As the world was getting ready to usher in the New Year, most Indians were mourning the death of one of their young women, gang-raped on the night of December 16 on a bus that she boarded along with her companion. This is not the first time a woman was raped while travelling, nor was it the first time a young middle-class woman was gang-raped. Yet it galvanized the young and the old, women and men of India in a manner that had not happened before. There were many gatherings across the country to protest and mourn; there was an outpouring of grief and anger online too.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day this year, I am most acutely aware of the grim reality faced by most women in this world: gender-based violence. It manifests itself differently in different cultures, but is omnipresent all the same.
Gendered violence is intrinsically linked to women’s livelihoods as well, such as women’s roles in agriculture and food systems: as farmers, agricultural laborers, food processors, and finally as the main persons responsible for providing and preparing food for homes.
IATP has always argued that trade agreements need to respect and promote human rights, not drive a process of globalization that privileges commercial interests and tramples on public interests. In a new paper on land grabs, we reaffirm that position.
“Land grabs” are large-scale purchases or leases of agricultural or forested land on terms that violate the rights of the people who live on or near that land. The problem has commanded enormous public policy and media attention for the last few years. In our paper, IATP sets some context for the land grabs phenomenon. We focus on two forces that have contributed significantly to the problem:
The situation is compounded by climate change and the resulting destabilization of weather patterns, which in turn has made agricultural production less predictable. Climate change has made domestic food supplies less certain and exports, too. The United States, still a huge source of grains for international markets, lost 40 percent of a record large number of acres planted with corn to drought in 2012.
The sense of food insecurity has driven some of the richer net-food importers—countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait—to invest in growing food abroad for import to their domestic markets. That is one driver of land grabs.
Farmer Tom Nuessmeier, from La Sueur, Minnesota, is different. His 200-acre organic farm—producing farrow-to-finish hogs, corn, soy, oats, winter grains and alfalfa—is pretty uncommon in its diversity and size, especially today. As the average size of farms has grown, the number of farms has decreased overall, and so has the variety of crops. According to USDA data highlighted in the video, while corn acres have increased 62 percent, hay and oat acres have decreased 15 and 92 (!) percent respectively in the past 50 years.
This loss of diversity, though, makes sense as markets and policy have developed to encourage monocropping (namely, corn and soy). As Tom puts it:
The market tells people, and the insurance setups dictate to a degree, that that’s what you’re going to do if you want to go after the greatest profit. But I think it’s kind of a short-term way of looking at things that does have long-term implications if you’re talking about just maintaining the farm’s ability to be resilient.
Farming is risky for anyone: volatile markets and unpredictable weather can make planning and execution from season to season a difficult prospect. Make that double with the extreme weather climate change is bringing. Sure, there is crop insurance in some cases, but what about farmers like Mike Brownfield?
One bad hailstorm and Mike Brownfield’s orchard—the first certified organic orchard in Washington—could lose an entire crop. Being organic means being viewed by the USDA as more risky than conventionally grown fruit (despite studies showing the opposite); being viewed as more risky means paying higher premiums for insurance, but still receiving only conventional-price reimbursement should disaster strike (despite organics being worth more at market).
The fourth in IATP’s “Climate change, agriculture and resilience” video series focuses on the risk involved for farmers who grow our food, how they deal with it, and how that risk is increasing as weather extremes due to climate change shake our system’s very foundations. Without conventional crop insurance to protect his orchard, Mike Brownfield has instituted other methods of risk-management:
For us, having a diversity of crops has made a difference. A certain variety of apple is not always going to have a great year for you, and so that's why we diversified so much in our crops—and in our marketing.
Watch the video or check out the rest of the series:
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.
As the Rome-based Committee on World Food Security begins preparing principles for “responsible agriculture investment” (RAI), its advisory body, the High-level Panel of Experts (HLPE), gets ready to revise its report on “Smallholder agriculture investment.” It is hoped that the RAI principles, if crafted with input from small-scale food producers and those advocating for their rights, become internationally accepted principles to govern international investment. If so, the RAI principles could pave the way for multilateral and bilateral investment treaties that respect small food producers, prevent egregious practices of transnational corporations that have led to landgrabs and livelihood loss, and more positively encourage agroecological investment in small-scale producers.
The HLPE, an advisory body to the Rome-based Committee on World Food Security, has received at least 65 comments into the first draft of its report, Investing in smallholder agriculture for food and nutrition security. This report could be a significant contribution into the RAI process. Many civil society groups support the HLPE and its process, not only because it has civil society representation, but also because its ultimate objectives are to help the CFS have “more informed policy debates and improve the quality, effectiveness and coherence of food security and nutrition policies from local to international levels.” This report on small-scale food producers is its sixth report in three years with previous reports addressing critical issues affecting the global food system such as food price volatility, land tenure, social protection and climate change.
Just when you thought Congress couldn’t screw up the Farm Bill any worse, they surprise us all. As part of a fiscal cliff, New Year’s Day bender, Congress and the White House extended a barebones version of the Farm Bill for yet another nine months—giving the bumbling legislative body more time to further decimate the nation’s main farm and food policy.
The Farm Bill extension, apparently written largely by powerful Republican Senator Mitch McConnell and VP Joe Biden, continues existing commodity programs (including controversial direct payments), keeps the food stamp program largely intact, and provides a temporary extension of the dairy program. But there’s a long list of what it doesn’t do, including funding extension for 37 programs. It also doesn’t include immediate emergency relief to livestock producers and fruit growers still dealing with the damaging effects of the ongoing drought. The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), a critical program supporting agroecology, can’t sign up new farmers to participate in 2013. Other programs that received no mandatory funding include a host of renewable energy programs, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher program, rural development programs and organic and specialty crop research programs. Additionally, an important pilot program for local and regional procurement of international food aid was not funded. (See excellent summaries of the deal by the National Farmers Union and the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture).
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.