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November 2004: Notes of Interest

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This is taken from the Internet, sent to us by Sandra Mardigian. The person writing is a petroleum geologist, commenting on a newspaper article titled "Drilling for oil the digital way":

"Technology won't change the timing of the crash much, but it could help flatten the decline curve and thereby make the crash less severe. . [T]he peak was either in 2000 or will be here within a few years despite the incredible technological advances that the industry has undergone. . Incredible technological advances have not helped the declining discovery rate so far, so there is no reason to think that more technology will make any difference. . Recent history of the industry shows that advanced technology (e.g. 3D seismic, direction drilling, smart wells, etc.) drastically increases production rates, and correspondingly vastly increases depletion rates. . One of the main reasons that major oil company management is interested in such technologies is that it allows them to reduce costs by firing lots of geologists, geophysicists and engineers. The paradigm is the same as replacing factory workers with machines. However, the oil business is fundamentally different from manufacturing and manufacturing paradigms do not work well in the oil industry. . If the industry wants to find more oil then it needs to use the advanced technology AND retain experienced staff, and perhaps even hire more staff. This is not what the majors are doing. They are cutting staff, growing by acquisitions, and paying management fat bonuses. In other words, they are cashing-out rather than reinvesting in the remaining risky, marginal profits."

There is an enlightening article by Elisheva and Misha Rauchwerger in the Spring 2004 issue of the CobWeb. It describes what they experienced after the cob house they were building illegally (in northern California) was turned in to the building department. What we have included here is only a brief outline of their experiences and conclusions. We recommend that anyone considering building their own house read the original article.

"During this process, we learned about the code requirements for residential construction, and the aspects of our existing building that were not in compliance that we would have to mitigate. The people working in our building department and local, experienced builders were invaluable as guides for making intelligent decisions as owner builders. We learned this the hard way. We also discovered that the majority of the codes were reasonable and sensible, and would have prevented errors that we regretted making in our original construction. We did have to contend with codes that we found to be absurd as well." After spending much time and money trying to bring their structure up to code they realized that "the cost of renovation could be as much as three to five times that of new construction." They decided to tear the building down after learning that the foothill pine posts they had used would be subject to decay from wicking up moisture through the cement they rested on. The couple continues: "We share this information because we have lived it, and hope others do not have to. .[W]e have experienced that working on the legal side of building codes has been much more easy, fair, fruitful, satisfying, and enlightening, than dealing with the consequences of working on the illegal side. .Our passion for cob kindles our belief that the more people who personally experience it, the more heartily the natural building movement will ignite. We have also come to the conclusion that cob will never be a viable option for attaining sustainability in the Western world, the chief transgressor concerning energy use, without moving through the building codes. . Having to wrestle with the bureaucracies may seem a creative hindrance, but developing a piece of property incurs a steep learning curve. The potential losses from decisions made in ignorance can be financially devastating."

Information in this article comes from "Food joins academic menu in Berkeley school district," by Kim Severson in the August 29, 2004 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle.

With the encouragement of Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters and a $3.8 million start-up grant from her foundation, Berkeley educators are writing a curriculum to incorporate food as a core part of the Berkeley school system." According to Waters: "Every school day, children will be taught the value of cooking a meal and eating it together. 'This is not just changing the food in the cafeteria and making that an educational experience. This is for every single child. It's a core curriculum. Instead of just fueling up so we can live our lives, food has to be part of our lives, an enrichment of our lives that is connected to history and culture and time and place. And that must begin at the very earliest stage.'" To begin with, there will be a pilot program at three schools beginning in 2006. It is estimated "it will take an additional $5 million to get the new curriculum into all the Berkeley schools." However, "backers of a new obesity center planned at Children's Hospital and Research Center in Oakland have signed on in an effort to attract grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and federal agencies."

Fabian Pacheco, former Ecology Action intern from Costa Rica, sent us this press release from the Central American Alliance for Protection of Biodiversity. We are reprinting excerpts:

"Monsanto-the company responsible for more than 90% of industrial releases of transgenic organisms in the world-has decided to withdraw its request to release genetically modified corn in Costa Rica and to pull out of the country. Environmentalists in Costa Rica are still working to strengthen the campaign for a GMO-free country. Members of the National Commission on Biosafety say that Monsanto's withdrawal is a success for social groups that have been leading a campaign against the expansion of transgenic crops in Costa Rica. . The Biodiversity Network-Costa Rica calls on all parts of the ecological movement and people's organizations of other countries in the region to be alert. Monsanto is leaving Costa Rica, but it will go to other countries where it can sell its transgenic crops without much noise."

These statistics are taken from "Signs of Nutrient Decline" in the June/July 2004 issue of Mother Earth News:

  • A study in Great Britain showed that "the concentration of eight essential minerals in 20 fruits and 20 vegetables has declined, and water content has increased in fruits over the last 50 years."
  • "Fruits and vegetables grown using synthetic chemical nitrogen may contain an average of 20 percent less dry matter and more water compared to organic crops fertilized with slower-release natural sources of nitrogen. Higher water content means lower nutrient concentrations per pound of produce."
  • "According to the USDA's Nutrient Database, factory-farm eggs contain 20 percent less iron and 59 percent less vitamin A than they did in 1975." And from a collection of studies from Jo Robinson (website These factory-farm eggs contain significantly less carotene than eggs from pasture-raised chickens, are lower in vitamin E, vitamin B-12, vitamin A, folic acid and omega-3 fatty acids.
  • "Initial studies have found that the concentration of every measured element except potassium declined when wheat was grown at high levels of CO2, and four out of five elements in brown rice declined."

These are some comments made by Jules Pretty at a sustainable agriculture seminar in Iowa. Pretty is director of the Centre for the Environment and Society at the University of Essex England. This information was originally printed in "Cheap" Food Ain't Cheap" in the Winter 2003 issue of Northland Berry News.

"We have come to view farming landscapes as being primarily bread baskets, yet agriculture is more than about producing food. We get many positive things from agriculture, including clean water, cohesive communities, rural employment, flood protection, aesthetically pleasing landscapes and biodiversity." He points out the side effects that are not included in the market price: taxes for subsidies, cleaning up the environment, and paying for the damage to our health. For 1999-2000 he assessed the negative side effects of agriculture in Great Britain. When elements such as pesticide removal from water, off-site costs of soil erosion and bacterial outbreaks were included, Pretty found 'hidden' costs (in U.S. equivalents) of about $85 per acre.

Information for this article is taken from "Growing corn in Mexico, post NAFTA," by Don Lotter, posted on the Rodale Institute website August 3, 2004.

"Mexico is the center of origin and diversity for corn. Nearly a hundred major corn landraces, genetically distinct local varieties also known as criollo varieties, exist in Mexico. Up until recent decades, these varieties of corn supplied local tortillerías." However, these days most of the corn used in tortillerías comes from "high-yielding" varieties heavily subsidized by the Mexican government and produced through large-scale agriculture.
In an ejido that the author checked, "in Mexico's central highlands an hour's drive north of Mexico City," most of the corn grown is to feed animals. Close to Mexico City, "there is a substantial demand for meat." One ejido member stated "For the price we get for corn, it's not worth growing it for sale. Feeding it to animals and then selling the animals pays better."
However, in other areas, "farther from affluent urban areas . imports of cheap, subsidized US corn have been killing the Mexican small farmer, who has depended on the corn crop for sale as well as domestic consumption." The Mexican government supported its corn farmers with subsidies until the early 1990s, when Mexico bought into the "free" market. In 1996 Mexican corn imports increased by 120% from the previous year. "Mexican farmers' income from the government fell from 33% to 13%. . It is now well established" that imports of highly subsidized US corn "constitute 'dumping.'" Its price is 25% lower than its true cost.

These are excerpts of news releases sent to us by Sandra Mardigian. They give examples of how the rise in the price of natural gas is affecting businesses and farmers:

  • The Mississippi Chemical Corporation announced the permanent closure of its melamine and urea operation and its No. 1 ammonia facility in Donaldsonville, Louisiana. The company says that securing a stable customer base with profitable pricing has been difficult in the current marketplace. The company is a leading North American producer of nitrogen and phosphorus products used as crop nutrients and in industrial applications.
  • In a news release at the end of March, the Terra Nitrogen Company announced it would shut down its production facilities at Blytheville, Arkansas, in May. Company officials concluded that expected markets might not justify the investment needed to keep the plant running. The company cited continuing high prices for natural gas needed for the production process, and competition from imports.
  • An Extension Economist in Texas recently took today's increased fuel cost and applied it to a wheat farmer's budget. "Over 30 percent of the budget is fuel or fuel-related, which includes fertilizer, custom harvesting and driving the equipment."



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