Tag Archives: climate change

What Is Important In Iowa? Food!

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With so much political noise coming from Iowa in the last few days, one curious bit of news went almost unnoticed: a Chinese citizen pleaded guilty to the charge of stealing corn seeds on behalf of a biotech company in Beijing. Why would corn seeds be of such interest to China?  The answer came from an article shared on Twitter.  This piece on the battle between China and the US to control the global food supply was a revelation.

It provides details of how the theft was uncovered and the offenders caught and also reveals what motivated this act :” Despite its remarkable landmass, China simply can’t grow enough food to feed itself, particularly now that the country’s burgeoning middle class has acquired an appetite for meat. (Most corn in China is used as feed for livestock.) Water shortages and lack of arable terrain have forced their government to buy between two and five million metric tons of American corn annually, approximately 94 percent of all corn imported into China each year.”  In its efforts to throw off their dependence on US food production, China is pursuing a plan to grow more at home, and a crucial tool in this effort is high yielding seeds, hence the interest in insect resistant bt corn.

Further, while the theft was set up by a Chinese company, it seems to have the tacit approval of the Chinese government. The matter was treated by the FBI as one of national security: “The federal government, thereby, has implicitly acknowledged that it considers agricultural products both an asset and a weapon in a long-range geopolitical chess match with China, a resource of near-military value and importance, one that must be protected by all available means. By that logic, those Chinese nationals stealing corn are spies, no different—and, indeed, perhaps more important—than those who swipe plans for a new weapons system.”

The place of corn as a weapon in international political strategy is not new, as we learn from the narrative; the development of hybrid seeds to maximize output was part of the strategy to outperform the collective farms of Russia and China. In a time of growing population and climate uncertainty impacting food production, the use of agricultural biotechnology to ensure food security remains crucial.

If international policy matters seem somewhat removed from our daily reality, there is another aspect which is easier to recognize: who is working in the fields to grow all this corn (among other crops)? It is usually an immigrant farm worker, perhaps living here without legal papers, filling in the vacuum of labor created by an ageing farming population and urban migration of young people. They are a crucial part of food production but how does the system treat them? Can we demand a just food system yet ignore farm workers? For while the candidates may talk about sending people back and local residents might resent the influence of a very different culture in their midst; they are both constrained by the need for labor to grow the crops which fill plates at home and in the world.

Food is not just about what we eat, it shapes the world in ways that might not always be evident. There are often no simple and easy solutions. All the more reason why we need to debate the issues with patience and honesty.

(Image Courtesy: “Fresh Corn Cobs” by foto76 at freedigitalphotos.net)

Growing Food In A Dryer, Hotter Future

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Yesterday I got a pleasant surprise when WordPress notified me that I had 500 posts. It seems like a long time ago that I started this blog, a journey prompted by the food safety scares of 2008: e coli in lettuce and tomatoes.  And while some of today’s stories are similar, I do see many hopeful notes of progress. One area in which encouraging news is growing is the issue of food production in a time of climate disruption. How will we grow rice in drought like conditions? The solution could be “Sahbhagi Dhan”.  Research is ongoing on how plants “remember drought”, or how they are equipped to deal with total water deprivation: efforts that could create varieties of alfalfa, sorghum, corn and soy beans that will flourish and nurture us in a very different environment.

And sometimes the research yields not only good results for nutrition but is also a treat for the eyes, like this lavender lime, full of beneficial bioflavonoids , that will add a lovely burst of color to our plates!

(Image Courtesy: “Agriculture Rice Green Field and Blue Sky Background” by blackzheep, freedigitalphotos.net)

Climate Resilience Solutions: from Laos to Kenya

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What can a farmer do when the dry days go on for longer and longer each year? In the olden days, in Laos, rockets would be fired up at the heavens as a reminder that rains were needed. This ritual continues to be practiced but the government is also implementing schemes like rice-fish farming which has had much success in neighboring Indonesia.

In Kenya, there’s an app for that. “MbeguChoice” or Seed Choice is a new app that provides information on the best seeds to use in rapidly changing growing conditions.

While governments bicker on about what to do, what is happening and who to blame, those who grow our food and face climate change everyday are already devising ways to combat it.

(Image Courtesy: Sura chai at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Climate Change and US Agriculture

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A brief note on an important initiative: the discussion around agriculture and climate change often highlights the resilience issue. The concern is with ensuring that we are able to grow enough food for all the people on the planet as growing conditions change, often in sudden and unexpected ways. Less often is there a discussion on tackling the contribution of agriculture to the process of climate change by reducing emissions from agriculture. So the announcement of a set of steps intended to bring about just such changes by the USDA. The measures include promoting no till, renewable energy, forest conservation,energy efficiency in farming, containing methane emissions from livestock etc and are voluntary; thought the government proposes to incentivize the measures in several ways.  It is estimated that this policy would reduce agricultural emissions by about 120 million metric tons, a 20% reduction from the present level.

(Image Courtesy: kangshutters from FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

The Scent of Bitter Almonds

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“It was inevitable:  the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”- Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The drought in California is bringing to us a preview of what we could be facing regularly in the near future: water scarcity. The response to the water crisis aimed at cutting down water  use has been criticized for going easy on agriculture , which is the largest consumer of water in the state.  Some argue, though, that farmers have been receiving less water already and were forced to leave 400,000 acres unplanted last year as they would not have enough water to sustain the crops. And while the drought may be forcing the issue of water use to public regard for the first time, water scarcity has been a reality for farmers over the years, compensated by the largely ignored method of ground water pumping.

Well, who is to blame for this? It was suggested that the state should tell farmers to stop planting water guzzling crops (like almonds) and turn to less water intensive crops like tomato. And all of a sudden, almonds became the poster crop of bad water use. But why did this happen? Was it simply an  error of judgement on the part of the farmers? No, this almond rush was catalyzed by the information about the impressive health benefits of almonds that flows out in the media every day. Suddenly all of us are eating more almonds or drinking almond milk, and this is not just in the  U,S but also around the world (California provides about 80% of the world’s almond supply). This means huge profits to almonds growers and in turn, good revenues for California and the nation. And while everything was going well, no one complained about too many almonds, so allegations of “water abuse” by nut farmers do sound a little unfair. Faced with other crop failures due to lack of water, farmers may actually be motivated to turn to almond farming now because of the high value of the product in the market.

Or, they could turn to alfalfa, a crop which many of us may not have given much thought to in the past, but which, we now learn, is in high demand in countries like China and the UAE. It is grown for forage using the water resources already under pressure in Arizona and California and being shipped abroad. In 2012, 50 billion gallons of water were exported to China, virtual water embedded in the alfalfa that would feed animals in that country.  But we too have been consuming virtual water from elsewhere: embedded in the asparagus we demand in winter or the avocados that we need all year round.

So, what solutions are possible? As noted, it has been suggested that farmers grow crops that require less water, so that water use in agriculture is more efficient. Could the answer also lie in a sensible shift in our eating patterns? Yes, almonds are good for us, but we could also choose other healthy options, and asparagus are delicious but we can wait for spring instead of having them shipped over and contributing to the depletion of resources in another country. Every few years a new “superfood” is announced when , in reality, there is nothing of the sort. Choosing a plant rich diet with moderate portion size would be a useful tip for a healthy life. Eat kale, almonds, coconut oil, all the good stuff but in a reasonable way. Sometimes too much love can be as bitter as unrequited feelings. We will have to learn to love almonds a little less.

 

 

 

 

(Image courtesy koratmember at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

 

The Plate, the Pot and Climate Change

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At the IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) website, there is an interesting series on the impact of climate change on staple foods around the world: recipes that were passed on over bubbling pots in the kitchen might have to adapt, memories of childhood meals might no longer be reflected on our children’s  plates.

In the eastern highlands of Morocco, truffles (Terfass) that were a major ingredient in the local diet, are threatened by overgrazing and changing climate making the already vulnerable inhabitants of this area (75 % of the farmers here live below the poverty line) more food insecure. Rising sea  levels push saltwater into the Mekong delta of Vietnam destroying rice fields and catfish, staples of the sweet and sour catfish soup , so beloved in the region. In Bolivia, the local favorite Chairo soup needs a key ingredient: freeze dried potatoes. The potatoes are frost resistant, so they are put out in freezing temperatures for 5 to 6 nights and exposed to the hot sun in the daytime for freeze drying. Once ready, they can be used up to years later! Now, potato harvests are pressured by  uncertain growing seasons.

But there is good news as new varieties of crops are being developed to withstand the impact of climate change such as flood tolerant rice, or the 30 new varieties of beans that can grow in higher temperatures. Beans are an affordable, lasting source of protein for millions of people in the developing world so this is a crucial achievement. One of the varieties was developed by cross breeding the popular pinto beans with the less common tepary bean to come up with the heat resistant strain.

So, yes, some things will change: the beans may look a little different, the rice may taste a little different but the important thing is that we can find solutions to the challenge of growing food in a climate uncertain world. There will be new memories and new stories to share!

(Image Courtesy Sira Anamwang from freedigitalphotos.net)

The Tower of Label: What We Do Know

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This is a somewhat delayed post, and I almost did not write it, but then it sort of kept going around in my mind and I just had to put it down. It all started when I realized that it was the middle of December and my to do list to prepare for the holiday season was untouched. And though the chilly days were calling out for soup, the only thing that was likely to be simmering in my home, given the mountain of unfinished tasks, was me. So I ventured into the soup aisle to pick up a few options for back up.

Since I usually do not buy soup I was again amazed at the variety of options, somewhat overwhelming, really! Within moments, though, this became a real time experiment to see how much information is already on the cartons or cans and how much of it is accurate or, useful.I see so much about the labeling debate on social media, here was the opportunity to see it in action. Consider the first example, in the image above: it said, “natural” which, while vaguely comforting , does not give any real information at all. Although, some consumers might confuse this with “organic” or “sustainable” though there is no evidence that it si either of those things.

In the second category were the soups which came with volumes of information:

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“New”, “No GMO” (so, conventionally grown corn but not organic I suppose), “No MSG”, “All Natural” “Low in fat and calories” and “No Cholesterol”, that is quite a lot to, well, process! Pressed for time, surrounded by kids asking for treats, not many of the shoppers around me were actually reading the carton at all. “What soup do you want?” they would ask and into the cart would go the choices that were voiced. The one criterion that they did stop to consider? the price. “Let’s get one of those, they are on sale” was frequently heard. This was interesting to me and bore out what many believe: the push for labeling is less about information and more about marketing. Just as labeling spiked the prices of  GMO related products in Europe,  forcing them off the supermarket shelves, the same would be seen in the US were mandatory labeling to be introduced, and this would give a huge advantage to other players in the market notably the organic producers.

I was pleasantly surprised by the third category, the cartons with minimal information:

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“Gourmet Bisques” is all it said and named the soup. Just for that it did get my vote and, subsequently, came out at the top of the taste test of all the soups I got that day. When I ask around, most people say they pick the flavors they like and keep in mind the price, that is all. Of course, there are those who will not buy anything but organic ( and those soups were in the organic aisle, easily sorted for their convenience). Since that label already exists, it is hard to understand why another label needs to be added.

But, of course, one must consider the pro-label point of view. And that is where this piece  is so insightful. The writer believes in the “right to know” and sets out to research whether costs would really go up in a prohibitive way if labeling was mandatory. A survey of work in this area does support the position that costs would rise: to the farmer,  the state and of course, the consumer. Added to the dollars and cents price, there would be a larger price to pay. If rising costs lead to the substitution of GMO ingredients with non-GMO ones, there would be a decline in the research and development of GMO technology and this is crucial. GMO technology is not simply about yield or profits, it also offers the ability, for instance, to combat malnutrition by fortifying foods that people eat daily with essential nutrients. The most famous example of this is Golden Rice which can be used to prevent deaths from Vitamin A deficiency. Equally crucial is the potential of biotechnology in developing drought resistant or flood and salinity tolerant varieties of crops which would be able to combat the challenges of a changing climate. The choice of GMO  crops also has other environmental consequences which are often overlooked, discussed here.

Ultimately, the writer decides that the right to know, while important, has to be considered in conjunction with the realization that while some have the luxury of choice, for others, even the right to eat is an uncertain one. A show I was watching recently had the now familiar scene, where the server recites the provenance if each item in the menu to the diner. After describing in glowing terms the grass fed beef, the carrots and broccoli from the local farm “only x miles from here”, when the server kept it short with the “fresh asparagus”, the irritable diner snapped back “That’s it? You expect me to eat my dinner without any clue about the early life and upbringing of the asparagus?” Our world includes this diner and also the one who will go to bed hungry with no asparagus at all, and our policies need to work for both of them.

What if we were provided information like this: “This crop was grown using biotechnology which meant that less cropland was required to grow it and some land could be left for conservation. It  requires less pesticide use making it gentle on our planet and on our farm workers. This is a variety that was developed to grow with less water so we could conserve our shrinking water reserves. It is fortified with a nutrient that will prevent a common deficiency and ensure better health for children.”Now, that is a label which would have my support.