Monthly Archives: April 2008

Amazing fertilizer facts

Via the Foreign Policy Blog:

  • It takes five years to get a phosphate (fertilizer) plant up and running
  • Ammonia costs have tripled over the past decade
  • Sulphur costs have gone from $55 to $450 in the past year
  • Ocean shipping costs have gone from $35 to $100
  • Morocco, “the Saudi Arabia of phosphate,” has raised phosphate prices from $55 to $250 a ton. They’re headed for $400 a ton
  • China has imposed a 135 percent export tax on fertilizer
  • The Indian government will dole out more on fertilizer subsidies in 2008 than it spends on its military

Setting the record straight

Gershom Gorenberg gets better and better:

Just in case I’m ever struck by the mad thought of running for political office in Israel, I’d like to set the record straight: I don’t agree with the prophet Isaiah’s political views. He doesn’t speak for me. No way.

It’s true that I’ve enjoyed some of his sermons, and I took some comfort from the spiritual stuff, like that vision of heaven, with the six-winged creatures praising God. But I attended to Isaiah strictly for the religion, not for the politics. I mean, I’m a patriotic Israeli (even if my lapel pin got lost in the wash, honestly).

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t even there the day he said,

Ah, sinful nation!
People laden with iniquity!
Brood of evildoers!
Depraved children!
They have forsaken the Lord,
spurned the Holy One of Israel,
Turned their backs on Him!

but if I was there, I slept through the sermon. Otherwise, I would have told him that I might just run for office, and therefore I cannot tolerate him cursing my country.

Down with autarky

Soaring food prices have become an increasingly important geopolitical issue in the last few weeks. As a result, there are lots of fascinating examinations of the relationship between free trade and food prices.

Tyler Cowen’s New York Times column makes the case for free trade to solve the world’s rice problem. Dani Rodrik reckons Cowen is right that free trade would improve the supply of rice, but not necessarily the price. Two excellent economists; two differing views, eloquently argued. Andrew Leonard offers a different take: Cowen, he writes, is arguing about the long term effect on supply and prices. In the near term, governments rightly need to be concerned about food riots and people going hungry.

Although most of my political leanings are liberal (very liberal in the US context), on this issue I’m much closer to the free traders (which, in a different political milieu, is also a “liberal” attitude). Certainly I agree with today’s Financial Times editorial that French agricultural minister Michel Barnier is offering a thorough barmy and dangerous idea by saying that the rest of the world needs to follow the European Union by creating their own versions of the appalling Common Agricultural Policy. Thankfully, the European Commission as well has dismissed Barnier’s idea.

Food politics for a good Berkeley resident like me is complicated. I generally subscribe to the notion of “food miles”, where the distance food has to travel to reach my plate is an important consideration for both environmental and health reasons. Northern California’s extraordinary bounty of just about every fruit, vegetable, dairy product, meat and fish (not salmon at the moment, however) makes it easy to be virtuous with regard to food miles. But equally, I think international trade in agriculture is an essential pathway for development for many of the world’s poorer countries. When I lived in London I was happy to buy vegetables from Kenya and Uganda, despite the many miles they had traveled to East Dulwich Sainsburys.

Agriculture is one of the sectors where many poor countries have a real chance in the near term to develop comparative advantage over Europe and North America in some foodstuffs. Let’s give them every opportunity and not spend money propping up the dwindling number of farmers in the wealthy North.

Irrelevant note for word freaks One unexpected byproduct of the Barnier barny is the recurrence of the rarely seen word autarky.

Return to Twitter

When I first joined Twitter back in September, I didn’t get it. So I stopped using it after a day or two. But for some reason, I returned to the fold this week and I think I’m beginning to understand why so many people I know are enthusiasts.

Even though I’m only following a handful of people, I had a nice stream of information and links about the results of the Pennsylvania primary last night. I find it lightweight and different enough that I’m using it for my passing fancies on things I read, rather than putting up a blog post. For anyone who is interested in such things, I’m using Twhirl as a client for Twitter on my computer, and finding it very helpful.

I’ve read some of the more ecstatic claims for Twitter as a business tool. I’m not yet sure of that, but I can see that it will become a useful addition to my personal next generation intelligence network.

Update If you’re a Twitterer, my username is lknobel.

One of the two best books in English on…

Tyler Cowen certainly knows how to write snippets that grab my attention. In one of his regular “What I’ve Been Reading” posts he notes the following:

Paradise with Serpents, by Robert Carver.  The only question is whether this is the first or the second best book on Paraguay in the English language; here is the other contender.

I hold no particular brief for Paraguay, but I now want to own the two best books in English on that largely neglected, landlocked country.