About IATP

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

Founded in 1986, IATP is rooted in the family farm movement. With offices in Minneapolis and Geneva, IATP works on making domestic and global agricultural policy more sustainable for everyone.

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Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health.

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Environment and Agriculture

November 29, 2010

Will they get it right in Cancún?

The United Nations two-week long meeting on climate change begins today. In Cancún, Mexico, governments will have yet another opportunity to commit to a new global action plan to save the planet. For civil society organizations like IATP it is a unique opportunity to connect with and learn from farm organizations, scientists, academics and activists from around the world. Throughout these two weeks, IATP staff will be reporting on the Cancún climate meeting—from the negotiating halls to the various civil society meetings and protests.

Today, IATP released a new series of papers focusing on challenges and solutions for agriculture and climate change. Below is our press release with links to each of the papers in the series:

Governments at Cancún climate talks need to support local solutions
IATP releases new ‘Climate and Agriculture’ series

CANCÚN, MEXICO – Governments attending the global climate talks in Cancún, which begin today, need to abandon loophole-ridden carbon markets and support bottom-up climate solutions that integrate equity, food security and democratic participation, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

Today, IATP released a new series of papers focusing on agriculture and climate change. The series covers issues related to agricultural practices, climate finance and adaptation strategies. IATP is sending six staff members to the United Nations climate talks in Cancún and is hosting an official side event on climate-friendly agriculture, as well as speaking at a number of civil society workshops.

“Climate negotiators, led by the U.S., are too distracted by trying to set up unworkable rules for a new carbon market that will primarily benefit big financial players and the big polluting countries,” said IATP President Jim Harkness. “We need to get back to basics by strengthening commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, supporting local efforts and fulfilling funding obligations to countries struggling to adapt to the effects of climate change.” 

IATP’s new series emphasizes that negotiators in Cancún should not consider agriculture as simply an offset for polluters. Rather, agriculture has a multifunctional role in society to strengthen food security, protect the environment and provide livelihoods for people around the world. Papers in the series include:

“Financing Agricultural Adaptation to Climate Change: A Modest Beginning,” by Steve Suppan – Proposes concrete short-term options for financing climate change adaptation in developing countries.

“Women at the Center of Climate-friendly Approaches to Agriculture and Water,” by Shiney Varghese – Profiles the agricultural practices of the Tamilnadu Women’s Collective in India that both mitigate and adapt to climate change.

“Grain Reserves: A Smart Climate Adaptation Policy,” by Sophia Murphy – Makes the connection between efforts to ensure food security and climate change adaptation.

“A Farm Bill for a Cooler Planet,” by Julia Olmstead and Jim Kleinschmit – Examines how the U.S. Farm Bill could support practices that both mitigate and adapt to climate change.

“The New Climate Debt: Carbon Trading Wrapped in a Green Bond Proposal,” by Steve Suppan – Analyzes a climate finance proposal by the International Emissions Trading Association that would enrich global carbon traders.

You can read all of the papers in IATP’s climate series, as well as blog reports from Cancún by IATP staff, at www.iatp.org/climate.

To hear directly from farmers on how climate change is affecting their lives, see IATP’s new Voices of Agriculture and Climate website at www.climateandagriculture.org.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy works locally and globally at the intersection of policy and practice to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems. www.iatp.org

 

Ben Lilliston

November 01, 2010

Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready crops increasing herbicide use

In 2003, at an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) conference in Indianapolis, I presented a paper entitled "GMO’s and IPM: are they compatible?" One focus of the discussion centered on the question of whether GMO’s will increase or decrease pesticide use over time? I, and others—especially Chuck Benbrook—predicted that over time pesticide use will actually increase as pest resistance develops. I also covered this issue recently in a previous Think Forward blog.

The broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate (Roundup, until recently manufactured exclusively by Monsanto), when used with corn or soybeans containing a transgenic gene resistant to the effects of the herbicide has provided excellent control of both grass and broadleaved weeds. This permitted more use of no-till and narrow row farming, and increased the acreage that can be managed per farm unit. Thus, it has indirectly contributed to yield and to profits. In short, it has been a major contributor to large-scale industrial agriculture that has decimated the countryside. As Andrew Wargo III, president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts, states in a New York Times article, ”It (Roundup) is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen.”

Chuck Benbrook estimates that it takes about 12–15 years to develop resistance to a pharmaceutical in a general population, which fits the time frame that is occurring for Roundup-resistant weeds (Roundup-Ready soybean was first introduced in 1996). Dr. Mike Owen, the Extension Weed Scientist at Iowa State University, calls this “Darwinian evolution fast forwarded.” Owen, in a “Stewardship Tips” fact sheet from ISU Extension, recommended timely weed control, knowing the weed issues in the field, using a pre-followed post herbicide system to control weeds and using full labeled rates of glyphosate. These recommendations were in general ignored. Many publications have been available over the years giving the facts behind the occurrence of resistance. Yet now Roundup resistance is a big problem and growing bigger.

Why? Basically it was overused and poorly managed.

Benbrook wrote “glyphosate herbicide and genetically engineered corn, soybeans and cotton (are) the most stunning and profitable market success story in the history of the pesticide and seed industry.” Dr. Owen points out that while it is logical to blame GMO crops, the real blame lies with the cropping and weed control system that has come out of the Roundup-Ready marketing and promotion efforts, coupled with the convenience and simplicity of the Roundup-based systems. He also faults the aggressive marketing by industry that downplayed the risks involved. And after going off patent, glyphosate prices dropped, encouraging farmers to increase herbicide rates to kill the more resistant weeds. Of course, this only encouraged the weeds to fight back with increased resistance. It has becoming a losing arms race, or what Willard Cochrane called—years ago—the "Technology Treadmill." Chemical companies are delighted with the new business opportunities; now they can revive old chemistry.

The most persistant problems have been seen in only a few weed species. Among these are pigweed (Palmer amaranth), horseweed and giant ragweed. Even though only about 7 to 10 million acres are currently impacted, resistant weeds will spread rapidly as forces such as birds, dirty combines and wind and soil erosion spread resistant weed seeds from field to field.

While Monsanto spent precious years in denial, it now recognizes the problem and realizes that if the effectiveness of glyphosate is diminished, farmers will be reluctant to pay the premium for Roundup-Ready seeds. Recently, Monsanto became aggressive, actually subsidizing the use of alternate herbicides that control the Roundup-resistant weeds in cotton, where the problem first surfaced and is the most severe. In 2010, they began paying farmers to use these alternatives as well as developing crops that have resistance to other herbicides.

The herbicide subsidy program by Monsanto has been extended in 2011 to corn and soybeans. This is admittedly an effort to extend the use of glyphosate, but also likely has a financial return because Monsanto is forming partnerships with chemical companies such as Sumitomo Chemical and Valent that produce the alternatives. Valor, a herbicide made by Monsanto, has also been approved but it is a very toxic herbicide. Warrant is another subsidized herbicide (made by Monsanto) which is particularly effective for pigweed control in soybean.

Of course, these subsidy programs fall back into the old pattern; the overuse of glyphosate has lead to the use of more herbicides and these are more toxic. And while Monsanto and other companies are racing to develop crops resistant to alternate herbicides, no silver bullet has emerged. While farmers might think a new magic herbicide-GMO combination is in the works, it is not likely.

Still with the high and rising demand for soybeans worldwide (The October 28, 2010 Chicago Board of Trade Price was $12.25) growers will be looking for all the ways possible to maintain their current soybean production systems. Industry will benefit but farmers will be paying higher input costs.

As long as the free market reigns supreme and corporations control agriculture’s destiny, there will be no way to halt the development of even more pest resistance and more dominance by the chemical/seed industry. Will the loss of the ability to control weeds cripple agriculture’s economy? Some think so. And they may be right. Remember, Bt insect control through GMOs has greatly expanded recently. The clock is ticking.

Dennis Keeney

October 13, 2010

Stonyfield Farm and IATP reward sustainable farming

"It's hard to think green when you're in the red," says IATP's Jim Kleinschmit, as he describes the challenge for farmers routinely trapped by a precarious bottom line. In a short film by Stonyfield Farm, Jim explains how a new program created by IATP in 2006, helps companies involved in the emerging bioplastics industry to support farmers growing corn more sustainably - including no genetically modified crops, no cancer-causing pesticides like atrazine and improved soil management.

You can read more about the Working Landscapes program in our press release below.


IATP applauds Stonyfield Farm’s purchase of Working Landscapes Certificates

New program pays farmers premium for more sustainable practices

MINNEAPOLIS – The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) applauds StonyfieldFarm’s decision to purchase Working Landscapes Certificates (WLC)—a program that rewards farmers by linking sustainable corn production with bioplastics.

The adoption of the WLC program by Stonyfield, the world’s largest organic yogurt maker, in conjunction with their introduction of a new bioplastic packaging line, means support not only for better plastic, but also for better farming practices. Through the purchase of WLCs, the company is providing support for more sustainable corn productionon over 500 acres in Iowa. IATP created the Working Landscapes program in 2006.

“This innovative, market-based mechanism allows companies to link their purchase of bioplastics to support for more sustainable crop production locally,” says Jim Kleinschmitof IATP, who heads the WLC project. “This extra payment makes clear to farmers that companies and consumers care about, and are willing to pay for, more sustainable farming and its benefits for the environment.”

The Working Landscapes Certificates program was created by IATP to address a core issue: linking the emerging biobased market to more sustainable farming. Bioplastics, which are currently made from corn, provide a more environmentally sound alternative to petroleum plastics if they support sustainability goals throughout their production, use and disposal. Currently, however, direct sourcing of more sustainably produced feedstock crops for the production of bioplastics is logistically and financially difficult. So the WLC program provides an alternative mechanism for companies like Stonyfield to support farmers who want to grow corn more sustainably.

To be eligible for the WLC program, farmers agree to undertake certain production practices, including: planting only non-genetically modified seed varieties; excluding the use of atrazine and carcinogenic chemicals; and using soil fertility testing and residue management to avoid soil erosion and water quality issues.

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Page 2These sustainable practices are quantified as a “good”—a Working Landscapes Certificate—that a company like Stonyfield can purchase, in a quantity linked to the amount of corn needed to produce the bioplastics the company uses. Participating farmers were paid $60 an acre in 2010 to implement these sustainable practices. This payment is in addition to the market price the farmer receives for the corn itself.

“As a company constantly looking for ways to improve its environmental performance, this program builds more sustainable practices into our production,” said Nancy Hirshberg, Stonyfield Farm Vice President for Natural Resources. “Supporting the environmentand farmers are two touchstones for our company.”

You can find out more about the Working Landscapes program at http://www.workinglandscapes.org. You can find out more about Stoneyfield’s involvement in the program at http://www.stonyfield.com/MadeFromPlants/.

Download this press release as a PDF.

Andrew Ranallo

October 07, 2010

Seed industry promotes doubling of crop yields by 2030

In 2008, Monsanto launched a major public relations campaign to double crop yields in the U.S. by 2030. Recently, discussions in farm country have again picked up on this claim. It is worth examining the issues in depth.

Can it be done? Based on past history, it will be difficult. A recent USDA Economic Research Service bulletin (USDA/ERS) shows that agriculture productivity is growing at the yearly average rate of 1.58 percent which is a doubling in 44 years, not the 20 years proposed. And corn yields, which are the focus of the discussion, have a growth rate of 1.76 percent from 2004 to 2010, or a doubling rate of 40 years.

ERS projects about 175 bushels per acre (bu/A) in 2015, so yield would be about 205 bu/A by 2030. If harvested acreage stays constant (not a certainty) at around 80 million, production would be 16.4 billion bushels, a 31 percent increase over 2010. These data show that a yield doubling is highly unlikely, and is more likely a marketing ploy.

It is easy to dismiss such statements on yield as a way to promulgate more inputs, especially GMOs (genetically modified crops). There are major questions out there. Do GMOs really increase yield? Up to now, the answer depends on who you ask. Some—including some ERS reports—indicate no effect, others are counting on GMOs to really raise the yield.

A recent article in Farm Industry News based largely on interviews from Monsanto and Pioneer (DuPont), BASF and Syngenta scientists and development people, gives insight into what the industry is planning. Stacking, that is putting many GMO traits in a single variety, is claimed to be the wave of the future, especially for corn. The 8-trait SmartStax corn, developed by Dow and Monsanto, was available for 2009. Monsanto scientists are predicting that stacking 20 or more traits will be the norm. Massive breakthroughs in gene marking, real-time micro DNA analysis and computer programming are claimed to allow tailoring seeds to a specific climatic zone, bio-region or cropping strategy. Traits that are projected to be available include drought tolerance, nitrogen efficiency, herbicide tolerance (beyond Roundup)  and insect resistance.

But recent findings indicate that the industry's gene stacking for yield and profits is going awry. This recent article from The New York Times documents the plummeting fortunes of the biotech giant Monsanto (shares have dropped from a high of $145 in mid-2008 to about $48 currently) largely because of the slow sales of SmartStax and the Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans. This is attributed to decreased yield coupled with overpricing, and a Department of Justice investigation into possible antitrust violations. But Monsanto's fortunes aside, this shows that predicting the success of biotech technology on yield is uncertain at best.

If it works, drought tolerance might be the biggest trait to increase production as it will permit corn to be grown in drier regions such as Kansas, the Dakotas and western Nebraska where now only sorghum and wheat can be grown without irrigation. If corn can be grown profitably, cattle may well leave the range and wheat acreage will drop.

Herbicide tolerance, which arguably has not increased yields but has increased profits, will move to newer chemicals as well as proven products. Several genes for tolerance to herbicides may be stacked in one variety. Will this bring about new herbicide resistant weed issues? Only time will tell.

Several new modes of action for insect resistance are also being studied and refuge-in-a-bag products are now being evaluated by EPA. Will these lead to true yield enhancement? Or just more acres per farm?

Several major issues must be addressed as the corporate world pushes for yield doubling. Some are discussed in recent Iowa Farmer Today. The issues may seem obvious, but it is good to see them discussed in a mainline farm weekly. Gene Lucht, who authored the report, poses the following questions:

  1. Would farmers be able to afford the technology? This probably depends on how well capitalized the farmers are, or if, in fact, they are shadow corporations. Many farmers have gone broke by overcapitalizing and being caught by plunging markets prices. Doubling yield technologies are not something one can hop into and out of depending on markets. And experience has shown that the seed companies do not hesitate to raise seed prices if they can market a trait as beneficial to yield.
  2. Would it hurt or help livestock farmers? This likely depends on what markets are available to absorb all the corn. Overproducing would bring grain prices down in the short term, but make them more volatile. Volatile markets are already creating huge problems for farmers and for consumers.
  3. Would it (doubling yield) lead to greater concentrations in the seed or chemical businesses? It is probably too late to ask that question, as concentration is occurring almost daily. The fertilizer companies, for example, are continuing to concentrate at a rapid rate.
  4. Would it lead to fewer and larger farms? Almost certainly, but again this trend is so well established that yield doubling would only accelerate the trends.
  5. Would it hurt the environment? Yes, and yes again. It is hard to find positives for expanding row crops when environmental issues are concerned.
  6. What would it require in new or improved infrastructure? Another article in IFT examines this issue for grain transport and storage. More trucks would be needed, more grain cars, larger elevator storage, better roads and railroads. As Brazil found out, the infrastructure needs are great and costly.
  7. Would it lead to a decline in prices that would hurt farmers? That is hard to say, but undoubtedly it will lead to more price volatility. Usually the farmer loses both on the upswing and downswing of price fluctuations. And,
  8. Is it necessary to feed a growing world population? This is the question often debated in the “more land for wildlife“ debate. Dennis Avery has again weighed in on this one, proposing that, once again, the only way to produce enough food is to increase yields. But his propaganda is having a hard time catching on these days.
I have not emphasized the issues of increased fertilizer use as well as irrigation water that would undoubtedly come with increased yields. Finally, there are the inherent environmental problems such as increased erosion, probably more localized flooding, and loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity. But these are side issues to the industry: The important one is the push by the biotech industry to control the agenda of many universities, local governments, and state and federal governments. As public funding for "public" universities declines, corporate influence is becoming more dominant.

It will be interesting to see if crop (especially corn) yield increases continue at roughly their present pace, especially since climate change appears to be lowering projected yields worldwide. However, the use of so many resources on one crop must be questioned, even if it is currently the dominate grain crop. I question the need for this overemphasis, when so many other agriculture research needs exist. The unintended consequences of our current path must be examined.

Dennis Keeney

September 24, 2010

Trouble Waters' balancing act

The University of Minnesota back-tracked yesterday on its decision to stop the premiere of the documentary “Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story” on October 3 at the Bell Museum. IATP, the Land Stewardship Project, and dozen other Minnesota groups called out the U (see our letter and press release) for what appeared to be an attempt to staunch academic freedom. The film explores the connection between agriculture and pollution in the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. The U’s reasons for trying to stop “Troubled Waters” are still not entirely clear, although Agriculture Dean Allen Levine at one point said the film “vilifies agriculture” and that he considered it unbalanced.

Bringing “balance” into the equation when you’re talking about agriculture and the Mississippi is more than a little ironic – our industrial agriculture system is the definition of unbalanced. The way we produce corn and soybeans requires vast quantities of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, a lot of which, along with sediment, get washed out of farm fields, trickle into the Mississippi, and eventually wash into the Gulf of Mexico. The end result: a river and its tributaries contaminated with high levels of nitrates, atrazine, and other health- and eco-hazards, and a dead zone in the Gulf the size of Massachusetts (this year).

What’s curious about Dean Levine’s statement is that the film, in fact, highlights the efforts of Minnesota farmers like Tony Thompson who are working hard to decrease their impacts downstream. From riparian buffers, to cover crops, to more perennials, to better calibrated fertilizer application – there are lots of ways farmers can decrease the nutrient load they send down the river. This, one would think, would be exactly the kind of important, “balanced” information the U would want to promote.

We’re still waiting to hear if the film will be shown as previously scheduled on Twin Cities Public Television on October 5, and we’ll continue to insist on transparency from the U around this and similar decisions in the future. In the meantime, if you're in town, get your tickets to the show, they’re going fast. See you there.

By Julia Olmstead

Ben Lilliston

September 23, 2010

So what kind of salmon does Uncle Sam want?

It almost seems preposterous to ask this question, but what type of salmon would you prefer to see on your plate:

  1. Genetically-modified Atlantic salmon, spliced with Pacific salmon growth gene and modulated by a regulator protein from an Ocean Pout; or
  2. Wild Sockeye from the pristine unpolluted waters of Bristol Bay, Alaska.

But as Paul Greenberg points out in his commentary on Living on Earth, our government is making that choice, and many of us are afraid it isn't going to be the right one. How else can you explain that:

  1. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is close to approving an engineered Atlantic salmon; and
  2. Paul Greenberg with Salmon
  3. The international mining giant Anglo American plans to construct the largest open pit copper and gold mine in the U.S. at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, putting perhaps the most productive salmon run left on earth at risk, as the Environmental Protection Agency ignores the power it has to stop the mine through the Clean Water Act.

And as Paul points out in the commentary, it is a little ironic that the complete adoption of genetically engineered salmon into the existing farmed salmon industry would increase production by a quarter of a billion pounds of fish annually, and if a future Bristol Bay copper mine failure occurs similar to what happened in China this summer, that could result in the loss of a quarter billion pounds of fish.

Join the Consumers Union and other organizations that are raising concerns regarding FDA's approval process and the lack of labeling of genetically engineered fish. Read Paul Greenberg's new book Four Fish. And seek out sustainably managed, wild fish species. It's far better for your family's health and the marine environment.

This blog post was written by Mark Muller and originally appeared on the IATP Food and Society Fellows Fresh Ideas blog.

Ben Lilliston

September 02, 2010

Flooding might be the ‘wave’ of the future

This commentary by IATP Senior Fellow Dennis Keeney originally appeared in the Ames Tribune. It is republished with permission.

“Living with floods involves two broad activities: better managing the risks and taking steps to reduce our vulnerability, and better managing the landscape to reduce the magnitude and destructive power of floods.” — Connie Mutel, Epilogue, “A Watershed year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008.”

In the spring of 2010, The University of Iowa Press published “A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008.” Connie Mutel edited this outstanding book. It should be required reading for those concerned with policymaking to address our recurring big floods. But we continue to battle day-to-day and event-to-event. Iowa State University officials talk of shoring up University Avenue in Ames, and the university and businesses clean up the damage. Who’s really hurt are the hundreds who have major property damage; basements, valuables and feelings of security are destroyed.

Are the Iowa cities that sit on large- or medium-sized river basins doomed to relive the experience of large floods regularly? No matter how much infrastructure we build to withstand the onrush of streams and rivers, flooding might be the “wave” of the future. In June 2008, the rivers of eastern Iowa created floods of epic proportions. In August 2010, the rivers of central Iowa did the same. What is going on? After the unprecedented statewide flooding of 1993, Iowans assumed we had seen the worst and returned to business as usual. How wrong can we be?

Rivers are not static. They are constantly eroding and reshaping their channels. When water flowing into the river exceeds the capacity of the channel, rivers use the naturally created floodplain to store the extra water. When rivers are denied access to the floodplain, or structures are built in the floodplain, we have a flood. Floods are natural, part of the water and biodiversity cycles. When we get in their way, damage occurs.

The climate of the Corn Belt is conducive to violent weather: high winds, tornadoes, blizzards, drought and intense rainfalls. The rainfalls seem to be the cause of much of our angst, especially recently. Reasons for the “unprecedented” floods include the possibility of major climate shifts, changes in land use, especially in agriculture, and lax urban building codes and poor storm management. I will take a quick look at these as space permits.

Probably the most sensible way to avoid flood damage is to get out of the way. But cities are not easy to move. Removing homes and businesses is a slow, expensive process, complicated by the private property ownership and by a multitude of government regulations. When public buildings are involved, such as Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City and Hilton Coliseum in Ames, public funds must be used to restore the buildings, diverting resources that are desperately needed for education and research.

A recent news release indicated a new Hancher will be built, presumably out of harm’s way, and Hilton Coliseum and presumably also the Scheman Center will be protected by higher flood barriers (levees), though the latter is not clear.

ISU’s proposed solution—deny the river its flood plain—is not really a solution. No doubt this would lessen flood damage to the ISU complex, but it would certainly increase flooding in other areas of the flood plain with unpredictable results. The river will have its way.

A better alternative, but one that might now be impractical, is to increase storage on the land. Laura Jackson, a professor of biology at the University of Northern Iowa, and I discuss this approach in chapter 24 of the book I referred to earlier. Most of the watershed above Ames is agricultural. It has been altered in ways that lower the retention of water and hasten flash floods. Tile drainage, wetland and prairie destruction, stream channeling, and, of course, the annual corn and soybean cropping all hasten the movement of water through the watershed.

Similarly, Ames, and most other cities, was not designed with floods in mind. Water runoff must be decreased relative to infiltration in both urban and rural landscapes. Our manicured, reconstructed lawns are nearly as impermeable as the concrete they drain into.

Changing our urban and rural landscapes is daunting. Some regions have gone together to plan for flood mitigation. A regional flood control effort for the Story-Boone County region could identify new roads and bridges that could be designed to provide storage and locate flood plains where flood levees could be removed, giving the river a chance to recover its flood plain.

Finally, are flood frequencies and intensity partly a result of climate change? Eugene Takle examined this question in a remarkably clear manner in his chapter of the “Anatomy of the Floods” book mentioned previously. Cedar Rapids’ average annual rainfall has increased more than 9 inches over the past 113 years and now stands at 37 inches per year. More rain is falling in the late winter, spring and early summer and rainfall events are becoming more intense. These trends were predicted by climate models, and they likely will continue in the foreseeable future. Takle writes that “the dice have been loaded toward a higher probability of extreme flood events.” Now with three major floods in 17 years, it would seem public and private decision makers should take heed.

In summary, floods will happen. Climate change will likely cause further increases, and our rural and urban landscapes have been so modified as to make lessening the impacts of floods difficult. History tells us we will recover from the floods, get enough federal aid and insurance money to repair the damage, and move on with little thought to the next flood. We deserve better.

Dennis Keeney was the first director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and is an emeritus professor at Iowa State University. He resides in Ames and can be reached at earthwatch@mchsi.com.

Ben Lilliston

August 19, 2010

Kansas: Goodbye wheat, hello corn

Farmers will harvest more corn than wheat this year in Kansas, according to Dan Piller at the Des Moines Register—a trend that's changing the state's traditional ag identity. Even crop-stressing record heat hasn't put a damper on the maize bonanza.

When I lived in Iowa, I always liked watching the crops change as I drove west. The greens of corn and soybeans would give way to golden wheat (and sunflowers, when I was lucky) as the land got drier. It wasn't real diversity, but at least it was different, a recognition that different land calls for different crops. Drought-resistant transgenes and increased irrigation—driven by demand for corn—have changed that. Of course it's not just Kansas; Nebraska and other dry-land regions have also upped their corn production.

Far be it from me to say one monoculture is better than another, but it's yet another sign that we're moving in exactly the wrong direction: toward less diversity, rather than more.

Julia Olmstead

August 06, 2010

Climate, agriculture and immigration

Two of the biggest hot button issues in Congress this year have been climate change and immigration. Now, new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that the two issues are linked.

Researchers from Princeton University conservatively estimated the future impact of climate change on the yields of Mexican-grown corn and wheat. They looked at migration data in Mexico from 1995-2005 (the ten years following the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement). After accounting for a number of variables, they concluded that a 10 percent reduction in crop yields would lead to an additional 2 percent of the Mexican population emigrating. Depending on how fast or slow climate change occurs, the result could be between 1.4 and 6.7 million Mexicans emigrating to the U.S. by 2080 as a result of declines in agricultural productivity.

While this research focuses on Mexico, there is little question that migration driven by a decline in crop yields is a big issue in many other parts of the world, including much of Africa, India, Bangladesh, and Latin America, according to the researchers.

The debate in Congress over climate change was dominated by the costs of implementing various strategies to reduce greenhouse gases. Less discussed were the costs of inaction. Perhaps this is why Congress failed to act.

Ben Lilliston

July 29, 2010

UN General Assembly declares access to safe, clean drinking water and sanitation essential

On July 28, 2010, the UN General Assembly declared that "the right to drinking water and sanitation was essential for the full enjoyment of life."

The resolution was introduced by Bolivia, and was co-sponsored by 39 countries.1 There were 122 states in favor, 0 opposed and 41 abstentions.

This declaration by the general assembly is an important step towards the recognition of the right to water and sanitation, and will strengthen the rights already established in General Comment 15 on the right to water. General Comment 15 is an authoritative interpretation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified by 160 States.

Interpreting the Covenant, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights clarified (in 2002) that the use of the word “including”2 indicates that the right to an adequate standard of living is not limited to food, clothing and housing. It indicated that the right to water is also included within the right to an adequate standard of living since water is fundamental for survival. Since 2002, when the general comment was adopted, a large number of states have accepted the view elaborated in General Comment 15 that the right to water is legally binding. However, a few countries led by the United States have so far prevented the recognition of right to water in UN bodies such as the Human Rights Council and General Assembly, which operate by consensus.3

Yesterday's unanimous declaration by the UN General Assembly will give a boost to those governments that have made an effort to recognize water as a basic right, and to other multilateral efforts to promote the  realization of right to water and sanitation.

This is indeed a huge step forward.

However there is much more to be done. The first step, of course, is to make the right to drinking water and sanitation a reality. This is particularly true for rural areas where 84 percent of water poor live.4 While the resource requirements for meeting the drinking water needs of 884 million people and sanitation related water needs of 2.6 billion people are well within the collective means of our 21st-century world, water remains a mirage for the water-poor. A commitment to help realize the right to water on the part of the rich governments of the world could help save the lives of 1.5 million children under age five who would otherwise die from water-related illnesses. To help meet Millennium Development Goals on water (to halve the number of water poor by 2015) poorer countries need a mere $18.4 billion annually, which they are hard pressed to raise. Yet we have seen that bank bail-outs of much higher magnitude come about easily.5

Equally important is recognizing that the realization of several other rights, such as right to food and right to livelihood, is contingent on reliable access to water. This is especially true in the case of the large number of rural people who are directly dependent on land-based activities such as agriculture, animal grazing and other related activities for meeting their food needs. Climate change is already impacting and will continue to impact these peoples’ food security. Ensuring clean water to help them realize their right to livelihood is of utmost importance.

At the moment, it is commendable that the declaration acknowledges "the importance of equitable, safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as an integral component of the realization of all human rights."

A universal recognition that extends this by acknowledging "the importance of equitable, clean water as an integral component towards the realization of all human rights, especially right to food, and right to livelihood" would be of additional help, especially in the changed context of climate crisis.


1. Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, The Plurinational State of Bolivia, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Eritrea, Fiji, Georgia, Guinea, Haiti, Madagascar, Maldives, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Paraguay, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Seychelles, The Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tuvalu, Uruguay, Vanuatu, The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and Yemen 

2. In Article 11 (1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, States parties “recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing...”

3. Afshaq Khan, e-mail communication, July 2010.

4. World Bank: Global Monitoring Report 2010, The MDGs after the Crisis, http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTGLOMONREP2010/Resources/6911301-1271698910928/GMR2010WEB.pdf

5. http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/IRIN/767d200266c1ab5956e7148ad2f52b03.htm

Shiney Varghese

June 28, 2010

Our final bite of sushi?

An adaptation of Paul Greenberg's book, “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food,” will be featured on the cover of Sunday's New York Times Magazine.  Greenberg, a 2007-2008 Food and Society Fellow, writes prolifically on global fisheries, and his latest book will be published next month by Penguin Press.

Tuna’s End

By Paul Greenberg

Tuna_NYTimesOn the morning of June 4, in the international waters south of Malta, the Greenpeace vessels Rainbow Warrior and Arctic Sunrise deployed eight inflatable Zodiacs and skiffs into the azure surface of the Mediterranean. Protesters aboard donned helmets and took up DayGlo flags and plywood shields. With the organization’s observation helicopter hovering above, the pilots of the tiny boats hit their throttles, hurtling the fleet forward to stop what they viewed as an egregious environmental crime. It was a high-octane updating of a familiar tableau, one that anyone who has followed Greenpeace’s Save the Whales adventures of the last 35 years would have recognized. But in the waters off Malta there was not a whale to be seen.

What was in the water that day was a congregation of Atlantic bluefin tuna, a fish that when prepared as sushi is one of the most valuable forms of seafood in the world. It’s also a fish that regularly journeys between America and Europe and whose two populations, or “stocks,” have both been catastrophically overexploited. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, one of only two known Atlantic bluefin spawning grounds, has only intensified the crisis. By some estimates, there may be only 9,000 of the most ecologically vital megabreeders left in the fish’s North American stock, enough for the entire population of New York to have a final bite (or two) of high-grade otoro sushi.

Read more in The New York Times Magazine Preview.

This entry was written by Abigail Rogosheske and was originally posted on the IATP Food and Society Fellows Fresh Ideas Blog. Photo Credit: Kenji Aoki for The New York Times.

Andrew Ranallo

June 23, 2010

The resistance to resistance: What is a weed?

The ability of natural systems to overcome assaults by outside forces that threaten their livelihood is nothing short of phenomenal. When I was kid growing up in Iowa in the 1950s, I recall when we sprayed DDT on the cows to control flies, except the flies soon fought back, so we had to use more. First used as an outgrowth of nerve gas from WWII, DDT was regarded as a lifesaver for control of mosquitoes carrying malaria but it soon became ineffective. Never mind that the full health and environmental risks of toxic DDT were never fully evaluated before it was in widespread use, and when it was found in milk, some people began to worry. Other pesticides, such as dieldrin and aldrin, were substituted, but mosquitoes again became resistant in 18 months or less.

Not to be deterred, humanity has continued to try to use pesticides to control pests over and over—only to find that pests continue to fight back over and over. Now more than 500 species of insects and fungus are resistant to pesticides and the list continues to climb.

Even corn rootworm, which used to be controlled by alternating corn with another crop such as soybeans, has figured out that it can exist nicely with the soybean and come back the next year, a phenomenon known as extended diapauses.

Aside from insects, resistance also operates efficiently in the plant world. Weeds are ever with us. Indeed they are called weeds because they end up where they are not wanted and cause economic damage. In 1943 Aldo Leopold wrote a classic essay called “What is a Weed.” The essay, published in River of the Mother of God (UW Press), said “To live in harmony with plants is, or should be, the ideal of good agriculture. To call every plant a weed which cannot be fed to livestock or people is, I fear, the actual practice of agricultural colleges. [...] The first false premise is that every wild species occasionally harmful to agriculture is by that reason of fact to be blacklisted for general persecution.”

I spent many hot days chopping weeds out of corn and soybean fields when I was a youth. When a miracle product called 2,4-D (an early Monsanto product) came along to use on the corn fields, I rejoiced. But lo and behold, by 1957, weeds were reported in Hawaii sugarcane fields that were resistant to 2,4-D. Weed scientists did not worry much. The slow growth pattern of weeds meant it would take many years before widespread resistance would occur. But weeds did not wait.

The triazines, especially atrazine, came into widespread use the 1960s. Predictably, weed resistance soon developed. While triazine resistance is commonplace, atrazine remains a major herbicide for corn.

But all was not lost. In the 1970s a Monsanto organic chemist named John Franz found a triamine salt, called glyphosate, that had broad spectrum toxicity toward green plants. Glyphosate was branded  as Roundup and formulations were first marketed in 1976. Over the last three decades, glyphosate has brought enormous profits to Monsanto, which had exclusive U.S. rights until 2000 when the patent expired. Roundup has been the most widely sold herbicide worldwide since 1980.

The company’s profits greatly expanded with the introduction of crops genetically engineered to be tolerant of Roundup. With the introduction of Roundup Ready (RR) crops patented by Monsanto, the company's sales not only of the chemical but also of the seed and associated patents skyrocketed.

Over 90 percent of soy, 75 percent of cotton and 70 percent of corn grown in the U.S. in 2009 contains the RR trait. This amounts to 130 million acres of corn and soy, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While Roundup has been touted as safe and environmentally friendly, much data indicates the contrary. Of particular concern are the “inert” adjuvants (chemicals added to enhance the activity of the pesticide) that often are not disclosed nor tested by EPA.

Worldwide, at least 25 countries have now adopted biotech crops (statistics are not available to sort these out by herbicide-tolerant and insecticide-tolerant crops)—amounting to a total of over 300 million acres.

But as predicted by weed and ecological scientists for a couple of decades, resistance to Roundup is developing, and the number of new species resistant to Roundup has increased markedly in the last few years. Many of the resistant weeds are economically important and difficult to control. Some, such as waterhemp, have been observed to have developed resistance (PDF) to at least three different classes of herbicides.

Over 19 genotypes are Roundup resistant worldwide. And with the increasing potential for large acreages of Roundup-ready alfalfa and sugarbeet crops, more difficult to control weeds will likely emerge. Importantly for all herbicides evaluated by 2009, the Weed Science Society lists 346 Resistant Biotypes, 194 Species (114 dicots and 80 monocots) and over 340,000 fields worldwide that have developed resistance. This covers virtually all herbicides that have been used commercially since the chemical era began.

Growing resistance to herbicides means farmers have to use more to achieve the same effect. The amount of herbicide used in U.S. agriculture has increased dramatically—up 46 percent in the last 13 years for corn, cotton and soybean production. Much of this increase is attributed to Roundup resistance. Remarkably, the Associated Press reported earlier this week that Monsanto was paying cotton farmers an additional $12 an acre to cover the costs of other herbicides to use alongside of Roundup. Further, the use of older, more toxic herbicides such as 2,4-D and paraquat are increasing, adding to water quality and offsite drift issues, and another gallery of resistant weeds.

Where this will lead is obvious; curtail herbicide use or face the consequences of less herbicide effectiveness with more economic, human health and ecological consequences. I would bet that if they could, Aldo Leopold and Charles Darwin would have a good laugh at this conundrum.

Chemical-based weed control may be hitting a brick wall—or at least a wall that is getting more difficult to traverse. No major new pesticides are being developed for corn or soybeans. The last major advancement in chemical weed control was pigment inhibitors (chemicals that prevent plants from forming photosynthetic pigments) developed in the 1980s. We are entering a new era where farmers cannot rely on technology to bail them out.

This little horror story points out once again the fallacies of industrial agriculture, built on short-sighted corporate control of crop inputs, and supportive government policies. Weed scientists sounded the alarm on resistance years ago but many were told to cool it for fear of angering the corporate sponsors of University research and outreach funding. Of course, the discipline of weed science likes to take credit now for being right, but where were they when they should have spoken out more strongly?

When I was executive director of the Leopold Center at Iowa State University in the 1990s I banned research funding for biotech crops, and was widely criticized for this move. Other leaders such as Dr. Chuck Benbrook who previously led the National Academy of Sciences Agriculture Committee spoke out, and soon lost their jobs. The pattern is a familiar one for academia, except the stakes for the future of agriculture are becoming more and more serious. It is up to groups such as IATP to move the playing field back to biointensive pest control (the use of ecological principles to control pests, rather than relying solely on pesticides).

In a future blog, I will tackle the more evasive issue raised by genetically engineered crops containing the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene for control of moths and borers. Stay tuned.

Dennis Keeney

June 21, 2010

Declaring Food Independence this July 4

Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International (KGI) and former IATP Food and Society Fellow, is well-known for KGI's “Eat the View” campaign that helped to bring an organic garden to the lawn of the White House. Now KGI, with help from the IATP Food and Society Fellows, is pushing for food independence this July 4.

The goal of the petition, according to the press release, is “50 states. 50 governors. 50 first families celebrating July 4 with locally sourced food,” in order to inspire their constituents to “source local and sustainable ingredients for their holiday meals.”

FoodindependenceThe petition is available at www.FoodIndependenceDay.org. Including last year’s signatures, more than 6,000 have already signed but many more are needed. To show your support, organizers encourage four steps:

  1. Show your support for locally grown foods by becoming a fan of Food Independence Day on Facebook
  2. Invite 4 (4 as in July 4th) friends to join the page
  3. Sign the Declaration of Food Independence (6000+ food revolutionaries and counting!)
  4. Add your July 4th local foods feast to the group map 
So this year, declare your food independence and show support for locally sourced, sustainable, healthy and delicious foods!

Andrew Ranallo

May 31, 2010

Biotech in Africa

In mid-May, the Des Moines Register published a 7-part series on Africa by reporter Philip Brasher. He traveled to Kenya and South Africa to obtain information for the series. It focuses on corn (maize in Africa) and on the role of biotechnology (its political, as well as its yield aspects) in providing food for sub-Sahara Africa—an area that is short on quality soils, has poor rainfall distribution and is expanding rapidly in population.

The first in the series “High hopes and high stakes” puts the United States government’s pro-biotech bias in perspective. He quotes former Iowa Governor and current Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack as saying that Gates-sponsored Monsanto and biotech industry projects in Africa will help “knock down some the concerns that are expressed globally and domestically about biotechnology.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed similar views and both echo President Obama’s cheerleading efforts (which probably come more from the medical side of biotech).

Still, it now seems to be the U.S. government against most everyone else when it comes to biotech seeds. Often Brasher characterizes Europe as the main force working against biotech in Africa. But only Southern Africa has approved the maize seed for commercial use. And many countries in Asia are just as opposed to biotech seeds. Are he and others using Europe as a scapegoat?

Truly King Corn is worldwide in its influence. Yet corn (white corn, but Brasher does not differentiate) is a key staple for the poor African; 300 million Africans depend on it, some three times a day and so far Africa’s rate of corn production has lagged behind its rate of population increase. Clearly more corn and other staple production is needed. So the question is: How to go about increasing production?

Perhaps the question is already being answered, at least in the short term. South Africa (Africa's Iowa) had the largest corn harvest in 2010 since 1982. Increased land in cultivation, timely rains and better cultivars have contributed to the increase. In fact, South Africa corn prices have dropped more than 30 percent this year and growers are considering withholding corn from the market to increase prices. Part of the problem is the lack of infrastructure to ship the corn to the parts of Africa, such as Kenya, where it is needed.

At the BIGMAP symposium I attended before reading Brasher’s opus, it was painfully clear that a major barrier for many African countries is more fundamental than seeds: it is the lack of infrastructure. In addition, many do not have adapted seeds (open-pollinated and hybrid) to respond to inputs such as fertilizer, they lack rainfall to maximize yields (sometimes just to germinate the seed) and things are getting more dire with climate change. They lack plant breeders, seed distribution centers, lines of credit, and post-harvest storage. In other words, the challenges are much more than just yield.

The Gates-funded projects with Pioneer and Monsanto that we've previously written about hope to incorporate two major traits in the new corn seeds: drought tolerance (Monsanto) and increased nitrogen efficiency (Pioneer). The corn already contains the genetically engineered Bt trait for insect control. These seeds will need to produce higher yields that override the almost certain increased costs of the seed, the fertilizer and other production costs associated with GE crops. And remember that farmers in Africa don't have the abundance of government programs available to U.S. corn farmers if weather or the market impacts profitability.

Brasher's series emphasizes the problems biotech companies have in finding adequate field plots to conduct breeding and yield trials. Not mentioned is the fact that industry restricts independent scientists and others from studying the seed. Further, a lack of established regulations hinders the establishment of field trials.

Brasher's comparison of the acceptance of biotech in South Africa, the European Union and America was revealing. Essentially Europe still says no, driven by consumer resistance. But Brasher indicated that a report by USDA in Rome argued that consumer resistance in the EU was not as strong as believed and that an “education” (read propaganda) campaign targeted to Italy might be a good place to start turning things around. No doubt there are other stealth campaigns to try to get biotech crops into Europe.

The series continues to beg the question: What is behind all these efforts to foist GE technology on Africa? It can't be direct profit from African sales; that will be vanishingly small. Not Africans feeding Africa, that is impossible until the numerous infrastructure problems are dealt with. One has to wonder whether it really is about the image of Monsanto and Pioneer in the U.S. (and possibly EU in the future), and the vast pro-biotech lobby that resides within the USDA. And it is about market share, not just in Africa but worldwide.

Two agronomists have recently won the World Food Prize for work they have done in Africa. They have somewhat different views on how to improve African agriculture. Gebisa Ejata, who just won the World Food Prize in 2009, feels African farmers need basic knowledge about farming methods. In a recent paper in Science, he stated that Africa needs both strong internal leadership and external assistance, particularly in the areas of human and institutional capacity building. Pedro Sanchez, who won the World Food Prize in 2002, feels that increased access to markets and more fertilizer use could also help and that drought tolerance is essential to combat the threat of climate change.

In the end, no one can predict the correct path. Improved genetics certainly is part of the puzzle, but even more is the need for infrastructure. Infrastructure was an essential part of Norman Borlaug’s green revolution. Even Gates millions cannot create miracles. Only hard work by Africans and attention to African needs and climate will bring about the level of food production needed. And that may not be enough. The struggle against encroaching climate change, overwhelming population pressures and misguided government aid programs will only slow efforts.

The Brasher reports reflect these stark challenges. Unfortunately, they stride the political barbed wire fence by putting more emphasis on biotech than it can possibly deliver—without exploring the role of more needed alternatives.

Dennis Keeney

May 28, 2010

An official thumbs-up for organic ag in China

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from China.

China’s organic trade show opened in Shanghai yesterday. While visiting the exhibition hall, Agriculture Vice-Minister Chen Xiaohua gave his ministry’s stamp of approval to the organic industry. China uses chemical fertilizers and pesticides even more heavily than the United States, and last fall the government gave approval for field trials of genetically-modified food crops, so an expression of support for organics from such a high-ranking official is certainly significant. But...   

BioFach China, now in its fourth year, is organized by the German conference firm NürmbergMesse, which runs similar conferences in a number of other countries and regions. Last year there were about 240 exhibitors and over 10,000 visitors, and those numbers will probably be even larger this year. I blogged from BioFach China in 2008, but am missing it this time. The focus is very much on Big Organic and international trade (For American organic readers: this ain’t no MOSES!), Organic principles, local foods and the interests of small farmers are crowded out by talk of certification and phytosanitary codes for exporters. While the press release says “China’s middle class acquires a taste for organic,” this is seen as good thing primarily because it will provide a growing market for imports. At the same time, the release cites certification agencies as estimating that organics could make up 5 percent or more of China’s food exports by 2020.

Chemical agriculture is a huge problem in China (it was recently identified in a government report as a bigger pollution source than industry) so I cannot say that export-oriented organic agriculture is an unambiguously bad thing—even despite all the energy and climate issues associated with global food trade and the threat that such trade poses to local food producers in other countries. But neither can I overestimate the yawning gap between the "organic industry" that is being promoted at BioFach and the kind of food system we just talked about for two days with Chinese farmers and community groups: one that reconnects producer and consumer based on principles of trust, community and respect for nature.

The vice-minister, likewise, is in favor of organic agriculture, but not all organic agriculture. In wonderful ministry-speak, he says organic products should be promoted, but that it should be done, “positively and deliberately, guided by market demand, based on national characteristics and the principle of adapting to local circumstances, in a portion of regions that have environmental advantages, appropriate resources and special local products.”

Well, it’s a start.

Jim Harkness

May 19, 2010

Where does the BIGMAP lead?

BIGMAP is not an overweight atlas, but rather an acronym for Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products. Their seventh annual symposium, entitled “Food, Feed, and Fuel for the World: Seed and Biotechnology” was held on April 27–28 in southern LA (Lovely Ames, Iowa). This symposium is open to all registrants at no cost. The Gateway Hotel really knows how to put on conferences, with spacious rooms, great snacks and a delicious lunch on the 28th.

BIGMAP is a program of the Iowa State University Seed Science Center. Directed by Manjit Misra, the SSC has seen rapid growth over the past two decades. The stated mission of the Seed Science Center is to “improve production, quality assurance, marketing, utilization, and regulatory environment of seed through research, testing, teaching, outreach, and international programs.” BIGMAP’s mission is to “provide science-based analysis of the risks and benefits of genetically modified plant and animal products. It will provide guidance and education to help safeguard consumers and the environment.”

This will be the third BIGMAP conference I have attended; I can’t resist a free lunch. But seriously, it consistently has good information, even if it's not necessarily what IATP might agree with. I am always treated well, even though the IATP name tag brings some quizzical looks. This year one conference staffer asked what I was doing there, since IATP always works against the use of GMOs. My reply is that GMOs are part of the bigger system and we all need information.

The conference presented several mixed messages. It was polite to the core, no disagreements or negative body language (except for a few nodding off now and then). It had little to say about feed or fuel, but rather concentrated on food and almost exclusively on sub-Saharan Africa (referred to from now on as Africa) and Southeast Asia, with a bit of South America thrown in.

Biotech in food-deficient countries is presenting major issues for science, regulatory agencies, the private seed sector and NGOs. There are regulatory issues such as “low-level presence” (how to regulate presence of minute amounts of GMO genes and how to properly evaluate biosafety). African, Latin American and Indian scientists and bureaucrats talked about the development of seed enterprises in their regions, a big problem regardless of seed sources. There is a huge deficit of infrastructure for building quality commercial seed systems. These will not be solved in the short-term. Lack of access to credit, which would allow the purchase of quality inputs such as adapted seeds and fertilizers, lack of technical expertise in crop production and post harvest processing and handling, problems accessing markets and limited collective action are also issues. NGOs were not on the agenda.

Part of the discussion focused on the regulatory systems for GMOs in various parts of the world. I was appalled at the regulatory climate, especially in India, where the number of approval agencies in each state is huge and disparate. In Africa, many nations have minimum regulatory and testing agencies, and little commonality in regulations. Harmonization is definitely needed.

Joe DeVries of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) gave an outstanding overview of the challenges to a sustainable seed supply in Africa. It should be noted that AGRA has considerable Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funding. While plant breeding was a key to food security in Africa, infrastructure needs such as seed distribution, seed policies, etc., must go along with good genetics. He did not even mention use of biotechnology. Another part of the theme is the lack of trained plant breeders. In the U.S., public plant breeding has been shoved to the bottom of the agronomy heap and industry took over. So training the cadre of needed scientists will not come overnight. The overall goal is to provide quality seed at low costs, preferably higher yielding hybrids, but in some cases open pollinated varieties are sufficient.

An example DeVries gave: a local variety of maize without fertilizer yielded 13 bushels/acre, with fertilizer, 20 bushels/acre, while a hybrid without fertilizer yielded 19 bushels/ acre and a hybrid with fertilizer was 31 bushels/acre.

More than just maize seed is needed, as Africa has a wide variety of climates and ecological regions, each benefiting from different crops such as cassava and rice. To this end, more farmer participation and networking will be required to help breeders and private seed distributors meet farmers' needs. Similar situations exist in India and South America, but not as severe as in Africa. But little, if any, attention was given to saving landraces or seed conservation, except for yield traits. Sometime, maybe even now, Africa will need these seeds.

Finally, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation weighed in. The presentation was impressive, what was behind the veil is unknown. Yilma Kebede talked about the core values of the foundation: “all lives have equal values.” They have a limited set of issues including health, education and policy. Their agriculture development program focuses on Africa and Southeastern Asia. It aims at small farms, women, environmental market opportunities and innovation. The foundation is developing three levels of funding: high-risk, partnerships and sure things. They will spend considerable funding on evaluation of progress. Still, they spoke as a funding agency, not a driver of progress.

It was a conference of mixed messages and hidden agendas. I did not get the feeling of a big cheering squad for biotech from the scientists and technocrats. And there was a feeling that they know who is paying the bills. The needs are great, the time is short, and so far, there has been more talking than doing.

Dennis Keeney

May 12, 2010

Appropriate tech, safe chemicals and the state of nanotechnology

The power of new technology is undeniable. If adopted blindly, however, technology can carry with it a multitude of risks: to health, the environment or to a broad range of sociopolitical considerations. In the latest episode of Radio Sustain, we assess the potential and pitfalls of new technology.

Last month, IATP toured Compatible Technology International's (CTI) workshop in St. Paul to get the scoop on how their low-tech devices are used to improve quality of life while remaining appropriate—culturally, economically and environmentally—for the communities they are intended to assist. In our interview, Dan Grewe discusses CTI's work and what the engineers consider in each of the technologies they create.

Next we get Kathleen Schuler's take on the Safe Chemical Act of 2010. As co-director of the Healthy Legacy Coalition and an IATP senior policy analyst, she applauds the bill and offers some key changes to make the legislation more effective.

Finally, IATP's Steve Suppan explains what nanotechnology is and why we need a more informed regulatory framework before it spreads throughout the food system.

Have a listen now and let us know your thoughts!

Radio Sustain episode 25 (mp3)Linda turning the hand-powered grinder at CTI.

Andrew Ranallo

May 07, 2010

Agriculture's largest threat

William Neuman and Andrew Pollack of the New York Times dug deeper earlier this week into the growing story of Roundup-resistant weeds and the chaos this is causing within the agriculture community. The Times story quotes Andrew Wargo III, the president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts as saying, "It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen." And Tennessee farmer Eddie Anderson says, "We're back to where we were 20 years ago. We're trying to find out what works."

Why is growing resistance to Roundup in weeds such a big deal? Roundup Ready genetically engineered crops are one of the linchpins of conventional agriculture. Roundup Ready crops allow farmers to douse their crop with Roundup to kill the weeds, while the crop survives. Currently, more than 80 percent of corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered, and most are Roundup Ready.

As we wrote last month, the Natonal Research Council's assessment on the impact of GE crops on farmers pointed to nine species of weeds that have been identified in the U.S. as being resistant to Roundup. As Roundup loses its effectiveness, other—more toxic—herbicides will likely take its place.

But the Times story also points out how the loss of Roundup affects no-till farming, at least the way corn farmers practice it. No-till has been touted as more environmentally friendly by curbing erosion and runoff of fertilizers and pesticides. It also has been hyped as an important part of a prospective carbon market. By not tilling, carbon is sequestering in the soil, and hence could become an additional income stream for farmers as part of a carbon-offset system. But as the Times points out, with the decline in Roundup's effectiveness, commodity crop no-till may no longer be practical.

What might make more sense? A new study by researchers out of Iowa State found that farmers using a two-crop rotation (corn and soybeans) could cut their fossil fuel use in half by switching to a four-crop rotation (adding oats and alfalfa)—and they could make the same amount of money.

The emerging challenges of Roundup-resistant weeds point out once again why climate change policy needs to get it right on agriculture.

Ben Lilliston

April 23, 2010

Water and the climate connections

Last week, the Feria del Agua—a water festival and fair—marked the 10th anniversary of the water wars that thwarted attempts to privatize water services in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Celebrations were kicked off April 15 with a parade from downtown Cochabamba to the Complejo Fabril (home of the Cochabamba Federation of Workers).

Nationally, the water wars not only paved the way for blocking privatization attempts of other natural resources in Bolivia, but also helped change the balance of power there, leading to the successful election of its first indigenous president. Globally, the Bolivian water wars called attention to attempts to privatize water in Asia, Africa and elsewhere in Latin America. In their wake, it became increasingly acceptable to claim water as a basic right.

In 2001, IATP used the Bolivian water privatization case study to successfully persuade the UN office of the Special Rapporteur—who was conducting a detailed study towards the formulation the U.N. General Comment 15 on right to water—to remove overt references to privatization as a strategy for ensuring the water supply and sanitation in realizing the right to water. IATP also made the case that the General Comment must include water for farming and other subsistence livelihood practices to help establish the right to adequate food as a necessary component of realizing the right to water.

The struggle for the right to water continues even now in Bolivia. As several bloggers from the international water fair have pointed out, the gains of the water war have yet to reach la zona su—a wide swath of poor communities at the southern edge of the city that are highly organized and militant—some of the principal protagonists of the struggle in 2000 that led to the expulsion of the multinational Bechtel. Hence the need for small, autonomous water committees that continue to serve the needs of the local population. La Feria del Agua was thus not only a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the water wars, but also a  public event celebrating the work of these water committees.

Earlier this week, thousands more arrived in Cochabamba to participate in the People's Conference on Climate Change, at the invitation of Bolivian President Evo Morales and civil society groups. In an attempt to draw attention to the fact that water is in the eye of the climate storm, one of the days at the Feria was celebrated as a climate and water day. It was planned as a day to question the political processes that promote market-based solutions as an answer to the water and climate crises, and to advance alternatives. IATP, along with On the Commons and several other groups from around the world that work on water justice issues, came together to develop a fact sheet, “Water and Climate Change: What’s the connection?” and a draft declaration “On the Connection between Water and Climate Justice: Reviving a healthy climate through commons-based water management practices.” These were presented at the Feria. The purpose was to reach out to other constituencies and to show that their struggle is our struggle too—since water permeates climate, forests, agriculture and life itself.

As a participant at the climate forum pointed out to Jeff Conant (read him at Climate Connections), “The most important outcome of this meeting would be a stronger people’s movement on the climate crisis. It’s not about documents, it’s not about policy, it’s about standing up together against the climate criminals.” It is also about showing the world that there is an alternative.

Shiney Varghese

April 21, 2010

Bolivia climate conference opens with call for food sovereignty

IATP's Karen Hansen-Kuhn is blogging from Cochabamba, Bolivia at the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.

The Conference opened today with a series of speeches by delegations from around the world. Each stressed the urgency of going beyond addressing the symptoms of global warming to taking actions to achieve deeper systems change.

A representative of La Via Campesina spoke on behalf of Latin America, emphasizing food sovereignty as a central solution to climate change. Throughout the day, in different panels and workshops, Via Campesina members stressed locally produced foods and sustainable agriculture grown by small-scale farmers as essential to cooling the planet while reducing hunger and strengthening rural livelihoods.

The opening events concluded with a rousing speech by President Evo Morales. He began with a concise critique of the Copenhagen Accord and the need for all countries to re-commit to the Kyoto Protocol process. However, he echoed the concerns raised by other delegations that market-based solutions will not solve the problems they helped to create.

Then, perhaps straying a bit from his prepared speech, he spoke about the importance of local foods. Too often, he said, multinational corporations promote genetically engineered crops and other technological solutions when the answers are really closer to home. During the food price crisis, wheat became very expensive, and many Bolivians returned to eating quinoa—a local crop that had been neglected for years. Now, he said, the FAO has released a report saying that quinoa is one of the most nutritious grains in the world. He pointed to his own full head of hair and joked that perhaps one reason so many European men are bald is that they eat too many genetically engineered, hormone-laced foods, instead of nutritious, locally grown foods.

It’s hard to talk about climate change without looking at inequality, both within and among nations. And there are no easy answers to either of them. But it just might be that the creative ideas and alliances formed at this conference help us to move a few steps towards fresh new solutions to both.

Evo Morales

This post is one of a three part series of blog entries from Karen Hansen Kuhn's visit to Cochabamba:
Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

Karen Hansen-Kuhn