Archive for the 'environment' Category

30
Jun
10

Baby steps in the right direction

This week, the FDA issued a “draft guidance” that in effect asks industrial meat producers to pretty please, at least think about limiting the practice of pumping massive quantities of antibiotics into factory animals meat machines.

The big lobbying groups, predictably, were outraged by this intrusion of mere science into their god-given right to make a bundle at the expense of the world’s health (both animal and human).

Tom Scocca at Slate sums up just how late this is in coming:

Forty-one years after the United Kingdom concluded that feeding antibiotics to healthy animals to make them gain weight could promote drug resistance in bacteria, 12 years after the European Union banned the use of medically important antibiotics in livestock for weight gain, nine years after researchers found widespread antibiotic-resistant salmonella in American ground beef, and four years after the EU banned all feeding of antibiotics to healthy animals, the Food and Drug Administration today issued a “draft guidance” urging “judicious use of medically important antimicrobial drugs” in the American livestock industry.

At Grist Tom Laskawy some excellent background on the issue as well as a slightly more optimistic view. “While this may sound like so much bureaucratese, it represents a strong statement by the FDA and suggests further action is forthcoming.”

This draft, though clearly preliminary and subject to industry feedback, also gives Congress a reason to move forward on legal restrictions knowing that a scientific consensus is forming — though in reality it’s unlikely a law could be passed much before November, if at all.

The question remains just how hard Big Meat will fight this guidance. The FDA wants to bend over backwards to limit problems for livestock producers by phasing in restrictions and taking their concerns into account. But will groups like the Pork Board — which denied the very existence of the problem to CBS News anchor Katie Couric in her blockbuster report on the subject — take the hand the FDA has offered? Or will they bite it?

Or will CAFO operators simply seek to bypass any regulation altogether, by claiming that routine doses of antibiotics are medically necessary to prevent disease in close quarters? I’m contacting an expert on this topic to find out if the FDA’s draft guidance indicates such loopholes will exist, and whether industry will head for them.

We know that subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock is unnecessary. The Danes have, somewhat famously, proved it by banning the practice and significantly reduced the threat of antibiotic resistance with no long-term effects on livestock health or productivity. The American Society of Microbiologists knows it. The FDA does, too. Even over a hundred House members and 17 senators (that being the number of cosponsors attached to the pending legislation) know it. With any luck, the industry will finally get the message.

22
Jun
10

Futureless farming?

I imagine there must be a proverb or several somewhere about the farmer who travels in springtime, when a huge chunk of the year’s work has to get done.

This year, I had to travel not once but three times in the crucial spring months, and since returning have been scrambling to rescue my little farmstead from total chaos. Calves still coming in, new chickens to tend to, the beehives thriving but needing a lot of attention, weeds galore in the garden. Weeds. Weeds. Weeds. WEEDS! (Did I mention weeds?)

But I think I’m getting there.

Which raises the question of “where is there”?

In general I’ve downplayed my farmerly ambitions by claiming only that I’m trying to feed my family better, and perhaps create a better sense of self-reliance. I do hold out a hope, not often expressed, that someday this farm will be our livelihood. Slowed food revolution, in this month’s American Prospect, makes me wonder how realistic that dream is.

The author, Heather Rogers,  offers a thorough look at the state of the American organic or alternative or sustainable farmer, seen from a policy perspective as well as through the eyes of Morse Pitts, who farms in the Hudson Valley and can charge what for me is a jaw-dropping price of $14 for a dozen eggs at the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan. In spite of this, and the fact that he is hard-working and resourceful, he still has had enough with a life that promises (and delivers) so many rewards, save one—the ability to earn a steady and decent living.

… despite having no mortgage debt (he inherited the place), a ready market, and loyal customers, Pitts wants to leave his farm. His town recently rezoned the area as industrial, and if he wants to cultivate soil that’s not surrounded by industry and its attendant potential for water and air pollution, he has to move. The problem is, he can’t afford to.

Aside from the standard instability farmers must endure — bad weather, pests, disease, and the vagaries of the market — holistic and organic growers face great but often overlooked economic hardship. They must shoulder far higher production costs than their conventional counterparts when it comes to everything from laborers to land. Without meaningful support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, their longevity hangs in the balance. In the meantime, the USDA showers billions on industrial agriculture. Growers who’ve gone the chemical, mechanized route have ready access to reasonable loans, direct subsidy payments to get through tough years, and crop insurance, plus robust research, marketing, and distribution resources. Whether organic and holistic growers raise crops, like Pitts does, or grass-fed, free-range livestock, they must contend with circumstances made harder by a USDA rigged to favor industrial agriculture and factory food.

As he has done in so many other areas, the president raised hopes for progressive farmers to the sky, and then sent them crashing. An organic garden at the White House! Beehives! But not a heck of a lot of tangible things have been delivered to folks like us. And even modest things like the Know Your Farmer campaign have met with angry resistance. “In an April letter to the new agriculture secretary, agribusiness-friendly senators Saxby Chambliss, John McCain, and Pat Roberts opposed even the meager support the USDA is giving small unconventional growers. ‘American families and rural farmers are hurting in today’s economy, and it’s unclear to us how propping up the urban locavore markets addresses their needs.'” Which of course is a hugely disingenuous piece of cow dung. And then there’s the “urban locavore” dig—a “trendy food choice” by well-to-do foodie snobs doing their evil mischief again. You know, if it weren’t for Alice Waters, America could be made whole again.

It’s a really good article, if not particularly encouraging for me, or for any of the other kooks out there who want to eat real food that isn’t farmed in ways that are killing the earth. I recommend you read the whole thing….

10
May
10

Lions and tigers and superweeds … oh, my!

florence in the garden

Florence scours our overgrown garden for callaloo

Who could have seen THIS coming?

A recent New York Times article on the rapid growth of “superweeds” notices that some species have done exactly what Darwin noticed living things do: under herbicidal assault, they adapted.

Now Roundup, Monsanto’s crack for farmers, is having trouble killing pigweed, and the expensive herbicide/seed program  isn’t looking like such a good deal anymore. But the large-scale farmers have a lot invested in industrial farming,  so many are just layering new poisons onto the Roundup, and are even encouraged to do so by Monsanto, which, the Times reports, “is it is taking the extraordinary step of subsidizing cotton farmers’ purchases of competing herbicides to supplement Roundup.”

Michael Pollan, one of the Room for Debate voices in a Times discussion on the subject, points out that this should come as a surprise to exactly no one.  “A product like Roundup Ready soy is not, as Monsanto likes to claim, ‘sustainable.’ Like any such industrial approach to an agronomic problem — like any pesticide or herbicide — this one is only temporary, and destroys the conditions on which it depends. Lucky for Monsanto, the effectiveness of Roundup lasted almost exactly as long as its patent protection.”

The Times parrots without comment the claim that no-till agriculture with “Roundup Ready” seeds is “environmentally friendly.” True, it reduces erosion and lessens runoff, but I don’t think everyone really understands what really goes on in this kind of agriculture. (Interested in the details of how glyphosate works? Check  out this fact sheet from beyondpesticides.org (pdf). “Environmentally friendly”? I’m not so sure.)

And here is where I would like to make a rather bold suggestion: Why not just call the superweed callaloo and eat it?

Pigweed is amaranth, after all, and amaranth is edible and nutritious, both as  leaves and seeds. When we first moved to Kentucky, Florence, our friend and one-time babysitter (from a past life when we were both had jobs and 401ks and benefits in New York), came to visit us. She looked into a field of what we called pigweed, and saw callaloo, a delicious green from her youth near Ocho Rios, Jamaica. She waded in, harvested a few large bags, trimmed it and cooked it up with lots of garlic and hot peppers and it was delicious.

I wouldn’t encourage anyone to eat the pigweed laced through with Roundup of course. And I’m not sure the resistant palmer amaranth is the same variety of amaranth that we enjoyed. But if there are varieties of a “superweed” that are edible and nutritious, a smart farmer might take the hint from mother nature and grow the native plant that doesn’t need massive doses of chemicals to thrive.

Or not. Even if that farmer is dead-set on continuing with the commodity crop (and of course that’s where the (subsidy) money is), The redoubtable Rodale Institute has been  doing some great work with organic no-till methods.

10
Mar
10

Green thumbs up: Shopping malls into greenhouses

Been in the garden digging. Digging like Kevin Bacon. Have you ever seen Stir of Echoes, where Bacon’s character, post-hypnosis, starts tearing up his garden and even basement? “I’m supposed to dig,” is all he can say, except when he mutters, “Tools.”

That’s how I feel this time of year. Dig. Dirt. Tools.

And it puts me in a good mood, a good enough mood to post a link to a story that is not along my customary lines of  how we’re being boiled alive like a potful of oblivious frogs by a predatory militarist corporatist state. No, reader, this story is a happy one, or at least it features cause for optimism. It’s about one of the best simple ideas I’ve heard in a while: turning unused (or, in this case, underused) mall space into a greenhouse/farm stand.

From Fast Company:

Shopping malls, those bastions of American consumerism, have not been immune to the recent economic downturn. In a recent piece by our own Greg Lindsay, we looked at the impending decline of the mall, which is part of the “single-use environment” category of real estate development that will slowly disappear over the next thirty years, according to one developer. But what will replace these environments, and more importantly, what will happen to the massive malls of today?

One possible solution can be seen in Cleveland’s Galleria mall. The mall lost many of its retail shops over the past few years, leaving gaping holes in the greenhouse-like space. So employees of the Galleria came up with the idea for the Gardens Under Glass project, a so-called urban ecovillage inside the mall that features carts of fruits and vegetables grown on-site. The project was recently given a $30,000 start-up grant from Cleveland’s Civic Innovation Lab.

In the past I’ve written about Detroit and its gradual, if not exactly planned, transition from urban back to rural. Fast Company’s Ariel Schwartz notices the same thing:

We can see it now: the malls of today turned into the suburban (and urban) farming powerhouses of tomorrow. And while we’re at it, why not turn entire economically depressed cities into agricultural centers as well? It’s already happening in Detroit, where entrepreneurs are turning vacant lots into factory-side farms. And if Cleveland’s mall farm works out, maybe New Jersey can become the next big agricultural innovator–the state has the most malls per square mile in the country.

Re-ruralization. It’s already happening. Cool.

04
Mar
10

Locovores, locavores, See these people can’t even agree on how to spell their own damn movement!

A handsome and not at all smelly locovore family

In the unlikely forum of Foreign Policy magazine, Felix Salmon, the financial blogger for Reuters, has crafted a love letter to locovorism, a movement that’s getting sneered at a lot lately as being a fantasy of snobbish foodies and manure-spattered alternative farmers reeking of dirt and garlic.  (After a while, though, you find that smell sexy).

Don’t have much time, so will quote a couple snippets, and encourage all to read the whole thing.

There are three big problems with monoculture, all of which can be addressed with a more sensitive, bottom-up, heterogeneous, small-scale agricultural model.

First, monocultures are, by their nature, prone to disastrous bouts of disease. Ireland’s population was decimated by the potato famine; France’s vines were wiped out by phylloxera; a disease called huanglongbing now threatens all of California’s citrus crop. If you only grow one crop, the downside of losing it all to an outbreak is catastrophe. In rural Iowa it might mean financial ruin; in Niger, it could mean starvation.

Big agriculture companies like DuPont and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), of course, have an answer to this problem: genetically engineered crops that are resistant to disease. But that answer is the agricultural equivalent of creating triple-A-rated mortgage bonds, fabricated precisely to prevent the problem of credit risk. It doesn’t make the problem go away: It just makes the problem rarer and much more dangerous when it does occur because no one is — or even can be — prepared for such a high-impact, low-probability event.

A more natural and heterogeneous system, by contrast, is inherently much more resistant to disease because few (if any) diseases can successfully wipe out a wide range of crops. Natural resistance is also much more likely to be found where there are a wide range of native varieties growing in the same place. Nature abhors a monoculture, and a system of smaller farms growing a large number of crops will be able to resist any disease in a way that no single crop can. If one or two of them gets hit, the damage done is manageable rather than devastating. It doesn’t have the same economies of scale, of course, and it might not have magical flood-resistant properties. But it works, all the same.

This is a hugely important issue to consider, especially as a few opportunistic spores of Ug99 blowing on a kind wind might lead in fairly short order to a worldwide shortage of wheat-based foodstuffs.

The second problem with monoculture is that new, high-tech, disease-resistant crops tend to come with something that is just as unwelcome as disease: patents. Many of these high-tech crops can’t reproduce organically and need to be bought afresh each season from the patent holder. And all of them come with layers of intellectual-property laws too complex for most non-lawyers to decode. So how do we expect impoverished and often illiterate populations in some of the most remote areas of the world to take advantage of them? Non-engineered crops, the natural ones that replicate themselves, are patent-free.

Finally, monoculture is based on the principles of trade and comparative advantage. It’s supposed to work like this: Enormous areas specialize in growing, say, corn and soy; they then sell those crops and use the cash they get in return to buy a wide variety of foods.

This works in the United States, but it doesn’t work well in the rest of the world, where trade barriers are often high, and selling crops for money and then exchanging that money for food is a complex and fraught process. Farmers growing cash crops in remote areas are often taken advantage of by middlemen, who take a cut of the profit and pay the growers much less than the market rate.

….It’s also worth bearing in mind that there’s already more than enough food being grown to feed every person on the planet. Right now, when we grow more food, the main consequence is more obesity and waste in rich countries. In fact, we have reached such a level of excess food that powerful agricultural lobbies — supported by big businesses like ADM — have been pushing for food crops to be turned into biofuels, especially in the United States and Brazil. It simply isn’t the case that we are at risk of shortages without these monoculture crops.

The hunger that persists is a question of distribution; calories don’t just magically trickle down to the people who really need it. Locavorism gets right to the root of this problem. By growing multiple crops close to home, less is likely to spoil and more will reach the table.

02
Mar
10

The Green Revolution’s bitter fruit: a Biblical plague?

There’s an interesting and frightening story in Wired this month about the potential catastrophe represented by puccinia graminis, or Ug99, a fungus that causes stem rust in wheat. Writes Brendan I. Koerner:

Stem rust is the polio of agriculture, a plague that was brought under control nearly half a century ago as part of the celebrated Green Revolution. After years of trial and error, scientists managed to breed wheat that contained genes capable of repelling the assaults of Puccinia graminis, the formal name of the fungus.

But now it’s clear: The triumph didn’t last. While languishing in the Ugandan highlands, a small population of P. graminis evolved the means to overcome mankind’s most ingenious genetic defenses. This distinct new race of P. graminis, dubbed Ug99 after its country of origin (Uganda) and year of christening (1999), is storming east, working its way through Africa and the Middle East and threatening India and China. More than a billion lives are at stake. “It’s an absolute game-changer,” says Brian Steffenson, a cereal-disease expert at the University of Minnesota who travels to Njoro regularly to observe the enemy in the wild. “The pathogen takes out pretty much everything we have.”

This is a thorough look at what could develop into something truly awful. Massive starvation is a not implausible result, if a few opportunistic spores blow into the wrong spots. (Some scholars apparently believe stem rust was one of the Biblical plagues, FWIW.)

But I have to voice my objection to a basic premise of the article, the characterization of the Green Revolution as a “lifesaving agricultural movement.” Koerner asserts  that the Norman Borlaug-led Revolution “produced multiple disease-proof, high-yielding crops capable of feeding once-hungry populations.”

Which is pretty much a spot-on reflection of the consensus on Borlaug as a selfless, indefatigable Man of Science who fed the world’s starving populations. The consensus, however, glosses over the fact that the Green Revolution created many more problems than it solved. More than a half century after Borlaug’s Rockefeller Foundation-funded trip to Mexico, the state of affairs in the nations saved by the gift of Western agriculture are at best parlous.

Writing in Grist just after Borlaug’s death last Fall at the age of 95, Tom Philpott offered a dissenting take on Borlaug’s achievement:

In Mexico, to be sure, yields of corn and wheat rose dramatically in the areas where Borlaug’s techniques took hold. But while [Borlaug biographers] Thurow and Kilman convincingly argue that Borlaug’s main intent was to “help poor farmers,” Mexico’s smallholders have been in a state of severe crisis for more than a generation. The so-called “immigrant crisis” here in the United States is better viewed as an agrarian crisis in Mexico. Since the the advent of NAFTA alone, more than 1.5 million Mexican farmers have been forced off of their land. Since the Mexican manufacturing economy has been nowhere near robust enough to absorb them, a huge portion of one-time Mexican farmers now wash our dishes and harvest our crops.

While the factors contributing to Mexico’s agrarian disaster are multiple and complex—including neoliberal trade policy and U.S. crop subsidies—the zeal to increase yield certainly factors in. In Borlaug’s Green Revolution paradigm, farmers are urged to specialize in one or two commodity crops—say, corn or wheat. To grow them, they were to buy hybridized seeds and ample doses of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation.

Philpott is careful to point out that he’s not demonizing Borlaug:

For me, the point isn’t that Borlaug is a villain and that crop yields don’t matter; rather, it’s that boosting yield alone can’t solve hunger problems in any but the most fleeting way. Farmers’ economic well-being; biodiversity; ecology; local knowledge, buy-in, and food traditions—all of these things matter, too.

Koerner paints a vivid picture of scientists working with great urgency to develop new seed varieties that are immune to Ug99. I wonder how much, if any, of the big scientific push is taking into account Philpott’s “other” things that matter, especially the biodiversity consideration. My Googling has turned up no answers to this question up until now.

I admit I am laboring in the dark here. This may be an ignorant question, but what about OLD varieties? In past outbreaks, did stem rust afflict EVERY strain of wheat in ALL conditions? I really don’t know. I do hope some of these scientists are working on re-diversifying the seed stock, instead of trying to engineer one or a couple varieties so the monocrop paradigm can continue uninterrupted.

22
Feb
10

GMO vaporware in Africa

african corn farmer

In the conventional wisdom, Billl Gates has gone from geek, to megalomaniac software mogul bent on world domination, to a man so rich he can SAVE THE WORLD WITH HIS MONEY!

I cannot argue with his decision to dedicate his life to making things better through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but sometimes trying to make things better makes things worse. And that’s if your intentions are pure to start with. Mix in a partner who might have other motives, and well, you see where this is going….

This Grist article by Tom Laskawy discusses a recent venture by the Gates Foundation that sounds great on its face. The goal: to feed Africa. The method: GMO seed technology from DuPont’s biotechnology arm, Pioneer Hi-Bred.

Laskawy quotes a DesMoines Register news item, which mentions that DuPont rival Monsanto is involved in a simliar venture:

Pioneer Hi-Bred is joining with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help scientists in Africa develop genetically engineered corn varieties that would allow poor farmers increase their yields with less fertilizer.

The aim of the project is to increase corn yields by 50 percent over the average now reached by African varieties, said Paul Schickler, president of Pioneer, a Johnston-based unit of DuPont.

… Pioneer’s arch-rival Monsanto Co. is two years into a similar project with the Gates foundation to develop drought-tolerant corn that is to be made available to small-scale farmers in eastern and southern Africa.

Both Pioneer and Monsanto have agreed to make the seeds available royalty-free to small-scale farmers.

Lawkawy is skeptical.  And the not-so-fine print shows he has reason to be:

As for Pioneer, they will first use advanced conventional breeding techniques to improve yields, and then add their genetically engineered genes later. The conventional version should be ready by 2014. The transgenic version? Eventually.

From his years as CEO of Microsoft, Bill Gates knows well the name for this kind of product: vaporware. It’s hard not to think that Monsanto, Dupont and their ilk are turning into the Bernie Madoff of agriculture. Convince gullible foundations along with the federal government to send billions in research dollars their way based on a promise of magically awesome results. Sometime down the road, of course.

And of course the irony here is that a non-GMO solution exists, the development of seed varieties by local, African researchers such as the Nigeria National Variety Release Committee, who “developed the [improved] varieties through conventional plant breeding by tapping naturally-available traits.”

Wouldn’t it be simpler, and cheaper, wonders Laskawy, to just spend some foundation money (most likely a fraction of what goes to DuPont) on getting locally adapted seeds into local farmers’ hands?

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Note: You can find a good summary of objections to Gates’ faith in GMO technology here.