Agroecosystem study implies genetic modification neither helpful nor necessary for yield gains and sustainability

Posted September 27, 2013 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell   

Used under creative commons license from Oculator.

Wow. This seems likely to cause a long-term stir, and I’m quite sure vociferous critiques from many quarters (though likely mostly from the usual suspects). University of Canterbury Professor Jack Heinemann and his team have found that

…Relative to other food secure and exporting countries (e.g., Western Europe), the U.S. agroecosystem is not exceptional in yields or conservative on environmental impact. This has not been a trade-off for sustainability, as annual fluctuations in maize yield alone dwarf the loss of caloric energy from extreme historic blights. We suggest strategies for innovation that are responsive to more stakeholders and build resilience into industrialized staple crop production.

In terms of making a splash and what the big, viral attention has been about, though, this excerpt from their abstract buries the lede. In an interview with the journal’s publisher, Prof. Heinemann elaborates:

Our most significant findings were that:

–GM cropping systems have not contributed to yield gains, are not necessary for yield gains, and appear to be eroding yields compared to the equally modern agroecosystem of Western Europe. This may be due in part to technology choices beyond GM plants themselves, because even non-GM wheat yield improvements in the U.S. are poor in comparison to Europe.

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New UN report calls for transformation in agriculture

Posted September 20, 2013 by Ben Lilliston   

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:

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Lessons on globalization from Colombia’s uprising

Posted August 29, 2013 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn   

Photo: Twitter / @neontrotsky

Last week more than 200,000 Colombians converged on Bogota for a nationwide strike to protest free trade, privatization and poverty. According to Common Dreams, the strike began as a protest by campesinos and spread to encompass teachers, miners and other sectors of society.

I have to admit I was surprised to see that farmers had been hit so hard, since prices for grains have been pretty high over the last few years. Back in the early 2000s, when the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA)—and the U.S.-Central America FTA, U.S.-Peru FTA, and others—was negotiated, the concern was that U.S.-grown commodities would be dumped by agribusiness at artificially low prices onto foreign markets. This was certainly Mexico’s experience under NAFTA. U.S. corn exports to Mexico quadrupled after NAFTA went into effect, and many small-scale farmers were unable to compete. More than two million Mexicans were driven from their lands.

But that was before the 2008 food price spike, when soaring grain prices sparked food riots around the world and, to some degree, a rethinking of agricultural development policies. Concerns over dumping were replaced by attention to extreme food price volatility and the prospect that prices would continue to increase for the foreseeable future.

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No food stamps, no farm program

Posted August 20, 2013

Used under creative commons license from NCReedplayer.

The union of food and farm programs began in April 1964 when Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman finally pushed the Democratic majority House to approve by a narrow 30-vote margin legislation to adopt the statute creating a permanent food stamp program.

This piece is a guest feature from Rod Leonard, former IATP board member and special assistant to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman.

One of the last acts of the Republican majority of the House of Representatives before the August recess of Congress was to propose to cut funding for the food stamp program by $40 billion in the fiscal 2014 budget. These cuts were proposed even after the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the inflation adjusted value of food stamps had declined seven percent between 2009 and 2011.

Whether the cruel and harshly punitive action offended the gods possessing larger powers of compassion and morality is not clear, but no one questions that nearly simultaneously the bottom fell out of commodity market prices for corn, soybeans and wheat. The question is whether the two developments in the agricultural economy are related, and whether the stability of the American farm economy may have been fractured, possibly permanently.

These facts are clear:

Before House Republicans decided to shear by half the program that keeps hunger from the door of nearly 48 million people in America, the cash price of corn was hovering near $7.50 a bushel, and briefly climbed above $8.00 a bushel in future markets. Ever since the Republicans sacrificed help for the hungry to appease the austerity gods, the cash price of corn has fallen to nearly $4.60 a bushel and remains below $5 a bushel. Assuming the cash price remains below $5 a bushel through the rest of 2013, the drop in the cash price represents a potential loss in future income for American corn growers of possibly more than $32 billion in 2013 and 2014 income.

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Searching for the Farm Bill

Posted August 9, 2013 by Anna Claussen   

Representative Tim Walz addresses the crowd at the 32nd annual Farmfest.

Farmfest is the largest farm show in Minnesota, bringing farmers together to talk about and see the latest in tractors, seeds, and other farm-related equipment. But Farmfest also brings out the politicians to talk about what is happening with agricultural policies and markets. With no farm bill in place,  the question understandably on everyone’s minds at this year’s policy panel was “What’s next?” While the policymakers in attendance did a pretty good job of explaining how we got  where we are today, the future of farm policy was left unclear.

Representatives Colin Peterson and Tim Walz, both of whom are on the House Agricultural Committee and participated in the policy discussion, gave their perspectives on why Congress still hasn’t passed a Farm Bill. Peterson and Walz pointed to the relatively speedy and nonpartisan work of the House and Senate agricultural committees, as well as the ongoing support of both parties’ leadership; they made clear that the fault didn’t lie there. Instead, the blame was leveled squarely at Eric Cantor and his fellow right-wing Republicans, who broke with their party’s leadership and scuttled the deal that the agricultural committee had developed. Both representatives were quite pessimistic of the possibility of passing a Farm Bill in the remaining months of 2013; Representative Peterson suggested that a 2-year extension was the most likely outcome, followed by many questions about whether we would actually have a Farm Bill (as we know it today) ever again.

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The future of agriculture

Posted August 8, 2013 by Andrew Ranallo   

Ask anyone who's been working on policy-change or advocacy efforts in any arena long enough and they’ll tell you: Change takes time. Except in very rare cases, big, noticeable shifts take years—often decades—of work by countless people, working on all levels and in different ways to achieve change. On one hand, this glacial pace makes sense. After all, it took years to get where we are—a climate on the fritz, food for some while others go hungry, a financial system that is more akin to an online casino—why should getting somewhere else be any quicker? On the other hand, if we aren’t able to think big about the changes we want, and get caught up in little victories, we risk losing sight of our real goals.

It is in this spirit that Oxfam held an online discussion last year calling on experts from across the food and development policy world to write a series of essays focused on four “big picture” questions:

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Farm Bill ignores climate change—mostly

Posted May 28, 2013 by Jim Kleinschmit   

Used under creative commons license from mtungate.

In all of the discussions and proposals associated with the current Farm Bill debate, climate change has gotten little official recognition (although we have pointed out that from IATP’s perspective, the singular focus on crop insurance is clear evidence that climate change is the primary concern of farmers and agriculture state politicians). As the Farm Bill debate goes to the Senate floor, we apploaud two amendments that are trying to bring greater recognition of climate change to the farm policy discussion. 

The first, Senator Whitehouse’s Sense of the Senate Resolution #1029, is a largely symbolic, yet ultimately very important resolution about the authenticity of climate change science and determined causes. This resolution expresses that it is the sense of the Senate that climate change research is in fact based on sound practices, that a scientific consensus exists that humans are contributing to climate change, and that climate change poses a risk to agriculture and related industries. While “Sense of the Senate” resolutions do not result in any direct legislative actions or laws, passage of this resolution would be an important, if quite belated indicator that the U.S. Congress is finally getting serious about climate change and its impacts, especially as they relate to agriculture and our food system.

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When weather becomes the "single biggest factor"

Posted April 29, 2013 by    

Used under creative commons license from Sprengben [why not get a friend].

Sixty-eight percent. That’s the percent of corporate food and agriculture industry executives who said that weather extremes/volatility will be the “single biggest factor affecting North American food and agribusiness in 2013,” according to a poll by the Dutch bank, Rabobank in late 2012. Rabobank went on to say that business leaders’ concerns about weather extremes “far outweighed the next two closest factors—consumer demand (13%) and policy/regulation (10%).” “Geopolitical events” and “trade/tariffs/exchange rates” received votes in the single digits.

This striking data is another sign that the increasing volatility of our weather is not only real but is impacting even the largest food and agriculture businesses.

To dig more deeply into perceptions in the food industry about changing climate patterns, I recently conducted a series of conversations with produce distributors around the United States. These are folks who buy and sell vast quantities of fruit and vegetables from suppliers in the U.S. and all over the world, every day. 

Although they are largely hidden from view, distributors are a key link in the chain of relationships that make it possible for most of our food (except that which is “direct marketed” via farmers markets and the like) to make its way from farms to grocery stores, restaurants and so on. Many I spoke with are multi-generation, family-owned businesses that sell a local and global supply of produce to institutions in their region of the country.

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Now being served in a soil food chain near you: Nanotech

Posted April 24, 2013 by Andrew Ranallo   

Soil micro-arthropods from an EEA report on soil health and soil biodiversity from Soil biodiversity: functions, threats and tools for policy makers, European Commission Directorate General of Environment (2010).

Commercialization of all kinds of nanotech is happening fast. As of March 2011, the nongovernmental Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) had registered more than 1,300 products whose manufacturers claim to include ENMs, and estimates that the number could grow to 3,400 by 2020—all without a broad-based body of science to support claims that it’s safe for public health or the environment.

With the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) pushing for “sustainable intensification” to counteract a growing population and increasing resource scarcity, it seems our soil is in the nanotech crosshairs—whether we know the long-term impacts or not.

In a new IATP report, Nanomaterials in Soil: Our Future Food Chain?, Dr. Steve Suppan digs in to the science behind why companies are pushing ahead with nanotech, why governments are so far behind, and why real (read: non-industry) science and conversation is sorely needed before our soil and the microfauna that keep it functioning become nothing but dirt.

Until that research is available, IATP is pushing for an immediate moratorium on fertilizing with biosolids (also known as sewage sludge) from sewage treatment plants near nanotech fabrication facilities.

As Dr. Suppan writes, “…if we are what we eat, surely what we eat is only as healthy and sustainable as the soil it comes from.”

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Making food aid work for those who need it (rather than those who profit from it)

Posted April 10, 2013 by Andrew Ranallo   

Used under creative commons license from USAID_IMAGES.

IATP joins many NGOs, academics and policy experts today in celebrating a move that could make U.S. food aid more efficient and responsive to the world’s hungry. Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2014 proposes to shift close to half the food aid budget to procuring food aid from local and regional markets rather than the shipping U.S. grains on U.S. ships halfway around the world. With local and regional purchasing, food aid can get to those who need it faster and cheaper while also building local capacity to deal with an increasingly unstable international food supply. It’s a big move, especially when you consider U.S. food aid makes up more than half of all food aid worldwide.

So why are some upset about a move that saves money and gets more food, faster, to those who need it? Enter the “iron triangle”— U.S. shippers, grain companies and a handful of humanitarian NGOs. Scared for their jobs, jealous of their profits, or concerned that Congress will not support more effective forms of aid—the members of the triangle had different reasons for supporting widely discredited programs. (See Kevin Drum’s aptly titled article “Obama Proposes Making Food Aid Less Insane” published by Mother Jones earlier this week.) None of those reasons was persuasive, though. And now the White House has joined the chorus for change.

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