by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Agriculture

Sep 13 2019

Weekend reading: how farm subsidies really work

The Environmental Working Group does a good job of tracking government payments to agricultural producers.  This makes fascinating reading.

The EWG documents what is happening with the bailout program intended to insulate farmers from the effects of the trade war with China.

Here is a question to ponder over the weekend:

Q: Who benefits from these payments?

A: Trump campaign advisors, of course.

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Aug 2 2019

Weekend reading: A Sustainable Food Future

I’m always interested in recommendations for how we are to solve world food problems—population increase, environmental degradation, climate change—in the immediate future.

Here is one approach from a group of highly official agencies from the United Nations in collaboration with the World Bank.

The report’s five areas of recommendation:

1. Reduce growth in demand for food and other agricultural products
2. Increase food production without expanding agricultural land
3. Protect and restore natural ecosystems and limit agricultural land-shifting
4. Increase fish supply
5. Reduce GHG [Greenhouse gas] emissions from agricultural production

The report is 564 pages.  There is a lot in it.  The one question it does not answer: Where is the political will to make any of this happen?  It mentions political will five times, for example, “Success would depend primarily on political will” (page 406).

How to get political will?  That needs to be the subject of another report, apparently.

Aug 1 2019

Food Navigator on Vertical Farming

FoodNavigator.com has a collection of articles on Innovations in Vertical Farming, this time from an international perspective.

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Jul 19 2019

Weekend reading: What Big Ag is thinking about planting decisions and economic prospects

Every now and then I run into an excellent source of information about things I know nothing about.  I’ve just discovered Purdue University’s Ag Economy Baromoter, which tracks the opinions of producers of corn and soybeans.

Big Ag feels pretty good about current agriculture and trade policies, probably because USDA’s agricultural support system ihistorically has been firmly rigged in their favor.

If Purdue asked small and medium-sized producers, it might get a different stiory.

Jul 17 2019

Externalized costs of Big Ag: The Wall Street Journal explains

High marks to the The Wall Street Journal for its story about the externalized costs of agricultural runoff into the Mississippi River.

The article is interactive.  Take a look.

It traces how agriculture pollutes 2300 miles of the Mississippi river from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. through a “”journey downriver [that] reveals how the agricultural industry is contributing to one of the nation’s biggest ecological disasters.”

Every summer, nutrients from the Mississippi pour into the Gulf, fueling algae blooms that starve the water of oxygen and kill sea life. Heavy rainfall throughout the Mississippi River watershed this spring led to record-high river flows, boosting nitrate and phosphorus loads. As a result, scientists predict this year’s “dead zone” will total 7,829 square miles, an area roughly the size of Massachusetts, and close to the record set in 2017.

The pollution starts in Minnesota, and you can see where it comes from.

Along the way, nitrates accumulate in the water.  Iowa alone releases hundreds of thousands of tons of nitrates into the Mississippi every year.

The externalized costs?

  • For communities along the way, it’s loss of potable water, construction of plants to remove nitrates from the water, dependence of bottled water, and higher water costs overall.
  • For the Gulf of Mexico, it’s a enormous dead zone that prevents fishing and recreation.

Do the polluters pay?  No.  Taxpayers do.  That’s why the costs are called “externalized.”

No wonder Big Ag opposes environmental regulations.

 

Jun 7 2019

Weekend viewing: The Biggest Little Farm

I rarely review food movies, but this is an especially good one, beautifully filmed, inspiring, yet raw enough to ring true: The Biggest Little Farm.

I saw this in Ithaca’s Cinemopolis last week along with about ten other people.  There should have been more.  It’s well worth seeing.

The film is about a young couple (John Chester is a filmmaker, Molly Chester is a professional cook), with a dream to farm in a way that promotes biodiversity.  They know nothing about farming but somehow acquire 200 acres of barren, parched land an hour north of Los Angeles.

Well advised to apply principles of regenerative agriculture, they transform the soil and turn the property into a lush orchard in served by a Noah’s ark of animals, chickens, ducks—and endlessly invasive wildlife.

The film, conceived, directed, and gorgeously filmed by John Chester, develops its dramatic tension and emotional depth from the realities of making this farm project work.  Nature is indeed red in tooth and claw; coyotes do kill chickens every chance they get; and beloved pigs do get sick.

By year seven, the farm is stunningly beautiful, fully regenerated, ecologically balanced, and productive.

This is vastly inspiring; farming as it ought to be done is not easy, but it is possible and worth doing.

See this film and decide for yourself whether you find it as charming as I did.

With that said, I walked out of the movie with one burning question: What was the business model?

The farm looks expensive, very expensive.  How did the Chesters get the money to do this and survive the years before they could sell anything, especially since 70% of the early fruit crops were consumed by birds?

The film mentions an investor but provides no details.  I want them.

The biggest barrier to young people going into farming is the cost—of land, equipment, labor, plants, animals.  How did this couple, who had no money to start with, finance this farm?

Other people who want to do this kind of farming need to know this.

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.

Update, May 26: Benjamin Chaulet has translated this into French and posted it on his blog, nutrition-newage.com. Here is a pdf.

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.