Posted June 23, 2014 by Dr. Steve Suppan
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.
More attention was brought to synbio earlier this month, when 17 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including IATP, sent an open letter to Ecover, a self-described “green pioneer” of consumer and cleaning products, and its parent company Method, to protest their decision to use an oil derived from synthetically modified algae in laundry detergent. The NGOs, led by the ETC Group, Consumers Union, and Friends of the Earth, also opposed the company’s characterization of the synthetically modified ingredient as a “natural” alternative to palm oil. The palm oil industry is notorious for illegally clear cutting tropical forests and evicting forest residents to establish palm oil plantations.
Jaydee Hanson, of the Center for Food Safety, said that the companies could readily and safely substitute coconut oil for palm oil. He added, “That solution would support tropical farmers and would really be ‘natural’, rather than misleading consumers.”
The creation and use of Synthetically Modified Organisms (SMOs), to the extent that they are regulated at all, are governed in the United States by policies issued in 1986 and 1992, which were designed to expedite the deregulation and commercialization of Genetically Modified Organisms. A recent New York Times article surveyed some of the synthetic biology products that are entering the market without regulation specific to the identified and potential harms and risks SMOs pose.
Since SMOs have not undergone independent and mandatory pre-market safety assessment, the NGO letter urges Ecover/Method to “[p]ledge not to use SMO-derived ingredients in its products.” The letter also asks the companies to “[a]cknowledge that descriptors such as ‘natural,’ ‘green,’ ‘ecological’ and ‘sustainable’ cannot apply to the products of synthetic biology.” The press release for the letter links to a petition, “Synthetic Biology is not natural,” which is open for sign-ons. The petition website also contains links to more reading about synthetic biology.
Some of the issues raised in the letter will be discussed by the scientific advisory body of the Convention on Biology Diversity, which meets June 23-28 in Montreal. Of particular interest to the CBD is the effect on biological diversity of the environmental release of SMOs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has already issued permits for field trials of synthetically modified biofuels feedstocks. Since the risks of SMO interaction with wild and cultivated plants are not well understood and since SMOs cannot be retrieved once released, the NGO letter calls on the CBD and “national governments to establish a moratorium on the commercial use and environmental release of synthetically modified organisms.”
IATP is beginning work to understand specific applications of synthetic biology to foods and agriculture. The aforementioned APHIS permitting process for SMO field trials is another indication that the Obama administration will use the existing framework for the case by case deregulation of GMOs to govern the deregulation of SMOs. The U.S. government is a major investor in synthetic biology, particularly through the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. As an investor, the U.S. government is more concerned with synthetic biology product development than it is with process or product regulation.
Indeed, it appears that federal synthetic biology investment, like the investments in the National Nanotechnology Strategic Plan, commented on by IATP, will prioritize product development over research in public and environmental health and worker safety related to nanotechnology product development. IATP anticipates a very difficult regulatory struggle for U.S. agencies to mandate pre-market safety assessment of synthetic biology products and processes. Actions like the June 2 NGO letter, by publicizing the use of synthetic biology in consumer products, will help slow down the development of the synthetic biology industry, while petitions to mandate pre-market safety of all products derived from synthetic biology or nanotechnology work their way through the legal process.
Extreme weather brought on by climate change will affect each community differently. Rural communities face particular challenges, as they often have higher transportation and energy costs, and their economy is frequently linked to agriculture—a sector directly impacted by a changing climate. But as we learned at the first Rural Climate Dialogue held in Morris, Minn., last week there are effective community-level options to respond to these climate concerns—as well as important opportunities for rural communities to be part of the climate solution.
The small town of Morris lies in west-central Minnesota along the Pomme de Terre River. This town of 5,000 is surrounded by farms, and is also home to the University of Minnesota-Morris. Last week, 15 Morris-area citizens came together for a remarkable conversation about climate change, how it is affecting their community and what can be done for the future. The citizens were part of a Citizens Jury process perfected and run by the Jefferson Center. The Citizens Jury is a randomly selected, but demographically representative group, who, over the course of three days, had access to independent resources and experts to produce their own recommendations that respond to the Morris-area community’s needs, priorities, concerns and values. As we reported earlier, Morris High School students played a critical role in assembling data for the meeting through a series of local energy surveys.
The three-day process allowed the Citizens Jury to hear from, and question, a series of local experts including the University of Minnesota’s climatologist, the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy, the Insurance Federation of Minnesota, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, the Morris City Manager, the local power company (Otter Tail Power), and the University of Miinnesota – Morris Sustainability Coordinator.
The result was a strong statement outlining community concerns and opportunities, and a list of concrete recommendations. Concerns for the Morris community included: the impact possible increases in energy and food costs could have on low- and fixed-income residents, and the possible negative effects of climate change on local farmers. The Citizens Jury also identified opportunities to sustain and actually strengthen its agricultural economy in responding to climate change, and that the Morris community can use local expertise and resources to build a more resilient local economy.
“Climate change is happening and we need to adapt our behavior and infrastructure to meet the challenges of our new world, which include extreme weather events, financial difficulties and long-term adverse effects on agriculture,” said the Morris citizen statement. “Climate change presents short- and long-term challenges and opportunities for everyone. We must all participate to solve these issues. Education is key.”
The Morris citizens issued a series of recommendations for the Morris area community to pursue including: home assessments for structural and energy-saving improvements; better water management to deal with flooding and erosion; the encouragement of greater crop diversity and crop rotations; the discussion of climate change in K-12 education; and the need to hold town meetings where more members of the community can generate and discuss new ideas.
You can read more details about the Morris’ dialogue at the Rural Climate Network’s Dialogue page, including a breakdown of each day, the final executive statement and a recap of the student’s Citizen’s Jury process conducted in May. A longer report from the Morris Citizens Jury will be coming out in the next few weeks. IATP and the Jefferson Center are in the process of identifying other rural communities that might be interested in holding a Rural Climate Dialogue.
Morris is one of the many smaller, rural towns across the country that have been largely been left out of national discussions about how to address climate change, but it’s clear that it’s time for a shift. Climate change has been so overly politicized that many have lost track of the true challenges it poses at the community level, and of the fact that those communities know best how to address those challenges. Our rural communities are great places to live; we must secure them for the next generation. As one Morris student shared in reflection of the student jury process conducted at the High School, “Climate change is going to affect business and the agricultural world […] I really thought about how this change is going to affect my generation and those that come after me so I am ready to do something about climate change.”
Posted June 9, 2014 by Tara Ritter
This week, IATP and the Jefferson Center will host the first Rural Climate Dialogue in Morris, Minnesota. This dialogue will convene a randomly chosen but demographically representative jury of 15 Morris citizens to discuss how they would like to handle the impacts of changing weather patterns and extreme weather events.
An important part of the work leading up to this dialogue took place at the Morris Area High School, as described in an earlier post. Students heard from University of Minnesota climatologist Mark Seeley (see picture) and other experts, disseminated surveys to their families and neighbors to create a map of Morris’ energy use patterns and gauge interest in renewable energy solutions, and discussed climate impacts and how they would like to see the Morris community respond.
Natasha Mortenson, the high school Agricultural Education teacher, said that “the whole experience changed the student’s outlook on climate change and sparked great conversation.” The students were excited as well, and a ninth grader stated, “I really thought about how climate change is going to affect my generation and those who will come after me so I am ready to do something.”
The public is welcome to attend the Rural Climate Dialogue later this week. Although participation is limited to the 15 citizens on the jury, anyone is invited to sit in on the conversations. The event will be held at the West Central Research and Outreach Center (46352 State Highway 329, Morris, MN) from June 12–14 from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. each day. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Posted June 3, 2014 by IATP
Jump straight to IATP’s new report, Measuring Success: Local Food Systems and the Need for New Indicators.
In agriculture, policymakers, analysts and researchers often use a set of indicators to assess whether a farming system, or new technology, is succeeding. The most common indicators focus on increasing “yield,” often of a singular crop or animal unit, within large-scale production systems. The use of indicators focused almost exclusively on production helps to shape scientiﬁc research and public policy. But just as weight alone is not a good measure of human health, a single-minded focus on production is an inadequate measure of the health of a farming system. So long as yields are high, this narrow focus supports the illusion that our agricultural system is meeting the nutrition, health, environmental sustainability, rural development and other needs of the population.
Farming produces multiple products. The most obvious are food, feed, ﬁber and raw materials for conversion into other food and non-food products (such as energy, materials, etc.). Done right, farming also contributes to better soil health and water quality, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and carbon storage. Unfortunately, less desired products are often produced as well, such as pollution to ground and surface water and air, with detrimental impacts to human and animal health.
Yet, despite the clear reality of these multifunctional outcomes of agriculture and the important roles these products play in our environment, society and economy (for better or worse), we lack the means to assess them accurately. To truly measure the value and sustainability of local food and farming systems, we need indicators that are multidimensional and cross-disciplinary, and that fully capture the range of outcomes contributing to the success of the system.
There is growing support within the U.S. and around the world for less chemical-intensive, more ecological approaches to agriculture—including systems that produce healthy food for local markets. These systems have the potential to provide a whole host of beneﬁts—from environmental to social to health—that are currently neither assessed nor valued under most current scientiﬁc research and public policy regimes. There is some evidence this is changing. Both the USDA’s Food Atlas and the state of Vermont’s Farm to Table Strategic Plan for 2020 are using a wider range of indicators to measure the food system. But these are the exceptions, not the rule.
With all of this in mind, IATP launched a project in 2012 to begin to establish a research framework for a new set of indicators that would better represent the diverse beneﬁts of local, agroecological food systems and that could be tracked over time. To ground our work, we partnered with the Main Street Project, which has attempted to create an innovative, replicable systems approach to raising free-range poultry, based in Northﬁeld, Minnesota. Working with this project provided a unique opportunity to develop and test these new indicators of success within food production.
Measuring Success: Local Food Systems and the Need for New Indicators presents the findings of the project and provides contextual analysis and suggested next steps.
Posted May 22, 2014 by Jim Kleinschmit
Negotiating text on the EU-U.S. trade agreement leaked by the Huffington Post exposes the European Union’s hypocrisy when it comes to renewable energy and climate protection. Despite the moral and economic leadership that Europe claims around these issues, trade positions outlined by the E.U.’s negotiators (which are shared by their U.S. counterparts, as discussed previously) makes clear that these globally critical goals are less important than the potential profits of transnational companies. As explained in an excellent analysis of the leaked text by Sierra Club and the German organization PowerShift, the E.U. negotiators are very clear about their support for expansion of fossil fuel extraction and trade and imposing limits on national policies for and local benefits from renewable energy policy. The direct result is that renewable energy and green jobs programs around the world and here in the U.S., such as the Made in Minnesota Solar Program, are now at risk.
The E.U. economy has benefited greatly over the last decade from the direct expansion of renewable energy on the continent, driven largely by national policies that supported distributed production. Germany is generally held up as the poster child—good and bad—around renewable energy expansion. And for good reason. In the first quarter of 2014, Germany produced 27 percent of its overall electricity from renewable sources and is on track to not only get off most fossil fuels, but also to shut down all nuclear electricity production in the country by 2022. The reasons for the rapid expansion of renewable energy production in Germany have been documented numerous times, but come down largely to focused policy. For electricity, that is largely contained today in the Renewable Energy Sources Act of 2012. This policy ensures that renewables have priority on the grid and that investors—of any scale—receive sufficient compensation and returns for their investments in renewable energy production.
Feed-in tariffs, which provide both long-term contracts and set renewable energy prices at a level that guarantees the producers a return on their investment, have been the most important and emulated part of this policy. With guaranteed returns on investment, German homeowners and farmers responded enthusiastically, building the majority of the new renewable energy infrastructure of Germany (with continuing local ownership, as shown below in a chart included in a recent analysis of Germany’s renewable energy from the Institute for Local Self Reliance).
The feed-in tariff is not a bad thing. In fact, IATP is quite supportive of this mechanism as a way to get rapid renewable energy deployment on a distributed basis. But we also acknowledge that it is especially appropriate for a country such as Germany that has citizens who can afford up-front investments (or appropriate financing) for solar panels or other energy production systems. So, while a feed-in tariff is not a direct “localization” approach of the type that the E.U. officially opposes, there is no question that associated policy support for smaller scale production has had a direct and positive impact on local jobs in Germany. That fact, plus the broad distribution of benefits through direct and cooperative ownership of the generation itself has played a key role in sustaining German public support for renewable energy policies, even as problems with the transition have arisen, and the utilities and corporate world have gone on the attack in Germany and against similar policy efforts elsewhere.
Other countries and communities, especially those with citizens who have less ability to buy and finance renewable energy production systems themselves, also need appropriate policies and clear economic benefits to justify expansion of renewable energy. The effort by the E.U. (and the parallel efforts by the U.S. against the Indian Solar Policy at the WTO that IATP has already highlighted) to fight localization aspects related to renewable energy policy will only inhibit that expansion.
That threat could become real right here in Minnesota. Minnesota’s Made in Minnesota Solar Program includes just the kind of “local content” requirement aspect that is under attack by both the E.U. and the U.S. trade negotiators. Success by either party at that level could result in a challenge and ruling against Minnesota’s program, significantly hindering the current rapid development of the sector.
But it goes well beyond Minnesota, as there are other states and countries that have or are creating policies that directly link renewable energy expansion to local benefits. With more and more evidence of the real and present day dangers associated with both climate change and dirty, extractive fossil fuel energy sources, why would we let the E.U. or U.S. officials secretly negotiate away our ability to connect promises of clean energy, a cooler climate and the bounty of good local jobs possible from this new sector?
Posted May 22, 2014 by Shefali Sharma
The Antibiotic Resistance Coalition, comprising civil society organizations including IATP and stakeholders from multiple sectors on six continents, has called on World Health Organization (WHO) Member States to pass a critical resolution (Combating antimicrobial resistance, including antibiotic resistance) at the 67th World Health Assembly (WHA). That resolution would spark concerted global action to control the escalating antimicrobial resistance crisis.
Governments meet at the WHA annually to decide on a host of critical global health issues. Meeting from May 19–24, one of the most urgent actions this year must be a strong resolution against the spread of antimicrobial resistance (which includes the increasing resistance of antibiotics to simple infections) and to launch a global strategy that coordinates action against its spread, which has reached crisis levels across national boundaries.
No new antibiotics have been created since 1987. Since then, the spread of antibiotic resistance in the United States, the European Union and many other countries has increased dramatically. In the U.S., this is in large part due to the unnecessarily reckless use of antibiotics in industrial meat production. Eighty percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are directed towards industrial meat and dairy production, largely to spur growth— not to treat disease. The more antibiotics are used and interact with bacteria, the faster resistance to antibiotics develops. This year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) came out with voluntary guidelines to stop the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in animals. The meat and drug industry has seemingly embraced these guidelines because there is no enforcement and it is easy to use the same drugs under the guise of prophylactic treatment. In the meantime, over two million Americans fall sick each year with antibiotic-resistant infections, with at least 23,000 dying as a result, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s 2013 Report (CDC). The CDC cautions that this is a minimum estimate.
While the U.S. government continues to cater to the animal agriculture industry, this issue is beginning to take on a higher international profile. At the end of April, the WHO issued a surveillance report and a fact sheet, issuing a strong warning:
An increasing number of governments around the world are devoting efforts to a problem so serious that it threatens the achievements of modern medicine. A post-antibiotic era—in which common infections and minor injuries can kill—far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st Century.
And in 2013, even the World Economic Forum, where governments and big business meet, issued a high-profile Global Risks Report that describes how antibiotic resistance can not only overwhelm our health systems but also damage our social and economic systems. Clearly, there is no time to lose—as the IATP report with the same title documents. The science is clear, the crisis is urgent. We need the U.S. government to act in not only banning the unnecessary use of antibiotics as growth promoters, but also in supporting this important resolution at the WHO.
Posted May 13, 2014 by Ben Lilliston
On Friday, President Obama announced new commitments to support the solar industry and create green jobs. Too bad the President’s trade agenda didn’t get the memo.
In practice, the Obama Administration’s relentless free trade agenda is colliding with its climate and renewable energy goals, leaving four U.S. state programs, designed to spur green jobs and renewable energy, vulnerable to trade challenges, while directly limiting renewable energy growth in one of the world’s fastest emerging economies.
In April, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) took the first steps toward challenging India’s program to expand solar energy production by supporting local companies and green jobs, charging that it violates World Trade Organization (WTO) rules by limiting U.S. companies’ access to the program.
Now, India has responded (subscription required, alternative link) by raising questions about solar energy programs in four states—Minnesota, Delaware, Connecticut and Massachusetts—that also provide benefits for companies that use renewable energy equipment manufactured in that state.
India’s solar initiative, known as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM), is designed to boost the nation’s renewable energy use and create jobs. Growth in the renewable energy sector was cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report last month as critical in the global fight against climate change. India’s program requires the purchase of domestically manufactured solar cells and modules in order for companies to receive a variety of government benefits, including favorable rates for electricity purchases. The U.S. charges that India’s “local content requirements” violate WTO national treatment obligations (which require foreign firms to be treated the same as domestic firms).
The U.S. state programs questioned by India have similar goals to create green jobs and spur renewable energy by providing a variety of benefits for solar manufacturing and sourcing within each state. Minnesota’s Solar Rewards Program enables residential and commercial customers to access a solar rebate program to install photovoltaic (PV) systems, but the PV module must be manufactured in Minnesota. Delaware provides solar renewable energy credits if 50 percent of the cost of energy equipment is manufactured in Delaware. Massachusetts has a rebate program requiring PVs to be manufactured in Massachusetts or have a “significant” presence in the state. Connecticut has incentive programs for the use of major system components manufactured or assembled in the state.
A number of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, sent a letter last month to the U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman calling on him to drop the WTO action against India.
“While it is critical to support and build a U.S. solar industry, the development of our solar industry should not come at the expense of India’s ability to develop its solar industry […]. We see troubling signs that climate policy may increasingly be determined by the WTO and similar arenas based on trade law rather than on climate science and the real-world necessities of building a green economy.”
This is welcome recognition by parts of the environmental movement that expanded trade liberalization is inherently incompatible with effective climate policy.
The Obama Administration’s trade fight with India’s solar program is consistent with a broader USTR effort to eliminate what it calls “Localization Barriers to Trade.” For example, as part of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the U.S. and EU governments are considering for the first time a “Localization Barriers” chapter, which would coordinate joint strategies to target initiatives in other countries attempting to strengthen their local economies. The procurement chapter in TTIP could target a number of different U.S. state and local programs related to food (potentially farm to school programs) and energy programs. TTIP has also been criticized by environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, for expanding fracking and rolling back clean energy programs.
The WTO has previously been used as a tool to attack other energy programs that require local sourcing. Last year, the WTO ruled in favor of a EU and Japan government challenge of Ontario, Canada’s “feed-in tariff” renewable energy incentive program—charging that its local content requirements for solar panels and other renewable sources favored domestic over foreign companies. So, if these trade challenges succeed, countries all over the world would be compelled to back off support for innovative local renewable energy programs or risk trade sanctions.
The attack on India’s program, in particular, could be even more damaging. As one of the largest nations and fastest growing global economies, India is instrumental to the success of any global climate agreement. The U.S. is calling on India to both sharply reduce its carbon emissions while at the same time directly attacking a potentially key policy for achieving that goal. The hypocrisy of this simultaneous, contradictory stance is extremely damaging to both the credibility of the U.S. and efforts to reach a global agreement on greenhouse gas reductions.
If it looks like the Obama Administration is working at cross purposes that’s because it is. If the Administration is serious about addressing climate change and creating green jobs, it needs to scrap its current trade agenda. The USTR should back off from this trade fight with India and recognize that there is more at stake than multinational corporate profits.
Posted May 12, 2014 by Tara Ritter
The U.S. Global Change Research Program released their Third National Climate Assessment on May 6; compiled by over 300 experts and peer reviewed by members of the public, climate change experts, federal agencies, and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences, the report details the impacts of climate change on the United States, including impacts on water, energy, transportation, agriculture, and human health, among other sectors.
One chapter of the report focuses on rural communities, which are at-risk to be disproportionately affected by the direct impacts of climate change because of their high dependence on natural resources. At the same time, rural communities have a limited capacity to invest in public infrastructure, decreasing their preparedness for climate impacts. The National Climate Assessment says it best: “Responding to additional challenges from climate change impacts will require significant adaptation within rural transportation and infrastructure systems, as well as health and emergency response systems. Governments in rural communities have limited institutional capacity to respond to, plan for, and anticipate climate change impacts.”
At the same time, rural communities will play an integral role in addressing climate issues as much of the “production” in climate-friendly economies will occur in rural areas, including renewable energy, reinvigorated local food economies, and changes to land-use patterns. The Rural Climate Network, an IATP-led initiative to foster cross-sector collaboration and information dissemination of best practices for climate change in rural America, is already working at the intersection of these challenges and opportunities. However, more conversation and resources are needed at the community level to ensure viable solutions for climate change adaptation and mitigation.
IATP and the Jefferson Center are helping advance this work through our joint convening of a Rural Climate Dialogue this summer in Morris, Minnesota, a rural community with just over 5,000 residents in the west-central part of the state. The dialogue will follow the Jefferson Center’s proven Citizens’ Jury process, bringing together a randomly selected and demographically representative group of 15 Morris citizens for a few days to discuss community climate concerns and preparedness. The dialogue process aims to engage all community stakeholders from recreationists to faith communities, public utilities, farmers and government representatives in an honest, citizen-led discussion about the realities of climate change and volatile weather. Most importantly, the dialogue will offer an opportunity to begin discussing what the community can and should do to prepare and adapt.
As a precursor to the Rural Climate Dialogue, IATP and the Jefferson Center have been engaging Morris High School students in a student’s Citizens’ Jury process. This process has been less about generating actual climate solutions and more about arming students with real information on climate and effective communication and deliberation skills. Within their classrooms, students are discussing climate science, learning about the impacts climate change will have on Morris, and deliberating what responses they’d like to see. Outside the classroom, they are disseminating energy surveys to their family and neighbors to help better map the community’s energy situation and interest in energy savings and options. Aside from data collection, the survey opens up conversations between students and the adults in their life about climate change adaptation and mitigation, which are topics that may not arise at the dinner table very often.
Whether rural communities engage in climate conversations through their children, through community deliberation processes like the Rural Climate Dialogue, or through other avenues, these hard conversations have to happen. As of the 2010 Census, over 95 percent of the land in the United States was classified as rural, but only 19.3 percent of the population called that area home. As a result, that 19.3 percent have a disproportionately large impact on our country’s climate preparedness. The initial Rural Climate Dialogue in Morris aims to pave the way for many more Rural Climate Dialogues which could increase rural America’s community and natural capacity to respond to the challenges that climate change inevitably presents.
Posted May 8, 2014 by Jim Kleinschmit
The National Climate Assessment released yesterday states what most of us already know: Climate change is occurring and having real and costly impacts, but we aren’t ready. This is especially true for our food and farming systems and rural communities, as Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack pointed out in a USDA statement this week on the assessment. While it remains imperative that we slow and eventually halt avoidable manmade causes to climate change, we as a society have to acknowledge that it is already occurring and work to adapt our lives, economies, and food and farming systems.
Fortunately, in the face of federal inaction, many U.S. states have already begun this process of climate adaptation planning. A new IATP report by Zack Robbins reviews these state climate adaptation plans, with a specific attention to their consideration of agriculture and food production. The resulting “State of the States on Climate Adaptation” report provides both a summary and analysis of the level of planning around food and agriculture that has already occurred, examples of which approaches are most broadly supported, and ideas for further steps to support more resilient food production and farming.
Adapting to a changing climate is, by definition, an ongoing process. Not surprisingly, states and local governments are leading the way on climate policy, but much more urgency is needed. Considering both how vulnerable our current agricultural systems and rural economies are to climate change and how important they are to our survival, it is imperative that we not only seriously factor climate change much more directly into our planning, but that we rapidly move toward policies and programs that substantively and financially support farming systems and rural economic sectors (such as renewable energy production) that can be most helpful to combating climate change and most resilient to its effects.
Posted May 7, 2014 by Dale Wiehoff
When my kids were young, one of our favorite nighttime books was Fungus the Bogeyman, a story about a subterranean bogeyman who spends his waking hours scaring humans. The kids and I loved all the disgusting bogeyman slang like pus and muck. As life would have it, the notion of fungus that frightens people has become only too real and instead if putting children to sleep, it has become the kind of story that really does keep us awake at night.
Recent news of the fungus wiping out shade-grown coffee in Central America was preceded earlier this month with reports of a wheat fungus in Africa that could wipe out this essential food crop. Major varieties of bananas in Asia and Africa are already being decimated by the deadly fungal Panama disease. Many important commodities are being plagued by fungal diseases and this increase in fungal diseases is not limited to plants. Just this week spores of a soil fungus that causes valley fever, or coccidioides, were discovered in Washington state. This fungus is normally found in regions with dry, arid climates.
Our defense against these dangerous fungal diseases has been fungicides. According to the pharmaceutical and chemical industry’s voluntary monitoring organization, Fungicide Resistance Action Committee (FRAC), there are currently about 150 fungicides in use, plus some other 50 compounds known as bio-fungicides. A few of these fungicides are broad spectrum and some are used to control diseases in plants and animals. Over time, fungi have developed resistance to many fungicides and it is this increased resistance that is contributing to the nightmare scenarios unfolding before us today.
Consider, for example, azoles, a group of broad spectrum fungicides and antifungals introduced in the 1970s; less than 30 years later, in 1999, fungal diseases were already showing resistance to them. Azoles are used to treat a range of fungal diseases in both plants and animals, including Aspergilla, which can cause life-threatening respiratory diseases; Aspergilla is now resistant to treatment.
As with resistance to antibiotics, overuse and improper use of fungicides in agriculture and clinical settings has contributed to fungicide resistance. During the 2010 to 2013 period of high commodity prices, farmers were urged to use fungicides to increase yields when no disease was present. Called “insurance fungicide,” this practice had been used earlier on wheat and was alleged to increase yields. Like nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in the livestock industry, insurance fungicide is another way to speed up fungal resistance to fungicides.
Fungicide resistance is a complex and hazardous problem that is likely to be worsened by climate change. Understanding how to prevent fungicide resistance by encouraging agroecological farming practices that don’t rely on fungicides, pesticides and antibiotics will help protect nature as well as public health. As we attempt to solve the problem of fungicide resistance we can’t ignore the economic drivers like trade policy and the concentration and industrialization of agriculture that have brought us to this sorry state. We are in a race for a sustainable and just future—at the moment, the bogeymen are winning.