Large commodity farmers in the U.S. have done well in the past few years, with major crops reaching record prices. According to the USDA, net farm income in 2010 was up more than 20 percent from 2009, and 2011 and 2012 almost double 2009’s numbers. All this good news was reflected in the festive atmosphere at the Commodity Classic 2013, the annual meeting for the National Corn Growers Association, the American Soybean Association, National Association of Wheat Growers and the National Sorghum Producers held at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center just outside Orlando, Florida in early March.
In a bland, cavernous meeting room occupied by 1,699 commodity farmers, and me, the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told us that U.S. agriculture has produced record exports over the last four years. Down the hall Bayer Crop Sciences supplied free popcorn, Koch Agronomic Services and Monsanto provided free box lunches at the trade show, and DuPont Crop Protection offered complimentary shoulder and foot messages in a little room just off to the side of the main entrance.
With all this celebration, and Disneyworld just down the road, it is easy to overlook some of the less festive news which emerged from the workshops and “learning sessions” at the conference. These included predictions of lower prices and incomes, “horror stories” coming out of the U.S. south about herbicide-resistant weeds that were described by herbicide sales representatives as “extremely aggressive,” and the need for farmers to have weather insurance in the face of climate change and increasing extreme weather events. The highly capitalized operations and model of industrial agriculture that are highlighted at the conference seem to be showing some serious cracks.
It’s tough not being perfect. Everyone who has ever had a bad hair day knows that. And that’s no more true than for those misshapen, oddly sized fruits and vegetables that Mother Nature inevitably produces. For them, the price of being imperfect is being consigned to a slow death, rotting in the farm field or the landfill, while their cosmetically perfect brothers and sisters head off to a grocery store near you.
Two fascinating reports from the Natural Resources Defense Council do a deft job of explaining why we should all care about “crop waste”—the widespread loss of otherwise edible fresh and vegetables that never make it past the farm gate or the landfill. One report, Wasted by Dana Gunders, looks at food waste across our food system. The other, Left-Out, looks specifically at fruit and vegetable losses on the farm.
The numbers reported by NRDC are astounding. For instance, from farm to fork, about 40 percent of all the food produced in the United States goes uneaten. That amounts to $165 billion of wasted food every year (a figure which, notably, is in the same ballpark as the annual cost of obesity). More than 6 billion pounds of fresh produce go unharvested or unsold each year, and preliminary data from a cluster of fruit and vegetable growers in California suggests that losses on the farm and in the packing stage range as high as 14–60 percent for a variety of common crops.
Rotisserie chicken, chicken nuggets, Kung pao chicken, chicken livers, Buffalo wings, chicken Kiev, lemon chicken, chicken soup, barbecue chicken, chicken salad, fried chicken—there is no denying that the U.S. loves chicken. According to the USDA, poultry production exceeds $20 billion annually, with over 43 billion pounds of meat produced. The National Chicken Council estimates per capita consumption of chicken in the U.S. at over 80 pounds a year. What’s surprising is that it hasn’t always been this way. This is the story of how an Italian immigrant farmer and his son helped launch the industrial production of chicken.
Prior to World War II, chicken was reserved for special occasions. If you lived on a farm back then, the arrival of visiting relatives meant roast chicken for dinner. Sunday dinner with the family was often graced with chicken and peas. Farm flocks were generally the domain of women and children to earn some cash selling eggs. Back then, chickens for eating were a by-product of egg production (that is, chickens would be butchered only when their laying days were done), with the modern broiler industry only starting to take shape in the 1920s and 30s in places like the Delmarva Peninsula on the Atlantic coast.
The Asian Farmers’ Association for Sustainable Rural Development (AFA) joins the South East Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE) and other network partners in the campaign against the commercialization of Golden Rice, as well as other GMOs, in the Philippines.
In line with its desire to achieve rice self-sufficiency for the country, the Philippine government has declared 2013 as the National Year of Rice. While this may be good on the surface, it is quite alarming that part of the efforts to achieve rice self-sufficiency involves the commercialization of Golden Rice, a genetically modified rice variety that is said to be vitamin A-enriched.
In addition to concerns over risks to health, environment, biodiversity, and infringement of farmers’ rights and livelihood, AFA believes that the best way to eliminate Vitamin-A deficiency is by eating a variety of nutritious foods that are usually found in diversified and integrated farming systems by smallholders, and which the government should support instead.
Thus, AFA joins hands with SEARICE and its network partners in issuing a call against Golden Rice commercialization by voicing objections, demanding a moratorium and, ultimately, halting its cultivation.
We ask friends and partners to uphold the right to safe food and the protection of farmers and the environment by supporting this campaign.
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: