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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, August 01, 2008

High food prices bringing fertile farmland back online - at last

The BBC has an interesting story about two British farmers who have moved to Russia to grow wheat on the very fertile "black soils" there. Around 100 million acres of these legendary "chernozems" have been abandoned over the past years. If the fields were to be brought back into production, Russia would instantly become the world's third biggest producer of cereals, capable of harvesting 300 million tons per year. According to Daniel Fischer this is possible without touching any virgin land. And for Russia's Ministry of Agriculture, the re-use of the chernozems is only the beginning. Recently it announced that there are other types of low-value, abandoned farmland available immediately for the production of around 1 billion tons of biomass for energy...

The Russian example is just one amongst many. Decades of catastrophically low food prices and a general disinterest in agriculture amongst investors have led to the abandonment of hundreds of millions of hectares of good farmland around the world. Around 1 billion more hectares of low value, marginal land lie dormant, waiting for farmers to take it back into production.

Richard Willows, a former commodities trader, and Colin Hinchley, a farmer in his own right, came to Russia and bought up land in the Penza region that no-one was farming. They set up Heartlands Farm and did something very simple: they applied modern farming techniques with hi-tech equipment. As was to be expected, the results have been astounding. The farm achieved twice the yield of that of the Russian farms in the region. This year they expect yields three times as high as the average - around six tonnes per hectare. Check the video, here.

The socio-economic situation in this region - known to be home to some of the world's most productive soils - is dramatic: entire villages have been abandoned, people have migrated en masse to the cities, investments in farming have dried up entirely. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dismantlement of collective farms, individual farmers were exposed to the dynamics of the world market. And what they saw - extremely low food prices - prompted them to give up the profession. The result is tens of millions of hectares of prime land that are just waiting to be cultivated.

The Russian example can be replicated all over the world - but especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, the enormous agricultural potential of which has not even begun to be touched. In Africa too, villages are being abandoned on a massive scale. This has put the farming sector under pressure. But the high food prices could be curbing this trend, because even small farmers can profit today. This is so because with relatively simple inputs - quality seed, fertilizer, basic knowledge and equipment -, average crop yields on the continent can be tripled to quintupled with ease, even by the continent's millions of smallholders, 95% of who use no modern inputs whatsoever (previous post).

We can only hope that food prices retain their current highs, because this is the only way for investors to become interested in agriculture once again. The unpleasant decades of dirt-cheap food are over. This problematic past kept the world's poorest - 75% of whom are farmers - in obscene poverty. Today, there is hope for them to keep farming and make a decent living.

One more word about Russia: the country is beginning to understand its potential as a green giant. President Putin recently called on the country's farmers to look into biofuels in order to revive the farming sector. Russia's Ministry of Agriculture for its part announced that the vast country would begin to produce 1 billion tons of biomass for exports, grown on a 'small' area of abandoned farm land in the immense temperate steppes of South-Central Russia. This is the equivalent of around 400 million tons of oil, or 2.8 billion barrels per year/7.7 million barrels per day. The land is immediately available, and does not refer to the much larger (future) biomass resource available in the country.

Picture: traditional Russian farmers dominate the landscape in Penza, but modern agriculture can triple yields.
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