New research shows that production from organic agriculture shapes up better against input-heavy conventional agriculture than previously thought; meanwhile, evidence for the benefits of agroecology continues to accumulate
A new study was released today examining that evergreen chestnut (to mix metaphors): does “organic agriculture” have lower yields than “conventional agriculture”? Published in the prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, the study found that some previous estimates comparing organic agriculture’s productivity were too low. What’s more, they found that there was a bias in the data in favor of conventional agriculture, which means even their updated estimate may still overestimate in favor of the current resource-intensive, high-input systems that dominate much of agriculture today.
The 20th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP), a body under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), started on Monday, at the General Army Headquarters in Lima, Peru. With almost 30 tents set up across the premises, and thousands of representatives from governments and observer organizations running between plenaries, contact groups, and side events, the climate change negotiations are in full throttle.
The climate change negotiations in Peru are critical, because they will establish the foundation of a proposed new climate agreement expected to be finalized in Paris at the end of 2015. The convention’s primary objective has historically been on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While vitally important, this approach has largely ignored the impact climate change has already taken on vulnerable regions around the world, particularly agricultural communities, that urgently need resources to adapt to an altered climate. Such communities also need funds to deal with loss and damage caused by severe weather events that have destroyed crops, increased salinization of soils, and diminished agricultural production.
For the final agreement in Paris, negotiators will consider issues like reducing emissions (mitigation), adaptation, finance, transparency of actions and support, capacity-building and transfer of technology.
But where will agriculture and land-use more broadly stand in these two weeks of negotiations? These issues fall within different tracks of the global climate talks, and are addressed in a variety of ways.
The Story of Drought has opened a new chapter in California this week, with a welcomed pouring rain storm: the most rain to fall in Los Angeles in two years. As California enters its fourth year of a drought, the immediate concern of the state’s water managers is that the rains will send the wrong signal to the population. But as crucial as water conservation is, the signal we need today is one that would begin to address the social, economic and political drivers that cause climate change.
Droughts are very slow weather disasters that can go unnoticed even as rain falls and ground water supplies are drying up. We keep saying that California and other western states are entering into the fourth year of a drought, but the real truth is, California and many areas of the west have been living for too long on borrowed water from aquifers and mountain snowpack that will not be renewed. The modern history of water in California going back to the destruction of the Paiute irrigation system and the Owen’s Valley water diversion are part of a pattern of mismanagement and abuse that is still reverberating today.
Like droughts, many of the underlying causes of climate change are not perceived as threats when first encountered. Three interconnected drivers that are major contributors to climate change are global trade, industrial agriculture and the petroleum production and consumption.
This year’s World Food Prize and Borlaug Dialogue, held from October 17–19, 2014 in Des Moines, Iowa once again brought together the big gun stakeholders in industrial agriculture, and provided many insights to the current framing on the global food security challenge.
Given the parallel celebration of the Borlaug Centennial marking 100 years since the birth of Norman Borlaug, it should come as no surprise that Sanjaya Rajaram was named this year’s World Food Prize Laureate. As Borlaug’s protege in terms of sustaining his legacy of wheat breeding, this award for Rajaram appears to reinforce the importance of remembering what Borlaug was said to have achieved, while also ensuring that current research efforts at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico, where Rajaram is based, continue to be perceived to play an important role in meeting global agricultural research needs. It is also noteworthy to acknowledge that Rajaram was born in India but has become a naturalized Mexican citizen given that Borlaug pioneered many Green Revolution ideas and technologies in Mexico in the mid 20th century before subsequently institutionalizing them in India’s post-independence agricultural sector. Indian agriculture continues to be geared towards a commitment to use “modern” and “improved” crop varieties and inputs even as many small farmers face a variety of severe social, environmental and economic challenges that fundamentally threaten production levels and livelihood security of a significant proportion of its population.
It wasn’t the subject of a barrage of campaign ads this past month, nor has it been widely reported in the media or even debated much in the halls of Congress but new rules are being written right now as part of an arcane, secret process that will expand global agribusiness’ choke-hold over our food system, and you are not invited. A new report, Big Meat Swallows the Trans-Pacific Partnership, released today from IATP takes an in-depth look at what’s at stake for global agribusiness—and particularly the big meat corporations—in potentially the largest regional free trade agreement ever negotiated, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
This weekend, President Obama will meet with leaders of 11 other Pacific Rim countries at the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit about TPP. The negotiations and the proposed treaty text itself are secret, behind-closed-doors affairs—and the corporations that will benefit like it that way.
With some help from my friends (lawyers Anders Bruun and Ben Piper) I argued a case before the Federal Court of Appeal yesterday. The Court ruled from the bench; the result was mixed but more of a defeat than a victory.
Among other things, the case was about money. An awful lot of it -- over $17 billion. That is actually a realistic estimate of the value of the Canadian Wheat Board that has been destroyed by the Harper's government's decision to get rid of the Board's marketing monopoly for wheat and barley and to fire all of the directors elected by the farmers to sit on the Board.
With the benefit of the market power the monopoly afforded, a smart farmer-controlled Board had built an international brand for Canadian wheat that allowed it to claim a very nice premium in the market -- somewhere between $600-800 million a year. It also allowed the Board the leverage to negotiate favorable supply chain arrangements with the rail companies and international grain conglomerates so that grain could be moved efficiently to markets.
While the Wheat Board still exists, it has been run by Harper appointees since Dec. 2011 and has no marketing power. Last summer, the failure of supply chain logistics to move a bumper wheat crop to market cost farmers an estimated $4 billion.
The court was dealing with motions to strike a proposed class action brought on behalf of grain producers seeking compensation for the value of the Wheat Board the Government had taken and will now either sell or wind down.
At the center of the case was this question -- can the Government simply take the assets, which include the enormously valuable goodwill the Board built, from the farmers who paid for and built those assets, and do so without paying the farmers for them? The Court said yes. Why? Because according to the Court the farmers weren't "shareholders" and had no proprietary interest in those assets.
A U.S. law requiring the simple labeling of meat and poultry products for the country of origin (COOL) was determined to violate trade rules by a dispute panel at the World Trade Organization (WTO) today.
The ruling demonstrates again how trade rules have been rigged to benefit multinational corporations and run counter to the interests of consumers who want more information about the food they purchase and farmer and ranchers who target local markets.
Knowing where your food comes from is an important right for consumers all over the world. This ruling is also a loss for farmers and ranchers who are selling to domestic, local markets and who want to build stronger connections with consumers. Trade rules should never get in the way of greater transparency in the marketplace. The USDA should not give in to the WTO on COOL in the short term, and should appeal the ruling. In the long term, we need to reform or throw out trade rules that undermine consumers and farmers.
IATP’s Tara Ritter is blogging from New York City as she attends the NYC Climate Convergence and the People's Climate March.
On the day before the People’s Climate March—what’s being billed as the largest mass climate demonstration in history—the Organic Consumers Association hosted a day of workshops as part of the NYC Climate Convergence. The final workshop was entitled “Now that the U.S. supports Climate-Smart Agriculture, is reform of our climate-dumb food system possible?” The speakers were Ronnie Cummins and Will Allen of the Organic Consumers Association, Anna Lappé of the Small Planet Institute, Elizabeth Kucinich of the Center for Food Safety, and myself representing IATP.
Nearly 70 scientists and scholars of sustainable agriculture and food systems sent an open letter to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) today, praising the organization for convening an International Symposium on Agroecology for Food and Nutrition Security. Given the multiple, overlapping challenges posed by continued food insecurity, rural poverty, climate change, drought and water scarcity, the letter calls for a solid commitment to agroecology from the international community.
The headline of last week’s Science Insider blog was eye-catching: “China pulls plug on genetically modified rice and corn.” (The RT version was even better: “End of the line: GMO production in China halted.”) What actually happened was far less dramatic or definitive. On August 17, biosafety permits for research on two strains of GM corn and one of GM rice expired and were not renewed by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture. But exactly why this happened and what it means for the future of genetic engineering of food in China is uncertain. (This is being debated in the Chinese press.)
The apparent tightening of enforcement is not limited to GMO experiments. Since last fall, several large shipments of corn from the U.S. have been turned back on the grounds that they contained a Syngenta GE variety that has not been approved for sale in China.