The annual global climate talks are underway this week in Warsaw, Poland. The agenda for the 19th session of the Conference of Parties (COP 19) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), as the climate talks are formally called, includes discussions on “issues relating to agriculture” with climate change adaptation identified, appropriately, as a primary focus. As anyone who is engaged in farming or in other natural resource related fields or who lives in a rural landscape knows, there are big changes already occurring that are impacting their livelihoods, communities and local economies.
Despite this focus, it is unlikely that there will be many rural voices at the negotiating table in Warsaw. That is unfortunate, because in order to succeed, we believe it is essential to involve rural stakeholders in identifying possible policy and on-the-ground solutions. Sadly, the discussions at COP 19 are more likely to revolve around the promotion of carbon markets rather than the real strategies and investments needed to help rural communities, farmers and others to be more resilient and to help slow the pace of climate change.
To focus and strengthen the U.S. rural perspective on both the problems and solutions associated with climate change, IATP and its partners are excited to announce the launch of the Rural Climate Network (RCN). Formed out of the 2011 National Rural Assembly, the Rural Climate Network was born in response to this identified lack of rural engagement in climate policy development, but also out of a recognition for a greater need of collaboration among rural organizations and leaders regarding relevant climate change adaptation and mitigation resources, information and strategies.
For those who see agroecological approaches as necessary for achieving the food, health, and environmental targets of post 2015 agenda, agroecology is not only central to maintaining ecosystem integrity, but also to realizing food sovereignty of those involved in food production and consumption.
IATP's new report, Scaling up Agroecology: Toward the Realization of the Right to Food, begins from five principles of agroecology, presents examples of practices that could be used to implement that approach. We also developed a set of ecological as well as socioeconomic indicators of success, and mutually supportive national and international policies that would be needed for that approach to flourish.
In this report, we explore how sustainable intensification (which relies on GMOs and intensive use of technology and agrochemicals) is fundamentally different from an agroecological approach because of the latter’s roots in the political economical critique of modern agricultural systems and a holistic ecosystem analysis.
These are the remarks of M. Jahi Chappell, Ph.D., IATP's director of agroecology and agriculture policy to the World Food Prize on October 18, 2013. Videos of Dr. Chappell’s speech can be found at the IATP YouTube channel, in both English and Portuguese.
There has been, with this World Food Prize, a celebration of science. In the lead up to the Prize; in the ceremony last night; and more broadly within the career of the late Norman Borlaug, science is rightly praised as a powerful and important set of tools.
Unfortunately, the power of these tools has been blunted. It has been blunted because science—which at its most basic is the careful and systematic study of the world around us, and the consistent testing of our ideas against reality—this wonderful and powerful process has been narrowed too often in discussions of food to mean technology. Technology is but one way to use science; it is only the tip of one particular tool that can be found in the powerful toolbox that is science.
Next week the state of Washington will vote on mandatory labeling of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in food products. This is an important election and moment in the battle over GMOs, but in many critical ways, it is increasingly obvious to me that GMO opponents have already won.
News story after news story makes it clear that, even in the U.S., where the introduction and acceptance of GMOs in the fields and grocery aisles has been most pronounced, the tide has shifted. While the “war” is by no means over in a country that has genetically modified crops growing on over 60% of its total crop acres, we need to celebrate this victory. But, as importantly, we need to take advantage of the market and policy openings it provides to go beyond opposing GMOs and achieve greater overall sustainability in our farming and food system.
The most apparent signs of the change in American public opinion on GMOs are the labeling campaigns rolling around the country. Connecticut and Maine have already successfully passed labeling laws, but require neighboring states to pass complementary labeling legislation before it goes into force. The California labeling initiative on the ballot in 2012 was defeated, due in large part to overwhelming spending by the food and biotech companies that opposed it. Similar tactics and heavy corporate spending is happening in the current Washington battle as well, with the outcome still too close to call.
Transformative changes are needed in our food, agriculture and trade systems in order to increase diversity on farms, reduce our use of fertilizer and other inputs, support small-scale farmers and create strong local food systems. That’s the conclusion of a remarkable new publication from the U.N. Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
The report, Trade and Environment Review 2013: Wake Up Before it is Too Late, included contributions from more than 60 experts around the world (including a commentary from IATP). The report includes in-depth sections on the shift toward more sustainable, resilient agriculture; livestock production and climate change; the importance of research and extension; the role of land use; and the role of reforming global trade rules.
The report links global security and escalating conflicts with the urgent need to transform agriculture toward what it calls “ecological intensification.” The report concludes, “This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.”
The UNCTAD report identified key indicators for the transformation needed in agriculture:
As two of the largest free trade agreements (TTIP and TPP) in history are being negotiated, free trade agreements like these will become more entrenched in our lives than ever before. Unfortunately, the tangle of rules and regulations—mostly design to keep intact and strengthen corporate interests—can create serious roadblocks for real, earnest work to improve sustainability on the national, state and even local levels. Yes, as local governments work to build policy that includes sustainability standards, they may be on the wrong side of international trade law.
A new IATP report, Sustainability Criteria, Biofuel Policy and Trade Rules makes very clear that if we hope to change policy in any arena—pushing for lower GHG emissions, reducing pollution, producing cleaner energy, or enabling local sourcing—understanding international trade law is an absolutely required first step.
Report author and trade lawyer Eric Gillman uses the state of biofuels policy as a backdrop—including real examples of current biofuel sustainability efforts—to set the stage for examining the larger implications of WTO trade law on all sorts of policy development:
If we are to construct the type of policies needed to address the multiple environmental, social and economic crises that we face, understanding how these policies interact with international trade rules is absolutely required. This paper is a ﬁrst attempt—within the context of biofuel policy—to raise some of these questions and address necessary changes.
The Minnesota Green Chemistry Forum hosted a happy hour event on May 15, entitled The Business Case for Chemical Policy Reform. The group of fifty, over half from the business community, heard presentations about how sound chemical policies can benefit businesses and why business voices are needed in chemical policy debates.
We heard from David Levine, co-founder & CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC), a growing coalition of over 165,000 businesses and social enterprises and more than 300,000 entrepreneurs, owners, executive, investors and business professionals. David cited the results of an ASBC polling showing that 87 percent of small businesses think there should be government regulations to ensure that chemicals used in growing food are safe and 73 percent support government regulation to assure that consumer products are free of toxins. Nine out of 10 small businesses surveyed believe that chemical manufacturers should be held responsible for ensuring that chemicals they use are safe and 94 percent support disclosure of chemicals of concern in products.
Farmer Tom Nuessmeier, from La Sueur, Minnesota, is different. His 200-acre organic farm—producing farrow-to-finish hogs, corn, soy, oats, winter grains and alfalfa—is pretty uncommon in its diversity and size, especially today. As the average size of farms has grown, the number of farms has decreased overall, and so has the variety of crops. According to USDA data highlighted in the video, while corn acres have increased 62 percent, hay and oat acres have decreased 15 and 92 (!) percent respectively in the past 50 years.
This loss of diversity, though, makes sense as markets and policy have developed to encourage monocropping (namely, corn and soy). As Tom puts it:
The market tells people, and the insurance setups dictate to a degree, that that’s what you’re going to do if you want to go after the greatest profit. But I think it’s kind of a short-term way of looking at things that does have long-term implications if you’re talking about just maintaining the farm’s ability to be resilient.
Farming is risky for anyone: volatile markets and unpredictable weather can make planning and execution from season to season a difficult prospect. Make that double with the extreme weather climate change is bringing. Sure, there is crop insurance in some cases, but what about farmers like Mike Brownfield?
One bad hailstorm and Mike Brownfield’s orchard—the first certified organic orchard in Washington—could lose an entire crop. Being organic means being viewed by the USDA as more risky than conventionally grown fruit (despite studies showing the opposite); being viewed as more risky means paying higher premiums for insurance, but still receiving only conventional-price reimbursement should disaster strike (despite organics being worth more at market).
The fourth in IATP’s “Climate change, agriculture and resilience” video series focuses on the risk involved for farmers who grow our food, how they deal with it, and how that risk is increasing as weather extremes due to climate change shake our system’s very foundations. Without conventional crop insurance to protect his orchard, Mike Brownfield has instituted other methods of risk-management:
For us, having a diversity of crops has made a difference. A certain variety of apple is not always going to have a great year for you, and so that's why we diversified so much in our crops—and in our marketing.
Watch the video or check out the rest of the series:
How can we balance the environmental impacts of farming with our need to continue producing food?
Today, in part three in our “Climate change, agriculture and resilience” video series, father and daughter team Maurice and Beth Robinette of Lazy R Ranch talk about their approach to farming grass-fed beef and why carbon sequestration and protecting their ecosystem is so important. As Beth Robinette puts it:
So much of what we do here is about ‘How do we create maximum functioning ecosystems in our pasture?’ and to me that’s what resilience is. If you have an ecosystem that’s at peak function, it can take a lot more damage or uncertainty than an ecosystem that is not at peak function. That’s about the sum of what we’re trying to do here: Grow grass that’ll keep growing.
But making changes like the Robinette’s isn’t easy, or cheap. As direct marketers of their beef, the Robinettes command a premium price, and can put those dollars toward protecting their farm’s ecosystem. For farmers that are just getting by due to market prices or input costs, this kind of adaptation would be impossible.
More long-term thinking in policymaking, and programs that encourage practices like those Lazy R Ranch has piloted would go a long way in building a food system that can withstand the shocks of climate change while contributing less to the factors that are known to cause it.
Watch the video, or check out the rest of the series: