Faced with strong worldwide food demand and the accompanying higher prices, American farmers are beginning to respond to the signals of the market. In a new government report, farmers said they would make significant cuts in corn acreage this year in favor of soybeans.
If they carry through with their intentions, the resulting additional soybean oil could help alleviate global shortages of cooking oil that have led to sharply higher prices, hitting poor countries hard.
But a smaller corn harvest would most likely raise prices for that crop, which could also increase the prices Americans pay for meat. Most corn is used as animal feed. Higher corn prices may also compound the difficulties of companies that use corn to produce ethanol as a motor fuel.
Despite government mandates for the use of ethanol, those companies are struggling. They expanded so rapidly in recent years that an oversupply of ethanol depressed prices, even as the cost of their main feedstock, corn, was rising.
The release Monday morning of the Agriculture Department's report on farmers' plans, based on interviews with growers during the first two weeks of March, caused the price of corn in the commodities markets to rise past $6 a bushel for the first time, before falling back. Soybean prices, meanwhile, fell 70 cents to $10.89 on expectations of a greater supply.
A number of governments, including Egypt, Argentina, Kazakhstan and China, have imposed restrictions to limit grain exports and keep more of their food at home.
This knee-jerk response to food emergencies can result in farmers producing less food, and it threatens to undermine years of effort to open up international trade.
"If one country after the other adopts a 'starve-your-neighbor' policy, then eventually you trade smaller shares of total world production of agricultural products, and that in turn makes the prices more volatile," said Joachim von Braun, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.
Bruce Babcock, an economist at Iowa State University, said the rising markets were a signal to farmers that they needed to raise production.
"It's actually the greatest time in the world to be a farmer around the world," Babcock said. "We are going to see fairly substantial increases in production because farmers have never had such a large incentive to increase production."
But others note that expensive seeds and fertilizers are out of reach of farmers in poor countries.
Around the beginning of the 19th century, the British political economist Thomas Malthus said population had the potential to grow much faster than food supply, a prediction that efficient farming consistently proved wrong. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, some are revisiting his predictions.
Appeal of farmland grows despite its risks
Investors who have never sat behind the wheel of a tractor are helping drive up the price of U.S. farmland to record levels, attracted by its assumed safety after the meltdown in mortgage-related securities and excited by the potential of plant-based biofuel.
But is agricultural land really a good long-term investment? Or could the rush into rural real estate be just another Wall Street craze, one that ends like the Internet and housing manias that preceded it?
An analysis of rents, an important measure of U.S. cropland values, suggests that the returns investors can expect from farmland are not only substantially below those available in the stock market but are in a long-term decline as well.
That disconnect - between fast-rising farmland prices on the one hand and fast-falling returns from farmland rents on the other - has some growers and government officials worried that a bubble might be forming, one similar to the one that took hold 30 years ago and left rural America reeling.
In Iowa, the superintendent of banking, Thomas Gronstal, is among those concerned. "Current agricultural conditions," Gronstal said in remarks to the U.S. Senate in March, "are reminiscent of conditions experienced in the 1970s, which led to the economic and financial collapse of the 1980s."
Gronstal said soaring crop prices made "the agricultural sector look strong." But he warned that retreats in those prices could have an immediate and devastating effect on land values.
"If there has been too much leveraged or loaned against the inflated value of farmland," he added, "the bubble will burst and we will once again experience an economic crisis similar to that of the 1980s."
During the past decade, the average price of an acre of U.S. cropland has doubled, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from $1,340 in 1998 to $2,700 in 2007. Last year alone, average prices nationwide jumped 13 percent.
Several factors are driving the increase. Farmers are scrambling to increase production to take advantage of record prices for many crops.
Big city investors have gotten in on the act, optimistic that a government push to commercialize biofuels like ethanol is fundamentally altering the rural landscape.
But while land prices have surged, the rents that landowners charge farmers who work their land have failed to keep pace. Last year, according to Agriculture Department data, average cropland rents rose 7 percent to $85 an acre.
Rents as a percent of crop land value - a metric akin to the earnings yield on a stock - have declined over the past 10 years across the country, from about 4.96 percent in 1998 to 3.15 percent last year. By comparison, from January 1926 through December 2007, the annualized total return for the S&P 500-stock index was 10.4 percent per year. So while the cost of U.S. farmland is rising, the real return that land generates has fallen.
That chasm between purchase price and rents sounds eerily familiar.
In 2002, several years before the U.S. residential housing bubble popped, Edward Leamer, an economist at UCLA Anderson Forecast, which provides quarterly economic projections, warned that the increase in house prices in some markets had already reached unsustainable levels because prices were rising faster than rents.
Indifference to the relationship between price and earnings on any asset, Leamer said, "is the same error that Wall Street analysts made during the Internet rush, when they imagined that the new economy changed the rules and created a fundamental disconnect between corporate earnings and stock prices."
Investors bullish on farmland say, essentially, that things are different because the world is experiencing an unprecedented agricultural supercycle, driven by growing food demand and wealth in the developing world and a U.S. government mandate for plant-based alternative fuels. Rents, they say, which typically lag behind changes in land values, will catch up.
"Purchase prices have been going up faster than rents," said William Edwards, an economist at Iowa State University. "But I think we're going to see a pretty big push on rents this year."
Rents, however, will have to be pushed pretty hard to get to levels of five years ago. With other costs rising, including fertilizer, seed and farm equipment, it is hard to see how landlords could make such increases stick.
Growers seem most worried about the surge in farm prices.
When Iowa State canvassed farmers recently as part of its annual land value survey, it reported that many respondents "expressed a great deal of concern that land values were too high and that the market might be due for a correction." And this week, a survey of farmers by the University of Illinois found "people looking over their shoulder," the report said.
One of the more prominent personalities in Canada this winter has been David Phillips, a senior climatologist with Environment Canada's weather service whose duties include producing an annual weather trivia calendar. For those who hope the end of March means the end of snow, Phillips offers little consolation.
"What surprises me are Canadians who ask, 'Is this it?' " he said. "About 12 percent of annual snowfall comes after the first day of spring. It's never really over until well into April."
Perhaps the most extreme reaction to the burdens of winter has been repeated incidents of what the police call snow rage. Most are territorial disputes that erupt when homeowners who have run out of space on their property begin tossing snow onto neighboring properties.
A defining moment occurred in Quebec City, where a 63-year-old man confronted a 25-year-old woman from a commercial clearing service who was blowing snow onto his yard. After banging on her tractor and shouting at her, the man rushed back into his house and returned with a shotgun to reinforce his complaint. The police have charged him with negligent use of a firearm and seized his collection of 13 guns.
Al Gore, the former U.S. vice president and a Nobel Prize winner for his environmental advocacy, is due to begin a $300 million advertising campaign to encourage Americans to push for aggressive reductions in greenhouse emissions, according to media reports.
But the United States is by no means the only potential obstacle to a global climate treaty. Countries disagree over what role wealthy and poor countries should play in reducing emissions. And even among wealthy countries there is significant discord. Last week, the Japanese vice trade minister, Takao Kitabata, said the method used to measure cuts in greenhouse gases in the Kyoto Protocol was "extremely unfair."
"It touched the memory of many generations," says Prince Louis-Albert de Broglie who first visited Deyrolle at the age of five and bought it in 2001. "It's like the Loire châteaux - you go first with your parents, then with your girlfriends, your wife, your children. There are people who come 20 times a year."
The six workers from a charity called Zoe's Ark had tried to take the 103 children to France in October, claiming they were acting out of humanitarian concern for orphans from Sudan's Darfur region. But investigations showed the children were Chadian, and that most had at least one parent or close adult relative.
After convictions in Chad, the six were transferred to France to serve their sentences under a judicial agreement.
The case had inflamed anti-French sentiment in Chad, but Deby raised the possibility of a pardon after French support helped him ward off a rebel attack on his capital in February.
Such colonial-like trade dependence of the United States on China is exacerbated by the growing U.S. dependence on China for financing its growing budget deficits; China is about to overtake Japan as biggest holder of America's debt. The United States is now dependent on China for much of its consumer goods and needs China to bankroll its budget deficits.
How long will China keep lending to the Americans? When will the United States pay back its debt to China? Or is it going to be a permanent colonial relationship?
Mahmood Elahi, Ottawa
Let's hope not. As I said, America's financial crises have been getting bigger. A decade ago, the market disruption that followed the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management was considered a major, scary event; but compared with the current earthquake, the LTCM crisis was a minor tremor.
If we don't reform the system this time, the next crisis could well be even bigger. And I, for one, really don't want to live through a replay of the 1930s.
The old categories are weakening, however, as immigration and the advancing age of marriage in the United States fuel a rise in the number of interracial marriages. The 2000 census counted 3.1 million interracial couples, or about 6 percent of married couples. For the first time, the census that year allowed respondents to identify themselves as of "two or more races," a category that now includes 7.3 million Americans, about 3 percent of the population.
Many people still stick to a one-race label even if they are of mixed descent, sometimes because of strong identification with one racial group, and occasionally because of a conscious effort not to dilute the numbers of the group they most identify with, researchers say.
In 1893, Friedrich Engels wrote from London to Friedrich Adolph Sorge, another German Communist then living in New York, lamenting how America's diversity hindered efforts to establish a workers' party in the United States. Was it possible to unify Poles, Germans, Irish, "the many small groups, each of which understands only itself"? All the bourgeoisie had to do was wait, "and the dissimilar elements of the working class fall apart again."
The city considered razing it. Many in Columbus had either forgotten Ma Rainey, one of the first professional entertainers to record the blues, or had never heard of her. The notion of cultural tourism had not yet acquired the power to turn people's eyes into small cartoon dollar signs. But just stabilizing the house would cost $90,000. The mayor at the time, Frank Martin, cast a tiebreaking yes vote.
Martin, a white trial lawyer elected with a large part of the city's black vote, said he was motivated in part by a sense of racial equity. "You could always promote white tourism," he said, "but when it came to something black, people were like, 'Why would you do that?' "
I wish all success to those diplomats who are working to find a compromise. But I'm not holding my breath.
But this red carpet moment was only one act in Lakme Fashion Week. For Indian fashion is aiming to go beyond Bollywood and on to the global stage.
This vibrant city, its spirit caught between the energy of New York and laidback Los Angeles, is determined to establish itself as India's hot and hip fashion capital. It may be competing with Delhi, the country's political epicenter, which held its own fashion week earlier this month, but the Lakme show (named for the beauty giant that is the main sponsor) is showcasing fresh talents.
That assertion was made last month at a public forum by Li Lianzhong, who heads the economic research unit of Communist Party Central Committee.
After all, no one has a monopoly on conspiracy theories.
But Li's views illustrate that despite China's integration into the global economy, a gulf in comprehension sometimes separates Beijing and the West. Indeed, mutual recriminations seem to be on the rise: What is China up to in Africa? What are the real motives of Beijing's sovereign wealth fund? Western critics want to know.
Why is Washington blocking investments by Chinese companies? Why are Western news outlets distorting coverage of Tibet? Ask Chinese skeptics.
Even as its economy surged in recent years, Beijing, China’s capital, still lagged behind business centers like Shanghai and Guangzhou in commercial development. Roads and public transit were outmoded, developers said, and companies that wanted to expand there had limited options for office or retail space.
But with the Olympic Games as a catalyst, government authorities undertook a vast makeover of the city. Since its selection in 2001 as the host city, it has poured $40 billion into infrastructure projects and Olympics venues while encouraging the development of glittering office, hotel and retail centers. Entire neighborhoods are being renovated.
In 2007, four new shopping centers added nearly 1.2 million square feet of retail space, office space expanded by more than 14 million square feet, and 2,500 new hotel rooms came onto the market, according to Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate services and money management company.
And that was just last year. In 2008, an additional 11 shopping centers totaling more than 11 million square feet are scheduled to open, along with 15 million square feet of office space and more than 11,000 hotel rooms, Jones Lang LaSalle said.
With the new supply of high-quality real estate, more American companies have been heading into Beijing, seeking to expand their presence in one of the world’s fastest-growing markets. A less-stringent regulatory environment for business is also helping to clear the path; there are fewer ownership restrictions, for example, for foreign businesses in certain industries. “The city is expanding at such a pace, it’s creating new opportunities every day,” said Edwin Fuller, the president and managing director of international lodging for Marriott International, whose hotel brands include JW Marriott Hotels & Resorts, Ritz-Carlton and Renaissance Hotels.
"The No. 1 reason why white people like not having a TV," reads the explanation under entry No. 28, Not Having a TV, "is so that they can tell you that they don't have a TV."
Readers discover stuffwhitepeoplelike.wordpress.com, like it and forward links to their friends, who forward them to lots more friends.
Newspaper columnists mention it, stealing - er, quoting - some of the better jokes. By the end of February, the National Public Radio program "Talk of the Nation" runs a report on it, debating whether the site is racist or satire.
And then March 20 Random House announces that it has purchased the rights to a book by the blog's founder, Christian Lander, an Internet copy writer. The price, according to a source familiar with the deal but not authorized to discuss the total, was about $300,000, a sum that many in the publishing and blogging communities believe is an astronomical amount for a book spawned from a blog, written by a previously unpublished author.
Huffington herself now spends less time on blog posts condemning the Bush administration (although there's still plenty of that) and more time reimagining The Huffington Post as what she calls an "Internet newspaper." In October, the site hired a new chief executive, Betsy Morgan, from CBS Interactive, and this summer the site will take an ambitious step by introducing its version of a metropolitan section: local versions for major cities.
Whether readers will follow the site into new areas, however, is an open - and expensive - question. The plan will put The Huffington Post into competition with existing newspapers and, arguably, with companies like Yahoo, AOL and CNN.com.
"Success on the Web is defined by spotting niches and serving them well," said Micah Sifry, the editor of the blog TechPresident.com. "Will people go to The Huffington Post for great sports blogging? They're certainly not going to go see what Arianna says about opening day," he added.
The sheer audacity of the plan should not surprise anyone who has followed her career. Huffington, a native of Greece, has been the president of the Cambridge University debating society; an author of books about feminism, Picasso and government waste; a panelist on radio and television shows; and a candidate in the 2003 California election for governor.
"She's had at least nine lives," said Michael Kinsley, a co-founder of Slate and a columnist for The Washington Post. "Someone will turn it into an opera. Probably her."
She usually works in Los Angeles by the fireplace of her mansion in the affluent Brentwood neighborhood (the site's West Coast staff of six also works out of her home). Last week, she was in New York, meeting with staff members, sitting for an interview with the ABC newsmagazine "20/20" and speaking about online politics at New York University.
When she introduced The Huffington Post in May 2005, she combined her posts with those of celebrities. Huffington prefers to say it has "as many interesting voices as possible."
But blogs often fade away as their creators tire of them, and many of the boldface names Huffington signed up and publicized in 2005 did not follow through.
While corporate sponsorship of these games is common — a popular one called The Beast was created by Microsoft for the Warner Brothers film “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” — this is McDonald’s first foray into the genre.
The game began with 50 bloggers receiving packages with an Olympic-themed poster and a clue pointing them to TheLostRing.com. The site presented a dramatic trailer, replete with sci-fi lighting and a narrator with a British-accented baritone speaking over scenes of a woman waking up in a field with “Trovu la ringon perditan” — an Esperanto phrase — tattooed on her arm.
Newspaper advertising revenue in the United States fell 7.9 percent in 2007, the second-worst year in more than half a century, according to the Newspaper Association of America.Those figures, released Friday, include continued growth in online advertising.Until last autumn, the industry appeared headed for a less severe decline. But as the U.S. economy slowed, newspapers suffered a particularly bad fourth quarter - the peak period for ad sales - with revenue down 10.3 percent from a year earlier.Revenue from ads in printed newspapers dropped 9.4 percent for the year, the biggest drop in any year since 1950, the period charted by the association.Internet ad revenue on newspaper sites rose 18.8 percent, a slowdown from the torrid pace of the previous three years, when it averaged 30 percent annual growth, according to the figures. Online ads accounted for just 7.5 percent of all newspaper ad revenue in 2007, evidence that it will be years before digital growth outweighs the print slump.
"Now you have a situation when even Sicilian shepherds are aware of what's going on," Morris said. "I can't see how it cannot start to chip away at the BA brand."
He sampled an oyster.
"Oysters for everyone!" he boomed expansively. "I promise to oysterize all of south London!"
Searching for money to buy a magazine, Johnson excavated from his pocket some coins and a grubby piece of cheese.
At the market, Johnson doggedly pressed on. Buying a meat pie, he was asked whether he wanted it wrapped in a bag. "Yes, some kind of bag!" he responded, before remembering the party line, that plastic bags are bad for the environment. "No, we're antibag," he said. "We're going to hold it."
He glanced at his entourage, already laden with various Boris-accrued items, and edited himself again. "We're going to find a team of porters to hold it."
His aides kept a close eye on him.
"Boris is off drink until the election is over," said one, cutting off a vendor who tried to give Johnson a cup of alcohol-laced cider.
Passers-by snapped his photo. "Go, Boris!" yelled a group of women. "Loser, Boris - loser," muttered a man.
"He bumbles a lot, but he's a lot cleverer than you think," said Lizzie Vines, a 50-year-old Devon farmer. "It's a very British thing to do, to pretend to be stupid when you're not."
She said she liked his honesty. What about the adultery?
"Cheating on your wife?" she said. "That's a very British thing to do, too."