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:
“I think we came in April and it was within a month or two when all the ground was still bare and black and we had one of those two- or three-day blows and I had drifts of soil on my window sills and I'm thinking ‘Hmmm this isn't good.’ That was probably what sparked us to start making some of the changes we did.”
That’s Loretta Jaus speaking about the extreme soil erosion she and her husband faced on their farm due, in part, to modern tiling practices that replaced the region’s prairies and wetlands with more dry, tillable soil.
Part two of our “Climate change, agriculture and resilience” series features the Minnesota organic dairy farm of Martin and Loretta Jaus who farm the same 410 acres that Martin’s great grandfather homesteaded in 1877. In order to combat the eroding soil, and remain more resilient in the increasing incidences of drought and flood, Martin and Loretta have worked to increase their farm’s biodiversity. From the video:
They improved and expanded a pasture made up of deep-rooted perennials that could better access soil moisture during dry spells and serve as a sponge when it rains. They put in shelter belts of trees and they restored a marsh and a pond. Not only did these measures decrease erosion but the Jaus's found that their farm became more resilient as well, both in times to drought and wet weather.
Watch the video, or check out the rest of the series:
Update: All five videos are now available at the following links:
Earlier this month, the USDA released its draft climate adaptation plan. The plan recognizes the serious challenges faced by farmers as climate-related weather events, like extreme droughts or floods, wreak havoc on agriculture. The agency is accepting comments through April. The good news is that many farmers are already ahead of the curve in building resilient farming systems to face climate change.
This week, in the lead up to the MOSES Organic Farming conference, IATP will be releasing a series of new videos that look at individual farmers and how sustainable practices on the farm help them stay resilient to a changing climate and increasingly common hurdles like the 2012 drought.
Rural resistance has helped slow the development of renewable energy. It doesn't have to be that way. For the President's green-energy plans to succeed, he needs to reach out to the rural leaders who are ready to act on climate change.
President Barack Obama made urgent calls for new steps to address climate change in his State of the Union address yesterday, “for the sake of our children and our future.” While the focus was on renewable energy, he missed an opportunity to talk about the essential ingredient for addressing climate change: the support of rural communities.
Due to the structure of our legislative system, representatives from rural America—and their constituents—have played a disproportionate role in derailing federal climate action over the last several years. Rural resistance is due, in large part, to the complete neglect of this constituency by U.S. climate policymakers and activists, which allowed climate issues in rural America to be defined primarily by the fossil fuel industry and its surrogates.
Without positive, pro-rural voices, or proposals on the table that emphasize the opportunities, climate change deniers have been able to—correctly—focus on the additional burdens that new regulation or taxation would bring to parts of the country that already have lower incomes and higher energy costs than cities.
Encouragingly, some rural perceptions about climate change are changing. Rural people are already experiencing and responding to the climate crisis in myriad ways. One of the most severe droughts in U.S. history is still unfolding, forcing farmers and ranchers across the country to rethink crop and livestock production systems.