World Food Day is an event perhaps best known to those already advocating to end hunger in their own countries and around the globe. That seems like such an obvious goal, and yet how to achieve it is subject to vigorous debate. This year we’re in the middle of the third global food price crisis since 2008. It seems likely that those crises will become the upward swings of ever more unstable prices unless we make some serious shifts in policy and practice.
To begin with, it’s about time we abandon the idea that the problem of global hunger is simply about producing enough food. Increasing the volume of food production is important, but who has access to that food, and who controls how it is grown is even more vital. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) reports that 70 percent of rural people live in poverty. Many of those people are themselves farmers who are also facing new threats to their ability to feed their families and their communities.
Mammals fed a diet of genetically engineered (GE) Roundup Ready corn for two years died earlier and developed more tumors and liver and kidney damage, according to a new study published this week in the peer-reviewed journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology.
The findings reinforce recent calls by the American Medical Association that GE crops be safety tested for possible health impacts before they enter the marketplace. No such premarket testing is currently required in the United States.
Corn genetically engineered to be pesticide-tolerant or insect-resistant makes up 88 percent of the U.S. corn crop. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready varieties make up the vast majority—an estimated 70 percent of the U.S. corn crop; it is widely planted in Brazil as well.
This GE corn, which allows farmers to spray the herbicide, Roundup, on fields without damaging the corn, largely ends up in ethanol plants, animal feed and processed human foods. But just last fall, Monsanto introduced for the first time a Roundup Ready sweetcorn, bringing GE technology directly to consumers’ mouths.
It has always been an amusing pastime for agricultural policy wonks to envision what would happen if a Farm Bill was allowed to expire. Nobody actually thought that it could come to fruition; after all, the uncertainty that it would impose on farmers and agricultural markets would be too great for Congress not to act on passing a new Farm Bill. Yet, remarkably, it now looks like that scenario is inevitable.
The current Farm Bill, passed in 2008, will expire on September 30. The Senate passed a bill over the summer, and the House has yet to have a floor vote on the bill that emerged from the House Agriculture committee, and will not have a vote prior to September 30. There is a lot of guessing about the overall impacts of an expired Farm Bill, and the media is already full of stories of the stalemate and frustrating lack of Congressional action.
So for those of us not farming or trading agricultural commodities, what impact would this legislative breakdown have on our lives? It’s a complicated question, because some programs would most likely continue unchanged, some programs would disappear and some programs would revert to “permanent law” of Farm Bills past. Overall, it appears that an incorporation of policies from the 1930s and 1940s, coupled with the elimination of many of the more recent programs, would create some major problems. Here are some rough generalizations that can be made, thanks in large part to the Congressional Research Service’s review of this question back in March.
Overusing antibiotics has spurred a crisis in antibiotic resistance.
Since their advent in the 1940s, it’s been no secret that the more you use antibiotics, the quicker bacteria get resistant to them.
What’s newer is the realization of the scale of antibiotic overuse, at least in agriculture. Since 2010, the FDA has collected data from pharmaceutical companies definitively showing that more than 80 percent of all U.S. antibiotics – some 29 million lbs per year– are sold for use in livestock or poultry. Ninety percent of these are put at low doses into livestock feed or water for flocks or herds, often to spur growth or economic gain and not to treat a diagnosed disease.
What’s also new is that bacteria generally now have the capability to become resistant to most if not all antibiotics quite quickly. More and more now, people are getting sick and dying from infections that no longer respond easily to antibiotics. Some, like MRSA, have become household names. Others are less known, though often no less deadly.
But most resistant infections still take place in hospitals. Inside those walls, the impact is huge: Patients with resistant infections get sicker, stay in the hospital longer, and die more frequently than do patients with non-resistant bugs. The economics are scary, too. Resistant hospital infections cost $18,000 to $29,000 per case to treat, causing a cumulative $20 billion price tag for the nation.
The current drought facing the U.S. should send down jitters among net food importers worldwide as the price of major grain crops is set to rise dramatically. The drought can be seen as a result of climate change that has led to unpredictable weather patterns the world over.
Farmers in Kenya continue to face the challenges of unpredictable weather patterns that either bring too much or insufficient rain and extreme weather conditions. The situation has been worsened by the loss of local and traditional seed varieties that are more resilient to dry weather.
Women, have since time immemorial been the custodians of seeds in Africa. They bred, selected, sorted and stored seeds for different seasons and ceremonies. They understood their environment to the extent that they could read nature signs and predict what the next season would bring. That is how communities would always be prepared for droughts and would save sufficient food to take them through hard times.
Even with women as custodians of seed, men too had their role in ensuring food security for their families. Some crops like yams were crops tended to by men. I remember going to the village as a young child and grandma would ask grandpa to dig up some yams for us to carry back to the city. One time I asked grandma why she could not dig up the yams herself and she responded that that was the work of men and a crop tended to by grandpa. This remains vivid in my memory, almost twenty years after grandma passed on from throat cancer.
Agricultural prices, both national and international, are affected by commodity and financial market rules. Export revenues and import costs depend on the value of the dollar, the dominant international currency for commodity trading, relative to the value of other currencies. Interest rate rules affect the interest rates for all kinds of agricultural borrowing, from loans for planting to those for shipping products. However, financial market rules that affect agriculture, and thus food security, are written for all economic sectors, not just agriculture, so agriculture is usually not mentioned explicitly in the rulemaking.
U.S. regulators writing new rules to regulate financial and commodity markets have focused on how these rules will be applied in U.S. markets. However, if the foreign branches of U.S. and European firms are allowed to continue to act with reckless abandon outside of U.S. jurisdiction, legislation to reform Wall Street will be in vain. This summer, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) proposed guidance that grapples with the tough question of how to regulate financial instruments called “swaps,” which are traded by foreign affiliates of U.S. banks. Getting this “cross-border” rulemaking right will be critical for farmers and global food security.
September is Farm to School Month in Minnesota, so treat yourself to some delectable locally grown foods and thank your farmer. In 2011, Governor Dayton officially proclaimed September to be Farm to School Month and this year, more schools than ever are participating.
Farm to School initiatives—which link school age children with local foods and the farmers who produced them—are taking off around the country. That’s especially true here in Minnesota, where 145 school districts serving two-thirds of Minnesota’s K-12 students are now dishing up tasty, locally grown foods.
Students are learning where their food comes from, trying fresh foods they haven’t eaten before and learning to grow food in school gardens. Our farmers are doing their part by providing top quality, healthy foods grown nearby. And school lunch ladies are making it all come together by trying out new recipes featuring fresh, healthy choices like tomatoes, zucchini, sweet corn and peppers.
The volatile weather this growing season has been particularly tough on Minnesota’s small- and mid-size farmers, with challenges ranging from too little rain, unrelenting high temps, flooding and hail. An early freeze was devastating to apple growers across the Upper Midwest. So please remember to support your local farmers in whatever way you can: Tell your school board that you support Farm to School, or shop at your local farmers market and support nearby restaurants or retailers that support local growers.
In mid-June, beginning farmer and former IATP staff member Dayna Burtness was delivering her farm’s vegetables to clients in Minneapolis when she got the call: the rain that had started at mid-day had not let up for hours. Things were looking bad back at Laughing Loon Farm.
Dayna rushed back to Northfield to find a river of floodwater rushing through her fields. “It was terrible,” she remembered.
The downpour dumped more than eight inches of rain in several hours, and the water in a ditch bordering Dayna’s fields overflowed, following the path of a creek that had been diverted off of the property many years ago. A 40-foot-wide rushing river of floodwater wiped out a third of Dayna’s crops, in addition to transplant seedlings, equipment and materials.
The destructive weather didn’t stop there. Just as she was assessing which crops had escaped this first onslaught, severe storms struck again a few nights later.
“Golf ball– to Roma tomato–sized hail severely damaged the rest of the crops that hadn’t been washed away. It completely wiped out the rest of our sugar snap pea production, which was just starting to hit its stride. It snapped most of our tomato plants in half. It bashed up our fields of cucumbers, squash and winter squash, and it also snapped off many of the tops of the peppers and eggplants.” Neighbors of Laughing Loon were shocked at the devastation on Dayna’s farm, and even long-time residents can’t remember seeing such destructive flooding.
You’ve surely heard about the worst drought in a generation that is devastating farmers throughout the Midwest and Great Plains. Many of us may have brown lawns and suffering gardens, but besides these inconveniences, how does the drought impact the rest of us who are not farming? Here’s a brief rundown.
You are not likely to go thirsty. Despite the numerous long-term challenges the U.S. faces with water use and water quality, this is a time to appreciate the infrastructural investments that we have made in water and wastewater treatment. It’s remarkable how rare it is for drought to impact our ability to draw clean water from the tap and to safely treat wastewater.
You are not suffering in dust storms. Decades of improvements in farming practices and crop genetics have mitigated the impacts on crop production. Photographs of the Great Plains in the 1930s are full of amazing dust storms that are unimaginable for most of us today. The widespread recognition of that time, that farmers had to make major transitions in tillage practices, and that policy had to support that transition, is a tribute to the foresight of previous generations.
In many ways our food system is less resilient to shock than it used to be. Yes, our impressive food handling, trade and transportation systems have made it far easier to get food to places that need it, but in other ways our system is increasingly vulnerable. The lack of crop diversity on tens of millions of acres of Midwest corn and soybean fields leave agriculture susceptible to severe impacts from new pests and disease, and this agricultural system is highly dependent on plentiful chemical inputs and fossil fuels.
One of the most exciting things about the upcoming Food + Justice = Democracy conference will be the incorporation of a Peoples Movement Assembly. These are designed to help gatherings develop collective political agreements and positions, and this particular assembly will have the conferees coalesce around the barriers to the creation of a just and healthy food system and the opportunity to address those barriers.
Over the next several weeks we are going to feature statements from some of the food justice leaders that will be attending the conference. So many of the conferees provide an awe-inspiring level of wisdom and experience to the food justice movement, and the movement will be all the stronger the more it is democratically built on that wisdom and experience.
Justice requires a conscious, vigilant and active populace. Building towards food justice requires that we conduct public education campaigns to make communities aware of the impact of the current food system on our planet, our health and the economies of our communities. It requires that we provide local food–related models of what sustainability and justice might look like. These models must provide real ways that people can participate in growing, processing, distributing and selling healthy foods and realizing economic benefit from their efforts. They must provide communities with the opportunity to shape their food system and the policies driving it.