Farmers are no different from any buyer – they want to know what they’re buying, how much it costs and its expected performance. But in the brave new world of agricultural seeds, where multiple traits and technology are stacked like Microsoft’s operating system, it’s becoming more and more difficult for farmers to separate out what is really needed and discover how much each piece is costing them. In the case of neonicotinoid (neonic) seed coatings used as a pesticide, both the effectiveness and costs are somewhat of a mystery, according to a new paper published by IATP today.
The Obama Administration claims that the new round of secret trade deals will be the greenest ever. Its latest attempt to sell that story was released earlier this week in a slick new report titled “Standing Up For The Environment: Trade For A Greener World.” As with most of the spin coming from the U.S. Trade Representative these days – there’s a lot of “trust us” bluster in the report, marketed with unattributed numbers and fancy graphics. But, perhaps most notably, it ignores the largest environmental issue of our times – climate change – and the numerous concerns raised by environmental groups about how these trade deals will damage the climate, not protect it.
While the report touts new provisions on wildlife protection, animal trafficking and illegal logging, we’ll have to take the Administration’s word for it. The environmental chapters for the Trans Pacific Partnership (with 11 Pacific Rim countries) and the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (with Europe) are still secret documents. But there are good reasons for concern. A leaked version of the TPP environmental chapter posted on WikiLeaks last year was ripped open by U.S. green groups for not being “fully enforceable.”
While it might seem obvious that the rights to water and food are inextricably linked, all too often policies around their use and governance are developed for one without regard to the other. To address this problem, the UN Committee on World Food Security formed a High Level Panel of Experts and charged it with weaving these two policy strands together. The resulting report provides a list of recommendations on the critical issue of Water for Food Security and Nutrition.
Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is the foremost international and intergovernmental platform trying to address global food security and nutrition challenges. Following the food crises of 2008, it initiated a reform process, increasing stakeholder participation, especially participation by those engaged in small scale food production systems. It also created a High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) mechanism to gain deeper understanding and ‘independent scientific knowledge based analysis and advice on issues related to food security and nutrition. Since its establishment HLPE has brought out nine reports. I was fortunate to serve on the most recent project team, which just completed its report on Water for Food Security and Nutrition (FSN). The launch of the report is this week.
Twenty three years ago, in 1993, the first annual World Water Day was an occasion to draw attention to water related challenges around the globe. It will be observed again tomorrow, with a focus on sustainable water governance. We join with others to celebrate the many successes in the intervening two decades.
The number of people with access to drinking water and sanitation has increased manifold. In many communities people have met their water needs through successful watershed development and rainwater harvesting efforts. At the same time, around the world communities are asserting that water is a fundamental human right. They are pushing back attempts to privatize their water supply and sanitation services.
In countries such as France, where privatization has been the norm in the past, and elsewhere around the world, we see an increasing trend towards the re-municipalization of water supply and sanitation services. At times change has come through directly engaging in a participatory democracy, including taking to the street and to the ballot, as we have seen both in New Delhi and in Greece. The newly elected government in the state of New Delhi had free water as part of their campaign platform. In Greece, likely in response to the promise of social policies that Syriza has made to people, the public water company Thessaloniki has introduced social tariffs that allow poor people to receive about 12.5 cubic meter of free water per month.
Recommended changes to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a farm program designed to encourage conservation, may instead promote the expansion of factory farms that harm the climate. EQIP is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS), and is one of the largest federal conservation programs. It is a voluntary program that provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers to address soil, water, air, and other natural resource concerns. Since its inception in 1997, EQIP has invested in nearly 600,000 contracts for a total of about $11 billion on 232 million acres.
As climate change makes farming more risky with erratic temperatures, increased drought and flood, and other extreme weather events, conservation programs can provide an opportunity for producers to undertake practices that increase their farm’s resilience to climate impacts without taking a large economic hit. The 2014 Farm Bill authorized several changes to the program intended to simplify regulation, but instead the proposed changes would provide distinct advantages for Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Animal waste storage and treatment facilities have become the second largest user of EQIP funds, behind only irrigation equipment. Funding projects that benefit large-scale CAFOs not only wreaks havoc on the climate; it also ends up disproportionately benefiting large operations over small to mid-sized family farms.
New research shows that production from organic agriculture shapes up better against input-heavy conventional agriculture than previously thought; meanwhile, evidence for the benefits of agroecology continues to accumulate
A new study was released today examining that evergreen chestnut (to mix metaphors): does “organic agriculture” have lower yields than “conventional agriculture”? Published in the prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, the study found that some previous estimates comparing organic agriculture’s productivity were too low. What’s more, they found that there was a bias in the data in favor of conventional agriculture, which means even their updated estimate may still overestimate in favor of the current resource-intensive, high-input systems that dominate much of agriculture today.
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.
Synthetic biology is “Still in [the] Uncharted Waters of Public Opinion,” according to a recent focus group study by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. That’s not surprising since the technology involved sounds like something out of science fiction. It includes a range of techniques to modify organisms using artificially constructed sequences of genetic information (DNA) not found in nature. The Center’s Synthetic Biology Project gives an introduction to this discipline, sometimes referred to as “synbio.”
The advancement of synbio has taken place largely under the radar, with little public debate, but that’s changing. A June 17 criticism of an NGO synbio letter by an industry lobbyist, published on the investor website The Motley Fool, served to put more of a spotlight on the issue. The Motley Fool blog was almost immediately rebutted by Synbio Watch.
Food, farming, livelihoods—no matter what you’re looking at, water is there, and when it’s not, things start to fall apart. California is facing currently its worst drought on record. Australia, too, with Queensland currently home to the state’s largest drought-declared area on record. With agriculture accounting for close to 70 percent of water withdrawals, the connection to our food supply is basic and utterly obvious.
In late February, the U.N. Committee on Food Security’s High Level Panel of Experts (CFS-HLPE) announced the composition of the expert team that will carry out its study on water and food security. We are pleased to announce that IATP’s Shiney Varghese has been selected as one of the team members. Shiney will bring to the collaborative effort her extensive experience with the water activist community, knowledge of agricultural water management, along with her grasp of water and food rights and the connections to climate change.
The second Rural Climate Network newsletter was released last week, featuring updates on how rural America is responding to the climate challenge. Since the first newsletter, the network has welcomed five new member organizations that represent the diversity of climate work across the country and display how climate change impacts sectors ranging from fisheries to forestry to meat production. The member spotlight this month is Organic Valley, and a featured interview with Sustainability Program Manager Jonathan Reinbold outlines the organization’s views on climate change. Policy that incentivizes this kind of on-the-ground work is critical in supporting the growing rural movement to adapt to and mitigate climate change.
This edition of the newsletter also features a brief interview with Renata Brillinger of the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN) to better understand how California farmers and ranchers are handling the drought that is currently underway in California. According to Brillinger, “mandated cutbacks in water distributions, along with depletions in available surface water and groundwater, are forcing farmers to dig deeper into their pockets while making tough decisions about crop planting and livestock management.” Some farmers have resorted to pumping groundwater to compensate for the lack of water elsewhere, but that is not a sustainable strategy in the long term should the drought persist and other ideas are needed.