Scientific breakthroughs help China’s agriculture

“China has 19% of the world’s population but just 7% of its farmland. The country has lost more than 20 million acres of arable land since the mid-1990s. The good news is that China has made remarkable progress toward feeding itself in the last 30 years. The central government spent $71 billion on agriculture in 2008; that number soared to $164 billion in 2011. One result of these investments is that China is now the world’s largest agricultural producer; and is the first developing country to meet the UN Millenium Development Goal of cutting in half the number of people living in extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. The nutritional intake of the average Chinese continues to improve, to about the same as the average American.

“The challenges are plentiful. China needs to ensure that the food is affordable for all, and that an increasingly affluent population gets the proper nutrition. Well-publicized cases of tainted food have raised concerns about food safety and waste. To address these concerns, China has sought out the best available science and know-how through partnerships with companies including DuPont and others. Even as productivity increases, food safety remains an essential part of food security.

“With the UN estimating recently that 870 million people around the world go hungry, success in China can serve as a model for many other countries. One single example of a scientific innovation with a broader payoff emerged when DuPont Nutrition and Health tackled the problem of popular yogurt drinks that could not always be kept cold during distribution. The company developed Yo-Mix, yogurt cultures that resists further acidification even at room temperature. Immensely successful in China, the product is now sold globally.  Innovation in China promises to have world impact. Indeed China’s transition from recurring hunger to a food security showcase is a model for global change”.


Growing green oil

Sapphire Energy has built the world’s first large-scale farm to grow algae and produce crude oil. Algal oil has the potential ‘ to change the world’ because any nation will be able to produce oil.  Productive and versatile creatures, algae grow fast, don’t need to be fed and build up oil in their cells after being exposed to sunlight and CO2. They like salty or brackish water, so ponds can be built on cheap land where not much else will grow. Into each pond go genetically engineered single-cell algae that grow to maturity in about 5 days, after which they are skimmed from the water and put through a thermo-chemical “wet extraction” process to separate the oil. The company plans to make about 100 barrel of oil a day in New Mexico. If all goes according to plan, commercial production of perhaps 10,000 barrels a day will begin in 2018. Alas, no company can make algal oil at a cost that enables it to compete with conventional petroleum-yet.


On the world’s largest fir-tree farm

Holiday Tree Farms is the largest Christmas-tree producer on earth.M Beginning in late October, Holiday’s staff swells from about 250 employees to 700 working 16-hour shifts. They will fan out across the company’s 8,500 acres, while about a half-dozen helicopters crisscross the sky, each hauling 15 trees per load to processing centers. By mid-December the company has cut and transported 1 million trees. After a certain date, the product is completely worthless.

The company (which is private) grossed $25 million in 2011. Each year Holiday plants more than 1 million two-year old seedlings. After two years, workers prune the trees once a year, shaping them into that perfect cone. The company is now growing more of  ‘table-top trees’. There’s been a bigger demand for two- to four-footers. They say it’s the bad economy. Perhaps it’s a baby boomer thing. That generation is getting too old to deal with a big tree.


The driverless revolution, by Brian Dumaine

Google has now proved that a self-driving car can travel more than 300,000 miles without a mishap. Its customized Toyota Priuses use an impressive combination of GPS, radar, and a 3-D mapping camera on the car’s roof that ‘sees’ traffic signals, road lanes, and pedestrians in real time. In 2010 four driverless electric vans made the 8,077 miles drive from Parma, Italy, to the World Expo in Shanghai. Last October  California became the third state, after Nevada and Florida, to make self­-driving vehicles street legal. (The catch, for now, is that a human must sit in the driver’s seat, ready to take over in an emergency). Nissan revealed a self-driving prototype. GM, Ford, Toyota, and BMW are experimenting with similar models. In 10 or 15 years you’ll see a lot more of there cars.  These vehicles could also help boost fuel efficiency. For instance, GPS could identify empty parking spaces. In congested urban areas, about 40% of total gasoline use is in cars looking for parking.

The average American commuter now spends 250 hours a year behind the wheel of a vehicle. What if those hours were spent answering e-mails? The technology could be a boon to the trucking industry. Picture long lines of self-driving 18-wheelers, 12 inches apart, speeding down a special lane on the Interstate at 100 mph. Self-driving trucks would boost fuel efficiency by 15% to 20%. No drivers, no stops for fuel and food, and no one sleeping overnight in the cab with the air conditioning running. In remote areas mining companies can use giant trucks carrying tons of ore without an operator at the seat. In Western Australia the mining giant Rio Tinto saves as much as $100,000 a year per truck of exactly this kind.



Ha scritto ‘Fortune’: “An executive who tries to talk his customers out of buying his products? It sounds nuts, but that’s what Yvon Chouinard loves to do. The outspoken, iconoclastic founder of Patagonia, maker of high-end outdoor clothing and equipment, believes that capitalism is on an unsustainable path”. Un altro imprenditore rosso? Oppure zelatore dell’ambiente? Niente di sensazionale. Ma ‘Fortune’ spiega che il Nostro “contends that we must move toward a ‘post-consumerist economy where goods are high quality, recyclable and repairable”. Il clou è in questi aggettivi, recyclable and repairable: “Have a Patagonia ski parka with a rip in the arm? Don’t throw it away and buy a new one. Send it back, and the company will sew it up. Is your tent beyond repair? Send it back, and Patagonia will recycle the material. In the process of making and selling, we use too many resources and buy low-quality goods that we quickly throw away”.

‘Fortune’ non nasconde sorpresa, ma ammette che questo produttore originale può avere ragione. Fattura 400 milioni l’anno e sostiene di fare profitti suggerendo ai  clienti di comprare meno, Perché si affaccia sui mercati una generazione di giovani che non simpatizzano col consumismo inquinatore. E perché, sempre secondo Chouinard, i produttori parsimoniosi come lui si troveranno con un vantaggio competitivo man mano che le materie prime costeranno di più per l’incremento demografico. Ovviamente ‘Fortune’ commenta: “When one looks at the unbridled growth in China, India, and other parts of the developing world, where billions are vying for an American lifestyle, it’s hard to imagine that Chouinard’s utopian world of less consumption, less waste, and higher-quality goods will prevail. (How low-income consumers will afford high-quality products, he doesn’t say)”.

Conclusione del quindicinale americano: Per ora nessuna attività produttiva è ecologicamente sostenibile, nemmeno quella di Patagonia  una cui polo di cotone organico consuma molta acqua e produce il trentuplo del suo peso in CO2. “But Chouinard is leading the charge to get us there”.

fonte: Fortune.


“Absent substantive changes, federal debt will soon rocket to levels no country can bear. By far the largest elements of unsustainable spending are Medicare and Social Security. If you get the right people in the room, you can solve Social Security in 15 minutes, says former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan; Medicare is a far tougher challenge. (…) The largest element of spending after social insurance is defense. Its budget can and should be cut. It is greater than the combined defense spending of the next 15 biggest defense spenders. In May the House of Representatives voted to give the Defense Department some $3 billion more than the $519 billion it requested for 2013. It’s time for Members to think less about directing pork to their districts and more about the nation’s future”.

Sono alcune valutazioni delle due principali firme di ‘Fortune’, Geoff Colvin e Allan Sloan, cui la rivista ha affidato il pezzo portante del proprio Speciale Elezione, titolo: “Hey, Washington: enough already”. Come si vede, nessun dubbio sulla patologia bellicista dell’America: “Defense budget can and should be cut”. Se la Camera  assegna più di quanto il Pentagono ha chiesto è perché i Rappresentanti pensano a ingrossare il ‘pork’ (=’Money, position or favors obtained from the government, as a result of political patronage’). In altre parole, commesse militari per essere rieletti. L’elettoralismo è il peccato mortale della democrazia rappresentativa.

Più scabrosa la soluzione dei due guru di ‘Fortune’ per Medicare:

“The biggest problem is the endgame -when people enter their final descent and are kept alive, expensively. So we would restrict the end-of-life care that Medicare will pay for. In 2006, the last year for which data are available, more than 25% of all Medicare spending went for people in their last year of life (only 5% of the covered population”). Insurance companies, hugely important players in our health care system, already heavily restrict the procedures they pay for. Taxpayers, collectively, should do the same”.

Ulteriore, non sentimentale ma apprezzabile chiarimento:

“We propose that if you want to use heroic measures to keep yourself or any other Medicare or Medicaid recipient alive, either you spend your own money or buy supplemental end-of-life policy from the market”. In aggiunta a tanta (logica) franchezza, Colvin & Sloan chiedono che la copertura sanitaria costi di più ai fumatori, agli obesi e agli assistiti a più alto reddito; e che l’età della pensione venga alzata.

In ultima analisi i due si dichiarano ottimisti:

“Major reforms happened under presidents Kennedy and Reagan; if our country gets a big enough scare, they could happen again. These things have their moments. As  the economy cries for help, just maybe the moment has arrived”.

Un anno fa uno dei due, Allan Sloan, chiamava “American Idiots” la classe politica “che stava distruggendo l’economia con l’accanimento delle posizioni”. Individuava il problema centrale nel “takeover of the economic debate by fanatics who are up to no good”. Questo un anno fa. Oggi ‘Fortune’ non si attende più propensione alle intese bipartisan: “If Obama is elected, he’s likely to stop making concessions to the GOP, and to force a confrontation”. Questo non porta necessariamente a prevedere sviluppi positivi dall’eventuale vittoria di Romney. Né peraltro ad anticipare vere accentuazioni destrorse a seguito dell’inserimento di Paul Ryan nel ticket repubblicano: “History tells us that vicepresidents are more about politics than policy”.

La copertina dell’Election Special di ‘Fortune’ reca due slogan speculari: ‘Don’t vote for Romney’ e ‘Don’t vote for Obama’.