Agriculture's largest threat

Posted May 7, 2010

William Neuman and Andrew Pollack of the New York Times dug deeper earlier this week into the growing story of Roundup-resistant weeds and the chaos this is causing within the agriculture community. The Times story quotes Andrew Wargo III, the president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts as saying, "It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen." And Tennessee farmer Eddie Anderson says, "We're back to where we were 20 years ago. We're trying to find out what works."

Why is growing resistance to Roundup in weeds such a big deal? Roundup Ready genetically engineered crops are one of the linchpins of conventional agriculture. Roundup Ready crops allow farmers to douse their crop with Roundup to kill the weeds, while the crop survives. Currently, more than 80 percent of corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered, and most are Roundup Ready.

As we wrote last month, the Natonal Research Council's assessment on the impact of GE crops on farmers pointed to nine species of weeds that have been identified in the U.S. as being resistant to Roundup. As Roundup loses its effectiveness, other—more toxic—herbicides will likely take its place.

But the Times story also points out how the loss of Roundup affects no-till farming, at least the way corn farmers practice it. No-till has been touted as more environmentally friendly by curbing erosion and runoff of fertilizers and pesticides. It also has been hyped as an important part of a prospective carbon market. By not tilling, carbon is sequestering in the soil, and hence could become an additional income stream for farmers as part of a carbon-offset system. But as the Times points out, with the decline in Roundup's effectiveness, commodity crop no-till may no longer be practical.

What might make more sense? A new study by researchers out of Iowa State found that farmers using a two-crop rotation (corn and soybeans) could cut their fossil fuel use in half by switching to a four-crop rotation (adding oats and alfalfa)—and they could make the same amount of money.

The emerging challenges of Roundup-resistant weeds point out once again why climate change policy needs to get it right on agriculture.

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Water and the climate connections

Posted April 23, 2010

Last week, the Feria del Agua—a water festival and fair—marked the 10th anniversary of the water wars that thwarted attempts to privatize water services in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Celebrations were kicked off April 15 with a parade from downtown Cochabamba to the Complejo Fabril (home of the Cochabamba Federation of Workers).

Nationally, the water wars not only paved the way for blocking privatization attempts of other natural resources in Bolivia, but also helped change the balance of power there, leading to the successful election of its first indigenous president. Globally, the Bolivian water wars called attention to attempts to privatize water in Asia, Africa and elsewhere in Latin America. In their wake, it became increasingly acceptable to claim water as a basic right.

In 2001, IATP used the Bolivian water privatization case study to successfully persuade the UN office of the Special Rapporteur—who was conducting a detailed study towards the formulation the U.N. General Comment 15 on right to water—to remove overt references to privatization as a strategy for ensuring the water supply and sanitation in realizing the right to water. IATP also made the case that the General Comment must include water for farming and other subsistence livelihood practices to help establish the right to adequate food as a necessary component of realizing the right to water.

The struggle for the right to water continues even now in Bolivia. As several bloggers from the international water fair have pointed out, the gains of the water war have yet to reach la zona su—a wide swath of poor communities at the southern edge of the city that are highly organized and militant—some of the principal protagonists of the struggle in 2000 that led to the expulsion of the multinational Bechtel. Hence the need for small, autonomous water committees that continue to serve the needs of the local population. La Feria del Agua was thus not only a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the water wars, but also a  public event celebrating the work of these water committees.

Earlier this week, thousands more arrived in Cochabamba to participate in the People's Conference on Climate Change, at the invitation of Bolivian President Evo Morales and civil society groups. In an attempt to draw attention to the fact that water is in the eye of the climate storm, one of the days at the Feria was celebrated as a climate and water day. It was planned as a day to question the political processes that promote market-based solutions as an answer to the water and climate crises, and to advance alternatives. IATP, along with On the Commons and several other groups from around the world that work on water justice issues, came together to develop a fact sheet, “Water and Climate Change: What’s the connection?” and a draft declaration “On the Connection between Water and Climate Justice: Reviving a healthy climate through commons-based water management practices.” These were presented at the Feria. The purpose was to reach out to other constituencies and to show that their struggle is our struggle too—since water permeates climate, forests, agriculture and life itself.

As a participant at the climate forum pointed out to Jeff Conant (read him at Climate Connections), “The most important outcome of this meeting would be a stronger people’s movement on the climate crisis. It’s not about documents, it’s not about policy, it’s about standing up together against the climate criminals.” It is also about showing the world that there is an alternative.

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Walking a new path on climate change

Posted April 23, 2010

IATP's Karen Hansen-Kuhn is blogging from Cochabamba, Bolivia at the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.

The Climate Conference concluded today with a dialogue between social movements and governments. Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca described the process leading up to the meeting and the central role of indigenous people in the conference and on these issues, as guardians of the balance among peoples and between people and Mother Earth.

He also reported on the overwhelming participation in the conference. More than 35,000 people from 142 countries attended the meetings, 19,000 of them from outside of Bolivia. Some 47 governments were represented.

People from Australia, Malaysia, the United States and Bolivia reported back on the recommendations from the 17 working groups. They included proposals for a global referendum on climate change and the establishment of an international climate court. They insisted on the Kyoto Protocol as the only binding instrument to reduce global warming, and called on governments to review the failure of carbon markets. They held out agro-ecology and small-scale farming as the best way to feed the world while cooling the planet. The complete recommendations will be available on the conference website by April 26.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, as well as the vice presidents of Cuba and Ecuador, responded with endorsements of the proposals. President Morales offered to facilitate sending the recommendations directly to the UN Secretary General, as well as inserting them in the negotiating process at the UNFCCC.

Of course, not all of these proposals fit within the UNFCCC process, but that really isn’t the point. People from around the world came together in Bolivia to confront the impending climate catastrophe. Action is needed at all levels—local, national and international. The World Peoples Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth was an exhilarating step along the way.

This post is one of a three part series of blog entries from Karen Hansen Kuhn's visit to Cochabamba:
Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

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Bolivia climate conference opens with call for food sovereignty

Posted April 21, 2010

IATP's Karen Hansen-Kuhn is blogging from Cochabamba, Bolivia at the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.

The Conference opened today with a series of speeches by delegations from around the world. Each stressed the urgency of going beyond addressing the symptoms of global warming to taking actions to achieve deeper systems change.

A representative of La Via Campesina spoke on behalf of Latin America, emphasizing food sovereignty as a central solution to climate change. Throughout the day, in different panels and workshops, Via Campesina members stressed locally produced foods and sustainable agriculture grown by small-scale farmers as essential to cooling the planet while reducing hunger and strengthening rural livelihoods.

The opening events concluded with a rousing speech by President Evo Morales. He began with a concise critique of the Copenhagen Accord and the need for all countries to re-commit to the Kyoto Protocol process. However, he echoed the concerns raised by other delegations that market-based solutions will not solve the problems they helped to create.

Then, perhaps straying a bit from his prepared speech, he spoke about the importance of local foods. Too often, he said, multinational corporations promote genetically engineered crops and other technological solutions when the answers are really closer to home. During the food price crisis, wheat became very expensive, and many Bolivians returned to eating quinoa—a local crop that had been neglected for years. Now, he said, the FAO has released a report saying that quinoa is one of the most nutritious grains in the world. He pointed to his own full head of hair and joked that perhaps one reason so many European men are bald is that they eat too many genetically engineered, hormone-laced foods, instead of nutritious, locally grown foods.

It’s hard to talk about climate change without looking at inequality, both within and among nations. And there are no easy answers to either of them. But it just might be that the creative ideas and alliances formed at this conference help us to move a few steps towards fresh new solutions to both.

Evo Morales

This post is one of a three part series of blog entries from Karen Hansen Kuhn's visit to Cochabamba:
Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

» Read the full post

Farm groups talk climate in Cochabamba

Posted April 20, 2010

IATP's Karen Hansen-Kuhn is blogging from Cochamamba, Bolivia at the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.

Bolivia Thousands of people from around the world streamed into the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth (CMPCC) on Monday to continue discussions that started online on a range of issues related to climate justice. The location of the conference itself makes a political statement. This is the ten-year anniversary of the Cochabamba “Water War,” when thousands of local people rose up against the privatization of their water system. Walking into the conference site, the dramatic backdrop of the Andean mountains makes its own statement.

The online discussions were organized into 17 working groups on topics ranging from emissions reductions and finance to issues not on the official agenda, like migration and climate debt. Talks also centered on strategies, including the possible launch of a global peoples’ referendum on climate change. The final documents will help to shape the Bolivian government's positions on climate change and hopefully influence other government delegations arriving later in the week. 

Cochabamba More than 900 people registered for the working group on agriculture and food sovereignty (our contribution is summarized here) and, of those, 130 submitted comments electronically. Those talks continued in Cochabamba with presentations by Via Campesina, who asserted that as much as 57 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are associated with industrial agriculture. This includes emissions all along the production chain, including processing, packaging and transport (especially for export). On the other hand, converting to agroecological, locally oriented, smaller-scale production could lower emissions as much as 50 to 75 percent, while advancing food sovereignty, according to Via Campesina.

The working group discussions continued throughout the day, focusing on the need to address the role of agribusiness in climate change, the obstacles created by free trade and the climate challenges facing women, among other issues. Organizers worked late into the night to incorporate comments into new drafts of the position papers to be finalized in the coming days. Whatever the outcome of the papers, these talks have deeply involved farm organizations, raised the profile of agriculture and climate, and led to new ideas moving forward.

This post is one of a three part series of blog entries from Karen Hansen Kuhn's visit to Cochabamba:
Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

» Read the full post

People's Conference on Climate Change next week

Posted April 16, 2010

After official UN global climate talks stumbled again in Bonn last week, another global gathering will take a shot at reaching agreement on a plan to address climate change. Next week, the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth will run from April 19–22 in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The gathering is expected to attract civil society groups around the world, along with developing country–government representatives, to develop alternative proposals to address global climate change.

Bolivian President Evo Morales is leading the call for the meeting after many developing-country governments were frustrated with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change talks in December, which produced the Copenhagen Accord. Last week's Bonn meeting, the first since Copenhagen, revealed the growing rift between countries who want to continue negotiations based on the Kyoto Protocol and others, led by the U.S., who want to use the Copenhagen Accord as the basis for negotiations. IATP has been critical of the accord and the negotiating process in Copenhagen.

Organizers for the World People's Conference have set up 18 working groups to develop proposals on various aspects of a global climate treaty. IATP's Karen Hansen-Kuhn will report from Cochabamba next week. She is part of the "Agriculture and Food Sovereignty" and "Dangers of Carbon Markets" working groups. You can read Karen's submission on agriculture and climate change. A summary of IATP's concerns about the susceptibility of carbon markets to Wall Street speculators can be read here in English and in Spanish.

More from Cochabamba next week....

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Farms in the balance: Countering attacks against EPA on climate

Posted March 3, 2010

Attacks on the EPA have been coming fast and furious in the past few months. In contrast to Congress’s limp attempts to pass comprehensive climate legislation, the EPA has begun taking steps to address climate change. Most significantly, the agency declared greenhouse gases (GHGs) an “endangerment” to public health last year—a finding that enables the EPA to regulate GHGs under the Clean Air Act. That hasn’t sat well with those opposed to climate action.

In January, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced a “resolution of disapproval” in the Senate that would kill the EPA’s ability to regulate GHGs. Although the resolution’s viability is unlikely, if passed it would require Obama’s signature, setting a disturbing precedent. The EPA decision was based on science. Murkowski’s resolution is pure politics. Congress shouldn’t have the authority to usurp science just because it doesn’t like the outcome.

Murkowski’s resolution has created something of a snowball effect. Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), chair of the House Agriculture Committee, introduced a copycat resolution in the House earlier this week, no doubt pleasing mightily his supporters in the Farm Bureau, National Corn Growers’ Association and other conventional agriculture groups who have come out strongly in favor of Murkowski’s resolution.

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Community building and climate justice

Posted February 17, 2010

The non-binding Copenhagen Accord effectively failed to respond to the threat of climate change at the international level. Nationally, U.S. legislators are in limbo—some arguing for cap and trade, others for cap and dividend, and still others insisting that climate change simply doesn't exist. These stalemates—combined with the historical injustices that have left developing nations (internationally) and people of color and the indigenous (nationally) bearing the brunt of imbalanced policy decisions—beg the question: What can we do here and now to combat climate change and ensure that our communities have a place at the table?

Community members, artists and activists met at the All Nations Indian Church in Minneapolis for the "Communities of Color and Indigenous Peoples Climate Justice Debriefing" hosted by IATP's Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy (CEED) on Monday night. CEED Senior Policy Fellow Dr. Cecilia Martinez and CEED Director Shalini Gupta shared their experiences at the Copenhagen climate talks—one, not uniquely, full of long lines and being denied entry—and discussed the importance of working at the local level and utilizing indigenous knowledge in addressing climate justice issues.

Dr. Rose Brewer, a member of CEED's advisory board, summarized her experience in Pittsburgh at the most recent G-20 summit where demonstrators, organizers and activists worked hard to be heard. Among many other things, they hosted a People's Tribunal, putting the G-20 to trial for the impacts of their policies around the world with testimony from community members and policy experts. And, of course, there was a verdict. As she asked last night—can you guess what it was?

So, what can indigenous communities and communities of color do, on the ground level, to battle injustice and address climate change? Moderator LeMoine LaPoint (also a member of CEED's advisory board) talked about the power of indigenous knowledge—the fact that people have known about climate change for a while, even if the scientific community has only recently caught on. He then asked the group for emerging solutions they envision for their communities and organizations. Some common themes included sharing information among groups and linking organizations in order to create a stronger voice; becoming united under a holistic approach to changing consumption and production patterns; and using arts, ceremony and ritual to control the story, rather than internalizing the current system that unfairly impacts minorities, the indigenous and the impoverished.

The issue of green capitalism came up as well: one participant compared it to installing solar panels on the Titanic while making sure it doesn't change course—i.e., the same companies advocating for "green business" have a heavy interest in making sure the power structure stays the same. This issue of framing struck a chord with many in the room: Is the system broken, or working as it's supposed to in maintaining the status quo? Is climate justice an environmental issue or one of an economic and power structure that needs to change?

In the end, the group seemed to agree that keys to success were communication, building alliances and reaching a critical mass to take control of resources and energy consumption in their community, currently controlled by corporations and private interests. Energy sharing, cooperative solutions and developing sustainable systems through local food and energy production were all cited as potential projects. Furthermore, the idea of establishing a meeting place where organizers and community members could come together and discuss ongoing work gained traction around the room.

Was last night's meeting the start of something big for Minneapolis? It's very possible. What's certain, however, is that community building can happen now, while international summits and legislative filibusters are still floundering.

 

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Checking the Copenhagen report card

Posted February 3, 2010

Under the Copenhagen Accord, January 31 was the deadline for participating countries to report their commitments to reduce climate change. The U.S. Climate Network has the list of country commitments including the U.S., EU, China, India and Brazil. According to the UN, fifty-five countries in total—representing over 78 percent of global emissions—made pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A quick perusal of the numbers, however, casts doubt on their value. They include a mix of goals that use different baseline years and measurements for reductions, making it difficult to compare commitments between countries. For example, many countries have emission targets. Others, like China, use carbon intensity (fossil fuels per economic unit). The weakness of the U.S. proposal stands out. Its proposed 17-percent reduction in emissions by 2020 is contingent on the passage of U.S. climate change legislation (Hello? Congress?).

The positive spin is that many countries are making their first public commitments within an international context. Some are raising previously announced goals and most are going ahead with national initiatives of some sort, despite the emptiness of the accord. Equally important is that by submitting their reduction goals, countries are demonstrating a willingness to continue working through the UN process despite its trials and tribulations.

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Organic agriculture and climate policy

Posted January 20, 2010

Organic agriculture stores more carbon in the soil than conventional agriculture. It has fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional agriculture because it doesn't use fossil fuel intensive pesticides or fertilizers. Its combination of expanded soil fertility and flexible crop rotations make it more adaptable to the effects of climate change and, in the case of developing countries, may be better suited to produce more food. These are the conclusions of a new paper by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, titled Organic Agriculture and Carbon Sequestration.

The FAO researchers also point out that the precise measuring of carbon sequestration for agriculture is not well developed. This is a problem for those pushing for carbon accounting standards that would designate agriculture as an offset market for polluters (IATP has been critical of this approach) and why most existing carbon accounting systems do not consider agricultural carbon sequestration. Those carbon accounting systems that do consider sequestration do not adequately consider the full contributions of organic agriculture, according to the FAO paper.

Despite these clear advantages, organic agriculture continues to be on the outside looking in when it comes to climate policy. At the global climate talks in Copenhagen, the new Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases emphasized the development of new technologies for agriculture. Organic agriculture wasn't mentioned. It's easy to be cynical about this: organic practices are knowledge-based versus techno fixes that are patent-based and benefit agribusiness companies.

Over the next four years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expects to invest $320 million in climate change mitigation and adaptation research for agriculture. The USDA should read this new FAO report and make sure that organic agriculture has a prominent place on its research agenda.

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