When my kids were young, one of our favorite nighttime books was Fungus the Bogeyman, a story about a subterranean bogeyman who spends his waking hours scaring humans. The kids and I loved all the disgusting bogeyman slang like pus and muck. As life would have it, the notion of fungus that frightens people has become only too real and instead if putting children to sleep, it has become the kind of story that really does keep us awake at night.
Recent news of the fungus wiping out shade-grown coffee in Central America was preceded earlier this month with reports of a wheat fungus in Africa that could wipe out this essential food crop. Major varieties of bananas in Asia and Africa are already being decimated by the deadly fungal Panama disease. Many important commodities are being plagued by fungal diseases and this increase in fungal diseases is not limited to plants. Just this week spores of a soil fungus that causes valley fever, or coccidioides, were discovered in Washington state. This fungus is normally found in regions with dry, arid climates.
The Obama Administration’s feverish cheerleading for genetically modified crops is being put to the test with growing evidence that the technology is unpopular with consumers, causing problems in the field and facing increasing rejection in the marketplace.
The state of Vermont is set to become the first in the country to require mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. Maine and Connecticut have also passed mandatory labeling bills, but they require neighboring states to also pass such bills before they come into law. More than 25 states have GMO labeling laws working their way through state legislatures and ballot initiatives. Hawaii, a major testing ground for new GMO crops, has become another battleground as several counties now require greater disclosure and tougher regulations for GMO plantings.
This is a big deal and the biotech seed industry knows it. The industry has already spent millions to defeat ballot initiatives and state-based bills. Its next line of defense against the states is litigation, where it will likely sue states’ requiring labeling for violating the interstate commerce clause (restricting trade between states).
The Board of the Federal Reserve asked this question, in essence, and 25 questions related to it in an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. IATP responded, because while banks generally do not own and trade agricultural commodities, the energy commodities they trade, including fertilizer (occasionally), oil, gas and electricity are agricultural inputs and, hence, affect agricultural prices. (The Fed has posted all comments here.) (On April 22, Barclay’s, which traded agricultural commodities, announced that it would be selling most of its commodity trading division. Greater regulatory scrutiny and declining profits were cited as reasons for the sale.)
Of Minnesota’s 55.6 million acres, 27 million acres are taken up by farmland. Currently, crop production is dominated by summer annuals like corn and soybeans, which need to be replanted each year and grow only in the summer. The consequence of this type of cropping is that for most of the year, no active roots exist in the soil to filter water, reduce runoff, or prevent erosion. Covering the ground with crops for a larger portion of the year by adding winter annuals and perennials to the landscape provides multiple benefits, including diversifying agricultural operations, protecting soils and waterways, and increasing wildlife habitat.
Part of the reason that perennials are not already more widespread on the landscape is that seed suppliers have a vested interest in annual crops. Annuals require farmers to purchase seeds every year, thereby boosting profits for the seed suppliers. These suppliers include large stakeholders such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta, all of which have the resources to wield powerful influence over farmer decision making. However, increasing ground cover throughout the year is imperative to ensure continued production in the face of climate variability, especially in a state like Minnesota where nearly half of the land is in agricultural production.
The food crisis of 2008 led to a broad agreement in the agricultural development community that the lack of appropriate investment in agriculture had been a key contributing factor to unstable prices and food insecurity. The crisis coincided with an increase in land grabbing in many parts of the world, but especially in Africa. It is in response to these events that the idea of developing some criteria on agricultural investments came up in international policy and governance arenas.
The food crisis also led the United Nations in 2008-09 to reform its Rome-based Committee on Food Security (CFS) to address both the short term food crisis, and the long-term structural issues that led to it. It involved bringing new people to the table where decisions were being made, and this included a new Civil Society Mechanism (CSM).
In October 2010, the newly reformed CFS was faced with a challenge: Should it endorse the international Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment that Respect Rights, Livelihoods and Resources (PRAI) developed by the Inter-Agency Working Group (IAWG), composed of FAO, UNCTAD, IFAD and the World Bank, or refuse to endorse it in response to the CSM position rejecting the PRAI?
It’s a big week in the agriculture world. Just days before Obama signed the new Farm Bill into law, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the locations of seven regional hubs for climate change adaptation and mitigation. These hubs will attempt to address the risks that farmers increasingly face due to climate change—including fires, pests, droughts and floods—by disseminating research on ways landowners can adapt to and adjust management strategies to build resilience.
This is a notable step forward in climate policy and has important implications for rural communities. Many rural communities tend to view large governmental agencies negatively, especially those agencies that regulate the agricultural activities that dominate many of those communities’ economies. However, farmers feel the direct impacts of extreme weather more than anyone. The climate hubs will help by linking a diverse network of partners, including universities, nongovernmental organizations, federal agencies, state departments, native nations, farm groups and more. Broadcasting climate change research and information from this wide array of sources, including sources that farmers trust and regularly interact with, could make climate change adaptation and mitigation a more accepted and commonly desired goal.
Encouraging action on climate change is paramount not only from an environmental perspective, but from an economic perspective as well. The drought of 2012 cost the American economy an estimated $50 billion between 2011 and 2013. It’s too early to assess the costs of the current drought punishing California, which produces nearly half of the country’s fruits and vegetables. Clearly, the risks posed by volatile weather events have implications not only for farmers, but for the economy and society as a whole.
A Spanish version of this commentary originally appeared in La Jornada.
One of the clearest stories from the NAFTA experience has been the devastation wreaked on the Mexican countryside by dramatic increases in imports of cheap U.S. corn. But while Mexican farmers, especially small-scale farmers, undoubtedly lost from the deal, that doesn’t mean that U.S. farmers have won. Prices for agricultural goods have been on a roller coaster of extreme price volatility caused by unfair agriculture policies, recklessly unregulated speculation on commodity markets, and increasing droughts and other climate chaos. Each time prices took their terrifying ride back down, more small- and medium-scale farmers were forced into bankruptcy while concentration of land ownership, and agricultural production, grew.
It’s hard to separate the impacts of NAFTA from another big change in U.S. farm policy: the 1996 Farm Bill, which set in place a shift from supply management and regulated markets to an accelerated policy of “get big or get out.” Farmers were encouraged to increase production with the promise of expanded export markets—including to Mexico. But almost immediately, the failure of this policy was evident as commodity prices dropped like a stone, and Congress turned to “emergency” payments, later codified as direct payment farm subsidies, to clean up the mess and keep rural economies afloat.
Then, as new demand for biofuels increased the demand for corn, and investors turned from failing mortgage markets to speculate on grains, energy and other commodities, prices soared. It wasn’t only the prices of farm goods that rose, however, but also prices of land, fuel, fertilizers and other petrochemical based agrochemicals. Net farm incomes were much more erratic.
Pete Huff and Dr. M. Jahi Chappell have joined IATP’s staff this fall and together will be leading the organization’s efforts to further a sustainable, diversified and prosperous agriculture and food system.
Pete Huff, IATP’s new director of food systems, will be focusing on advancing healthy and fair food systems in the coming year, including our Beyond the Farm Bill initiative. His background spans the worlds of organic agriculture, market gardening, school food-waste reduction and urban agriculture policy in the nonprofit and local government sectors in both the U.S. and Australia. Learn more about Pete on his staff page.
Dr. M. Jahi Chappell is IATP’s new director of agriculture policy, working on farm policy that supports agroecology and more democratic systems. Most recently, Dr. Chappell served as an assistant professor in the Environmental Science and Justice program of Washington State University Vancouver’s School of the Environment. He is a leading scholar of the food security policies of the city of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, which served as a basis for Brazil’s acclaimed national Zero Hunger programs. He’ll be a featured speaker at the upcoming Borlaug Dialogue as part of the World Food Prize. Learn more about Jahi on his staff page.
Wow. This seems likely to cause a long-term stir, and I’m quite sure vociferous critiques from many quarters (though likely mostly from the usual suspects). University of Canterbury Professor Jack Heinemann and his team have found that
…Relative to other food secure and exporting countries (e.g., Western Europe), the U.S. agroecosystem is not exceptional in yields or conservative on environmental impact. This has not been a trade-off for sustainability, as annual fluctuations in maize yield alone dwarf the loss of caloric energy from extreme historic blights. We suggest strategies for innovation that are responsive to more stakeholders and build resilience into industrialized staple crop production.
In terms of making a splash and what the big, viral attention has been about, though, this excerpt from their abstract buries the lede. In an interview with the journal’s publisher, Prof. Heinemann elaborates:
Our most significant findings were that:
–GM cropping systems have not contributed to yield gains, are not necessary for yield gains, and appear to be eroding yields compared to the equally modern agroecosystem of Western Europe. This may be due in part to technology choices beyond GM plants themselves, because even non-GM wheat yield improvements in the U.S. are poor in comparison to Europe.
Transformative changes are needed in our food, agriculture and trade systems in order to increase diversity on farms, reduce our use of fertilizer and other inputs, support small-scale farmers and create strong local food systems. That’s the conclusion of a remarkable new publication from the U.N. Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
The report, Trade and Environment Review 2013: Wake Up Before it is Too Late, included contributions from more than 60 experts around the world (including a commentary from IATP). The report includes in-depth sections on the shift toward more sustainable, resilient agriculture; livestock production and climate change; the importance of research and extension; the role of land use; and the role of reforming global trade rules.
The report links global security and escalating conflicts with the urgent need to transform agriculture toward what it calls “ecological intensification.” The report concludes, “This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.”
The UNCTAD report identified key indicators for the transformation needed in agriculture: