Category Archives: Farmers view

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)

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Discussing The Food System: Beyond GMOs

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Lately it seems like every discussion in the food world  centers around GMOs/organic/local. It is all about what we see on the plate and getting caught up in it, I realized I was no longer paying attention to the journey of food from the fields to the fork as is the stated goal of my blog.

That got me thinking about the people who make this food journey possible: farmers and farm workers.  And around the globe, it would seem, crises are everywhere: in Mexico, farm workers are striking and stopping work to demand better wages and conditions; in Bangladesh farmers specially from minority groups are being forcibly dispossessed of their land, an issue which resonates next door in India as well; a theme that is echoed in Egypt. And in a closing of the circle, Chipotle says it is paying close attention to its customers and banning GMOs, but perhaps need to better care of their workers who bring the food to our plates.

(Image Courtesy: noppasinw at FreeDigitalPgotos.net)

Happy Harvests with a Second Green Revolution?

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Today is the Bengali New Year, so Happy New Year dear Readers! This calendar dates to a phase in our life when we we moved in tandem with harvesting and planting. Many of us have moved to towns, other states or even across the globe but the day is still marked for the diaspora with Facebook and Twitter wishes and much nostalgia for the sweets which are such an important part of the memories of past celebrations.

For the farmer of course, it is more than a matter of fun, the harvest determines his future and that of his family. The Green Revolution brought bumper harvests and cause for celebration to many and now there is the possibility of a second revolution bringing better times. And so this post is to celebrate a farmer who participated in both, was an active adopter and participant in research and is a strong believer in the benefits of science for agriculture. The International Rice Research Institute celebrates him with this story.

(Image Courtesy: Worakit Sirijinda at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Fair Standards for Animals Raised for Food

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 When Chipotle made its pork shortage announcement recently, I was somewhat skeptical. How low were the standards that Chipotle was concerned about?One could be led to think that this was some horrible factory farm scenario gone wrong. But, in fact, it was simply that Chipotle objected to two standard and widely accepted practices used by farmers: farrowing crates which enable them to ensure the safety of newborn pigs and slatted floors which are critical to maintaining cleanliness. NPR spoke to a farmer whose standards meet and extend those of Chipotle  but who was skeptical of this demand from Chipotle. He pointed out that while a small farm with fewer pigs could allow them to roam outside, this is not practical in a large scale operation. And the demand for pork, not juts from a particular fast food chain but from the market as a whole is huge. To meet this, large scale operations are essential. While no one wants a dilution in the care of animals, the demands often come from the consumer side. Most of us, to be perfectly honest, have little or no clue about the raising of pigs.

Yes, as this farmer describes it, we want to think about pigs being raised outdoors because we have a mental image of a gorgeous , sunny summer day. Th reality of a winter day in Minnesota, as she relates might mean broken legs and frost bite for the animals. The writer also takes issue with the vilification of farmers for brand enhancement. Perhaps it is not so much about the pork as it is about nudging consumers toward other options:  Chipotle recently debuted a tofu item in an effort to keep costs down. Maybe the concern over animal welfare would make us pick that instead. And for those who would like their usual options but worry about how green it is, there may soon be an app for that!

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

Recipe for a National Food Policy

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 Recently, The Washington Post featured a piece calling for a national food policy. It started off with the statement that food impacts every sector of the economy and the lives of every person in the country and therefore it is essential that it be regulated by a national policy. The first idea we can agree with, regarding the second though, many may have reservations. The writers then go on to assert that the food system has caused “incalculable” harm to the health of people and the environment, and such harm would warrant waging a war in response, if it were the act of a foreign power. Yes, there us much that needs a strong effort: from the obesity crisis to hunger in our communities; fair working conditions for farm workers to the challenge of growing food while facing climate disruption but we could surely agree on ways to find solutions in a productive way without call to hostilities.
And exactly how would the national food policy tackle the situation (first step, of course, would be to nominate a Food Czar!)? The recommended objectives are:

  • to assure access to healthful food for all: no disagreement there although how the access would be ensured remains to be determined
  • support public health and environmental objectives: ditto
  • climate resilience: how? not discussed. Would the application of biotechnology be considered an option, for example?
  • care for livestock: agreed
  • “our food supply is free of toxic bacteria, chemicals and drugs” ,which looks very much like “organic or nothing”
  • “Food marketing sets children up for healthy lifestyles by instilling in them a habit of eating real food”: some confusion here, children acquire eating habits in the context of home and family. As a parent, I cannot imagine letting a corporation teach my children what to eat, that is my responsibility and most parents would agree.
  • Production and marketing are transparent and the food industry pays a fair wage: while laudable, this refers to the food processing stage, what about farmers and farm workers?
  • To increase carbon sequestration on farmland and reduce the food system’s carbon footprint: what changes or innovations this might require in agriculture are not discussed.

The first thing that stands out is the consumer centric nature of the demands.  It makes demands about how workers should be paid, livestock should be cared for and how agriculture should respond to climate change. What, one wonders, would those who grow food actually think about this? How would they define a food policy?

And there we come to a core question: what is a “food policy” anyway? The piece states that “an agriculture policy is not the same as a food policy” but then neither is a food consumption policy a true food policy. If we want to chart out the path ahead for the food system, we need to take into account both the growers and the consumers of food, and reconcile these interests instead of pitting them against each other. A long argument is made on how and why the government needs to put a policy in place but it mainly comes down to dismantling the “agricultural-industrial” complex. That is a good objective but that alone cannot fix the food system.

No industry can flourish if there is no demand for their products and that demand comes from the consumers. If there is a demand for mashed potatoes in a box, then that is what we will find on the shelves. Of course we should be boiling and mashing our own potatoes, but for that, deep rooted lifestyle changes are required, changes which cannot simply be mandated by policy, and changes which, if we are honest, we are rather reluctant to make. Getting back from work only to have to ferry the kids to classes and practice games or even to have to go to a second job to make ends meet leaves little time for cooking. We need a discussion and changes in why we are living this way and how we can make changes. You can mandate whatever food policy you like but the basic question is how do I find the time to cook? And I say this from the experience of someone who does cook everyday. It is hard, and it is exhausting, it is nothing like the cooking shows on TV, that is for sure. So blaming the food industry for all our problems is  not sufficient for change.

This gap in perceptions was highlighted at another event convened by the New York Times to discuss the future of food which initially had no farmer or rancher involved in the discussions! Once this was rectified, a participating farmer was able to urge the panelists, to involve farmers in the discussion on food, a sad disconnect! But it was encouraging to learn that there was at least an awareness of the need to work together. The food movement  seems to have fallen into an us vs the food companies pattern, but in reality any successful food movement would need to include everyone: those who grow, process and sell, and consume food. Yes, food impacts everyone and everything and it is precisely for that reason that there are no easy answers here, the solutions are complex and everyone has to make an effort.

Finally, a national food policy will find it increasingly constrained by outside factors. Climate disruption is impacting agriculture everywhere and lack of food is expected to spark social unrest and large scale migration of people from affected areas. The struggle for resources could lead to actual wars, not just ones that can be debated in newspaper columns. An effective food policy will build a path forward which is able to respond to climate change and achieve goals of conservation and food production for the planet’s inhabitants at the same time. So it might be tempting to reach for avocados for that healthy lunch salad but it is also important to remember that it embodies a cost in terms of depleting water resources in another country that has to be accounted for as we set policy goals.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

#Farming Friday 26: How Immigration Action Will Change the Life of Farm Workers

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In advance of Friday, because it is so relevant right now: the frank account of the life of an undocumented farm worker and how her circumstances will change under the new immigration policy; the first steps toward a just food system begins with those who are integral to growing the food.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

#Farming Friday 25: Drought in California is Changing the Way Farmers Work

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The drought in California has thrown into focus a harsh reality: climate change is going to disrupt the way we grow our food. Unprecedented events like this not only hit jobs and incomes hard, they also compel us to look at the tough questions: how are we going to deal with this challenge as we go into the next growing season? Sometimes that brings out interesting solutions: farmers are trying not new experimental varieties of grasses that require less water for seeding pastures, or conserving waste water that was earlier and allowed to go back to the environment; for farming, to ease pressure on ground water.

 

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)