influenced taste evaluation was what they thought they had eaten and whether that food symbolized values that they personally supported … strategies that might persuade heavy meat eaters to change their diet include changing the cultural associations of fruits and vegetables to encompass values that meat eaters endorse (e.g., power and strength), or challenging heavy meat eaters’ assumptions about what tastes good by using in-store (blind) taste tests or showing them results of studies such as this one.
Ethnographers, anthropologists and historians have long stressed the importance of cultural factors at play in food habits, and how these cultures change over time. They have always resisted determinist views which state that 'taste' - and in particular a taste and preference for meat - reflects a fundamental psycho-biological rationality that is stronger than culture and that is universal. Likewise, they reject utilitarian perspectives which hold that meat is consumed because it yields long term economic benefits to societies.

Perhaps the most famous example of the ethnographic study of the symbolic power of beef and the cultural hierarchy of different types of meat in American culture comes from structuralist anthropologist Marshall Sahlins. In his landmark book Culture and Practical Reason, Sahlins argues that human food habits reflect "cultural reason" rather than adaptive rationality. He discusses human food preferences as an illustration of his general critique of the notion that human cultures are formulated out of utilitarian interests. Rather, Sahlins claims that human valuations of the edibility and inedibility of animal meats are qualitative, and are "in no way justifiable by biological, ecological, or economic advantage."

He cites the centrality of beef in the American diet as an example of this irrationality and argues that the American taboo on horses and dogs renders consumption of these two animals unthinkable, even though consumption of dogs and horses is technologically feasible and even logical from a nutritional standpoint. Such observations cause Sahlins to conclude that "it is culture that constitutes utility", and not the other way around.

Also remember the time when Mary Douglas, a key structural anthropologist, provoked protests in the British House of Commons when she came out with her theory that food is basically "a system of social communication" rather than mere nutrition. She justified herself vigorously, claiming that the study of the social costs of changes in eating habits on grounds of advice, availability of food, and changes in price or incomes was useful for the future and for policy makers.

Today, of course, we know Dame Douglas was very much right: food consumption patterns have become a cause of civilizational diseases like obesity, which are an economic and social burden to reckon with. And meat production and consumption, increasing as incomes increase, is a global problem wreaking havoc on the environment.

The new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research now provides an interesting empirical foundation that seems to prove culturalists and structuralists like Sahlins and Douglas right. The distaste for veggie burgers in beef-worshipping cultures is in no way rational. Instead it is determined by arbitrary social and cultural factors. And these factors can be influenced, consciously, with an eye on introducing diets that are more environmentally and socially sustainable.

Michael W. Allen, Richa Gupta, and Arnaud Monnier. “The Interactive Effect of Cultural Symbols and Human Values on Taste Evaluation”, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 35, August 2008, DOI: 10.1086/590319.

Marshall Sahlins. Culture and Practical Reason. University Of Chicago Press (February 15, 1978). (See Chapter IV: "La Pensée Bourgeoise: Western Society and Culture").

Mary Douglas. Food in the Social Order: Mary Douglas: Collected Works, Volume 9. Routledge (November 2002).

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