The current drought facing the U.S. should send down jitters among net food importers worldwide as the price of major grain crops is set to rise dramatically. The drought can be seen as a result of climate change that has led to unpredictable weather patterns the world over.
Farmers in Kenya continue to face the challenges of unpredictable weather patterns that either bring too much or insufficient rain and extreme weather conditions. The situation has been worsened by the loss of local and traditional seed varieties that are more resilient to dry weather.
Women, have since time immemorial been the custodians of seeds in Africa. They bred, selected, sorted and stored seeds for different seasons and ceremonies. They understood their environment to the extent that they could read nature signs and predict what the next season would bring. That is how communities would always be prepared for droughts and would save sufficient food to take them through hard times.
Even with women as custodians of seed, men too had their role in ensuring food security for their families. Some crops like yams were crops tended to by men. I remember going to the village as a young child and grandma would ask grandpa to dig up some yams for us to carry back to the city. One time I asked grandma why she could not dig up the yams herself and she responded that that was the work of men and a crop tended to by grandpa. This remains vivid in my memory, almost twenty years after grandma passed on from throat cancer.
Agricultural prices, both national and international, are affected by commodity and financial market rules. Export revenues and import costs depend on the value of the dollar, the dominant international currency for commodity trading, relative to the value of other currencies. Interest rate rules affect the interest rates for all kinds of agricultural borrowing, from loans for planting to those for shipping products. However, financial market rules that affect agriculture, and thus food security, are written for all economic sectors, not just agriculture, so agriculture is usually not mentioned explicitly in the rulemaking.
U.S. regulators writing new rules to regulate financial and commodity markets have focused on how these rules will be applied in U.S. markets. However, if the foreign branches of U.S. and European firms are allowed to continue to act with reckless abandon outside of U.S. jurisdiction, legislation to reform Wall Street will be in vain. This summer, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) proposed guidance that grapples with the tough question of how to regulate financial instruments called “swaps,” which are traded by foreign affiliates of U.S. banks. Getting this “cross-border” rulemaking right will be critical for farmers and global food security.
September is Farm to School Month in Minnesota, so treat yourself to some delectable locally grown foods and thank your farmer. In 2011, Governor Dayton officially proclaimed September to be Farm to School Month and this year, more schools than ever are participating.
Farm to School initiatives—which link school age children with local foods and the farmers who produced them—are taking off around the country. That’s especially true here in Minnesota, where 145 school districts serving two-thirds of Minnesota’s K-12 students are now dishing up tasty, locally grown foods.
Students are learning where their food comes from, trying fresh foods they haven’t eaten before and learning to grow food in school gardens. Our farmers are doing their part by providing top quality, healthy foods grown nearby. And school lunch ladies are making it all come together by trying out new recipes featuring fresh, healthy choices like tomatoes, zucchini, sweet corn and peppers.
The volatile weather this growing season has been particularly tough on Minnesota’s small- and mid-size farmers, with challenges ranging from too little rain, unrelenting high temps, flooding and hail. An early freeze was devastating to apple growers across the Upper Midwest. So please remember to support your local farmers in whatever way you can: Tell your school board that you support Farm to School, or shop at your local farmers market and support nearby restaurants or retailers that support local growers.
In mid-June, beginning farmer and former IATP staff member Dayna Burtness was delivering her farm’s vegetables to clients in Minneapolis when she got the call: the rain that had started at mid-day had not let up for hours. Things were looking bad back at Laughing Loon Farm.
Dayna rushed back to Northfield to find a river of floodwater rushing through her fields. “It was terrible,” she remembered.
The downpour dumped more than eight inches of rain in several hours, and the water in a ditch bordering Dayna’s fields overflowed, following the path of a creek that had been diverted off of the property many years ago. A 40-foot-wide rushing river of floodwater wiped out a third of Dayna’s crops, in addition to transplant seedlings, equipment and materials.
The destructive weather didn’t stop there. Just as she was assessing which crops had escaped this first onslaught, severe storms struck again a few nights later.
“Golf ball– to Roma tomato–sized hail severely damaged the rest of the crops that hadn’t been washed away. It completely wiped out the rest of our sugar snap pea production, which was just starting to hit its stride. It snapped most of our tomato plants in half. It bashed up our fields of cucumbers, squash and winter squash, and it also snapped off many of the tops of the peppers and eggplants.” Neighbors of Laughing Loon were shocked at the devastation on Dayna’s farm, and even long-time residents can’t remember seeing such destructive flooding.
You’ve surely heard about the worst drought in a generation that is devastating farmers throughout the Midwest and Great Plains. Many of us may have brown lawns and suffering gardens, but besides these inconveniences, how does the drought impact the rest of us who are not farming? Here’s a brief rundown.
You are not likely to go thirsty. Despite the numerous long-term challenges the U.S. faces with water use and water quality, this is a time to appreciate the infrastructural investments that we have made in water and wastewater treatment. It’s remarkable how rare it is for drought to impact our ability to draw clean water from the tap and to safely treat wastewater.
You are not suffering in dust storms. Decades of improvements in farming practices and crop genetics have mitigated the impacts on crop production. Photographs of the Great Plains in the 1930s are full of amazing dust storms that are unimaginable for most of us today. The widespread recognition of that time, that farmers had to make major transitions in tillage practices, and that policy had to support that transition, is a tribute to the foresight of previous generations.
In many ways our food system is less resilient to shock than it used to be. Yes, our impressive food handling, trade and transportation systems have made it far easier to get food to places that need it, but in other ways our system is increasingly vulnerable. The lack of crop diversity on tens of millions of acres of Midwest corn and soybean fields leave agriculture susceptible to severe impacts from new pests and disease, and this agricultural system is highly dependent on plentiful chemical inputs and fossil fuels.
One of the most exciting things about the upcoming Food + Justice = Democracy conference will be the incorporation of a Peoples Movement Assembly. These are designed to help gatherings develop collective political agreements and positions, and this particular assembly will have the conferees coalesce around the barriers to the creation of a just and healthy food system and the opportunity to address those barriers.
Over the next several weeks we are going to feature statements from some of the food justice leaders that will be attending the conference. So many of the conferees provide an awe-inspiring level of wisdom and experience to the food justice movement, and the movement will be all the stronger the more it is democratically built on that wisdom and experience.
Justice requires a conscious, vigilant and active populace. Building towards food justice requires that we conduct public education campaigns to make communities aware of the impact of the current food system on our planet, our health and the economies of our communities. It requires that we provide local food–related models of what sustainability and justice might look like. These models must provide real ways that people can participate in growing, processing, distributing and selling healthy foods and realizing economic benefit from their efforts. They must provide communities with the opportunity to shape their food system and the policies driving it.
In the first blog in this series, I discussed how drought has affected me. As I walked through a Central Iowa corn field near Ames this summer, I surveyed another corn crop destroyed by the heat and dry conditions, (see photo) I wondered if this farm could survive.
I thought back to the farm I grew up on and how in the long run it did not survive. That is, it did not have “resilience” to withstand weather onslaughts, unfavorable markets and aggressive bankers.
So what the heck is resilience? An old term, but coming back into its own, at least in academic circles. And it is a good one for the times, perhaps for the rest of our rocky future.
And rocky it will be. Climate change, population pressures, decline of resources, both physical and financial, the list goes on. But first resilience.
Dr. William Reese at the University of British Columbia, in his challenging paper “Thinking Resilience” defines resilience as “the capacity of a system to withstand disturbances while still retaining its fundamental structure, function and internal feedbacks” (see also Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World. Walker, B., and Salt, D. Island Press, N.Y. NY. 2006.)
Fancy words, but what does it mean? Reese uses a good analogy, the brittleness of a system. Can the system spring back like the ability of a car’s shock absorbers to smooth out a pothole (those of you who to drive the streets of Minneapolis can appreciate that ability).
There has been a lot of noise on the Farm Bill lately. Last month, the Senate approved its Farm Bill, and last week the House Agriculture Committee approved its own version. Despite major differences, both Houses of Congress have one thing in common: they are virtually silent on corporate market power and competition in agriculture.
Nearly every sector of agriculture is now dominated by four or fewer companies. In the 2008 Farm Bill, fair markets and competition were at least acknowledged as an issue to be addressed. The Livestock Title included provisions that required the updating of rules to the Packers and Stockyards Act, and helped spur a national series of workshops co-hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Justice (DoJ) on competition and agriculture in 2010.
Not so in the 2012 Farm Bill. It’s almost as if excess corporate power in agriculture has magically disappeared. In fact, the House Agriculture Committee Farm Bill actually prevents the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) from implementing new rules on fair contracts for poultry growers.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the controversial Citizens United ruling by striking down a Montana law limiting corporate campaign spending. The ruling is a win for agribusiness and food companies exerting their influence over elections and government, and a loss for those advocating or farmers, the environment and consumers.
As we wrote earlier this month, there’s not an issue at the intersection of food, agriculture and government policy that doesn’t run into the enormous political influence of big corporations. Whether it is the Farm Bill, international trade or food safety, corporate influence in U.S. politics and within government is reaching unprecedented levels.
The Citizen United ruling, and accompanying Super PACs, have changed the game and are undermining our democracy. Corporate spending on elections is now unlimited and virtually unregulated at the federal level. The Supreme Court ruling on Monday clarified that the Citizens United decision also applies to state and local elections. Get ready for even more campaign attack ads.
If we want a responsive government that reflects the interests of all farmers, workers and the environment we have to fight back. There is a growing movement pushing for local resolutions in support of a Constitutional Amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling. IATP supports that initiative and the United for the People campaign that is challenging corporate influence in our political system.
Working with New Horizon, IATP is launching a new Farm to Child Care program that will take place at thirteen New Horizon child care sites in the Twin Cities metro, St. Cloud and Rochester areas beginning in June. The pilot is intended to help catalyze and inform the emerging Farm to Child Care movement around the country.
Leading up to the June launch, IATP and NHA have been building relationships with area farmers, revamping menus to include locally grown fruits, vegetables and wild rice, developing curriculum for the children, and generating helpful tips for parents. IATP has also released national research on nascent Farm to Child Care programs around the country, and the opportunities and challenges of connecting farmers with children in child care settings.
Given growing diet and nutrition challenges among youth, engaging children early in life is essential. Reaching young children, particularly between the ages of three and five, is a golden opportunity to connect them with healthy food choices while creating new opportunities for the local farm economy.
In 2013, the program will be extended to all 60 of NHA’s Minnesota child care locations, reaching a total of 7,500 children. After evaluation of the program, IATP will report its findings nationally and provide tools to encourage others around the nation to develop Farm to Childcare initiatives in their own communities.