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.
In last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama called for the federal minimum wage to be raised to $9 an hour and linked hereafter to the cost of living, so that it will rise along with inflation. He pointed out that a couple with two children working full time at the current minimum wage are still living below the poverty line. If Congress responds to this call, it will be a step in the right direction for building a just food system in America. Workers in fields, food processing plants, restaurants and supermarkets are among the lowest paid in the country. A higher minimum wage would be an important step toward ensuring that the people who feed our society can also feed their own families.
But it’s not enough. We also need comprehensive immigration reform, and stronger protections for the rights of farm workers. We need paid sick leave, so that food workers aren’t forced to endanger their health and ours when they become ill. And we need more effective enforcement of existing laws, so that workers in the food system are no longer routinely subject to wage theft and sexual harassment.
As a matter of fact, a higher minimum wage by itself will be of limited help to some of the lowest-paid Americans: the restaurant workers whose wages come partly in the form of tips. This issue is one that many people aren’t aware of, but if you think the regular minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is inadequate, the “tipped minimum wage” is a mere $2.13! It has been at this level since 1991, when the non-tipped minimum wage was $4.25. And while there may be some folks at high end bistros who do very well on tips, waitstaff overall have three times the poverty rate of other workers.
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.
After the disastrous financial collapse in 2008, the commodity and financial market regulatory reform process on both sides of the Atlantic has been a series of promising but halting steps, all too often two steps forward and one step back. This week the EU Parliament decided not to take that one step back, when it withdrew a resolution to object to standards for the centralized clearing of over-the-counter (OTC) financial and commodity derivatives contracts. Such a centralized system is essential for effective market regulation. Joost Mulder, of the Brussels-based NGO Finance Watch, said, “the decision to withdraw the resolution is a victory for the real economy.”
The new standards will make transparent pricing and other information previously hidden in the privately negotiated, but market-dominant, OTC contracts and will prevent a repeat of the 2008-09 cascades of counterparty defaults. According to the standards, Centralized Clearing Platforms (CCP) authorized by the European Market Infrastructure Regulation (EMIR), would ensure that the counterparties to an OTC contract are credit worthy and able to cover their losses. Lack of centralized clearing of OTC trades (called swaps) was a major factor in the financial industry crisis of 2008-09, which triggered taxpayer bailouts of the industry and a real economy crisis on both sides of the Atlantic, wreaking price havoc in agriculture and energy markets.
Last year international food markets suffered their third price spike in five years. The trigger was a terrible drought in the United States—a major agricultural producer and exporter. An unstable climate met low levels of international grain reserves, while U.S. ethanol gobbled up maize supplies. The resulting high and volatile prices struck yet another blow at the world’s already fragile food systems.
This is exactly the scenario we warned of a year ago when we published Resolving the Food Crisis, a comprehensive assessment of the international community’s response to the global food price crisis.
High and volatile food prices in international markets will continue until structural reforms to trade, finance and agriculture are put in place to address the real drivers of the food crisis. It’s time for meaningful limits on financial speculation, reformed mandates for biofuels made from food crops, a system of internationally coordinated public food reserves and strong regulation on land investments. Donors should continue to invest in developing country agriculture, respecting their commitment to recipient country leadership. If the private sector engages, it, too, must respect the rights of the people it engages with.
Here is our review of progress on these issues in 2012:
Funding for agricultural development: Instead of renewing their 2009 L’Aquila commitment to invest significant aid money in agriculture, the G-8 group of powerful nations rolled out the “New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.” Most of the funding comes from private sector partners like Monsanto and Yara, a global fertilizer company. The aid comes with strings: To qualify, governments must “refine policies in order to improve investment opportunities.”
With legislation in 2008, Congress for the first time asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to collect and report to the public the overall sales of antibiotics used in food animals. February 6 marked the release of a third year’s worth of data.
Penicillins and tetracyclines sold for animal use increased for the second year in a row. From 11.5 million pounds in 2009, sales rose to 14.4 million pounds in 2011. The two classes of antibiotics remain the most commonly used antibiotics in livestock and poultry, despite their obvious import for treating infections in people as well. In 2011, animal sales accounted for 38 percent of total penicillin sales and 98 percent of total tetracycline sales, including in humans.
Use of antibiotics in animals overall also continues to rise, to 29.9 million pounds in 2011. That compares with at least 7.3 pounds (according to FDA data, comparing to 7.7 million according to Pew) sold for use in humans. The fact that 3.9 times more antibiotics are used in animals than humans, as this new infographic illustrates from the PEW Charitable Trusts, may shock most Americans.
For 34 years, the FDA considered the routine use of penicillins and tetracyclines in animal feed, for purposes like growth promotion, a public health threat. The agency had moved in 1977 to withdraw its approval for these animal feed products on the grounds that such use had not been shown to be safe for people. That official stance remained on the books until 2011.
In 2010, journalist Frederick Kaufman wrote in Harper’s Magazine about how Wall Street speculators wreaked havoc with wheat markets and, in turn, helped drive the 2008-09 food price crisis. Now, he’s out with a new book titled Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food that goes into depth on how the increasing financialization of food effects farmers, consumers and global hunger. Research for the book brought Kaufman to farms, food science research labs, agribusiness giants, the United Nations and the Chicago Mercantile exchange. Bet the Farm is an accessible, sharp critique of how our food system has become increasingly captured by the big banks and giant food and agribusiness companies. Kaufman graciously accepted our invitation to answer five questions about the new book.
You write about the remarkable growth of the pizza industry, not only here but around the world. How has that impacted the agricultural economy?
When a four year old in our project was asked recently where carrots come from, he pretty well nailed it: “The ground, and farmers water them and pick them and give them to people and bunnies too, and stores.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
So amidst all the gloom and doom about childhood obesity, there is reason for hope. One bright light on the path to healthier kids is Farm to Childcare (F2CC). By connecting kids with local farm fresh foods, F2CC initiatives support farmers who produce healthy choices like fruits and vegetables while helping our youngest eaters get off to a good start.
IATP launched our new Farm to Childcare pilot in Minnesota last summer. With our childcare partner, New Horizon Academy, we designed a set of practical, on-the-ground strategies to try out new approaches in childcare settings: menu innovations featuring local foods, age-appropriate curriculum, parent outreach and a rigorous evaluation program. Now we’re pleased to share some of what we did and what we’re learning. Here’s the scoop: