Currently browsing posts about: Agriculture

Mar 15 2011

Don’t farmworkers’ kids deserve a break?

I’ve been mulling over the article in the New York Times (March 13) about the effects of an itinerant lifestyle and the threat of deportation on the children of farmworkers in California.  If ever there was an example of how the political gets personal, this is it.

The article focuses on a third-grade teacher, Oscar Ramos, who is on the front lines trying to give these kids a chance in life, let alone at the American dream.  It describes what he’s up against: nearly all his students are near the poverty line, and nearly 80% have limited English.  They move frequently and live under crowded conditions.

But the often disrupted lives of the children of migrants here is likely to grow still more complicated as the national debate over immigration grows sharper.

Efforts by lawmakers to rescind automatic citizenship for children born in the United States to illegal immigrants are already stoking fears among many agricultural workers, and that has consequences for their children.

Some parents, as they move with the crops, are already keeping their children out of school when they get to Arizona because they are worried about the bureaucracy and tougher restrictions in the state.

The article is long but well worth reading.  If nothing else, take a look at the photographs.

This is how our relatively inexpensive food gets to us.   The costs, as the economists tell us, are externalized.  Here is one of those externalized costs–the potential of those kids to become functioning citizens in our democratic society.

Jan 21 2011

Eating Liberally: What about those smarmy Monsanto ads?

Every now and then, Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman, aka kat, writes an “Ask Marion,” this one titled, “Let’s Ask Marion Nestle: Is Monsanto’s Warm & Fuzzy Farmer Campaign Just A Snow Job?”

2011-01-21-Farmer.jpg

KT: Now that the Supreme Court has declared that corporations are people, too (happy birthday, Citizens United!), Monsanto is apparently out to put a friendly, slightly weatherbeaten, gently grizzled face on industrial agriculture (see above photo, taken at a DC bus stop just outside USDA headquarters.)

This guy looks an awful lot like Henry Fonda playing Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, which seems only fitting since Agribiz may be helping to create a 21st century Dust Bowl.

After decades of boasting about how fossil-fuel intensive industrial agriculture has made it possible for far fewer farmers to produce way more food, Monsanto is now championing the power of farming to create jobs and preserve land. Does this attempt by a biotech behemoth to wrap itself in populist plaid flannel give you the warm and fuzzies, or just burn you up?

Dr. Nestle: This is not a new strategy for Monsanto. Half of my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (University of California Press, 2010), is devoted to the politics of food biotechnology. I illustrated it with a Monsanto advertisement (Figure 17, page 182). The caption may amuse you:

In 2001, the biotechnology industry’s public relations campaign featured the equivalent of the Marlboro Man. Rather than cigarettes, however, this advertisement promotes the industry’s view of the ecological advantages of transgenic crops (reduced pesticide use, soil conservation), and consequent benefits to society (farm preservation). In 2002, a series of elegant photographs promoted the benefits of genetically modified corn, soybeans, cotton, and papaya.

Last year, Monsanto placed ads that took its “we’re for farmers” stance to another level:

9 billion people to feed. A changing climate. NOW WHAT?
Producing more. Conserving more. Improving farmers’ lives.
That’s sustainable agriculture.
And that’s what Monsanto is all about.

That’s sustainable agriculture? I’ll bet you didn’t know that. Now take a look at the Monsanto website–really, you can’t make this stuff up:

If there were one word to explain what Monsanto is about, it would have to be farmers.

Billions of people depend upon what farmers do. And so will billions more. In the next few decades, farmers will have to grow as much food as they have in the past 10,000 years – combined.

It is our purpose to work alongside farmers to do exactly that.

To produce more food.

To produce more with less, conserving resources like soil and water.

And to improve lives.

We do this by selling seeds, traits developed through biotechnology, and crop protection chemicals.

Face it. We have two agricultural systems in this country, both claiming to be good for farmers and both claiming to be sustainable. One focuses on local, seasonal, organic, and sustainable in the sense of replenishing what gets taken out of the soil. The other is Monsanto, for which sustainable means selling seeds (and not letting farmers save them), patented traits developed through biotechnology, and crop protection chemicals.

This is about who gets to control the food supply and who gets to choose. Too bad the Monsanto ads don’t explain that.

Jan 12 2011

Worldwatch issues report on nourishing the planet

The Worldwatch Institute, a group that conducts research on climate & energy, food & agriculture, and the green economy, has just released its 2011 State of the World Report, subtitled “Innovations that Nourish the Planet.”

By “innovations,” Worldwatch means agriculture-based methods that have been shown to prevent food waste, help resist climate change, and promote urban farming.  The report describes 15 such innovations, all of them environmentally sustainable.

As Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, writes in the introduction,

Increasing the production of food and eradicating hunger and malnutrition are two very different objectives—complementary perhaps, but not necessarily linked…Some clear conclusions are emerging from all this evidence.

We need to improve the resilience of countries—particularly poor, net food-importing countires—vis-à-vis increasingly high and volatile prices on the international markets.

We need to encourage modes of agricultural production that will be more resistant to climate change, which means that they will have to be more diversified and use more trees….

And we need to develop agriculture in ways that contribute to rural development by creating jobs both on farms and off them in the rural areas and by supporting decent revenues for farmers.

The report describes programs that do just those things.  Examples: breeding rice in Madagascar, trading grain in Zanzibar, using solar cookers in Senegal, and promoting safer wastewater irrigation in West Africa.

It’s always useful to have Worldwatch reports and this one is especially relevant to food, agriculture, and international development.

Nov 12 2010

“Climate-smart” agriculture: FAO report

The role of agriculture in causing and becoming affected by climate change is, to say the least, of much current interest.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. (FAO) has  a new report out on precisely this issue: “Climate-Smart” Agriculture: Policies, Practices and Financing for Food Security, Adaptation, and Mitigation.

The report focuses on agriculture in developing countries.  These must develop “climate-smart” approaches to cope with the challenge of feeding a warmer, more heavily populated world.

Climate change is expected to reduce agriculture productivity, stability and incomes in many areas that already experience high levels of food insecurity — yet world agriculture production will need to increase by 70 percent over the coming four decades in order to meet the food requirements of growing world population.

What needs to change?

  • Agriculture: must produce more food, waste less, and make it easier for farmers to get their produce to consumers.
  • Farming: must do a better job of managing natural resources like water, land and forests, soil nutrients and genetic resources to be more resilient to natural disasters.
  • Insurers: must do a better job of helping farmers cope with climate-related problems.
  • Agriculture: must find ways to reduce its environmental impacts — including lowering its own greenhouse gas emissions — without compromising food security and rural development.

This will take money, but from where?

The report gives examples of how farmers are already moving to tackle these issues and adopt new, climate-smart practices.

But how odd: how come FAO isn’t talking about agricultural practices in developed countries ?  Don’t we have some responsibility here?

Sep 29 2010

Colbert on farm workers

I would have loved to be in the room when Stephen Colbert testified before Congress a few days ago.

I’ve been to congressional hearings.  They are a peculiarly American form of Kabuki theater, full of posturing, entirely predictable script-following, and institutionalized rudeness.  Colbert, in character, took perfect advantage of the opportunity.

I thought his testimony was brilliantly funny.  But I can well understand why the members of Congress stuck with Kabuki rituals—stony silence and hiding behind their equivalents of fluttering fans–BlackBerries.

Mr. Colbert gave devastating testimony, well worth 5 minutes to watch.  One of the Times’ bloggers (Sept 24) made a point of what he said at the end when he went out of character:  “I like talking about people who don’t have any power, and it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don’t have any rights themselves.”

In character, his testimony offered some ideas about how to stop undocumented farm labor: “The obvious answer is for all of us to stop eating fruits and vegetables–and if you look at the recent obesity statistics, you’ll see that many Americans have already started.”

He’s right on about that one.  Kim Severson of the New York Times reports:

Despite two decades of public health initiatives, stricter government guidelines, record growth of farmers’ markets and the east of products like salad in a bag, Americans still aren’t eating enough vegetables.

Quoting CDC statistics, she reports that “only 26 percent of the nation’s adults eat vegetables three or more times a day…and no, that does not include French fries.”  We do better with fruit: 33% of Americans eat 2 servings of fruit a day.

All of this is why concern about our food system and where our food comes from also must include concern about who works in the fields, raises the animals, and works in the slaughterhousese.  Immigration is a food issue, big time.

Thanks Colbert–in character and not–for taking this issue to our government.  May it do some good.

Aug 22 2010

Effects of S. 510 on small farms: Senate staff analysis

Thanks to reader Michael Bulger for forwarding the Senate staff analysis of the impact of S. 510 on small farms.   Here’s what it says (slightly edited):

No Change in Agency for Regulated Foods: Only foods already regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be subject to S. 510. Section 403 maintains the existing firewall between FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulated foods and agricultural products.

No Change in Definition of Facility: Under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, certain food businesses were considered “facilities” and had to register with FDA. Farms and restaurants were exempted. This definition is not changed in S. 510. If an entity does not need to register now, it will not need to register under S. 510.

Flexibility for Small Businesses: Small businesses are given regulatory flexibility throughout S. 510. For example, small processors are given additional time to comply with new food safety practices and guidelines created by the bill and the Secretary may modify or exempt small processors from new hazard analysis and preventive control requirements based on size and risk. The legislation also requires the FDA to publish several user-friendly small entity compliance guides to assist firms with the implementation of new practices.

Scale Appropriate Produce Safety Standards: In coordination with the Secretary of Agriculture, FDA develops science-based standards for the safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables. Priority is given to specific fruits and vegetables that have the highest risk of food borne illness outbreaks. Flexibility is given for different growing, production, and harvesting techniques. FDA has the discretion to limit produce safety standards for small and very small entities that produce or harvest food which pose little or no serious risk to human health. Consideration is also given to conservation and environmental standards already established by federal natural resource and wildlife agencies. Exemptions are also available for low risk commodities. FDA must minimize the burden of paperwork and, as appropriate, the number of separate standards for separate foods.

Increased Training Opportunities: The bill requires FDA to coordinate with the extension activities of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in educating growers and small processors about any new practices required by S. 510. Necessary funds are authorized to conduct these extension activities. The bill also provides for the training and education of state, local, and tribal authorities to facilitate the implementation of new standards under the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. Competitive grants are made available, for up to 3 years, to support these efforts to enhance education, training, and technical assistance.

Risk-Based Traceability: The ability to trace back potentially unsafe food in the event of a food-borne illness outbreak is important. For the purpose of traceability, farms and small businesses that are not food facilities are not expected to create new records. During an active investigation of a foodborne illness outbreak, in consultation with state and local officials, the Secretary may ask a farm to identify potential immediate recipients of food if it is necessary to protect public health or mitigate a foodborne illness outbreak. Limitations are also included for restaurants, commingled agricultural commodities, direct to consumer sales, fishing vessels and products carrying an identity preserved label.

Regulatory Flexibility for Organic Foods: Throughout the bill, consideration is given to the unique agricultural practices and requirements of organic foods under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.

Protections for Farmers Markets, Cottage Industries and Direct Farm-to-Market Sales: Small entities that produce food for their own consumption or market the majority of their food directly to consumers or restaurants are not subject to registration or new recordkeeping requirements under S. 510. This includes food sold through farmers’ markets, bake sales, public events and organizational fundraisers.

I hope this helps to calm things down a bit.  This bill needs all the support it can get.  It’s not perfect but it is a reasonable first step, and badly needed.

Aug 6 2010

International food politics: Save Russia’s fruit seed bank!

The Global Crop Diversity Trust is writing to warn readers about the impending destruction of Russia’s historic fruit-and-seed collection in order to make way for commercial development.  Its press release begins:

As the fate of Europe’s largest collection of fruit and berries hangs in the balance of a Russian court decision, the Global Crop Diversity Trust issued an urgent appeal for the Russian government to embrace its heroic tradition as protector of the world’s crop diversity and halt the planned destruction of an incredibly valuable crop collection near St. Petersburg.

Pavlovsk Experiment Station is the largest European field genebank for fruits and berries, and is part of the N.I. Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry, where Russian scientists famously starved to death rather than eat the seeds under their protection during the 900-day siege of Leningrad during World War II.

At issue is an effort by residential real estate developers to build houses on land occupied by Pavlovsk Station. The take-over would involve bulldozing Pavlovsk’s field collections amassed over the last century—collections that contain thousands of varieties of apples, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, currants and other crops—90 percent of which are not found anywhere else in the world.

Want to know more?  Read the Vavilov Research Institute’s discussion of the history and significance of this collection, its press release, and articles about this situation from the Independent and New Scientist.

Change.org is encouraging people to write to the president of Russia to save the collection. Want to add your signature?  Here’ s how.

Aug 3 2010

I’m shocked, shocked. Cattlemen misuse checkoff funds.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which got $51 million in checkoff funds last year, is improperly allowing some of this money to be spent on lobbying activities, according to William Neuman in today’s New York Times.

Checkoff programs are administered by the USDA.  They tax commodity producers to fund generic marketing campaigns (think: Milk Mustache).  As I explained in my book, Food Politics:

Although the check-off legislation specifically prohibits use of the funds for lobbying, the distinction between promoting a product to consumers as opposed to promoting it to lawmakers can be subtle. Some of the boards are so closely affiliated with lobbying groups that they share office space.

For many years, the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board (check-off organization) shared an address with the National Cattleman’s Association (trade association lobbying group), and the National Pork Board (check-off) shared offices, staff, and telephone services with the National Pork Producers Council (lobbying).

Even cozier, the legislation specifies that a certain percentage of the funds must be allocated to the commodity groups responsible for nominating the board members who run the programs; these members are officially appointed by USDA.

Check-off funds are supposed to be used for research as well as advertising, but only a small fraction is used for that purpose. In the mid-1990s, 8% of the beef check-off’s $80 million or so went to research, and the rest for promotion and “information;” research percentages for dairy, egg, potato, and soybean checkoff programs were slightly higher.

Regardless of level, nearly all of the research is designed to promote the commodity. Beef check-off research is designed to “dispel negative perceptions about beef,” and to develop a factual basis for viewing beef products as “part of a varied, convenient, and healthful diet”….The great majority of the funds are spent to convince consumers to choose one type of food product over another.

The Meat and Beef Boards, for example, design campaigns to build demand for red meats and meat products; encourage consumers to view beef as wholesome, versatile, and lower in cholesterol; and educate doctors, nurses, dietitians, teachers, and the media about the nutritional benefits of beef.

Checkoff programs reek of conflicts of interest.  What makes this particular audit so interesting is that it was done by an outside accounting firm.  Usually, these things are done internally and remain private.  Chalk one up for this administration’s attempt to be transparent.

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