Science means having to say “I’m Sorry”

Posted September 30, 2013 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell   

Used under creative commons license from MikeBlyth.

Researchers found that land redistribution and education (for rural women in particular) had the biggest impact on rural poverty reduction and inequality.

I’m sorry, but saying that the Green Revolution saved millions of lives is unscientific.

Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, the president of the World Food Prize Foundation, recently made this widely repeated, but unscientific, claim in responding to columnist Rekha Basu. Basu recently criticized the foundation for awarding this year’s World Food Prize to three scientists who helped invent crop genetic modification. (Two of who are current or former vice presidents at Monsanto and Syngenta.) Quinn notes that the founder of the World Food Prize, famed Green Revolution researcher Norman Borlaug, specifically encouraged the foundation to consider these three scientists before his death. In his piece, Quinn admonishes Basu that “Dr. Borlaug would tell us it is our responsibility to use the power of science” to help solve widespread malnutrition. He does this shortly after lauding Borlaug as “the man who saved millions from famine and death in India and Pakistan.”

Butbut

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Agroecosystem study implies genetic modification neither helpful nor necessary for yield gains and sustainability

Posted September 27, 2013 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell   

Used under creative commons license from Oculator.

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.

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Kenya’s challenge: How best to manage its new-found water wealth?

Posted September 19, 2013 by Shiney Varghese   

Used under creative commons license from ingodesigng5.

Turkana woman heading home with water, Kalokal, Kenya (near the shore of Lake Turkana).

In the midst of worrisome news about droughts, desertification, unreliable monsoons and growing concerns around water security around the world, the announcement by the UNESCO and Kenyan officials at the recent International Water Security Conference in Nairobi was anything but gloomy. The finding of potentially huge groundwater resources in northwestern Kenya is indeed a blessing, not only for the herding communities of drought-prone Turkana, but also for the region as a whole.

Until very recently the region was best known to the global water community both for the lack of access to water that mark the lives and livelihoods of indigenous communities that live there, and for their efforts to save Turkana Lake, the largest permanent desert lake in the world according to International Rivers.

But a recent survey by RTI, a company hired by U.N., found groundwater systems with a potential of storing about 250 billion cubic meters (or about 66 trillion gallons) in the Kachoda, Gatome, Nkalale and Lockichar areas, with the largest aquifer being located in the Lokitipi Basin—all of them in Turkana county, one of the 47 counties in Kenya.  Of these, the three smaller aquifers combined are estimated to store about 30 billion cubic meters of water, once confirmed by drilling.

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Food and National Security: The Shuanghui-Smithfield Merger Revisited

Posted September 12, 2013 by Shefali Sharma   

Used under creative commons license from chenevier.

Last week, the U.S. treasury approved the largest takeover by an international firm of a U.S. food company. It paved the way for China’s largest pork processor, Shuanghui, to merge with Smithfield, the U.S.’s largest pork processor. The fact that it was a Chinese company stirred up so much controversy that the Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing July 10 entitled,  “Smithfield and Beyond: Examining Foreign Purchases of American Food Companies.”  A major concern was foreign ownership of the U.S. food supply and whether the U.S. review process of foreign takeovers addresses food safety and “protection of American technologies.” There was little doubt that this merger would be approved by Treasury’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS): Shuanghui is willing to absorb over $2 billion of Smithfield’s debt; U.S.

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Missing the story on Golden Rice

Posted September 6, 2013 by Ben Lilliston   

Used under creative commons license from boyosep.

In the wake of protests in the Philippines over genetically engineered Golden Rice, a series of articles have appeared in the U.S. mainstream press (e.g., the New York Times) and alternative publications like Slate and Grist, all coming to the vigorous defense of the latest incarnation of this wonder rice designed to prevent malnutrition. Through veiled and at times explicit condescension, the U.S. media consensus seems to be that opposition to this wonder rice is based on scientific ignorance: Why wouldn’t you want to address global malnutrition?

A gaping hole in U.S. coverage is the perspectives of Philippine farm organizations, like the Asian Farmers Association affiliate PAKISAMA, or really anyone from the Philippines who opposes Golden Rice. By not including these voices, these reports miss a fundamental issue at the center of all issues around genetically engineered (GE) foods: power. Who controls the technology? Who controls what farmers can grow, and what people eat? Not coincidently, these questions are also at the center of addressing global hunger.

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Genetically modified American chestnuts—the next Golden Rice?

Posted August 28, 2013 by Jim Kleinschmit   

Used under creative commons license from NJHeart2Heart.

Golden Rice’s recent re-emergence in the news reminded me of how long the biotech industry has been touting this “wonder” crop in order to gain approval for genetic modification more broadly. It appears we’re now seeing a similar tactic with the proposed introduction of genetically modified (GMO) American chestnut trees. Once stretching across the eastern part of the United States and memorialized in countless stories, songs and poems, few trees evoke more nostalgia for America’s past than the Chestnut. However, the American chestnut now mostly lingers in our memory, as the more than 4 billion trees—equaling around a quarter of all hardwoods in the Eastern seaboard—were almost completely wiped out when a disease swept through the country in the early 1900s.

Such emotional connections help to explain the fervor behind efforts to reintroduce this American icon, but also the latent danger in such work. One effort has utilized traditional breeding practices to create and introduce a new chestnut hybrid that is resistant to the blight. Until the last few years, the American Chestnut Foundation supported this effort before shifting to support a competing initiative, led by the College of Environmental Science and Forestry of the State University of New York in Syracuse, which takes the more controversial approach of genetic modification. The American Chestnut Research and Restoration Center, through transfer of genes native to wheat into the chestnut, has created a blight-resistant version of the American Chestnut, and is intending—with appropriate regulatory support—to introduce this version into the wild.

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No food stamps, no farm program

Posted August 20, 2013

Used under creative commons license from NCReedplayer.

The union of food and farm programs began in April 1964 when Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman finally pushed the Democratic majority House to approve by a narrow 30-vote margin legislation to adopt the statute creating a permanent food stamp program.

This piece is a guest feature from Rod Leonard, former IATP board member and special assistant to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman.

One of the last acts of the Republican majority of the House of Representatives before the August recess of Congress was to propose to cut funding for the food stamp program by $40 billion in the fiscal 2014 budget. These cuts were proposed even after the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the inflation adjusted value of food stamps had declined seven percent between 2009 and 2011.

Whether the cruel and harshly punitive action offended the gods possessing larger powers of compassion and morality is not clear, but no one questions that nearly simultaneously the bottom fell out of commodity market prices for corn, soybeans and wheat. The question is whether the two developments in the agricultural economy are related, and whether the stability of the American farm economy may have been fractured, possibly permanently.

These facts are clear:

Before House Republicans decided to shear by half the program that keeps hunger from the door of nearly 48 million people in America, the cash price of corn was hovering near $7.50 a bushel, and briefly climbed above $8.00 a bushel in future markets. Ever since the Republicans sacrificed help for the hungry to appease the austerity gods, the cash price of corn has fallen to nearly $4.60 a bushel and remains below $5 a bushel. Assuming the cash price remains below $5 a bushel through the rest of 2013, the drop in the cash price represents a potential loss in future income for American corn growers of possibly more than $32 billion in 2013 and 2014 income.

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Big Meat imitates Big Tobacco in fighting the public’s right to know

Posted August 15, 2013 by Jim Harkness   

Used under creative commons license from Robert Couse-Baker.

Eight meatpacking industry groups recently sued to stop implementation of the popular Country of Origin Label (COOL) law (supported by 93 percent of Americans) that was passed back in 2008.

Proceeding from the commonsense notion (and economic principle) that in a free market, buyers should have access to sufficient information to make educated choices, the law required retailers to tell customers the country of origin of a variety of foods, including meat, fruits, vegetables and nuts. I might not know where all the pieces of my cell phone were made—and there are serious issues with that—but I don't plan to eat my phone. Why shouldn’t I be able to know where my food comes from? 

The big meat companies have objected the loudest to COOL. Canadian and Mexican meat groups took the U.S. to court at the World Trade Organization (WTO) when the USDA first announced its regulations for implementing COOL, charging that the rules would discriminate against them, and they won. To the Obama Administration’s credit, they issued a revised rule that actually strengthened COOL, requiring more detail about where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered. The current suit is intended to block the revised regulations that were issued this spring in response to the WTO ruling.

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Searching for the Farm Bill

Posted August 9, 2013 by Anna Claussen   

Representative Tim Walz addresses the crowd at the 32nd annual Farmfest.

Farmfest is the largest farm show in Minnesota, bringing farmers together to talk about and see the latest in tractors, seeds, and other farm-related equipment. But Farmfest also brings out the politicians to talk about what is happening with agricultural policies and markets. With no farm bill in place,  the question understandably on everyone’s minds at this year’s policy panel was “What’s next?” While the policymakers in attendance did a pretty good job of explaining how we got  where we are today, the future of farm policy was left unclear.

Representatives Colin Peterson and Tim Walz, both of whom are on the House Agricultural Committee and participated in the policy discussion, gave their perspectives on why Congress still hasn’t passed a Farm Bill. Peterson and Walz pointed to the relatively speedy and nonpartisan work of the House and Senate agricultural committees, as well as the ongoing support of both parties’ leadership; they made clear that the fault didn’t lie there. Instead, the blame was leveled squarely at Eric Cantor and his fellow right-wing Republicans, who broke with their party’s leadership and scuttled the deal that the agricultural committee had developed. Both representatives were quite pessimistic of the possibility of passing a Farm Bill in the remaining months of 2013; Representative Peterson suggested that a 2-year extension was the most likely outcome, followed by many questions about whether we would actually have a Farm Bill (as we know it today) ever again.

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The future of agriculture

Posted August 8, 2013 by Andrew Ranallo   

Ask anyone who's been working on policy-change or advocacy efforts in any arena long enough and they’ll tell you: Change takes time. Except in very rare cases, big, noticeable shifts take years—often decades—of work by countless people, working on all levels and in different ways to achieve change. On one hand, this glacial pace makes sense. After all, it took years to get where we are—a climate on the fritz, food for some while others go hungry, a financial system that is more akin to an online casino—why should getting somewhere else be any quicker? On the other hand, if we aren’t able to think big about the changes we want, and get caught up in little victories, we risk losing sight of our real goals.

It is in this spirit that Oxfam held an online discussion last year calling on experts from across the food and development policy world to write a series of essays focused on four “big picture” questions:

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