It’s ironic that agriculture, an activity that is fundamental to sustaining large societies, has come to present so many risks to public and environmental health. As farms have grown larger, more productive, fewer in number, and more specialized over the last century, they’ve come to produce some less than desirable byproducts, just like any other major industry. But farming isn’t just another industry; it’s based on ecological principles and natural systems, which, if managed carefully, can be used to promote rather than harm health. A recently published study out of Iowa State University suggests that smart diversification and re-integration of plant and animal systems on the farm can pave the way to a healthier, more balanced agriculture.
The 18th annual climate negotiations of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) just ended Saturday night. These government officials had a historic and an urgently critical task at hand: how to effectively address the increasing climate chaos characterized by extreme storms like Hurricane Sandy, Typhoon Bhopa (which recently just devastated several islands in the Philippines), droughts, floods and eerily erratic weather before it’s too late.
The “Doha Climate Gateway,” as the outcome is being called, resulted in a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol (the KP) and built the “gateway” for a new climate treaty that is supposed to come into force by 2020. In three year’s time, governments will have to finalize this new treaty that will now be negotiated in a track they call the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP).
As I look at the snow outside my window, I have to admit it: The summer’s bounty of sweet corn and tomatoes is long gone, but the demand for local food keeps chugging along—particularly among K-12 schools that are eager to keep their Farm to School program going even after the snow flies.
How can we provide new opportunities for our farmers and make local foods available year-round? One strategy worth a look is preserving the local bounty through freezing fruits and vegetables.
Today, IATP is releasing new research on innovative strategies for freezing locally and regionally grown produce for the K-12 marketplace. We looked at several small and mid-scale approaches including schools freezing on-site in their own kitchens, multi-use kitchen facilities, small freezing enterprises, and “co-pack” relationships where a processing company freezes produce on behalf of a third party, like a group of farmers.
Our research draws insight from the first-hand experience of ventures around the country that are now freezing fruits and vegetables grown in their region. While there has been considerable zeal of late around the concept of “food hubs,” we found a mixed picture, and reasons for both optimism and caution. Here are a few highlights:
Autism is a developmental disorder that impairs communication and social interaction. It is a whole body disorder, with immune system difficulties and often includes physical health problems such as gut disturbance, allergies, and seizures. One in 88 children is now diagnosed with autism in the U.S., compared with 1 in 150 in 2000.
While we don’t know exactly what causes autism or why it has increased, we know that genetics plays a role. Growing evidence suggests that it’s not genetics alone; environmental and dietary factors may play a significant role in increasing the risk for autism. Dr. Martha Herbert of Harvard University, a leading thinker on this issue presented at IATP’s event, "Autism: What do diet and environment have to do with it?" last Friday. Dr. Herbert is the author with Karen Weintraub of The Autism Revolution: Whole-Body Strategies for Making Life All It Can Be.
Dr. Herbert walked the audience of 150 scientists, educators, health practitioners, parents and advocates through the complex science on factors contributing to increased autism risk. She explained that the brain may not be hardwired for autism as previously thought, but may be instead overloaded in people with autism because the signals aren’t working like they should. When the brain gets overloaded then some functions shut down resulting in autistic symptoms like lack of social interaction, inability to communicate and other problems.
Hard on the heels of Oxfam’s Food and Gender Discussion Blog, in which ten experts provided ten views over ten days intended to reframe food security from the perspective of women’s rights and women’s agency comes another Oxfam online forum for debate on agriculture called "The Future of Agriculture."
The series will explore four issues:
As with the series on food and gender, the discussion aims to generate bold proposals, in this case to meet increasing world demand for food in a way that eradicates hunger and preserves the environment.
I had the privilege to contribute to the debate, and my essay (one of twenty or so to be featured over the next two weeks) has been posted as one of two to kick off the discussion. Below are some excerpts from my contribution—I do hope you will find time to read and respond as the debate unfolds.
Agriculture is a risky business. At the mercy of inclement weather and pests, a frequent casualty of war, and subject to its own particular demand constraints and market failures, agriculture merits a branch of economics all to itself. The risks are not just economic: they also link to biological diversity and natural resource management, to culture and social relationships.
It’s no secret that many economists believe the nation’s toxic mix of soon-to-expire tax cuts and automatically triggered, across-the-board federal spending cuts could send the economy off a precipice at the beginning of January and into another recession. If that happens, every American taxpayer and industry will be profoundly affected, and agriculture is no exception.
But if we fall off the fiscal cliff without Congressional action, indiscriminate cuts could have an impact on the health of our food system. Some of the major impacts could include:
Less food safety enforcement
A series of high-profile cases of food contamination in recent years has underscored concerns about food safety enforcement; CNN reports that universal cuts to federal programs would decrease the funding available for plant and animal health inspections by $71 million and the budget of the Food Safety and Inspection Service Agency by about $1 billion. In very simple terms, this would reduce the number of inspectors on the ground working to keep our food supply safe for consumption.
Reduction in research dollars directed to fighting obesity
A week ago, with most of us still digesting election results—and our turkey—a critical deadline passed in the struggle to convince the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to pull back the veil of ignorance around how antibiotics are being fed or given to pigs, chickens, turkeys and cattle animal agriculture.
The good news is nearly 25,000 Americans last week wrote FDA Commissioner Hamburg, a physician, urging her to do a better job in helping to keep our precious antibiotics effective by asking for this critical information from Big Pharma, and making it public. They included:
The theme of the day, "Solving for Pattern," comes from the Wendell Berry essay of the same name. Berry talks about apparent solutions that in fact either make the problem they are intended to solve worse, or solve one problem but in the process create a whole set of other problems; “as when the problem of soil compaction is solved by a bigger tractor, which further compacts the soil, which makes a need for a still bigger tractor, and so on.”
Berry tells the story of Earl Spencer’s dairy farm, which was on the conventional path of increasing scale, commercialization, debt, specialization and disconnection with the land; until he decided that he needed to operate in balance with nature. Spencer said his farm, “had been going at a dead run, and now he would slow it to a walk.”
Berry is a farmer talking about farming in his essay, but as usual, he also has bigger fish to fry. He tells us what study after study has since confirmed that we need to move away from agriculture modeled on industrial production. And importantly, he recognizes that this is not just because of its dependence on unsustainable technologies and inputs, but because of its business model, because the profitability of industrial farming depends on ignoring many of the very things that we care about most, such as human health, animal welfare, community and the environment.
This is the pattern I think we all need to see and solve for.
To its most dedicated proponents at the U.N. climate talks in Doha, “climate-smart agriculture" (CSA) is the fairy tale success story on agriculture and climate change. To the World Bank, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and several agriculture-focused NGOs, it provides a win-win on mitigation and adaptation: Carbon is supposed to be sequestered in soil based on a set of practices that a project manager puts in place and farmers implement, and that sequestration is measured and recorded as carbon credits. The carbon credits are then supposed to be traded on an international market. The practices used to store carbon are also supposed to build resilience, so farms can adapt to the changing weather they are starting to face.
At COP 17 in Durban, South Africa, parties agreed to have an “exchange of views” on agriculture under the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA); “mitigation adaptation synergies,” (read: climate-smart agriculture) were one of the main, and most contentious, issues on the table during those and previous talks. At the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where entire sentences can be composed of acronyms and agricultural discussions are mostly limited to 45-minute sessions that are closed to observers, it is easy to forget that the decisions countries make have significant and nuanced impacts on real people living in very different local contexts. As a student and activist following the climate negotiations at the international political level, it is always both painful and refreshing to see non-governmental organizations working to infuse the talks with the effects they may have on the ground.
One of the many fierce debates at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties (CoP), which opened this year on November 26 in Doha, Qatar is about climate finance. How should the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and the adaptation to climate change’s effects, both slow-onset, such as drought, and suddenly catastrophic, such as Hurricane Sandy, be most effectively financed?
According German Watch’s latest Global Climate Risk Index, “More than 530,000 people died as a direct consequence of almost 15,000 extreme weather events, and losses of more than USD 2.5 trillion (in Purchasing Power Parity) occurred from 1992 [the first year of the UNFCCC negotiations] to 2011 globally.” To that toll, among other extreme weather events, can be added Sandy’s cost of at least 121 lives and $71 billion in repairs, most of which will be paid for by the U.S. federal government.
Among the many contentious issues to be debated at the CoP, perhaps none is less likely to be resolved than the issue of how to pay to adapt to climate change and to reduce GHGs. This debate goes beyond the question of whether payment should come from the industrialized countries that bear the historical responsibility for the majority of GHG production, or whether payment also should come from those developing countries that will, in the words of U.S. negotiator Jonathan Pershing, bear “future responsibility” as major GHG emitters. The question is not even how much of a share each should pay, but whether any significant funds will be committed at all.