The headline of last week’s Science Insider blog was eye-catching: “China pulls plug on genetically modified rice and corn.” (The RT version was even better: “End of the line: GMO production in China halted.”) What actually happened was far less dramatic or definitive. On August 17, biosafety permits for research on two strains of GM corn and one of GM rice expired and were not renewed by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture. But exactly why this happened and what it means for the future of genetic engineering of food in China is uncertain. (This is being debated in the Chinese press.)
The apparent tightening of enforcement is not limited to GMO experiments. Since last fall, several large shipments of corn from the U.S. have been turned back on the grounds that they contained a Syngenta GE variety that has not been approved for sale in China.
In a new paper led by collaborators at Leuphana University Lueneburg (Germany) and just released in print in the scientific journal Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment, my colleagues and I question one of the buzzwords in international conversations about hunger and conserving the environment: sustainable intensification (SI). Explained briefly, sustainable intensification seeks to produce the most food, on the least land, with the lowest environmental impact.
SI has been the subject of a recent European Union report, proposals by prominent scholars, and is a major theme area of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. SI is often seen by some experts as “key” to agriculture’s future, particularly in Africa, and has been the subject of a number of high-profile publications in some of the world’s top scientific journals. It is, in short, an idea on the rise.
This entry is part of IATP's Story of Drought, examining the impacts, causes and perception of drought in the U.S. and around the world.
Lamar, Colo. – In a good year, the wheat on the Hixsons’ farm should stand waist high by mid-summer. This year, though, much of the crop isn’t even tall enough for the combine to harvest.
Jillane Hixson hasn’t seen regular rainfall since 2002. She and her two brothers, Ron and Eric, farm 3,000 acres of wheat here in southeast Colorado, the same land that their father farmed before them. After 12 years of drought, "The ground is just like brown flour," Hixson says. When the wind picks up, what was once soil coats her car, her windows, and even her counter tops.
"Every morning when you get up, the first thing you do is vacuum down the kitchen table and wipe down the coffee pot just to be able to make a cup of coffee," Hixson says. "You can't escape it."
With regular rain, the Hixsons harvest around 40 bushels of wheat an acre. This June, much of their land yielded merely four bushels an acre, or one-tenth that. The Hixsons’ crop insurance covers just enough for them to buy seed and fertilizer and try again, but it doesn’t pay anything near what a full harvest does.
"The insurance just barely lets you stay in business and actually keep borrowing more money," Hixson says. "You start this vicious cycle of borrowing and borrowing and borrowing in hopes that the weather cycle will change and the crops will come in."
All throughout eastern Colorado and western Kansas, farmers and ranchers are waiting for rain. “We’re in the midst of a prolonged drought,” says Duke Phillips, a Colorado rancher who manages cattle on about 200,000 acres. “Everybody is operating at deficiencies and praying for more.”
Today, Missouri goes to the polls to decide—among other things—if they want to amend the state’s constitution to include what is being referred to as the “right to farm.” This debate has been a fiercely pitched and costly battle to enshrine a right that many farmers rightly assume they already have.
The National Agricultural Law Center notes on their website that “All fifty states have enacted right-to-farm laws that seek to protect qualifying farmers and ranchers from nuisance lawsuits filed by individuals who move into a rural area where normal farming operations exist, and who later use nuisance actions to attempt to stop those ongoing operations.” In short, farmers and ranchers everywhere, including Missouri, are protected from those who complain about their daily operations on the basis of comfort.
So why such an adamant fight for something redundant? The simple truth is that the proposed Amendment 1—which would ensure the right of Missouri citizens to engage in agricultural production and ranching practices without infringement—has nothing to do with the protection of Missouri citizens at all. Despite the seemingly local origins of a measure to protect local farmers from “unreasonable regulations” and outside groups, the effort is nothing more than a national corporate wolf in a local sheep’s clothing. While the fate of Missouri will be known later today, it is important to understand the national context of fights like these.
In 1986, corn was selling at $1.80 a bushel. Today, in the summer of 2014, corn is selling for under $4.00 a bushel. If we adjust for inflation, the $1.80 corn of 1986 would be worth $3.90 a bushel today.
In 1986, the response from farmers to the $1.80 bushel of corn was as close to a populist uprising that this country has ever experienced. A prairie fire of protest spread across the country. Tractorcades, penny auctions, lenders forced to renegotiate farm loans and a whole lot of hell raising in farm country.
In 2014, $3.00 corn has failed to provoke much of a reaction. Why? What has changed?
There were 6 million farmers in the U.S. in 1986. Today there are around 2.2 million farmers, with the bulk of our commodity crop production coming from some 150,000 of them. Between 1970 and 1990, nearly 7 million farmers were forced off the land because of low prices, high interest rates and crushing farm debt. This was the culmination of the “Get big or get out” policies of the Nixon/Reagan era.
The wholesale elimination of millions of family farms sparked the rural rebellion of the late 70s and 80s. Farm families witnessed the end to a way of life that many had inherited from their parents and grandparents. Organizations like the American Agriculture Movement, Farmers Legal Action Group, Farm Aid, the Missouri Rural Crisis Center and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy came into being in response to this crisis. Looking back, farmers and their allies put up a good fight, but in the end, the powerful forces of agribusiness, banks and the pusillanimous politicians of both parties set our nation on a course where farmers were replaced by machines, petroleum, chemicals and monoculture cropping. For those who survived, farm incomes improved and farms got much bigger.
Last month, President Obama issued a memorandum to create a national strategy to promote pollinator health. The strategy includes creating a pollinator health task force and taking steps to increase and improve pollinator habitat. The fact that pollinator decline is starting to be addressed at the Federal level signals increasing recognition of the severity of this problem. Nearly one out of every three mouthfuls of food we eat relies on a pollinator, and without the bees, butterflies, moths, flies, bats and other pollinators, the world food supply will become increasingly unstable.
The two largest threats to pollinators are habitat loss and pesticide use. Of particular concern are neonicotinoids, an increasingly popular kind of insecticide that control a wide variety of insects. The most common way that neonicotinoids are applied is as a seed coating. This means that the pesticide is on the seed before it’s even planted, and it travels through the plant’s vascular system as it grows. This transports the pesticide throughout all parts of the plant, including leaves, stems, flowers, fruit, pollen and nectar.
Over 94 percent of the corn and half of the soy planted in the United States is pretreated with neonicotinoids. As a result, many farmers are not even aware that they are using neonicotinoids. Awareness of the problem is growing however, especially in parts of Europe, where they have been banned. Non-neonicotinoid treated seeds are available in the U.S. too, but they need to be specifically sought out and can be hard to find.
Teaching children about food and where it comes from is an important part of many childcare programs, but many childcare facilities want to go a step further and build a Farm to Childcare program that connects local farmers with young children by providing fresh, healthy foods in childcare meals.
In response, IATP has just published a ready-to-use Farm to Childcare Curriculum developed in partnership with childcare provider company New Horizon Academy (NHA); and a complementary Farm to Childcare: Highlights and Lessons Learned Report that tells the story of using that curriculum to start a comprehensive Farm to Childcare program currently operating at 62 NHA childcare centers throughout Minnesota.
The Farm to Childcare Curriculum Package contains information on designing a Farm to Childcare menu and implementation schedule, recommendations on how to highlight local farmers to make the connection real for children, detailed examples of family engagement strategies and extensive experiential learning activity suggestions to incorporate Farm to Childcare themes into Circle Time, Math and Science, Sensory and Dramatic Play, Arts and conversations at mealtime. It also includes resource recommendations for further ideas.
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.)