by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Agriculture

Apr 19 2019

Weekend reading: Science Breakthroughs for Agriculture

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine has a new report out on Science Breakthroughs to Advance Food and Agricultural Research by 2030.

In the next decade, the major goals for food and agricultural research include (1) improving the efficiency of food and agricultural systems, (2) increasing the sustainability of agriculture, and (3) increasing the resiliency of agricultural systems to adapt to rapid changes and extreme conditions.

To that end, the committee that wrote this report examined “breakthrough opportunities that could dramatically increase the capabilities of food and agricultural science.”

The breakthroughs?

  1. A systems approach to understand the nature of interactions among the different elements of the food and agricultural system can be leveraged to increase overall system efficiency, resilience, and sustainability.
  2. The development and validation of precise, accurate, field-deployable sensors and biosensors will enable rapid detection and monitoring capabilities across various food and agricultural disciplines.
  3. The application and integration of data science, software tools, and systems models will enable advanced analytics for managing the food and agricultural system.
  4. The ability to carry out routine gene editing of agriculturally important organisms will allow for precise and rapid improvement of traits important for productivity and quality.
  5. Understand the relevance of the microbiome to agriculture and harness this knowledge to improve crop production, transform feed efficiency, and increase resilience to stress and disease.

I’m worried about how all this will help make agricultural production more sustainable.  For that, we need smaller scale, fewer chemical inputs, crop rotations, and other such methods.  I wish NASEM would do a serious study on agricultural sustainability.

Feb 12 2019

Resolution for a Green New Deal to reduce climate change

If we don’t have goals, we will never come close to attaining them.

The fabulous new Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and the esteemed Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have issued a non-binding resolution urging Congress to enact and implement a ten-year plan to control and reverse climate change.

The Green New Deal is a comprehensive plan that demands profound changes in many sectors of society, including agriculture.  With respect to agriculture, it calls for:

Why does this matter?  Here, for example, is a graph of world temperatures over the last century, with 2018 being the fourth hottest ever.

The Resolution may seem like a pipe dream in today’s political climate, but the issues it addresses are urgent.  Its recommendations set an agenda, one deserving of serious advocacy.

 

Jan 4 2019

Weekend reading: A view of how to feed the world sustainably

The World Resources Institute has a new report on how to feed the world in a way that is sustainable.

The report is based on the premise that 56% more food will be needed by 2050.  Given that premise, the unavailability of more land on which to grow food, and the need to mitigate greenhouse gases, the report recommends (among other things) increasing the efficiency of production and managing demand.

I’d like to see some careful evaluations of the basic premise of this report as well as its recommendations, which seem to place a large burden on individuals rather than governments or corporations.  The word “corporation” does not appear in the report; food companies come up only in the context of food waste (a non-controversial issue):

Dec 18 2018

The 2018 Farm Bill: More of the Same Old Same Old

I’m on record as calling previous Farm Bills “visionless.”

Given what’s happening in Congress, some consider it a bipartisan win?  It is, but only because, as the Washington Post put it, the outcome is bad but could have been a lot worse.

The 2018 Farm Bill remains a visionless mess.  It continues to favor Big Agriculture and mean-spiritedness over what this country badly needs: a food system explicitly aimed at promoting public health, basic support for the poor, the livelihoods of real farmers and farm workers, and environmental sustainability.

The bill takes up 807 pages, with a table of contents of 11 pages.  It will cost taxpayers $867 billion over ten years. That’s more than $1 billion per page.

How to approach the Farm Bill

Start by using the search function to look for key words.  These turn up in the Table of Contents, which gives section numbers.  Then search by section number.  Items dealing with sustainable agriculture and production of food—as opposed to feed or fuel—generally turn up in the Horticulture title.  For the rationale behind these decisions, see the Senate’s explanation.

Items of immediate note:

SNAP

Recall that more than 75% of Farm Bill expenditures go for SNAP—The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamps).

The “bipartisan win”? Attempts to cut SNAP expenditures and introduce work requirements failed to pass (whew), although Congress is still working on ways to cut enrollments.

Commodity payments

The bill allows payments to more distant relatives of farm owners—cousins, nieces, nephews—a gift to the already rich.  Payments can still go to those earning more than $900,000 a year in adjusted gross income (sigh).

Organics

The bill authorizes $395 million in research funding over the next 10 years, and small amounts for data collection, offset of certification costs, and technology upgrades.  But the bill weakens restrictions on chemicals that can be used in organic production.

Hemp

The bill grants $2 million a year for support of hemp as a crop, and authorizes USDA to study the economic viability of its domestic production and sale.  It also authorizes Indian tribes (that’s the term the bill uses) to grow hemp.

Cuba

The bill allows funding for USDA trade promotion programs in Cuba.

The Managers recognize that expanding trade with Cuba not only represents an opportunity for American farmers and ranchers, but also a chance to improve engagement with the Cuban people in support of democratic ideas and human rights…The Managers expect that the Secretary will work closely with eligible trade organizations to educate them about allowable activities to improve exports to Cuba under the Market Access and Foreign Market Development Cooperator Programs.

One sweet gift: in memory of Gus Schumacher

The Managers also agree the FINI [Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive]  and Produce Prescription should be renamed the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program, in recognition of Mr. Schumacher’s role in the establishment of nutrition incentives nationwide. Mr. Schumacher was a magnificent advocate for farmers and families and saw the importance in building access and affordability through incentive programs.

Commentary

Dan Imhoff’s analysis in Civil Eats is particularly worth reading:

Still, the revised farm bill will ensure that citizens continue to pay for their food at least three times: 1) at the checkout stand; 2) in environmental cleanup and medical costs related to the consequences of industrial agriculture; and 3) as taxpayers who fund subsidies to a small group of commodity farmers deemed too big to fail.

FERN’s explainer video is also worth another look.

Documents

Dec 5 2018

The effects of our trade war with China

President Trump has just announced a truce in our trade war with China.  We need one.

In August, the Trump Administration said it would provide $12 billion to farmers to make up for the losses in income caused by the dispute.

I’ve been collecting items about what’s actually happening with the bailout payments.

  • Not much has been paid out: The New York Times reports that the USDA has paid out just $838 million of the $6 billion that became available in September. Another pool of up to $6 billion is expected to become available next month.
  • They are not helping Wisconsin dairy farmers: According to the Milwaukee Sentinal Journal, about 4,800 dairy farms are collectively getting about 80 percent of the $10.4 million coming to the state, with an average payment of $2,390.  But the Wisconsin Farmers Union says a 55-cow dairy farm would receive a one-time payment of $725 from the Trump bailout program, but would lose between $36,000 and $48,000 this year due to low milk prices.
  • They are not doing much for Iowa farmers either:  According to the Des Moines Register, the 4300 payments total nearly $31 million, with an average payment of $7,236.  But 100 payments are less than $25, 24 are less than $10, and 11 are $5 or less.
  • Payments are going to 1,100 city residents; these average $881.  According to the Environmental Working Group, the recipients may or may not actually be involved in farming.  The EWG got the data from the USDA.
  • The National Corn Growers Association wants more money for corn farmers.  Its letter to USDA says the agency does not understand the how badly the trade disruptions are affecting its members. Its own study estimates corn growers losses at $6.3 billion.
  • North Dakota soybean growers have a storage problem, says the New York Times,  because they can’t sell the beans to China.
  • Kansas soybean farmers are also in trouble, writes the New York Times.
  • Overall farm income is declining, says USDA.

I think it’s fair to conclude at this point that current trade policies are tough on US agribusiness.

Nov 28 2018

Climate change report: bad news for agriculture

The US Global Change Research Program released its 4th report on climate change Wednesday night, coincidentally or deliberately during the slow news Thanksgiving holiday.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) is a Federal program mandated by Congress to coordinate Federal research and investments in understanding the forces shaping the global environment, both human and natural, and their impacts on society.

USGCRP comprises 13 Federal agencies that conduct or use research on global change and its impacts on society, in support of the Nation’s response to global change.

The report comes in two volumes, a technical report and an assessment report.

Don’t look for any good news here, especially for agriculture.

U.S. agriculture and the communities it supports are threatened by increases in temperatures, drought, heavy precipitation events, and wildfire on rangelands (Figure 1.10) (Ch. 10: Ag & Rural, KM 1 and 2Case Study “Groundwater Depletion in the Ogallala Aquifer Region”Ch. 23: S. Great Plains, KM 1Case Study “The Edwards Aquifer”). Yields of major U.S. crops (such as corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, and cotton) are expected to decline over this century as a consequence of increases in temperatures and possibly changes in water availability and disease and pest outbreaks (Ch. 10: Ag & Rural, KM 1). Increases in growing season temperatures in the Midwest are projected to be the largest contributing factor to declines in U.S. agricultural productivity (Ch. 21: Midwest, KM 1). Climate change is also expected to lead to large-scale shifts in the availability and prices of many agricultural products across the world, with corresponding impacts on U.S. agricultural producers and the U.S. economy (Ch. 16: International, KM 1).

Chapter 10 has four key messages, none of them cheerful:

1:  REDUCED AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTIVITY: Food and forage production will decline in regions experiencing increased frequency and duration of drought. Shifting precipitation patterns, when associated with high temperatures, will intensify wildfires that reduce forage on rangelands, accelerate the depletion of water supplies for irrigation, and expand the distribution and incidence of pests and diseases for crops and livestock. Modern breeding approaches and the use of novel genes from crop wild relatives are being employed to develop higher-yielding, stress-tolerant crops.

2: DEGRADATION OF SOIL AND WATER RESOURCES: The degradation of critical soil and water resources will expand as extreme precipitation events increase across our agricultural landscape. Sustainable crop production is threatened by excessive runoff, leaching, and flooding, which results in soil erosion, degraded water quality in lakes and streams, and damage to rural community infrastructure. Management practices to restore soil structure and the hydrologic function of landscapes are essential for improving resilience to these challenges.

3.  HEALTH CHALLENGES TO RURAL POPULATIONS AND LIVESTOCK: Challenges to human and livestock health are growing due to the increased frequency and intensity of high temperature extremes. Extreme heat conditions contribute to heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and heart attacks in humans. Heat stress in livestock results in large economic losses for producers. Expanded health services in rural areas, heat-tolerant livestock, and improved design of confined animal housing are all important advances to minimize these challenges.

4: VULNERABILITY AND ADAPTIVE CAPACITY OF RURAL COMMUNITIES: Residents in rural communities often have limited capacity to respond to climate change impacts, due to poverty and limitations in community resources. Communication, transportation, water, and sanitary infrastructure are vulnerable to disruption from climate stressors. Achieving social resilience to these challenges would require increases in local capacity to make adaptive improvements in shared community resources.

The recommendations: reduce greenhouse gas emissions, now.

Nov 16 2018

Principles for responsible international investment in food and agriculture

The Committee on World Food Security of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has a report out on this topic, well worth pondering.

 

Sustainability, respect, safety, health, transparency, accountability—all good ideas.  The trick is to put them into practice.

Oct 19 2018

Weekend reading: Fruitful Labor

Mike Madison.  Fruitful Labor: The Ecology, Economy, and Practice of a Family Farm.  Chelsea Green 2018 (short at just 164 pages).

Image result for fruitful labor

Every now and then, Chelsea Green sends me a book this publisher thinks might interest me.  And right they are.  This book is a perfect example of why I’m so impressed by what Chelsea Green chooses to publish.

Fruitful Labor is a conversational how-to manual for anyone thinking about doing small-scale, sustainable farming and wondering whether it could be fun and provide a decent living.  Madison’s optimistic yet realistic outlook makes it clear that both are possible.  He raises 200 or so vegetables and fruits on his own farm of 20 acres or so near Sacramento.

The book covers the specifics of what equipment and tools you need and what you need to do to raise animals, take care of the soil, and, yes, make a living.  Madison philosophizes about such matters as spacing of trees, what to do about wild animals, water quality, care of tools, the cost of electricity, and other such details.

He provides a copy of his IRS profit-and-loss statement and explains what it means to have enough income.

Dianne and I have never been motivated to be rich in terms of money.  We live in a beautiful place, we have many friends, we’re healthy, we have meaningful work, and we have wholesome food to eat and good local wine to drink–what would we want with more money?

Later, he explains the reality:

The increasing price of farmland in this area has far outstripped the rising prices of other assets, most notably labor, to the extent that a young couple starting out today has no possibility of replicating our experience….the price of farmland reflects not only its agricultural value, but also its value as an instrument of financial speculation and a place for a homesite; it is the latter two that primarily drive the price….In this context, our farming system is not sustainable.

This is a thoughtful, useful book, a pleasure to read and an inspiring plea for what used to be understood as agrarian values.

More than ever, we need such values.  Thank you Mike Madison, and thanks also to Chelsea Green.