Category Archives: Green

The Conservation Question

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Going through all the postings/ articles shared on the occasion of Earth Day, it is encouraging to note the concern for preserving the environment. But, along with  that, comes the realization that preservation/conservation really means different things to different people. As one writer notes, the idea of pristine nature, left to itself; without humans going in and wrecking it is somewhat of an artificial construct.  Delinking people and their surroundings is a distortion. Over centuries, people have lived in harmony with their surroundings but this relationship has become fractured in recent times. The need is to restore it, rather than banish people from these spaces.

In rural areas, the poorest sections of the population often depend on their surrounding environment for food, fuel, fodder,even medicine and shutting them out to “preserve” nature makes the rural poor more vulnerable to economic hardship. Even the practice of eco-tourism as a means of balancing conservation and economic priorities can actually have a negative impact on those who depend on the land for survival.This would become worse as climate change poses a challenge to the food system and way of life of many communities causing them to become food insecure and  displaced from their homelands.

There is a need to emphasize that tackling climate change is not solely a matter of desertification, rising oceans or vanishing habitats for plants and animals. Climate change is impacting the livelihoods of people, specially the rural poor. So any plan of action should, ideally, take the whole picture into account: how can people and the environment coexist in a time of climate change? The answer  can be found partly in the technology that is available to us today and also in the knowledge that indigenous communities possess that enabled them to prosper in their environment in the past.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

Earth Day Poetry: “First Morel”

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American Life in Poetry shared a  lovely poem by Amy Fleury, a poet from Lousiana , to celebrate spring. I thought it was particularly appropriate for Earth Day. When we talk about cherishing and preserving our planet, let us think of all that lives on it: not just the cute polar bears but also the sometimes scary (for me!) bats, not only the redwoods but also the mushrooms below, not only the monarch butterflies that dazzle but also the milkweed that sustains them.

First Morel 

Up from wood rot,
wrinkling up from duff
and homely damps,
spore-born and cauled
like a meager seer,
it pushes aside earth
to make a small place
from decay. Bashful,
it brings honeycombed
news from below
of the coming plenty
and everything rising.

Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net  (yes, I know those are not morel mushrooms in the picture, that image was not available, but it does underline the main theme, everything is worth cherishing!)

Smallholder Farmers Most Vulnerable to Climate Change

cofcl For some time now, we have been aware that coffee farmers have been facing the challenges of climate change; either from too much rain or from drought. Coffee crops are also being attacked by coffee rust which thrives in the warmer temperatures we are experiencing today. Colombia was one of the countries worst affected by this issue but the Colombian Coffee federation has invested on a large scale in rust resistant varieties, thus providing a solution and some hope for the farmers. In Brazil, large coffee producers have moved operations to cooler areas to combat the rising temperatures. But lost in all this is the small holder coffee farmer, often the supplier of the fair trade coffee we prefer as a better option for the planet.

While our choice at the cafe makes us feel we did the right thing, the reality might be different, with the farmer often at the losing end of a deal with middle men and has limited access to resources to deal with the problems facing coffee cultivation. This is an important consideration in any discussion on climate change: the bigger economies/groups with greater resources will at least have the chance to adopt some measures to combat the impact of changing climate; but is is those with the least resources and access, whether it is nations or communities within a country that are most at risk.

Also, can we acknowledge that climate change is not like any other problem that we have faced in the past? It is a challenge to the way we have lived on this planet for so long and its impact will be colossal so it is only logical that we employ all options to deal with this crisis. Those small holder coffee farmers facing the prospect of losing their livelihoods could benefit from solutions offered by biotechnology. In a better world, we would  be open to options that science can offer and not be held back by unfounded fears. At this point, the future looks pretty grim, we are going to need some coffee to deal with that!

 

Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net

 

#Farming Friday 10: Farming in the Time of Climate Change

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“The glacier knocks in the cupboard,

The desert sighs in the bed,

And the crack in the teacup opens,

A lane to the land of the dead.” – W.H. Auden

Climate change presents a unique challenge to the way we live on our planet. Today’s edition looks at this from a farmer’s point of view.

Also, tonight is the first episode of “Years of Living Dangerously”. Please watch if you can, and share what you felt about the links between climate change and the food system.

 

“Years of Living Dangerously”: Climate Change in our World Today

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Yesterday I watched the première episode of the series “Years Of Living Dangerously”. I had heard a lot about it and was curious to see if it would touch on  any links to agriculture/food system. It started off with Harrison Ford, one of the celebrity correspondents helping to tell the climate change story, taking off in a plane repurposed by NASA to collect samples of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  Other aspects of the story unfolded as we visited Plainview, Texas where long years of drought decimated the cattle and shut down the local meat-packing factory, rendering people unemployed; to Indonesia where centuries old forest growth is being cut down everyday to make room for palm oil plantations; and to Syria where the roots of the current conflict are traced back to a devastating drought that displaced farmers and forced people into extreme poverty. (I wrote about Syria earlier here).

The science of climate change is well presented and the most fascinating part of the hour, for me, was watching  Dr. Katherine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University explain how her personal faith and  her work in climate change coexist. Often, communication between scientists and the public is less than successful so it was great to see this work well here. The question of palm oil plantations is a fraught one and it points toward a very difficult challenge: getting people to change their habits. Palm oil appears as an ingredient in a variety of  products ranging from Nutella to soap and is crucial to the profit lines of many companies. It is these business interests which ensure that the burning down of forests continues (thereby releasing carbon into the atmosphere and lowering the ability of forests to absorb carbon) and they are strong enough to push their agenda ahead.  While disappointment and frustration at this situation is justified, I do think this part of the puzzle would benefit from a bit of reflection. If there was a time for calm conversation,for careful expression of opinions it is this time. Countries like India, Indonesia and others often complain about developed nations speaking loudest and that needs to be avoided in the interest of finding solutions for all. Going back to the habits issue: if the production side is intractable can we try to reduce consumption of products containing palm oil thereby reducing making it less profitable? That does not seem easy, either.

The piece on Syria connected the dots between  prolonged drought, the struggle for resources for survival, and social violence.From Turkey, across the border into Syria, we got a riveting glimpse of the people at the center of the struggle, people like the commander of Syrian fighters who used to be a cotton farmer and whose comment stayed with me long after I heard it: “Starving makes you do anything.”

This, then, is the future: unpredictable and severe weather events leading to a struggle for resources (land, water, food), spread of diseases leading to public health crises and escalating social conflict. What are we going to do about it?  We seem to be still arguing over who did what and when, while the clock is ticking down to disaster. Sure, adaptation and mitigation efforts are being made but as this article argues, a challenge like this deserves an extraordinary response. After all, the future of the planet and its people depends on what we do today.

This episode of “Years of Living Dangerously” left me wishing that it was available for all to see and not restricted to one channel. Based on how well made this episode was, I want to know all the stories. Indeed, I would have “binge-watched” it, if that were possible! In the meantime, you can watch the first episode online here.

Food Security and Ecology in India

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In India last year, there was an intense debate on the proposed Food Security Bill, centering mostly around the impact on the national budget and the mechanism of distributing extra supplies of food grains to consumers throughout the country. Parliament eventually passed the Bill but the question remains: is this really the food security initiative that will serve people best? For the rural population, which is primarily involved in agriculture, food security is not merely a matter of entitlement to a certain amount of cash or food grains; but is reflected in the existence of an available, accessible and assured source of food that will hold steady in the face of stresses and shocks to the food system. It is not just about hunger, it is about the ability to rely on a source of food in a stable way.

Traditionally, the food system for rural families comprises not only what they grow and the livestock they raise, but also what they extract from forests, streams and the surrounding landscape. The ecosystem can provide food directly (edible plants and animal and also medicinal plants), these can also be sold and the income used to purchase other food products; forests also provide firewood that is crucial for cooking (an adequate supply is required, for example, to cook proteins such as beans and meat which would help improve quality of diet). In terms of production, forests provide a habitat for pollinators, maintain/reduce soil erosion and fertility and mangroves and coastal forests reduce the impact of flooding to ensure stability in crop production and fish supply. Rural people, therefore, rely on the surrounding system for supplementing their diet as well as for their livestock and also to ensure that their crops can flourish. But this rural landscape and  the resources it offers also face degradation from overuse, pollution, deforestation all of which will be exacerbated by climate change. With the spread of urban living and tourism, rural populations without strong land rights are often shut out off lands to which they traditionally had access. It is in this context that a food security policy needs to be assessed. Can rural families count on an accessible, available and assured food supply?

On a broad scale, a balance has to be sought between conservation and production/consumption. Efforts at preserving and conserving the environment can sometimes lead to an artificial split in the landscape with certain areas marked for production and others for conservation. This negates the traditional integrated living patterns of rural people where forests and agricultural production coexist. By making an arbitrary divide in the environment, farmers are now excluded from access to resources that earlier supplemented their nutrition.

A recent World Bank report underlined that India would have to “value its natural resources, and ecosystems to better inform policy and decision-making.” This seems to be in accordance with what the Environmental Policy Report of 2006 which explained that “the dominant theme of this policy is that while conservation of environmental resources is necessary to secure livelihoods and well-being of all, the most secure basis for conservation is to ensure that people dependent on particular resources obtain better livelihoods from the fact of conservation, than from degradation of the resource.” How much of this translates into actual practice is another matter.

In terms of providing support to deal with stresses and shocks without further intensifying ecological degradation; the Food Security Act can be effective. If farmers could rely on this as a source of food, there would be less pressure to draw on an already threatened or depleted environment. This concern is brought into sharper focus as we face the challenge of climate change which would stress the ecosystem. All the effects of a policy that is blind to ecosystems will be further magnified by climate change. It has been estimated that there will a ten per cent extra increase in malnourished children world wide, as a result of climate change. India is particularly vulnerable, according to UNICEF, 1 in 3 malnourished children in the world live in India that makes future projections accounting for climate change of great concern. If food security policy assures them of at least a meal a day at school, that could have a big impact.

On the other hand, the Food Security Act is limited to a few crops and this has ecological implications as well. Due to the increased demand for these crops, farmers would find it profitable to opt for growing only a few major crops such as wheat or rice thus drawing more resources such as water to these two crops and reducing diversity in the production of food.

For an effective food security policy, ensuring access to ecosystem resources is crucial; it is not simply a matter of handing out grains/cash through a public system. An effective food security policy would view people and the ecosystem as integrated and design measures that work across sectors; so conservation/environmental policies would be devised in step with rural food security policy. It would recognize that food security also needs to be climate resilient and stresses brought on by climate change such as drought, and flood which impact access to food can be better managed by ensuring that production policies and conservation efforts are framed with the entire ecosystem in mind.

This post grew out of a Twitter discussion with @IndianBotanists and I thank them for their suggestion and appreciate their patience as this post came to fruition. (Image Courtesy:freedigitalphotos.net)

#Farming Friday 5: What is Wasabina?

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This series was a part of my New Year resolution and at the back of my mind was the misgiving that it might be difficult to keep it up. But it has turned out to be one of the best things I ever did! There are so many wonderful blogs from farmers all over the world which are a delight to read; and my new challenge is to choose just one among the many for Farming Friday.

Today’s blog is from Echigo Farm in Springfield, MO which specializes in growing traditional Japanese produce! They grow wasabina, mizuna, komatsuna, Japanese momotaro tomatoes and many other vegetables. Stopping by their blog to discover how these exotic sounding vegetables are flourishing in the Ozarks  was an experience I wanted to share with you. Oh, and wasabina is a variety of Japanese greens which is rich in iron and calcium and features in the farm’s winter greens mix.Hopefully, I will find it in a store somewhere near me!

Can a Rice Gene Save the Banana?

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Can a gene from rice help combat the pathogen that threatens the extinction of bananas? That was just one of the many interesting issues featured in Dr. Pamela Ronald’s lecture at the SAIS Global Issues in Agriculture series. Dr. Ronald is a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis. Many of us following the debate on GMOs  might have read her book, “Tomorrow’s Table”, co-authored with her husband, Mr. R.W. Adamchak, who is an organic farmer.

Speaking to a (mostly) non-scientific audience, Dr. Ronald explained in clear terms that growers have been trying to enhance desirable traits in crops forever. The older method of simply crossing Type x with Type y and waiting to see whether the hybrid plant had the desired trait . This method focused on the outward result but modification at the genetic level did take place but was unobserved. Genetic modification today is precise,  and efficient and enables quick and accurate results. In addition, it is backed by years of research data.

Why do we need genetic modification anyway? Consider, Dr. Ronald said, the case of the GM papaya. The papayas grown in Hawaii were attacked by the ringspot virus which devastated the crop, even moving the crop to another island did not help. Ultimately, the plants were “vaccinated” with a dose of the virus which enabled them to resist when the virus actually attacked. And so it is that we still have papayas in Hawaii. Perhaps a similar solution could be found for coffee rust? We will never know if we cannot try this option in the real world. Dr. Ronald spoke of her own work with rice: how a rice gene could possibly be used to battle the pathogen which threatens  bananas with extinction.

One possible application of genetic modification could be in building climate resilience in crops.Dr. Ronald shared her work on building flood tolerance in rice. In many parts of the world rice is grown in flood prone areas and with increased flooding possible from climate change; the development of a strain of rice which can stand water logging for up to 17 days as compared to the current maximum of 3 days is great news. But all these wonderful possibilities would take years to negotiate the stringent regulatory process and even then be opposed due to fear mongering. In that context, I was hoping to ask Dr. Ronald for her views on labeling of GMO products. But , sadly, there was not enough time; most of the discussion was taken up by two journalists from Germany, which, given that country’s staunch opposition to GMOs was interesting….

The main point to learn from this lecture was that the seed (around which so much of the storm is swirling) is but a small part in the whole process of growing food and we need to incorporate all options, technology and good agro-ecological practices to achieve sustainable development.

While I was learning all this; with ease, I would like to add, as Dr. Ronald is great at making all this scientific information accessible to those not from a science background; I wished more people could hear her, instead of being bombarded by myths of “dangerous farming” and GMOs killing bees.

Of Organic Eggs and Antibiotics

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Reading this piece on organic eggs today I was  reminded of the famous painting of a pipe by Rene Magritte, entitled “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” or “This is not a pipe”, it is merely the representation of a pipe. Or, nothing is what it seems. In the piece, it is revealed that organic eggs are treated with an antibiotic, gentimicin. This is actually used to seal in the tiny hole made to vaccinate the egg against Marek’s disease. This is done on the first day of the life cycle of the egg. But to be classified as “organic”, the egg only needs to be free of antibiotics from the second day of life so this egg will go on to hatch and the eggs from that chicken will come to our tables. Is this still an “organic egg”?  (The organic eggs sold for consumption are, however, not treated with gentimicin). How does this make us feel about the categorization of these eggs as organic?

For me, it is reminiscent of the bump down to earth I felt when I discovered that the organic strawberries that my toddlers loved, and that I paid a hefty premium for, actually started life in the nursery doused with methyl bromide, soil sterilizer and pesticide.  At the time of this report, two years ago, there were no organic nurseries in California which provide fruit and seedlings to consumers all over the world. Yet some would opt for the organic produce from those very seedlings over conventional produce and pay more for it. Are they really getting “organic strawberries”?

The intention here is not to devalue organic methods but to underline the fact that debates on the food system are often disconnected from ground realities. Seedlings, eggs etc will be prone to pests and diseases and we have to find a way to protect what we grow. Insistence on some arbitrary “natural” , or “local” standard ignores the fact that pests do exist in nature and crops have to be protected from them. This insistence on unreal qualities is then exploited by retailers who will use terms like “natural”, “local” or “sustainable” which actually have no backing or meaning to them, on labels  and make a profit by selling a higher quantity.

As the labeling war wages on in different states, it might be a good idea to pause for a moment and reflect on what it would achieve. If current labels mask loopholes, would future labels be of any value? More importantly, is it going to be worth the time, money and resources that are currently being directed into this contest? There are much bigger problems we need to attend to: too many people going hungry , too much food being wasted, sources of water running alarmingly low levels, unpredictable climate posing challenges to our current ways of growing food; all of which  need our energy more than semantics.

Non-GMO Cheerios: Something to Cheer About?

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The news that General Mills is going to eliminate genetically modified elements from their line of Original Cheerios was greeted with cheers by many. If true, it would represent a big change in the way the cereal is produced. But how big is this change, I wondered.  Reading closely we find that the main ingredient, oats, were not GM anyway, it is the corn starch and sugar that are being sourced differently and this will only happen for the Original line not for others like Honey Nut, Fruity Cheerios , Apple Cinnamon etc. It is, then, only a small tweak in only one cereal, right. Wait, there is more: on her blog, the Farmer’s Daughter  USA quotes Margaret Smith, Professor of Plant Breeding at Cornell University.

“In reality, Cheerios isn’t changing at all. Margaret Smith, professor of plant breeding at Cornell says:

Corn starch and sugar are highly refined products, so they contain no DNA (which is what is introduced into a genetically engineered organism) and no protein (which is what the new DNA would produce in a genetically engineered organism). Because of that, corn starch and sugar from a genetically engineered corn variety are nutritionally and chemically identical to corn starch or sugar from a non-genetically engineered variety.

It is the exact same cereal.”

The statement from the company seems to indicate that the corn and sugar General Mills uses in future will be conventional, non-GMO (there is no mention of use of organic crops). The main reason for using GM corn is to prevent crop loss to pests,  not world domination ,as so much of anti-GMO propaganda insists. So, how are the pests going to be dealt with? Would this mean increased pesticide use to prevent crop losses? Everyone agrees this is not such a good thing: for the farmers who have to handle and apply the stuff, for the consumers or for the planet. The use of non-GMO crops involves a real cost in terms of crop loss which in turn would impact prices of these crops and the quantities produced, more here.  For example, if in a given year,  x hectares of corn was planted with the expectation of a yield of  y tonnes, and the yield is lower due to crop loss to pests; global demand for corn stays ahead of global supply, next year the farmers might respond by growing x+some hectares by cutting down forests. That is not a great outcome. Would it be better to switch to organic corn and sugar? There are doubts about organic cultivation bringing in the required yields . Besides, organic farming also uses pesticides, just different ones from those in conventional farms.

So far, none of this is positive. And the question remains, why this decision now? What does the producer get out of this?  Well, the company can, for example, put on a big label on its package saying “No GMOs Used” (or something to that effect). This highlights exactly my misgivings with the labeling issue. Basically  a label can obscure as much as it reveals. Consumers, overwhelmed with all the fear mongering on the GMO issue might be persuaded to buy more of what they think is “safer” for their families. This means more sales and more profits, good news for the company.While General Mills has a big chunk of the market, its share has slipped in 2013 (by a tiny bit) and this would be a good time to bump up the numbers.

Just as the insistence on a tortuous and long drawn out approval process for GMO crops tips the balance in favor of big corporations; the clamor for labeling can also have unintended consequences. It will make a difference , yes, but to the big  producers and not to the consumer. Not much to cheer about, after all.