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March 2010

March 04, 2010

Peasant farms and ecological sustainability in China

Mindi Schneider is blogging from China. She is a native Midwesterner currently living in China and working on her PhD in Development Sociology at Cornell.

In my last post, I proposed a contradiction between ecological farming and low-carbon lifestyles, and the difficulties encountered by the people living them. We can see some of these contradictions in the Ge family's farming system located in the small village in Hebei Province.

The hallmarks of sustainable farming systems from an ecological perspective can be summarized as complexity, locality and resilience—a diverse mix of locally adapted crops and cropping patterns, mixed crop-and-livestock systems, and closed input and waste cycles. From fruit trees, vegetables, legumes and grains; to sheep, goats, chickens, cows and pigs; to manure, night soil and compost—the Ge family’s farming system, and that of virtually every other household in the village, has it all. System components relate to one another in complex ways, such that nutrients and materials are cycled throughout the system. A couple of early-spring farming practices that I observed illustrate these concepts.

During my visit, I spent a lot of time with Mrs. Ge, who like many women in the village, does most of the farm work. Every afternoon, she sets out after lunch with her 16 sheep to graze. First, she leads the sheep through the persimmon orchards at the base of the mountains where they eat anything left on the ground and deposit nutrient rich manure. Everyone in the village has persimmon trees, and goats graze freely in all of the villagers’ plots. After spending some time in the lowlands, Mrs. Ge steadily moves the sheep up the mountain to feed on scrub grasses on the hillsides and to visit terraced fruit tree plots on the way. After two to three hours, or until the sheep’s bellies are sufficiently swollen, she guides them back down to the village, again stopping in the orchards to drop off a bit more manure. In this way, the sheep act as mobile fertilizer factories, moving nutrients down from the grassy mountain slopes to the lowland orchard soils where they can be taken up by the fruit trees. The sheep also move nuDBM_9783trients in another way. While at home in the family’s courtyard, Mrs. Ge supplements grazing by feeding the sheep corn stalks saved from the previous year’s crop and scraps from the kitchen. These “wastes” are turned into resources, as they cycle through the sheep and back to the orchard and crop soils. 

Nutrients are managed in other ways as well. Most of the farmers I spoke to had just slaughtered their pigs prior to Chinese New Year, and were preparing to buy another one or two to raise in the coming year. Most would be consumed in the village during Spring Festival, and a few would be sold at local markets. Instead of factory-farm-ready pig breeds that are becoming increasing popular in China, these are locally adapted pigs that farmers raise for about 11 months. Pigs eat crop residues, kitchen scraps, weeds and all manner of vegetation, in addition to a bit of corn saved from the previous season. Pigs too are housed in the family’s courtyard with the sheep, chickens and any other livestock, and bed down on a mix of corn stalks and crop residues. Courtyards have an “escape hatch” of sorts where livestock bedding, along with the nutrient-rich manure that has been deposited with it, is periodically scooped out. This creates piles (more like mountains) of compost that farmers load onto carts or into three-wheeler truck beds to tote to the orchards and crop fields. This, together with manure deposited by grazing sheep and night soil made from human waste, provides enough nutrients for the farming system—very few farmers in the village use purchased fertilizers. 

Early spring is also the time when farmers prune their fruit trees to ensure maximum fruit load. They collect, stack and store the prunings, and use them throughout the year as fuel for cooking and heating their homes.

The final picture below shows a stockpile of feed, fuel and fertilizer—or corn stalks, fruit tree prunings and composted manure.  

This is, of course, an incomplete "agroecosystem analysis," and I'm not arguing that these are perfect systems. The practices that I've highlighted, however, exemplify practices and models that are often proposed as keys to ecological sustainability, and achieving low-carbon futures. In my next blog, I'll look at some of the challenges of day to day living within this ecologically sustainable system.

Brent Martin provided the photos that appear in this post.

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Mindi Schneider

March 03, 2010

Ecologically sustainable lifestyles in China...and the struggles of people living them

This is my first blog post, so let me briefly introduce myself. My name is Mindi Schneider. I’m a native Midwesterner, and studied horticulture, agroecology, and local food systems at the University of Nebraska starting in the late 90s. I’m currently living in China and working on research for my dissertation in Development Sociology at Cornell. I’m particularly keen to understand how the industrialization of agriculture, especially hog production, is re-organizing rural economies and peasant practices here.

But enough about me. Let’s talk Chinese peasants and sustainable agriculture…

I just returned to Beijing this morning after spending six days in an 80-household mountain village in central Hebei Province. I was there to learn about farmer cooperatives, agricultural practices and peasant livelihoods. Through a friend who works as a village cooperative coordinator at the Liang Shuming Center for Rural Reconstruction (also Renmin University’s New Rural Reconstruction Research Center and the Ground Green Union), I was able to stay with the Ge family, and follow them around through their daily activities. While it’s difficult to narrow the insights I gained during my trip into a short blog post, I want to share some thoughts on a contradiction that I think is particularly worth noting, namely, the contradiction between ecologically sustainable lifestyles and the struggles of the people living them.

Let me explain. On the one hand, when I looked at farmers' practices in the village through an agroecologist’s eyes, I was continually struck by how these were the complex, low-carbon systems that we hold as models of sustainability in theory and in practice. If I were to analyze these farming systems solely in terms of material flows and nutrient cycling, I would say bravo. Sustainable. But on the other hand, whenever I asked anyone in the village about their life, the response was always that peasant life is full of kunnan, the Mandarin word for difficulties and problems. The question then becomes not so much about sustainability per se, but about inequalities, injustices, relationships between rural and urban areas, farming and non-farming populations, and policies. As a sociologist and activist, I want to understand these struggles and relationships in their proper context, and look for solutions.

The contradiction I’m proposing is related to themes that others have written about and pursued as a course of action (see for example Miguel Altieri’s “Small farms as a planetary ecological asset: Five key reasons why we should support the revitalization of small farms in the Global South” at Food First, and La Via Campesina “Climate crisis—Small scale sustainable farmers are cooling down the earth"). In my next post, I want to pick up this thread, and relate it to the farmers I met in Hebei.

Mindi Schneider

Farms in the balance: Countering attacks against EPA on climate

Attacks on the EPA have been coming fast and furious in the past few months. In contrast to Congress’s limp attempts to pass comprehensive climate legislation, the EPA has begun taking steps to address climate change. Most significantly, the agency declared greenhouse gases (GHGs) an “endangerment” to public health last year—a finding that enables the EPA to regulate GHGs under the Clean Air Act. That hasn’t sat well with those opposed to climate action.

In January, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced a “resolution of disapproval” in the Senate that would kill the EPA’s ability to regulate GHGs. Although the resolution’s viability is unlikely, if passed it would require Obama’s signature, setting a disturbing precedent. The EPA decision was based on science. Murkowski’s resolution is pure politics. Congress shouldn’t have the authority to usurp science just because it doesn’t like the outcome.

Murkowski’s resolution has created something of a snowball effect. Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), chair of the House Agriculture Committee, introduced a copycat resolution in the House earlier this week, no doubt pleasing mightily his supporters in the Farm Bureau, National Corn Growers’ Association and other conventional agriculture groups who have come out strongly in favor of Murkowski’s resolution.

Those groups, of course, don’t speak for all of agriculture or rural America. To that end, IATP joined 25 other agriculture and rural organizations yesterday in delivering a letter to the Senate urging them to vote against Murkowski’s resolution. Our argument is simple: If we refuse to take action on climate change, we put at risk our nation’s food supply and farmers’ livelihoods. We feel strongly that a comprehensive legislative approach to climate policy is the best way to deal with this issue, but waiting to act—and denying the science—is terribly shortsighted. Farmers and rural residents are already feeling the negative effects of climate change. It is in all our best interests to take action now.

You can read the letter here.

Signatories include:

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network, Appalachian Sustainable Development, Beyond Pesticides, California Certified Organic Farmers, California Climate and Agriculture Network, Center for Rural Affairs, Family Farm Defenders, Food and Water Watch, Iowa Environmental Council, Island Grown Initiative, Kansas Rural Center, League of Rural Voters, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, National Organic Coalition, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, Nebraska Wildlife Federation, Northeast Organic Farming Association Interstate Council, Organic Valley, Pesticide Action Network North America, Rodale Institute, Rural Advantage, Slow Food USA and The Organic Center.

Julia Olmstead

March 02, 2010

Childhood obesity and our cheap food policy

Cover The latest issue of the influential Health Affairs journal comes out blazing with editor-in-chief Susan Dentzer writing that “America is guilty of child abuse.” The March issue focuses on childhood obesity and includes a series of articles related to kid's snacks, school lunches, food marketing and strategies for prevention.

IATP's David Wallinga contributes the article “Agricultural Policy and Childhood Obesity.” The article traces the role of U.S. agricultural policy in promoting the overproduction of certain farm commodities like corn and soybeans. These cheap commodities have been converted into calorie-rich but nutrient-poor snacks, sweets and sweetened beverages that have led to an excess of daily calories for all Americans, children and adults alike.

"As a nation, we must understand that farm policy is public health policy," said Dr. Wallinga in our press release. "We need to transition from a cheap calorie farm policy to one that nourishes our children's health. It's going to take steps across the food system and at every level of government to not only bend the curve on the obesity epidemic, but to reverse it."

Unfortunately, the issue is subscription only, but the magazine has published a series of publicly available issue briefs based on the longer articles, including one based on Dr. Wallinga's piece, that gives non-subscribers a taste of the content.

Ben Lilliston

March 01, 2010

What's so radical about family farming?

In mid-February, the third Farmers' Forum was held just prior to the 33rd Governing Council meeting of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in Rome. IFAD is a specialized agency of the UN that funds agriculture production projects in developing countries. The forum brought together 70 representatives of farmer organizations from around the world, representing tens of millions of farmers. IATP was unable to participate due to the tight meeting quota, but the forum's statement and the IFAD president's statement merit comment, if only because they seem at odds with trends in U.S. agriculture, at least at first glance.

The forum's “synthesis of deliberations” noted first how the economic crisis had increased global rural poverty and hunger. Furthermore, “We are witnessing all over the world an increasing competition for land and water, with rising land concentration and large-scale land acquisition by transnational corporations and local elites. These practices result in exclusion of people from land and water resources, the fundamental resources on which we rely as food producers.” In response, the forum called for a return of control over agriculture to family farmers and for a United Nations International Year of the Family Farming. This call may seem out of touch with the statistical reality of U.S. farming and with an increasing concentration of market share of agricultural input production, agri-processing and food retailing that has prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice to initiate hearings in anti-competitive agribusiness practices.

In the United States, the February updating of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest (2007) census shows an unremitting concentration of agricultural resources into an ever-smaller number of ever-larger industrialized raw materials production facilities, which the USDA describes as “very large family farms.” Nine percent of the estimated 2.2 million U.S. farms produce about 63 percent of the total value of all U.S. agricultural production. However, USDA reports that the growth in new farms and new farmers since 2003 is occurring on farms averaging about 200 acres in size and $71,000 in annual sales. Such sales are not enough to support full time employment in farming, so two-thirds of these farmers do not report farming as their primary occupation. For these U.S. farmers and for the declining number of mid-size family farms reported in the census, the Farmers' Forum statement on farmer control of agricultural production may be something they would like to see implemented by USDA.

For those agribusinesses and their government supporters who often state that they “feed the world,” the forum statement might sound downright revolutionary. And yet, as noted by IFAD's president Kanayo Nwanze, about 500 million small land holders provide 80 percent of food consumed in the developing world. IFAD's budget for assisting farmers in developing countries is very modest compared to that of USDA. The forum's demands are correspondingly modest, but very much directed towards establishing farmer control over agriculture through advocating participation in the design and implementation of IFAD projects. The marginalization of farmers from agricultural planning in favor of corporate and central government official control is not the kind of partnership that the forum wants farmers to be involved with in IFAD. Rather than appending the Farmers' Forum to IFAD annual meetings in Rome, the Forum statement proposes to integrate forum participation in all IFAD regional meetings.

Furthermore, nearly half of the forum statement is dedicated to the disparity between the many responsibilities of women in farming as providers of household food security and the paucity of technical and financial resources for them to carry out those responsibilities. President Nwanze gave a special welcome to the 40 percent of the 2010 forum participants who are women and remarked that only nine percent of 2006 Forum participants were women. As women continue to be denied the resources afforded to exporting farms, the forum statement notes “our sons and daughters do not wish to be farmers and continue to migrate to urban areas. This raises a critical question: How can the profitability and sustainability of farming be secured so as to ensure a future for the next generation of women and men farmers?” This question, though formulated in the context of IFAD's developing country members, is surely not foreign to U.S. family farm households.

If IFAD's members agree to a 67 percent budget increase over the next three years, President Nwanze said that the resulting annual $1 billion budget would be able to improve the livelihoods of about 60 million rural people. Programs would be targeted to involve rural youth in farming and to support the women farmers who globally produce about 60 percent of all food crops in developing countries. The role of small land holding farmers in climate change mitigation and adaptation would be another program focus.

Despite the differences between the size and sales of U.S. and developing country farms, and the differences between U.S. government and IFAD budgets, few, if any, of the concerns in the forum and IFAD presidential statements should be foreign to U.S. farmers.

Steve Suppan

Finding the intersection of hope and action in Cuba

Mark Muller is the director of IATP's Food and Society Fellows program. See the full set of photos from the fellows' trip on their Facebook page.

Following a Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance meeting in Tulum, Mexico titled “Finding the Intersection of Hope and Action” we had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tour food, health and agriculture systems in Cuba. Several Food and Society Fellows participated in the forum in Tulum, and ten fellows, with IATP’s Abby Rogosheske and myself, continued on for the Cuba trip. The themes of the forum were hope and action, and we found plenty of both in Cuba.Fellowscuba.org

 It will take a long time before we can appropriately digest everything we saw and heard during the trip. Cuban society functions so much differently than other Latin American countries, let alone the United States. Some observations of interest:
  • A University of Havana professor told us that 78 percent of Cuban food is imported.
  • The Cuban government is creating incentives for people to cultivate the more than three million hectares of land that is idle, and has closed several sugar mills because of the low price of sugar and to encourage more food production for domestic use, like milk and vegetables.
  • At the successful vegetable farms we visited, farm workers would often earn a better salary than a doctor.
  • We saw very few grocery stores in Cuba, and those that we did had an extremely limited number of products. It was the first grocery store that I have ever been to that didn’t have Coca Cola or PepsiCo products!

The trip provided a fascinating glimpse into an economic and political structure foreign to most in the United States. We have already had some interesting discussions about the pluses and minuses of the Cuban approach. And perhaps most usefully, Cuba has created an 11-million-person experiment on how to manage food and health systems. As we prepare for a world with a changing climate, reduced fossil fuels and complex international relations, Cuba provides some examples of both what to do and what not to do.

—Mark Muller

Ben Lilliston