Tag Archives: agriBusiness

GMO Labeling in the US

GMO labeling in the United States USA

I continue to see debates about labeling GMO products in the US devolve into debates about the safety, necessity, or science behind GMOs, frequently all three.

These concerns are marginally connected, yes, but labeling a product so that I can have a choice is fundamental. It doesn’t matter if you and I agree, it doesn’t matter if you think I’m wrong. I don’t want to eat GMO foods and I have a right to know what I’m eating.

After this much back and forth with no progress, I have to believe labeling is being thwarted because people with money invested in the issue understand that more people agree with me than not.

Our Just Deserts?

Watching the fields of Sandhill cranes recently has given me refreshed vision for seeing the fields without the birds as I pass them on the highways: vast blankets of crop stubble, stoic pivot irrigation structures waiting through the winter lull, and field edges that are often barely lines on the ground.

I’m seeing the desert afresh.  All the life and vibrancy of the birds is replaced by the endless miles of nobody doing anything, punctuated by the small islands that teem only in comparison.

The single largest land use on the planet is agriculture.  We’ll never ever be able to save sufficient biodiversity if we just aim for the park and wilderness set asides.  If you were falling off a cliff, I reach for more than just your wristwatch to grab onto.  But how on earth do we feed everybody if we don’t use industrial ag?

Here’s an interesting thought: industrial has never yet fed everybody- the bulk of the world still eats from small farms within a half days walk from their homes.

What it is doing is creating enormously areas of depleting fertility and sharply reduced biodiversity, which can’t possibly be a good long term plan.  Can it be done differently?  In some places, it is.

ecoagriculture partnersEcoAgriculture Partners, in Washington, DC, is considering the problem through three lenses: productivity (the people need to eat), ecology (a farmer needs the process to be sustainable if their children’s children’s children are to inherit fertile land), and economy (a farmer needs to make a living).  The interconnectivity of these three pillars of ecoagriculture practice comes clear when one is out of balance.

If the farmer can’t make a living, the long term unsustainability of a project will count for less than the short term economic assistance it can provide.  If the people don’t have enough to eat in the here and now, they’ll eat the seeds of the next year’s crops rather than plant them.  If ecologically unsound practices endure too long (a measure which varies by practice and place), the whole community will have to move and find new lands to live off of, a prospect their new neighbors may find less than appealing.

Strong proponents of PES programs (payments for ecosystem services), EcoAgriculture Partners (EP) hopes to use PES money to give tangible value to farming practices that benefit the whole community: water filtration and infiltration, erosion control, and carbon sequestration all come to mind; somewhat difficult to measure, but not impossible.

Kijabe Environmental VolunteersSometimes their work leads them to study and quantify ecoagricultural communities already existing in balance with their landscape.  The integrated land management being used on the Kikuyu escapements of Kenya are one recently lauded example. KENVO (Kijabe Environmental Volunteers) works with local communities and farmers to balance the environmental pressures mounting as both Kijabe province and downstream Nairobi experience rapid population growth.

sylvopastoral silvopastoral woodspasture

(from the FAO)

In another project, grant monies were found to compensate small cattle farms in the Matiguás–Río Blanco area in Nicaragua for planting trees in their pastures.  Not forests, just what the English might refer to as a ‘woods pasture’: trees prevalent enough to provide some shade, soil retention, and water infiltration benefits, but sparse enough that pasture still grows readily beneath and between the trees.

This style of silvopastoral integrated agriculture has been practiced in a variety of cultures around the globe, each experiencing increased carbon sequestration, water quality improvement, water infiltration improvement, reduced soil loss, and increased on-farm biodiversity.

The project grant helped farmers overcome the gap between investment and return inherent in any tree crop.  While not all farmers stayed with the program after it finished, a significant number did, citing the improved pastures that the extra maoisture allowed for, and the decreased mid-summer heat-stress experienced by the cattle who were able to graze in the dappled shade. 

So no: barren, lifeless land-as-factory producing farm goods is not necessary, but yes, even as we learn more about the needs of the planet, we must also to learn about the needs of the farmers to learn what the barriers are to implementing practices they believe will improve the ecological soundness of their land.


KENVO image frrom the KENVO webpage.

Feelin’ pissy about shit.

hog pig cafo daylight fans

As good as it gets at a CAFO: daylight, fans, 2000 roommates...

Everybody, every once in a while, stinks.  That’s just a basic fact of life: we sweat, we poop, we pee, we fart … and animals are no different. So it’s not that I think that animals shouldn’t smell, it’s just that I think I shouldn’t feel assaulted when I get out of my car outside of Davenport, Iowa by the pervasive smell of pig manure.  But you know what I’m smelling?  It’s not just hog dung: it’s monoculture.

pigs in a non-CAFO

Contrast the CAFO with the lives of these folks.

When my horse pooped in a field, there were earthworms there ready to rock and roll.  We fed the horses just a smidgeon of whole kernel corn in their food.  It would, by and large, come right back out the other side intact.  This was all the enticement local birds needed to come rip apart the manure piles, looking for their treat.  Who needed a fancy manure spreader when, for a couple pennies a meal, we had whole flocks ready to do the work for us? Continue reading

Judge dismisses Monsanto suit. Argh.

These folks wrote it up so well (and so first person- it’s them in the suit against Monsanto) that I’ll let them tell this latest chapter.  I expect they’ll appeal.  Will keep you posted.  Grrr.  Boooo.

The crux of the case against Monsanto

Monsanto is being sued by a consortium of organic seed growers, organic farmers, and trade groups associated with these folks; the fuss is over the genetically modified (aka transgenic) seeds that Monsanto is releasing.  Here’s the gist of the case (you can read the full filing here).

The urgency: 

Monsanto has been suing farmers, including organic farmers, whose crops test positive for the gene for glyphosate-resistance (“Round-Up Ready”).  These fields are not being planted but are being contaminated by genetic drift.  Organic canola has already become largely extinct since the release of transgenic rapeseed, and other crops are similarly vulnerable as more varieties of genetically engineered seeds come onto the market.

The methodology:

Monsanto’s goal is profit.  Their profit is held in the ability to corner a market by holding a patent on the product.  The groups are seeking a declaratory judgment Continue reading

“Dear Monsanto, piss off. Love, the People’s Rally”

(photo source: Cort Kinker. Thanks Cort!)

Mad props to the farmers and seed growers and dozens of other supporters that gathered in New York City today to give physical witness to the sincerity of their lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment against Monsanto.

I plan to write more about this case in the morning, but I scratched my eye while touring a local dairy farm today and it hurts to look at this screen.


Pasture design and diet choices: 2 ways to save our warming world

CAFO in Oklahoma

Information keeps rolling out about the climate change disaster-in-progress, but they’re still talking in 100 year increments.  In 100 years, I won’t be here.  It’s hard to picture that far in advance.  7 years, on the other hand, I have full intention of seeing.  20 years? Yep, I’ll be here for that too.  We need to change the greenhouse gas situation, yesterday.  Ultimately, meat could be the springboard that saves us, buys us enough time to get other changes in place and working.  Let me explain…

Greenhouses Gases: it’s not just Carbon…

There’s been a lot of focus on carbon in the atmosphere, but carbon isn’t the only greenhouse gas.  It’s getting the attention because it’s the most abundant. It also has the longest “half life” (= how long til half of it is gone?)  I put that in quotes because carbon doesn’t exactly have a half life, but if it did, it would be 100 years.

Methane, on the other hand, has a half life of 7 years.  In about 10 years, it’s pretty much all gone.  Carbon being the most abundant doesn’t make it the most powerful.  On a 100 year scale, methane is 25 times more powerful than carbon Continue reading

Biodiversity in the kitchen, part III: the Green Revolution and its unintended fall-out

(This is the third in a series about eating biodiverse foods; having looked at the early history of food, and the mechanics and markets of Industrial Revolution agriculture, I focus here on Green Revolution and its unintended side effects.)

pivot irrigation monoculture monocrop industrial agriculture agribusiness

pivot irrigation in California

The biggest shave of agricultural genetics came during the mid-1900s, during a period known as the Green Revolution. While it overlaps with the Industrial Revolution, I distinguish the two because one is based on mechanical issues and the other on chemicals.  Yes, the Green Revolution caused a surge in agricultural productivity, lowered the price of food, and probably did save a lot of people from famine (not a couple hundred: from hundreds of thousands to millions).  BUT it did this in ways that are not proving to be sustainable; the Green Revolution has produced a lot of negative consequences that must be dealt with before agriculture can really move forward again. 

First, a little background: the advent of chemical agriculture

The atmosphere we breathe is filled with nitrogen, but it is in a form that plants cannot use.  Instead, tiny little organisms in the soil convert atmospheric nitrogen to plant soluble nitrogen.  There are plants known as nitrogen fixers, and they do a wonderful job of making those organisms very happy and prolific.   There are a host of other nutrients and minerals required by plants for health, but it is most often a lack of available nitrogen that thwarts plant growth.

how is fertilizer made natural gas haber-bosch process

Haber-Bosch process (click to enlarge)

In the early 1900s, two scientists (working argumentatively, this was not a collaboration) developed the Haber-Bosch process, which creates plant soluble nitrogen- in the form of ammonia- from atmospheric nitrogen, water, and natural gas.  The process is pretty involved, and includes changing both the temperature and the atmospheric pressure inside the reaction chambers, and that requires energy, beyond the initial natural gas requirement.

With the Haber-Bosch process, fertilizers containing higher than natural levels of nitrogen became Continue reading

Occupied Pantry: the intersection of agribusiness, finance, and regulatory practices.

This post is in response to last Friday’s Mother Jones article “Foodies, Get Thee to Occupy Wall Street” 

Tom Philpott’s article on the consolidation of wealth and political clout in the food/ agribusiness sector has incredibly valuable information in it, but I’d like to make clearer his somewhat buried premise: the banking/finance and food/agribusiness industries have a comparable grip on public policy.  Further, while Mr. Philpott spends time arguing (not without reason) that the agribusiness situation is worse than the banking sector situation, I focus my vision slightly differently: rather fussing about the hierarchy of horror, the parallels between these industries points out that food and finance are two enormous symptoms of the same larger problem.

If we in the Occupy Movement focus solely on the banking industry without attending to how it impacts (and self perpetuates through this impact) public policy, then we will not uncover the mechanisms that allow industry in general to create imbalanced access to and influence over the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.  Looking at agribusiness is one way to keep our vision sufficiently broad.

Some background: How consolidated is agribusiness?

Start with the inputs (seeds, fertilizers, biocides [the combination of herbicides and pesticides]) (I’m using 2007 numbers)

Seeds:  Four companies own half the world’s seeds. Continue reading

Agribusiness Cereal Criminals Uncovered!!

cornucopia institute cereal criminals cereal crimes reportThe organic industry’s watchdog, the Cornucopia Institute, released a hair-raising report, Cereal Crimes, this week after an extensive investigation in to the ‘natural food’ claims of various cereal and granola agribusiness giants.  The trouble has its roots in (marketing induced) consumer confusion over the distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ food.

In the United States, ‘organic’ is a highly regulated term.  Not only must organic ingredients meet an array of common sense demands (no chemical fertilizers, no chemical pesticides, no GMOs), they have to pass through a series of regulatory hoops to gain certification, including farm inspections.  Foods labeled ‘natural’ have none of these confidence indicators attached to them.

That seems like a bug duh, but here’s where I see the faulty gate latch: the major barrier to certification, especially for many smaller and newer farmers, is having to pay for their own certification process. (How great would it be if a tax on chemical inputs paid for this process instead? but I digress…)

This means that our farmers markets are full of small farmers who will say Continue reading