The July–August issue of the Monthly Review features IATP's Sophia Murphy and her essay "Free Trade in Agriculture: A Bad Idea Whose Time is Done;" an examination of the original promises of free trade in agriculture and what actually happened—particularly to developing countries.
The essay also outlines alternative agriculture trade strategies that could help address hunger, build sustainable local foods systems and improve a trading system full of widening disparities.
The full issue of the Monthly Review is also worth checking out. Titled "The Crisis in Agriculture & Food: Conflict, Resistance, & Renewal," it includes articles by Walden Bellow, Miguel Altieri and Peter Rosset among many others.
The Women, Infants and Children Nutrition program (WIC) is one of the most important government programs for low-income families. WIC's food package provides vouchers for milk, eggs, cheese, cereal and other food items. Now, for the first time in it's 35-year existence, it's getting an overhaul—and that requires retail food vendors who accept WIC vouchers to make fresh fruits and vegetables available.
States have until September 30, 2009, to update their food package and there is some latitude among states in how they will implement the new requirements. Minnesota will implement its new rules on August 1. Those rules take the fruits and vegetables requirement a step further by setting a minimum stocking requirement. Many low-income communities, in both rural and urban parts of the country, do not have easy access to grocery stores. WIC participants are often forced to rely on corner stores without much of a selection of healthy food—particularly perishable items like fruits and vegetables.
IATP is working with the Minnesota Department of Health to publicize the new rules in corner stores around the state. And we are working with food distributors in Minnesota that supply corner stores to make it easier for those stores to stock fresh, high-quality produce. Our press release has the details.
When the sharp rise in food prices hit in 2007, countries and corporations began looking for land around the world that could produce both food and biofuels. The focus of so-called "land-grabs" has been on countries in Africa, South America and Asia. But, different from past forms of colonialism, much of the land investment is being led by southern countries or companies based in the southern hemisphere. In a new article in Foreign Policy in Focus, IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch reports on the extent of global land grabs and analyzes their potential effects on food production and hunger around the world.
The rise in illnesses due to antibiotic resistant bacteria has always been both easier and harder to understand than scientists have led us to believe.
Easier because on the one hand, the problem all boils down to one maxim: "The more we use them, the faster we lose them (antibiotics, that is)." In articulating his theory of natural selection, Charles Darwin fleshed out the concept. We live within a huge ecosystem of bacteria in which we humans are just one small cog. When we introduce a stressor into that system—antibiotics—we create the conditions where the bugs that most naturally resistant those antibiotics will be the ones that thrive and come to dominate our mutual environments.
Harder to understand, perhaps, because this bacterial ecosystem is a much more complex, nuanced world than most of us ever think about. It turns out that bacteria can swap their genes with ease with even unrelated families of bacteria. This includes the genes that render them resistant to antibiotics. Moreover, because these drug resistant genes are often physically connected to one another, bacteria that before was killable with several antibiotics, could, in one fell swoop, become much less killable.
What prompted this blog is the latest study (Graham J et al. Sci Total Environ. April 2009) showing that these bugs and the genes that make them resistant could be carried by flies—yes, flies—from farms to elsewhere. Now foolishly, about 70 percent of all antibiotic supplies in the U.S. are used as additives to animal feed for chickens, pigs and beef cattle to make them grow faster under more stressful, confined conditions prevalent in factory farms. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University looked at poultry manure from these factory farms and compared the drug resistance of the bacteria in the litter with the bacteria on the flies collected nearby. And guess what, the drug resistance was pretty much the same.
We don't know where else those flies were headed to, but wherever it is, the implications aren't good.
So, next time you do find a fly in your soup, just say, "Waiter, no superbugs, please."
Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.
June 12, 2009
First, seventy-two labors brought us this food, we should know how it
comes to us.
Second, as we receive this offering, we should consider whether our virtue
and practice deserve it.
Third, as we desire the natural order of mind to be free from clinging, we
must be free from greed.
Fourth, to support our life we take this food.
Fifth, to attain our way we take this food.
First, this food is for the three treasures.
Second, it is for our teachers, parents, nation, and all sentient beings.
Third, it is for all beings in the six worlds.
Thus we eat this food with everyone
We eat to stop all evil
To practice good
To save all sentient beings
And to accomplish our Buddha Way.
- Meal Gatha, sacred chant performed before meals at a local Buddhist Monestary
The above words were uttered by our apprentice Heidi Kunz prior to our meal this evening. Forty minutes prior she had been pacing through the woods of a forested backyard, questioning her own choices about why she decided to become a vegetarian 17 years ago – “I feel like I have to decide right now if I want to keep eating meat,” she murmured in agonized mental confusion, tears streaming down her cheek.
Moments later she placed a sharpened knife at the jugular of a chicken.
We all know too well the modern minds’ seductive use of disassociation – not only have food companies and televised commercials aided in such separatist thought – but particularly pertaining to meat. Many attest – just give me the store-bought Cornish Cross, boneless chicken breast. We may think otherwise, but recent CDC studies show chicken to be the number one source of food borne illness outbreaks. So those eight-week old, four to five pound Cornish Crosses that topple over because they've been bred to grow so rapidly don't necessarily make the most appetizing (or humane) source of food.
The Cornish Cross, or Rock Cornish, is a hybrid variety of chicken, produced from a cross between the Cornish and Plymouth Rock strains. It has become a favorite because it lacks the typical "hair" seen in other breeds which often need singeing post plucking. It is a poor forager and would therefore be at a loss in knowing how to navigate our clover patches.
So, in opposition to the antibiotic-injected, high protein diet, crammed indoor space of factory farms; our birds - a diverse group of eight different varieties - have been hanging out in their homemade mobile chicken coop. In the quiet months of March, we retrofitted the 1950s manure spreader that a local had been rotting in his backyard. We frequented the local lumberyard and piece-by-piece put together a homemade chicken tractor (see right).
About once every three days, the chickens get rotated through a section of fallowed clover cover crop. We supplement their local, organic feed from Lightning Tree Farm ($22/bag). With a rich supply of kitchen scraps and the clover abounding from our soil, our birds have been eating well since their arrival in February. After a few run-ins with mother nature's other species, we have 18 laying hens - all of which will begin laying in the coming weeks. As a side business we sell fresh eggs to those who ask - $5/dozen.
More than anything, these birds exist on our farm as a source of education. The mobile coop is part of the knowledge our apprentices gain from learning about about holistic farm management. And although we may be young at this, we aspire to provide a sound example of closed-loop farming systems, minimizing outside inputs of fertilizer.
Just like the disassociation from what appears on our plates at supper - we have become removed from understanding how humans can manage other animals in a humane and honorable way. Killing a chicken humanely and in the presence of others, for some, is a step in the direction towards honoring ones food supply. After participating in the process and asking, "why did you do it?" Heidi answered, "to justify my eating of meat - I can now understand why some don't do it."
Few things are as fundamental to good health as healthy food, grown well. And yet the reality of our times is that the easiest, most available, most "affordable" food is typically the least healthful. I'm talking about packaged and heavily processed foods high in calories, additives and saturated fats and low in nutritional value.
Well, the American Medical Association has seized leadership in starting to build a healthier food system by passing new policy this week at its annual meeting, pledging that the organization will support health care systems that model healthy, ecologically sustainable food systems. And the AMA commits itself to support a 2012 Farm Bill that brings us closer to a Healthy Food Bill. To find out more, read the Sustainable Food report from the AMA's Council on Science and Public Health, on which the new policy is based. Additionally, check out the AMA's own press release and comments from Health Care Without Harm, of which IATP is a founding member.
David Wallinga, M.D.
Calculating the carbon footprint of corn-based ethanol (including indirect effects around the world) continues to be a political hot potato that threatens congressional negotiations to address global climate change. Earlier this month, we outlined some of the key issues in this debate between House Agriculture Chair Collin Peterson (D-MN) and Henry Waxman (D-CA), the lead author of the House climate bill.
In the Saturday issue of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, IATP President Jim Harkness, Michael Noble from Fresh Energy and Patrick Moore of Clean Up the River Environment, co-authored a commentary that offers a proposal to break the deadlock.
They write: "Indirect land use change (ILUC) is real, but ILUC calculations need more research and development before they are used in policy. We need to better understand the links between what happens here in the Corn Belt and what happens in the rainforest, and we must figure out how to quantify indirect effects. Combining a commitment to do this research with a commitment to account for these emissions would be a better approach."
Read the full commentary.
Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.
May 28, 2009
The overcast, coastal-like mists have brought my attention to what is beneath all of the weeds that we are trying to stay on top of. And whenever I make a new pass through the field with the disc, I turn around to see swooping blue birds, yellow finches, and baby kill deer scurrying by to harvest the day's fresh offerings. My hand claps and whistles are never frequent enough to keep them away from our friend in the soil, Lumbricus terrestris.
The earthworm is a special sort of worm. Almost alone among its brethren, the earthworm does not inspire horror. In fact, the earthworm is almost alone among all invertebrates in the tenderness it inspires. Knowing that a worm in the sun is as good as dead—since its skin has no defense against desiccation—children often place them gently in the shadow of a log or cover them with a light handful of soil. We all remember our interaction as children with earthworms—be it a friend's earthworm box in their room or digging them up before going fishing with Dad. Without question, gardeners—above all—venerate the worm.
In his book Dirt: The Estatic Skin Under the Earth, William Bryant Logan points out much of what we already know: when worms are happy, there are lots of them. It is said that in a Danish forest soil, researchers have found a density of one million to one-and-a-half million worms per acre—more than two tons of worms! A rich grassland may bring up more than 500 worms out of a square-meter hole. This is not so remarkable when you recognize that eight relatively healthy worms will produce 1,500 offspring in half a year’s time.
The common earthworm is not native to the United States, having been brought over by colonists in the mid-nineteenth century. When it first appeared, it was not numerous. But as fields were cleared, its numbers increased to such a degree that the water of springs and wells became polluted by the number of dead worms. As often witnessed in nature, the corresponding introduction and increase of robins and other vermivores corrected the imbalance.
Regardless, the presence of earthworms is by and large a very good thing for the soil. Unlike a given fertilizer, it acts simultaneously on several different soil variables.
More than any other creature, the worm defines topsoil. Worms are basically blind; therefore, they see literally by eating. A worm is a long intestine. Soil, rich in dead organic matter, leaves, and especially manure, goes in one end and comes out the other—concentrated, enriched and well mixed—in the form of “castings.” Castings are so rich a source that at the farm I worked at last year, in preparation for making our potting mix, we would take a shovel and bucket into the woods, peel back a few leaves and collect two gallons per batch. It is said that a well-manured soil is almost always rich in worms. Up to ten tons of worm castings per acre per year enrich a soil under favorable conditions. The worm also senses and creates the topsoil in a very basic way: by going where the organic matter is, mixing it, and excreting it behind or above itself. Worms also bore down to the water table, but not into it. At the dry surface, too, they stop.
Some earthworms leave their castings on the surface, others in the body of the soil. These castings concentrate nutrients. Scientists estimate that worm castings contain five times more nitrogen, seven times more available phosphorus, 11 times more potash and 40 percent more humus than is usually found in the top six inches of soil. In addition, the castings mix the soil ingredients, facilitating further breakdown by microbes.
The earthworm's blindness does not hinder its motion; worms are pathfinders. A single acre of cultivated soil has been found to have more than six million worm channels whose presence significantly increases the soil’s ability to hold and percolate water. A clayey orchard soil had more than two million large channels—some the size of a little finger—in an acre, the equivalent of a two-inch drainage pipe! Others have found that down to a depth of four inches, up to 50 percent of the soil’s air capacity consists of the tunnels and cavities dug by worms.
Earthworms are the watchers of the soil. If you build soil, worms will come.
Now that our cover crops have been dried and turned under, the organic matter of which they are composed is the perfect food source for microorganisms and earthworms. As ecologically senstitive farming goes, large amounts of earthworms and microorganisms are often present in abundant numbers. We hope that our well-managed soil will pay off as we harvest for our first market this weekend and start our first distribution next Tuesday. Here's to the earthworm!
There are many remarkable, innovative leaders in the local and sustainable food movement around the world. Wayne Roberts of Toronto's Food Policy Council is one of them.
While energized communities in the U.S. are forming local food councils, Toronto has had one since 1991—and they've done some amazing stuff. Their food share program provides regionally raised food to 15,000 residents each month. They work closely with schools and institutions to increase production and purchasing of local food. They've targeted regional land preservation for agriculture and expanded the presence of community and rooftop gardens. And they have long been recycling food waste into compost. Finally, the Toronto area has been instrumental in developing Local Food Plus, a pioneering system that includes working conditions and environmental practices in certifying local farmers, processors and distributors.
When Wayne was in town last month for the American Planning Association annual meeting, we grabbed him for an interview.
This article first appeared in Civil Eats.
Three recent actions by big agribusiness companies to manipulate public opinion have me almost giddy with excitement. After years dictating the direction of the food system, agribusiness is taking a reactionary stance.
The first sign of this change comes from the world’s largest snack food company, Frito-Lay, which initiated a “Lay’s Local” campaign that features 80 “local” farmers from 27 states. Frito-Lay’s Web site has a Chip Tracker that allows interested consumers to enter their zip code and product code to find out where the potatoes came from. Although Frito-Lay can’t claim that the potatoes are locally grown, the advertising campaign hides the corporation behind the aura of U.S. farmers.
The second is the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation’s announcement of a newly formed Center for Food and Animal Issues. The Center attempts to paint feedlot operators as just another group of people who support animals, just like pet owners, hunters, supporters of zoos and local animal welfare organizations. “Ultimately, our goal is to assure that people who rely on animals, either physically, emotionally or economically, have the right to do so,” said Ohio Farm Bureau Federation executive vice president Jack Fisher. The impetus for the Center came after pork, poultry and veal housing legislation was introduced in state legislatures around the country, and last year’s passing of California’s Proposition 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act.
And finally, the biotech and pesticide company CropLife.com is protesting an organic garden on the White House lawn. CropLife congratulates First Lady Michelle Obama for her effort to raise food and celebrate agriculture, but takes issue with the garden being organic. Their Web site asks, “What message does that send to the non-farming public about an important and integral part of growing safe and abundant crops to feed and clothe the world—crop protection products?”
So why do I get giddy about these calculated attempts to manipulate public opinion? Because I think about the debate just ten years ago regarding our food system, and how dramatically the conversation has shifted to a positive direction. A decade ago, the hot issue in the agriculture world was genetically modified crops. And despite many legitimate concerns that were raised about health and environmental unknowns, as well as the alarming consolidation of the seed industry, genetically modified crops swept across the Midwest largely unimpeded. Opponents were portrayed as petty reactionaries oblivious to the challenge of “feeding the world.”
This was also a time of incredible devastation in rural America. Crop prices were reaching Depression-era levels, and the promises of the 1996 “Freedom to Farm” bill were nowhere to be seen. I sat through countless forums where agribusiness professionals told farmers to relax—soon the incredible buying power of China will make low crop prices a thing of the past. Unfortunately, we spent years with most commodity prices well below the cost of production, and neither China nor other parts of the world corrected the situation.
I never dreamed we could have made as much progress toward community-based food systems as we have in the past decade. “Locally grown” is the hottest food trend for 2009, so hot that a leader in the snack food industry wants to get in on the act. Ten years ago, consumers concerned about the humane treatment of animals had to work hard to find acceptable meat and poultry; now the confined livestock industry is on its heels because of California’s proposition 2, concerns about the overuse of antibiotics and continued problems with manure pollution.
Most remarkable has been the explosion in gardening and backyard livestock. CropLife’s rather lame objection to an organic garden on the White House lawn reveals the difficult position of the industry. Who can be against local organic production that is efficient, nutritious and cost-effective, while at the same time provides exercise and builds community?
By no means do I mean to diminish the challenges ahead of us. As the Frito-Lay campaign demonstrates, we need to remain vigilant to make sure that words like "organic" and "locally grown" mean what the public thinks they mean. Far too many people around the world and in the U.S. continue to suffer from hunger and diet-related diseases.
But people are no longer willing to let a component of their lives as critical as the food system rest in the control of agribusiness corporations. Today, many people are empowered to make decisions about their family’s food, and a lot of hands are getting dirty in the fresh spring soil. Instead of creating space in the corporate food system for alternative food and farming practices, agribusiness is trying to create space for itself in thriving community-based food systems. This is a welcome transition.