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Articles from 2011 In November

New Beef Cuts Being Made Available

New Beef Cuts Being Made Available

State beef councils and the national Beef Checkoff Program have introduced a new retail beef marketing program that has the potential, they say, to significantly increase U.S. beef sales. The Beef Alternative Marketing, or BAM, creates smaller filets and roasts out of beef ribeyes, top loins and top sirloins by utilizing innovative cutting techniques. By increasing cut thickness, final product quality is protected.

BAM takes advantage of shoppers who previously looked elsewhere for nutritious, high-quality, size-appropriate proteins. The program's supporters say the smaller portions give consumers the sizes and nutritional profiles they seek. BAM includes a complete cutting and marketing program, including retailer training materials, point-of-sale materials, recipes, cooking instructions, charts, photos and instructional cutting posters.

According to Jim Henger, executive director of channel marketing for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, BAM is a perfect product for the times because it allows retailers to offer a product that has a new nutritional selling point, is sized to increase sales and retains the cooking quality of larger steaks. Focus groups have shown that consumers not only like the new shapes and thicknesses of the cuts, they are not concerned about higher per-pound costs because there is a lower price per package.

Producers who sit on state beef council boards see the value of the Beef Alternative Marketing program and have come out to assist in its introduction. For example, the South Dakota Beef Industry Council helped fund a nutrient analysis of BAM cuts that demonstrated that seven of the eight BAM cuts meet government guidelines for lean, with less fat and waste thanks to extra trimming. Consumers, in turn, perceive a greater value from the product's leaner fat profile.

Results from the nutrient analysis will be used by USDA to update its National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, the gold standard of databases for nutrient composition. Becky Walth, a South Dakota beef producer who sits on the South Dakota Beef Industry Council, says that often, obsolete information was being used by doctors, dietitians and health professionals in guiding clients to other protein selections.

Walth adds that with prices increasing, a slumping economy, and more attention being paid to nutrition, these cuts can definitely attract a new customer base. Beef carcasses are getting larger, and these smaller cuts can fit into a tight budget. And the nutrient profile meets government guidelines for lean.

Massey Ferguson 7624: Tractor of the Year at Agritechnica

The Massey Ferguson MF 7624 Dyna-VT won the 2012 Golden Tractor for Design award at Agritechnica. The award is presented annually by a jury of journalists from 22 of the leading farming magazines in Europe. The tractor is one of a four-model range spanning 185 to 235 hp (210 to 260 hp boosted) and gains a new, high-visibility and ergonomically efficient cab, as well as a 7.4-litre AGCO SISU Power e3 second-generation SCR engine, a technology introduced for the first time on any farm vehicle by Massey Ferguson, the MF 8600 Series, in 1998.

San Joaquin Valley roadside snow beautiful to behold

Roadside snowfall is heavier this fall in the San Joaquin Valley than it has been in several years, and it is beautiful.

Tufts of cotton (snow) lining valley highways and rural roads have been a fall decoration in the valley for almost a century. At one time they actually looked like roadside snow banks. That’s when growers harvested more than 1 million acres of cotton each year.

Like a mountain snow bank melting in the spring sun, cotton acreage has declined dramatically over the past decade. However, cotton acreage has rebounded of late and the inevitable 'snow' escaping cotton module haulers along the roads is a heart-warming sight for this old ag journalist. I have probably written more articles about cotton than any other crop in California. I have been accused of being a 'cotton man.' I plead guilty.

I realize California agriculture has in many ways has passed cotton by into more high value crops like almonds, processing tomatoes, vegetables, pistachios, grapes, walnuts and pomegranates to name a few. This is all part of the agricultural evolution that makes California the most exciting place in the world to be an agricultural journalist.

Nevertheless, on a recent post-Thanksgiving drive west on Highway 152 between Chowchilla and Los Banos for a family farm pheasant hunt and barbecue, it did this old cotton man’s heart good to see plenty of roadside snow and the cotton modules (and those new-fangled round bales) lining the edges of harvested fields. You know times are good when those modules are bunched closely down the turn rows. I have never been good at matching module numbers to field size for yield guesstimates; but I do know the more the modules, higher the yields. After a rocky start and some unseasonable summer cool spells, farmers are generally happy with what is in those modules.

Most are calling 2011 a good cotton year, better than last season. Three bale Pima and Acala yields are common. Pima seemed to do better than most expected, blooming and setting bolls well into the fall all the way to the top of the plant. Four-bale Pima was logged this season.

After the farm barbecue, I wanted to take the scenic route back to Fresno. I drove my wife on a Grey Line tour of Dos Palos, South Dos Palos, Mendota, Firebaugh, Kerman and Rolinda. She had a hard time staying awake, even with an ongoing narrative about the landscape of field work activities, grain elevators and crops with an occasional whiff of fresh tilled dirt and a dairy or two.

I enjoyed it more than she did. Post-harvest fall is the slow time for farming, but there is something special about freshly prepared fields and dormant orchards and vineyards. There is almost anticipation in this dormancy period when fields and orchards are readied for another year.

It is also the cotton snow along the road that makes it special for this cotton man.

MF Global: funds found but mystery deepens

As FBI and Justice Department investigations into the collapse of MF Global continue, there have been several developments in recent days. Unfortunately, for those desperate to extricate their money from the failed commodity broker, the mysteries surrounding the case have only deepened.

Farmers, ranchers and elevators are among members of the unfortunate group affected by the brokerage firm’s Oct. 31 Chapter 11 bankruptcy and the subsequent fallout. Some $600 million in customer funds (later raised to $1.2 billion) have been “lost” by MF Global.

Meanwhile, as they deride the efforts of those charged with oversight of MF Global, financial Web-sites are red-hot with speculation about how the firm illegally mixed customer and firm funds to patch up poor investment decisions.

Now, a substantial portion of that lost money may have been found. On Tuesday, multiple reports claimed $200 million had been located in the British branch of JPMorgan Chase.

How and why those millions crossed the Atlantic will surely be part of the hearings scheduled by Congress to look into the matter. The Senate Agriculture Committee – actually set to look into Wall Street reform but, surely, unable to keep from delving into MF Global -- will have first crack on Thursday. That will be followed by a MF Global-dedicated hearing on Dec. 13. The House Finance Committee will have its shot two days later.

Jon Corzine, who recently resigned as head of MF Global, has been asked to testify at the Dec. 13 hearing. If he agrees, the under-fire, former New Jersey senator will find the proceedings uncomfortable.

At least one member of the Senate Agriculture Committee – ranking member Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas -- is unlikely to treat his former colleague with kid gloves.

"As the former head of MF Global, Jon Corzine is the only one that can answer the most pressing questions regarding the firm's downfall and its continuing impact on thousands of Americans,” Roberts said in a statement. “That is why I called for specific MF Global hearings and insisted that Mr. Corzine testify...

“It was clear to me that a previously planned hearing on Dodd-Frank implementation was not going to get answers for those that have been victims of the MF Global bankruptcy. This extraordinary and unprecedented set of events certainly merits special attention from our committee.”

Farming/ranching customers of MF Global may want to check out the newly-formed Commodity Customer Coalition ( Farm Press has posted a lengthy interview with John Roe, one of the coalition founders.

Also, check out a video interview with another coalition founder, James Koutoulas, here.

ROL (return on life) an important factor when making farm decisions

I’ve been covering agriculture in one form or another since 1976. If I had a nickel for every farmer I’ve interviewed, every meeting I’ve attended, and especially every session on agricultural economics I’ve sat through following a lunch of fried chicken or barbecue — with beans, bread and then cobbler for dessert — I’d  be rich.

If I had collected five cents for every time my eyes closed and my head nodded while taking notes after those heavy meals, I probably could have retired on all that change.

But I wouldn’t have. I’d have continued doing this job because of a sense of purpose I heard Dr. David Kohl explain a few weeks back.

It was during a presentation at another of those agricultural economics sessions — but not one that tended to lull anyone to sleep. Kohl, professor emeritus of agricultural and applied economics at Virginia Tech, engages his audience, moving around the floor with the confidence of a carnival barker inviting folks to see amazing sights.

But he doesn’t sell spectacle. He promotes planning, preparation and fiscal responsibility.

With anecdotes, charts — not too many charts — questions and knowledge, he keeps folks on the edge of their seats, eager to learn.

He made two excellent presentations, and we’ve reported on those. But one comment he made near the end of one of those talks has stuck with me. Discussing the steps a farmer or rancher should take when deciding whether to buy more land or sell part of the farm, he said reasoning should include profit potential, cash flow, and the other economic essentials anyone should consider when contemplating such a big purchase — or sale.

But he also mentioned another factor. Return on investment, ROI, is always a key, he says. But, so is ROL.

ROL? Return on life!

That’s what encourages folks to get up in the morning, even on freezing cold days to break the ice in stock tanks so cattle can drink. It’s what convinces farmers to work into the night to plant those last few acres of cotton before the insurance deadline, and what encourages them to get those last loads of hay in the barn before the rain starts.

ROL puts all the hard work, all the low prices, all the bad weather into perspective. Because, by putting up with the calamitous nature of agriculture, farmers and their families get to stay on their farms and ranches and do what they love best.

Kohl says the business of agriculture demands that managers do their homework, do the planning, set the goals and maintain vigilance over financial liabilities. That’s part of the compact they make to continue farming.

But a farm operation is more than the bottom line, more than assets and liabilities, more than the price of cotton. It’s home; it’s family; it’s the traditions of the past and the hopes for the future.

It doesn’t hurt that a farmer or rancher makes a little money in the process of establishing or maintaining that lifestyle, and if they don’t they jeopardize their ROL. 

But it has been apparent to me — since 1976 — that farmers consider more than profit and loss as they make plans for farm expansion or downsizing. Return on life is a big factor. I’m convinced, too, that ROL is what makes reporting on agriculture something more than just a job, at least for me.

So, you can keep all those nickels I never collected for all the interviews, all the meetings and all the sudden jolts into wakefulness when my chin hit my chest. I’m good where I am.

Central Banks Move To Stabilize Financial System

Central Banks Move To Stabilize Financial System

David McHugh and Paul Wiseman

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) -- The central banks of the wealthiest countries, trying to prevent a debt crisis in Europe from exploding into a global panic, swept in Wednesday to shore up the world financial system by making it easier for banks to borrow American dollars.

Stock markets around the world roared their approval. The Dow Jones industrial average rose almost 500 points, its best day in two and a half years. Stocks climbed 5% in Germany and more than 4% in France.

The action appeared to be the most extraordinary coordinated effort by the central banks since they cut interest rates together in October 2008, at the depths of the financial crisis.

But while it should ease borrowing for banks, it does little to solve the underlying problem of mountains of government debt in Europe, leaving markets still waiting for a permanent fix. European leaders gather next week for a summit on the debt crisis.

The European Central Bank, which has been reluctant to intervene to stop the growing crisis on its own continent, was joined in the decision by the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the central banks of Canada, Japan and Switzerland.

"The purpose of these actions is to ease strains in financial markets and thereby mitigate the effects of such strains on the supply of credit to households and businesses and so help foster economic activity," the central banks said in a joint statement.

China, which has the largest economy in the world after the European Union and the United States, reduced the amount of money its banks are required to hold in reserve, another attempt to free up cash for lending.

The display of worldwide coordination was meant to restore confidence in the global financial system and to demonstrate that central banks will do what they can to prevent a repeat of 2008.

That fall, fear gripped the financial system after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, a storied American investment house. Banks around the world severely restricted lending to each other. Investors panicked, resulting in a meltdown in stocks.

In October 2008, the ECB, the Fed and other central banks cut interest rates together. That action, like Wednesday's, was a signal from the central banks to the financial markets that they would be players, not spectators.

This year, investors have been nervously watching Europe to see whether they should take the same approach and dump stocks. World stock markets have been unusually volatile since summer.

The European crisis, which six months ago seemed focused on the relatively small economy of Greece, now threatens the existence of the euro, the common currency used by 17 countries in Europe.

There have also been signs, particularly in Europe, that it is becoming more difficult to borrow money, especially as U.S. money market funds lend less money to banks in the euro nations because of perceived risk from the debt crisis.

European banks cut business loans by 16% in the third quarter. And no one knows how much European banks will lose on their massive holdings of bonds of heavily indebted countries. Until the damage is clear, banks are reluctant to lend.

Banks are also being pressed by European governments to increase their buffers against possible losses. That helps stabilize the banking system but reduces the amount of money available to lend to businesses.

"European banks are having trouble borrowing in general, including in dollars," said Joseph Gagnon, a former Fed official and a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. "The Fed did the Europeans a favor."

Foreign central banks are reducing by half a%age point, to about 0.6%, the rate they charge commercial banks for dollar loans. Commercial banks need dollars because they are the No. 1 currency for international trade. The lower rate is designed to get credit flowing again.

To get the dollars to lend, central banks go to the Fed and exchange their currency for dollars under a special swap program. Foreign central banks pay the Fed whatever interest they earned from commercial banks.

The Fed had offered dollar swaps from December 2007, when world financial markets were weakening because of fear about subprime mortgages, until February 2010. It reopened the program in May 2010, as European debt concerns grew, and planned to end it Aug. 1, 2012. On Wednesday, the Fed extended the program to Feb. 1, 2013.

If it all works, the market rates on dollar loans will drop, and stock and bond markets will calm down.

"It shows that policymakers are on the case," said Roberto Perli, managing director at the International Strategy & Investment Group, an investment firm. He said it has symbolic value even if it does not have a big impact on credit markets.

The decision to cut the interest charged on the dollar swaps was taken by the Federal Reserve following a videoconference held by Fed officials on Monday morning. The Fed's policy-setting panel approved it 9-1. The president of the Fed's regional bank in Richmond, Va., voted no.

In New York, the stock market jumped at the opening bell and added to its gains throughout the day. It finished up 490.05 points, its seventh-largest one-day gain and its best since March 23, 2009, two weeks after the stock market's post-meltdown low.

Wednesday's advance also swung the Dow from a loss for the year to a gain. It closed at 12,045.68, its first close above 12,000 since Nov. 15.

Stocks closed 5% higher in Germany, 4.2% in France and 3.2% in Britain. European stocks had posted big gains earlier this week because investors saw hope that countries would settle on an attempted fix for the European debt crisis.

Stock markets in Asia, which closed before the central banks announced their move, finished lower for the day. The statement came out at 8 a.m., in the middle of the European trading day and hour and a half before the market opened in New York.

Borrowing costs for countries across Europe fell, an encouraging sign. The yield on benchmark 10-year national bonds dropped 0.32%age points in Belgium. It also fell in Spain, France and Germany.

The yield on 10-year Italian bonds fell 0.08 points to 7.01%. The 7% level is significant because it is considered the point at which a country's borrowing costs become unsustainable. Yields above that level forced Ireland, Portugal and Greece to seek bailouts.

In the U.S., the yield on the 10-year Treasury rose to 2.08% from 2% late Tuesday. That is a sign that investors are willing to take money out of assets considered super-safe, such as U.S. government debt, and invest it in riskier assets like stocks.

It is also a sign of increased confidence in the U.S. economy, which is beginning to pick up after it faltered in the spring and summer. It grew at an annual rate of 2% in July, August and September, the strongest since late last year.

It will take more than that to bring down unemployment in the U.S., which has been stuck at about 9% for more than two years, but the U.S. has added jobs for 13 months in a row. The government's next read on unemployment comes out Friday.

In Europe, countries like Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Greece and Italy overspent for years and racked up annual budget deficits that have left them with backbreaking debt. Italy alone owes euro1.9 trillion, or 120% of what its economy produces in a year.

The ECB extends unlimited short-term loans to banks. It cannot lend directly to governments, including by buying their national bonds. It can, however, buy national bonds on the secondary market, lowering borrowing costs for governments.

The ECB has resisted expanding even this indirect support because it believes that would take the pressure off of politicians to cut spending and reform government finances, a concern known as moral hazard.

European leaders have considered other options, including creating a fiscal union - giving a central authority control over the budgets of sovereign nations. That would ease the ECB's concerns.

The ECB has also worried that injecting too much money into the European economy would trigger inflation.

The coordinated action was a demonstration of how interconnected the world financial system is, and that the debt loads of countries like Italy and Greece are everyone else's problem, too.

Germany's economy depends heavily on exports, and if economic output in the rest of Europe collapses, the people of smaller countries couldn't buy as many German goods.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, the United States depends on Europe for 20% of its own exports. And investors in American banks have worried about their holdings of European debt.

Standard & Poor's, the credit rating agency, lowered its rating at least one notch Tuesday for the four largest banks in the U.S. - Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo.

China, one of the only places in the world where the economy is growing quickly, needs the U.S. and Europe both to stay healthy. Growth in Chinese exports has declined from 36% in March compared with the year before to 16% in October.

China will reduce the amount of money that its commercial lenders must hold in reserve by 0.5 percentage points of their deposits. It was the first easing of Chinese monetary policy in three years.

Livestock, poultry industries boost U.S. economy

The soybean checkoff talks a lot about U.S. soybean farmers’ No. 1 customers – poultry and livestock farmers. But these sectors impact more than just a soybean farmer’s profit potential. According to a recent soybean-checkoff-funded study, poultry and livestock supported 1.8 million U.S. jobs and added $19 billion in tax revenue annually to the U.S. economy.

“It’s important that we maintain and expand animal agriculture in the United States,” says Laura Foell, a soybean farmer from Schaller, Iowa, and a farmer-leader for the United Soybean Board (USB). “It helps grow our U.S. soybean industry but is also a way we can keep jobs here and know we are producing safe and reliable food.”
That economic impact appears to be more than just a fad. In fact, the poultry and livestock sectors increased household incomes by more than $4 billion during the last decade alone. Nearly 70 percent of that growth occurred west of the Mississippi River or right on its borders, but trends show growth occurring more evenly throughout the country.

“This study shows the importance of animal agriculture not only to soybean farmers, but also to our local, state and national economies,” adds Foell. “And animal agriculture helps local businesses by purchasing goods in local stores and creating local jobs.”

Iowa and California won big for growth in earnings, jobs and tax revenue from animal agriculture, according to the study. Iowa added more than 19,000 jobs since 2000, while California added more than 17,000 in the same time period. These states added $176.2 million and $185.5 million in tax revenue respectively, the study found.

Poultry and livestock consume 98 percent of domestic soybean meal each year and help increase the value of U.S. soybeans. The checkoff study showed most recently that consumption equaled 30 million tons of soybean meal, or the meal from approximately 1.2 billion bushels of soybeans annually. To read the full study on the economic impact of animal agriculture, visit

USB is made up of 69 farmer-directors who oversee the investments of the soybean checkoff on behalf of all U.S. soybean farmers. Checkoff funds are invested in the areas of animal utilization, human utilization, industrial utilization, industry relations, market access and supply. As stipulated in the Soybean Promotion, Research and Consumer Information Act, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service has oversight responsibilities for USB and the soybean checkoff.

For more information on the United Soybean Board, visit

A MUTANT of maize that cannot produce brassinosteroids develops feminized sex organs with female kernels growing where male tassel flowers would normally occur
<p> <em><strong>A MUTANT of maize that cannot produce brassinosteroids develops feminized sex organs with female kernels growing where male tassel flowers would normally occur.</strong></em></p>

Stronger corn: Take it off steroids, make it all female

A Purdue University researcher has taken corn off steroids and found that the results might lead to improvements in that and other crops.

Burkhard Schulz, an assistant professor of horticulture and landscape architecture, wanted to understand the relationship between natural brassinosteroids — a natural plant steroid hormone — and plant architecture, specifically plant height.

Schulz said corn could benefit by becoming shorter and sturdier, but the mechanisms that control those traits are not completely understood.

 "It is essential to change the architecture of plants to minimize how much land we need to produce food and fuels," said Schulz, whose findings are published in the early online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"If you can find a natural mutation or mechanism that gives you what you need, you are much better off than using transgenic techniques that could be difficult to get approval for.” 

Schulz found that when maize loses the ability to produce brassinosteroids, it becomes a dwarf, as he suspected. But another feature caught him off guard: The plants without the naturally occurring steroids could not make male organs — they had kernels where the tassels should be.

That could be a cost-saving discovery for the seed industry. Hybrid seed producers must painstakingly remove the male pollen-producing tassels from each plant so that they do not pollinate themselves. Schulz said maize plants that produce only female organs would eliminate the detasseling step.

"This would be the perfect mutation for hybrid seed production," Schulz said. "There is no way these plants could produce pollen because they do not have male flowers."

Schulz used a multi-step process to determine brassinosteroids' role in height and, later, sex determination. He wanted to ensure that light and the addition of gibberelic acid, a hormone that promotes cell growth and elongation, would not eliminate the dwarfism.

Schulz gathered known mutants of maize with short mesocotyls, the first node on a corn stalk. He suspected that even dwarf plants that produced brassinosteroids would have elongated mesocotyls if grown in the dark as they stretched for light, a trait typical of all brassinosteroid mutants.

Another safeguard

He also added gibberellic acid to the plants to ensure that a deficiency of that hormone was not causing the dwarfism.

The dwarf plants that did not grow in the dark or with the addition of the gibberellic acid were compared to regular maize plants that had been dwarfed by subjecting them to a chemical that disrupts the creation of brassinosteroids. Both exhibited short stalks with twisted leaves and showed the feminization of the male tassel flower.

Schulz then used information that was already known from the research plant Arabidopsis about genes that control brassinosteroid production. He found the same genes in the maize genome.

In the dwarf maize plants, those genes were mutated, disrupting the biosynthesis of the steroids. A chemical analysis showed the compounds produced along the pathway of gene to steroid were greatly diminished in the maize dwarfs.

Cloning of the gene revealed that an enzyme of the brassinosteroid pathway was defective in the mutant plants. A related enzyme in humans has been reported as essential for the production of the sex steroid hormone testosterone.

Mutations in this enzyme in humans also resulted in feminization.

 While Schulz expected brassinosteroids to affect plant height, he said he did not expect those steroids to affect sex determination.

 "We don't know if this is a special case for corn or if this is generally the same in other plants," he said. "If it is the same in other plants, it should be useful for creating plants or trees in which you want only males or females."

Gurmukh Johal, a professor of botany and plant pathology and collaborator on the research, identified the mutant used in the research, nana plant1, years ago. He said better understanding the steroid-production pathways could be important to strengthening maize plants and increasing yields.

"Maize produces too much pollen and it actually wastes a lot of energy on that," Johal said. "This implies that by using this gene or the pathway it controls, we could manipulate the plants to improve their quality."

Schulz said he would look at other plants, such as sorghum, to determine if the same genes and pathways control sex determination and height.

The project was an international collaboration with George Chuck from the Plant Gene Expression Center at the University of California Berkeley, Shozo Fujioka of RIKEN Advanced Science Institute in Japan, Sunghwa Choe of Seoul National University in South Korea, and Devi Prasad Potluri of Chicago State University.

The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture funded the research.


USDA to lower crop insurance premiums for corn

The National Corn Growers Association has praised the USDA’s announcement that crop insurance premiums for corn will be rerated for the 2012 crop year.

For USDA announcement, see here.

“NCGA has been working on this issue for more than eight years,” said NCGA President Garry Niemeyer, a corn farmer from Auburn, Ill. “We are pleased to hear our farmers will no longer be facing the continued widening gap between the loss for corn and the premiums charged to growers for policy coverage. This is a day long coming.”

The announcement stated the average premium for corn will be lowered by 7 percent beginning in 2012 and soybeans will be lowered by 9 percent. The rate adjustment is based on findings of an independent study and peer review process. The USDA’s Risk Management Agency also announced it will be releasing documents by Wednesday that outline premium rates and other program information for the 2012 crop year.

“Our farmers have historically paid more than their fair share of crop insurance premiums and we are pleased to see this is finally coming to an end,” Niemeyer said. “We will continue to work with the USDA as they implement these new premiums for the 2012 crop year.”

Early famine warnings saving lives in Africa

Early famine warnings saving lives in Africa

In parts of eastern Africa, drought is of increasing concern, as poor families suffer from food shortages and the inability to grow crops and sustain livestock. Stunted growth in children due to malnutrition has also been linked to climate trends in Africa.

Drought conditions are expected to continue as global temperatures continue to rise and rainfall declines across parts of eastern Africa. This poses increased risk to millions of people in Africa who currently face potential food shortages.

What's being done to help?

The USGS is involved in a variety of research efforts to help understand current and future conditions in Africa, helping to inform plans to provide aid.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, or FEWS NET, is one endeavor that has already made great strides in helping to address this issue. FEWS NET helps target more than $1.5 billion of assistance to more than 40 countries each year.

FEWS NET examines the populations of the developing world with the most food insecurity, identifying critical situations in which food aid will be needed. These are populations whose livelihoods are typically tied to subsistence rain-fed agriculture and pastoralism.

FEWS NET is sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of Food for Peace and the USGS is actively involved.

Climate forecasts and remote sensing help spot future trouble

FEWS NET has developed its own climate services to provide decision makers with early identification of agricultural drought that might trigger food insecurity. Scientists use climate forecasts to develop forward-looking food security assessments that are based on expected agricultural outcomes for the season ahead.

Since networks of ground observation stations are often sparse or reported late in FEWS NET countries, satellite remote sensing of vegetation and rainfall fills in the gaps. Remote sensing from space allows for rapid, accurate assessments of a broad range of environmental and agricultural conditions. USGS scientists provide the technologies and expertise to support remote sensing for FEWS NET activities.

Early warning of famine in Somalia helps pre-position food supplies

On July 20, 2011, the United Nations declared parts of Somalia as a region of famine. The decision was supported by FEWS NET and USGS observational evidence of conditions in the area.

The declaration was the culmination of early warning communications encouraging -- months before the crisis -- that government and other agencies pre-position food and supplies in the region.

“None of the many uses of Earth-observing satellites is more vital -- or has as much potential for prompting timely humanitarian intervention -- as famine early warning,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “Remote sensing from space allows USGS scientists to provide rapid, accurate assessments of a broad range of environmental and agricultural conditions.”

The eastern Horn of Africa, the continental region that encompasses Somalia, has experienced two consecutive seasons of very poor rainfall resulting in the worst drought in 60 years. Crops have failed, livestock deaths are widespread, and food prices are very high. While the rains this winter have been good, food prices remain high, and the food security situation remains insecure.

Stunted growth, malnutrition, climate change

Stunted growth linked to malnutrition and climate change

Other USGS research is helping to identify the impacts of a changing climate on Africa's people. Scientists recently discovered that malnutrition and dry hot living conditions are linked to stunted growth in Mali, West Africa.

USGS research found that Mali was becoming substantially warmer and a little bit drier. Scientists also knew that farmers and those who make a living raising sheep, cattle, goats, or camels were poor, and that stunted growth was occurring throughout Mali.

Scientists wondered if there could be a link between human health and increasingly warm and dry conditions.

To investigate, the USGS worked with the University of California, Santa Barbara, to study climate observations and demographic and health data. The Demographic and Health Survey program routinely compiles data from surveys in 90 countries to study trends in health and population. Scientists analyzed statistics on specific villages in Mali and found that there was a link between a warmer climate and increased stunting.

Population growth combined with the impacts of warming will further increase these health impacts.

Stunting was also linked to other factors, such as mother's education and the water supply system. Women’s education, improved water supplies, and agricultural development could help to address malnutrition and stunting in Mali.

An article on this research was published in in the journal, Applied Geography, by San Diego State University, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the USGS.

Other studies underway

Other new research includes the discovery that the warming of the Indian and western Pacific oceans (which is linked to global warming) affects rainfall over large areas of the Horn of Africa. As the globe has warmed over the last century, the Indian Ocean and western Pacific have warmed especially fast.

The resulting warmer air and increased humidity over the Indian and western Pacific oceans produce more frequent rainfall in that region. The air loses its moisture during rainfall, and then flows westward and descends over Africa, leading to decreased rain in parts of eastern Africa. Trends toward increased frequency of drought that we are seeing now are likely to continue into the future as warming continues.

A few recent articles on this research were published in the journal, Climate Dynamics, by scientists with the USGS, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Los Alamos National Laboratory. The most recent article concludes that global warming will lead to a decrease in rainfall during the summer monsoon season, from June to September, across southern Sudan, southern Ethiopia, and northern Uganda. Another article concluded that eastern Africa, particularly Kenya and southern Ethiopia, will also have a significant decrease in rainfall during the long-rains season from March to June.

USGS scientists are working hard to translate these technical studies into reports for decision makers. To date, they have completed summary fact sheets focused on Sudan and Kenya.

Scientists also found that some regions, like northern Ethiopia, are not getting drier due to current warming temperatures. Rainfall varies dramatically across all of eastern Africa, with high mountainous areas typically receiving many times the rainfall received in low-lying areas. Therefore, agricultural growth in these climatically safe regions could help offset rainfall declines in other locations.

Start with science

Scientists are looking at clues and changes in nature to understand the impacts of global warming. In Africa, impacts are seen across the landscape -- on farms and even in humans.

By starting with science, well-informed decisions can be made to help Africa as it faces drought, famine, and health concerns.

FEWS NET partners include the USAID, Chemonics International, the USGS, NASA, NOAA, and the USDA. The Geography Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is a partner to the USGS in this effort.