Fertilizer High – Rice Production Drops

Posted: May 24th, 2008 by: h-2

I came across an interesting article re rice production. As you may have heard, the main components of fertilizer are skyrocketing in price. Economists, and people who believe that this way of thinking will help our future, of course make the predictable statement: high rice prices benefit the (largely corporate, but let’s leave that aside) rice growers.

The formula is simple: skyrocketing fertilizer prices are forcing down fertilizer use, which will next year create a major rice shortage.

Few people are aware that beneath the worries over rice which pervade media these days is a looming disaster which could make the rice crisis seem puny in comparison.

To understand the magnitude of this global menace, one would first have to appreciate how world food production quintupled many times over from the early 19th century to the present, making possible the global population explosion.

Of course, advances in global agricultural production technology played their part in boosting food production worldwide, but even their combined impact cannot compensate for something basic to agriculture which has been mainly responsible for increases in farm production since the earliest times: fertilizer.

One thing which has not been given due attention in the present rice crisis is the effect of fertilizer in rice production. It´s fertilizer which enables countries like Thailand and Vietnam to have astounding rice yields compared to the Philippines. Thus, while we have a wider area planted to rice compared to these two countries, they produce more rice and we often end up importing from them. Without having to go into the details of the variance in yields between irrigated and raid-fed rice paddies, it´s easy to see evaluate the impact rising fertilizer prices have had on the farm gate and retail prices of rice.

So why does this all matter to the ordinary consumer already burdened by rising prices of food, rice and petroleum products? With the dropping utilization of fertilizer as a result of its rising prices, domestic rice production is expected to fall by over 50% of the rice produced last year and the crisis that is being perceived today will further escalate to real crisis level as early as 2009.
Fertilizer and the looming global food crisis, May 23, 2008

I’m not familiar with this source, but the argument seems clear enough. The global commodity price hikes are beginning to chip away at the people who can’t afford to pay these higher costs.

It is the so called ‘demand destruction’, but it’s not happening in the neat way that economists had predicted. Rather, it’s affecting entire countries or regions, the ones least able to pay being the source o the initial demand destruction.

Commodity Price Spikes Hit the Weakest First

Exactly the same as we saw in Pakistan with oil, for example. Or many African countries. The following story shows how the global diesel shortage directly affects an entire region in Africa’s domestic wheat production.

Wheat farmers in the Southern Rift Valley on Tuesday said they were unable to prepare their land for planting due to a serious shortage of diesel.

“It will not be possible for some farmers to plant wheat next month because some parts will be too dry,” said Mr Samuel Gitonga, the chairman of the Nakuru chapter of Kenya National Federation of Agricultural Producers.

Mr Gitonga said that some farmers had been harrowing their farms in readiness for planting wheat but had now suspended it due to lack of diesel. Farmers in the Rift Valley Province produce about three million bags of wheat annually but Mr Gitonga said that the target may not be achieved.
Fuel shortage threatens South Rift wheat output, 5/14/2008

As you can see, unlike the dreams of economists, the markets do not in fact adjust everything nice and neatly, it’s a fairly brutal, unforgiving game, and the sooner countries extract themselves from the industrialized agriculture system, the better off they all will be.

At Some Point Sustainability Must be Addressed

That, of course, will also expose the true carrying capacities of each region, since industrial agriculture is essentially an extractive industry, not a sustainable one. Sustainable means sustainable, in case you’re trying to confuse yourself, it means you can sustain the practice over time. If unsustainable food production, aka: industrial farming, is used to maintain a population at a certain level, that population is not sustainable.

It’s not, however, nearly as simple as it seems. As a recent The Nation piece reminds us, most global food production has been industrialized, and is in one way or the other, in the hands of global food corporations.

The Mexican food crisis cannot be fully understood without taking into account the fact that in the years preceding the tortilla crisis, the homeland of corn had been converted to a corn-importing economy by “free market” policies promoted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and Washington. The process began with the early 1980s debt crisis. One of the two largest developing-country debtors, Mexico was forced to beg for money from the Bank and IMF to service its debt to international commercial banks. The quid pro quo for a multibillion-dollar bailout was what a member of the World Bank executive board described as “unprecedented thoroughgoing interventionism” designed to eliminate high tariffs, state regulations and government support institutions, which neoliberal doctrine identified as barriers to economic efficiency.

Interest payments rose from 19 percent of total government expenditures in 1982 to 57 percent in 1988, while capital expenditures dropped from an already low 19.3 percent to 4.4 percent. The contraction of government spending translated into the dismantling of state credit, government-subsidized agricultural inputs, price supports, state marketing boards and extension services. Unilateral liberalization of agricultural trade pushed by the IMF and World Bank also contributed to the destabilization of peasant producers.

With the shutting down of the state marketing agency for corn, distribution of US corn imports and Mexican grain has come to be monopolized by a few transnational traders, like US-owned Cargill and partly US-owned Maseca, operating on both sides of the border. This has given them tremendous power to speculate on trade trends, so that movements in biofuel demand can be manipulated and magnified many times over. At the same time, monopoly control of domestic trade has ensured that a rise in international corn prices does not translate into significantly higher prices paid to small producers.

It has become increasingly difficult for Mexican corn farmers to avoid the fate of many of their fellow corn cultivators and other smallholders in sectors such as rice, beef, poultry and pork, who have gone under because of the advantages conferred by NAFTA on subsidized US producers. According to a 2003 Carnegie Endowment report, imports of US agricultural products threw at least 1.3 million farmers out of work–many of whom have since found their way to the United States.

The consequences of the Philippines’ joining the WTO barreled through the rest of its agriculture like a super-typhoon. Swamped by cheap corn imports–much of it subsidized US grain–farmers reduced land devoted to corn from 3.1 million hectares in 1993 to 2.5 million in 2000. Massive importation of chicken parts nearly killed that industry, while surges in imports destabilized the poultry, hog and vegetable industries.

During the 1994 campaign to ratify WTO membership, government economists, coached by their World Bank handlers, promised that losses in corn and other traditional crops would be more than compensated for by the new export industry of “high-value-added” crops like cut flowers, asparagus and broccoli. Little of this materialized. Nor did many of the 500,000 agricultural jobs that were supposed to be created yearly by the magic of the market; instead, agricultural employment dropped from 11.2 million in 1994 to 10.8 million in 2001.

The one-two punch of IMF-imposed adjustment and WTO-imposed trade liberalization swiftly transformed a largely self-sufficient agricultural economy into an import-dependent one as it steadily marginalized farmers. It was a wrenching process, the pain of which was captured by a Filipino government negotiator during a WTO session in Geneva. “Our small producers,” he said, “are being slaughtered by the gross unfairness of the international trading environment.”

This is not simply the erosion of national food self-sufficiency or food security but what Africanist Deborah Bryceson of Oxford calls “de-peasantization”–the phasing out of a mode of production to make the countryside a more congenial site for intensive capital accumulation. This transformation is a traumatic one for hundreds of millions of people, since peasant production is not simply an economic activity. It is an ancient way of life, a culture, which is one reason displaced or marginalized peasants in India have taken to committing suicide. In the state of Andhra Pradesh, farmer suicides rose from 233 in 1998 to 2,600 in 2002; in Maharashtra, suicides more than tripled, from 1,083 in 1995 to 3,926 in 2005. One estimate is that some 150,000 Indian farmers have taken their lives. Collapse of prices from trade liberalization and loss of control over seeds to biotech firms is part of a comprehensive problem, says global justice activist Vandana Shiva: “Under globalization, the farmer is losing her/his social, cultural, economic identity as a producer. A farmer is now a ‘consumer’ of costly seeds and costly chemicals sold by powerful global corporations through powerful landlords and money lenders locally.”
Manufacturing a Food Crisis, May 15, 2008

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