Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

Reality Check on World’s Shrinking Grain Yields

Lester R. Brown at Earth Policy Institute has published a chapter from his book “Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity” online, and it’s a fascinating read. Basically, Brown breaks down all of the complex angles involved in raising global crop yields, a process (or really, amalgam of processes) that has been going on for the last hundred years (and more, in some places like Japan). Brown discusses growth in fertilizer use, natural factors like geographical location, soil concentration, rainfall, and proximity to the equator (places with a more mild climate can often yield summer and winter crops). However, after putting concentration and research into raising crop yields for the better part of a century, titans like the United States, China, and India are all plateauing, with scientists wondering how else they can raise yields again, especially in facing an uncertain future where food scarcity is almost certainly going to be a major global issue.

The Frogs Are Our Future

Photo by Shek Graham. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Shek Graham. Some rights reserved.

Bad news for you Sierra Nevada fans (and no, I’m not talking about the beer). The Los Angeles Times reports this week that pesticides being used on crops in California’s Central Valley are having a dramatically negative effect on frogs living in the Sierra Nevada mountains over 100 miles away. Frogs are a crucial component of California’s gorgeous northern wilderness (which includes the famed Yosemite National Park, Giant Sequoia National Monument, Stanislaus National Forest, and Lake Tahoe), as they provide food for birds and other, larger wildlife, and keep the bug population in the area in check.

In 2009 and 2010, researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey examined tree frogs from seven sites in the Sierra Nevada area, and found evidence of ten different pesticides present in their tissue, which include pyraclostrobin and tebuconazole (fungicides), simazine (herbacide), and a degraded form of the infamous DDT (outlawed in 1972). Scientists with the USGS also noted with some curiosity that the same chemicals were not detected in the water of the same areas, and only a few were picked up in the soil, which indicates that testing from tissue may be a more precise and accurate form of pesticide testing. The amounts found in the study were noted by the researchers as “trace,” so it’s very difficult to tell what the ultimate effects will be, both long term and short term, as these chemicals have never been found or studied in frogs before. But the measure of effects is almost beside the point: the chemicals are present, and being carried across a distance much further than we would have imagined them able to travel. That in itself is a revelation, and should be of some concern.

Save Our Citrus!

Photo by briweldon. Some rights reserved.

Photo by briweldon. Some rights reserved.

As a person who drinks at least one tall glass of orange or grapefruit juice every morning, this is VERY germane to my interests: citrus trees across America are in trouble, due to a bacterial virus known as Huanglongbing, Yellow Dragon disease, or citrus greening. Citrus greening, thought to have originated in China in the early 20th century, is a bacteria that has already done arboreal damage across the globe. Since August 2005, the Brazilian strand of the virus (one of three well-known strands) has been appearing in Florida, America’s citrus capital. The virus is carried primarily by two types of small plant lice, that carry the disease from tree to tree, causing leaves to wither or rot and yielding very little, if any, healthy fruit.

Luckily, as it so often does, science has stepped in. In a new USDA press release, details are rolled out on a new plan to combat citrus greening not by saving the trees exactly, but by freezing them. Yes, like Encino Man and Austin Powers before them, select citrus trees (of all genealogies and varieties) will have their small buds (where genetic material is stored) cryogenically frozen in what the USDA is calling a “genebank,” in case the virus (or natural disasters, fires, or any other insane, tree-eating disease: we’ve heard of others) wipes out our citrus population entirely. The press release refers to the bank as the “Fort Knox” of plant and animal germplasm, which is both reassuring and highly amusing. Read more about their storage techniques here, and for the sake of our 3.4 billion dollar citrus industry (and of my morning routine), let’s hope this works!

A Sideways Glance at the Ethanol Boom

Photo by roger4336. Some rights reserved.

Photo by roger4336. Some rights reserved.

“Ethanol is ethanol is ethanol.” A biology professor in college used this maxim to dispel the popular myth that drinking different kinds of alcohol has a different effect on one’s mental state. But what else is ethanol? Well, of course, it’s a fuel additive, and one that’s become drastically more popular in the last ten years, so much so that it’s led to an “ethanol boom.”

The New York Times reports this week that land prices in the American heartland are hitting thirty-year highs, as crop prices (corn and soy, in particular) keep ticking up, due largely to an increasing demand for ethanol, both domestically and abroad. As such, farmers across America’s fertile plains are putting their land up for sale, both to other farmers looking to expand or to outside investors interested in a taste, unable to resist the unreal prices.

But what happens when the ethanol boom ends? Reports from the end of last year seemed to suggest that the high international demand for ethanol is a fleeting concept, and is forecasted to begin steadily dropping off, as the amount used as a fuel additive in gasoline (one of its most popular uses here in the U.S.) is already reaching federal limits, and gasoline consumption wanes overall. The high farmland prices that we’re seeing now hold dangerous consequences for those over-zealous folks who rushed to buy more land may be hit with a sudden decrease in land prices and leave their creditors with heavy debts.

Meanwhile, ThinkProgress takes a look at the issue from another angle, in how the steep corn prices are strangling the already stuggling biofuel industry and what it means for sustainable energy.

The Trouble With Iowa Farms

Photo by liberalmind1012. Some rights reserved.

Photo by liberalmind1012. Some rights reserved.

A new study entitled “Murky Waters” released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) exposes a flaw in the otherwise effective Clean Water Act of 1972: that there is nothing in the document or its amendments that tackles pollution that results from agriculture, mainly from the byproducts created from it. In the Act, farms were mostly exempted from all water quality requirements, in an attempt not to interfere with the growth of American agriculture. However, this means that farmers wanting to limit their water runoff and tighten environmental standards on their farms have had to take it on themselves to do so, and thus, farm pollution continues to be a problem, especially in the country’s agricultural heartland.

As such, the study focuses on Iowa, where an EWG analysis of the last four years show water quality ranking between “poor” and “very poor” in 60% of the streams monitored by the Iowa Water Quality Index (and that number jumps to 80% during the summer months). Runoffs of nitrogen and phosphorous end up contaminating drinking water and thus effecting the health of Iowa’s clean water sources, and the study says that, if anything, the quality is getting worse. The trends of the last decade indicate that water quality will still be rated as “poor” on average a decade from now, if we continue on “business as usual.” Tom Vilsack, the Obama Administration’s agricultural secretary, a native of Iowa, advocates for the voluntary approach currently in place, which indicates that, even with the statistics showing a need for reform, getting tighter farm pollution regulations through Congress could be quite the challenge. See also an ambitious and detailed collection of stories and infographics on agricultural pollution in Iowa via Perry Beeman at the Des Moines Register for more valuable information.

Monsanto Plants Seeds in Congress

Photo by thrig. Some rights reserved.

Monsanto’s dollars are doing more than just paying Hugh Grant’s hefty salary (No, not that one. This one.) According to Mother Jones, lobbying by the agricultural giant has recently won some significant legislative victories.

Mother Jones ties the company’s millions of dollars in annual lobbying expenses to two major events in Congress: 1) The defeat of an amendment requiring labeling of foods containing GM ingredients; and 2) A provision added to the 2013 ag spending bill that would allow farmers to plant GM crops even during legal appeals of the USDA’s approval process – even if a federal court orders that the crops not be planted (see Sec. 733 of the bill).

Food for thought.

On a related note, did you know that Knowledge Mosaic now has lobbying data? You can draw your own conclusions by checking out our search page. To whet your appetite, here is a report of Monsanto’s lobbying expenses from last year – it includes the lobbying firm, agencies lobbied, amount spent, and more.

All Signs Point to a Farm Bill Reform

Photo by Andrew Ciscel. Some rights reserved.

This year, the 112th Congress is set to consider reauthorizing 2008’s Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 (known familiarly as the Farm Bill), as many of that Act’s provisions expire in 2012. This bill, a continuation of the 2002 Farm Bill, contained 15 titles covering a broad range of issues. Among other things, it provided grants to develop biorefineries, gave funding to the Rural Energy for America Program, increased benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and established new research initiatives for specialty and organic crops.

… AND, amidst all of that, Title XII of the 2008 Farm Bill introduced a “permanent disaster assistance program” to insurance crops for farmers in the case of natural disasters, etc. A new study released by the Union of Concerned Scientists entitled “Ensuring the Harvest” argues for reform of the Crop Insurance and Disaster Assistance Programs on the basis that these provisions are not weighed fairly for smaller, organic farmers, favoring larger industrial farms that focus on planting larger quantities of one or two crops. The report points out that these insurance policies, as overseen by the US Department of Agriculture, operate on a per-crop basis, making it difficult for farmers who grow smaller amounts of many different crops who then have to apply for many separate policies.

In fact, organic farms were only recently given the option of receiving crop insurance, in the Agricultural Risk Protection Act of 2000 – prior to that Act, these small organic farms were considered too risky to insure. Since then, organic farmers have been forced to pay 5% surcharges as a way to account for the supposedly inherent risks associated with this kind of farming, though as agricultural economist Jeffery O’Hara pointed out in a recent New York Times article, there is no real evidence that there ARE greater risks associated with organic farming.

Meanwhile, a new survey from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation finds that three quarters of Americans support doubling the current minimum amount of financial support given by SNAP, while 70% of study participants said that they have purchased fresh produce from a farmer’s market in the past year (a statistic that supports the UCS study’s claim that smaller, organic farmers deserve more from the reformed Farm Bill). Grist has a nice, new infographic up explaining how Americans need to eat more fruits and vegetables, and how small farms support this effort.

%d bloggers like this: