Category Archives: Food Policy

Farmers Respond to Climate Change

millet

As the last post mentioned,  the US government’s latest report on climate change takes note of the challenges that await farmers in the coming years. But, as we know, farmers are dealing with variable and unpredictable weather right now, so that the crops they grew and the way they grow them is also changing.How are they doing so, what are they changing?

One interesting aspect of the response to changes in climate has been the rediscovery and resurgence of neglected/marginal crops. Often, these would be crops indigenous to a certain area which required little tending and were, sort of, taken for granted. Now, their ability to grow in marginal areas has become an advantage. An example here would be the case of the lima bean in Kenya. This bean remains dormant in the soil, waiting for the rain and so can survive dry spells,so it has moved from being a marginal crop to the center stage of  cultivation.

“Climate Smart Agriculture”  which consists of ensuring food security, adaptation and mitigation (as defined by the FAO) is redefining farming in different countries. The success stories range from harvesting water to grow millet in the Sahel to adoption of rice production techniques to use less water by smallholder farmers in Vietnam; from carbon farming initiatives in Australia to reduction in the  contribution of Danish agriculture to emissions by better use of manure and lower use of inorganic fertilizers.

And what about American farmers? Some of them, it seems, see the disruption in climate as simply another weather pattern, but they are also aware of the  need to follow good practices on the farm to be able to deal with the weather patterns. This means that they are quick to adopt the climate efficient techniques suggested by the USDA: practicing no-till farming, planting cover crops etc.

Whether changes come by way of policy decisions , as responses to the threat to a way of life or as pragmatic reactions to constraints, all these changes  will add up to a better food system. But will they be enough to get us through the crisis ahead?

(Image Courtesy:freedigitalphotos.net)

 

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

 

Food Prices on the Rise

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So food prices are on the rise …again! And it looks like they might continue on that path given the pessimistic outlook for wheat in the US given the dry growing conditions. In addition, the situation in Ukraine spells uncertainly for the world wheat market. As I read more about this I also discovered the interesting fact that farmers in Ukraine have apparently breached a ban on GMOs and are growing GM soy and corn in response to market demand!

How Math Predicts Revolutions Based on Food Prices

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The point about rising food prices being a factor in social unrest has been explored before but now there is a model that can predict when and where revolutions will occur based on food prices. According to this, when the FAO food price index reaches 210, social unrest is triggered. Among the list of countries are some where this has happened on a large scale(Venezuela is a current example), some where it is still contained (India) and also some surprises (Sweden?!). The author of the study, Prof. Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute , points to two major causes for rising food prices: the rise of biofuels and speculation in commodities. And what happens to these two variables will determine if prices will be lower this year. Ethanol mandates are being debated in the US and EU, but speculation is another matter. It is spoken of much less than labeling, or any other food issue of the day.

Consider, also, the impact of climate change. (This was an important factor in the case of Syria, for instance.) Unpredictable weather events, a sudden drought or flood may result in a below average harvest; but higher prices in the global market (fueled by speculation) provide an incentive for exporting most of the crop. This would mean less is available for domestic consumption and  prices would rise for whatever is on the market. If prices were to rise to critical levels, as predicted by this model, social unrest would follow. 

What are the chances of regulating commodity speculation, proposing , for example, some limits for trading? It is difficult, perhaps, to be optimistic on this issue but it has to be highlighted in any conversation on the food system.  Food is a commodity, yes, but it is not like any other commodity. If trading in future, hypothetical, stocks of grain  means people are starving in the present then that is not an acceptable situation and efforts to correct it should not be blocked by purely financial interests.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

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.

Does Reading Blog Posts Change Your Mind?

 

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A bit of introspection brought about by the cheery wishes from WordPress because Thought+Food had completed another year. Even  with the stats and the kind comments, sometimes one  does get the “shouting into the wilderness” feeling. Who is reading this and do they keep any of it with them once they are done?  Hopefully , they do! even if for a short while. One would have to be Michael Pollan to leave an impact that lasts for a year, apparently.

And while food policy in this country and the world continues on its  incomprehensible way, there will be a huge motivation to write about it in the hope of bringing some change. Thanks for joining me on this journey!

Just Label It!

 

cherry

I watched the GMO labeling debate closely in California and cheered when the proposition was defeated there. But when I read the arguments from the pro-labeling side,(based mostly on misinformation and unsubstantiated fears) I began to think that blocking labeling is perhaps not the best strategy. GMO foods, it has been proven, again and again, are  safe for human consumption. The pro-label lobby has therefore, framed the debate in terms of the “consumer’s right to know what is in their food”. It is hard to make the case that the consumer should not know/does not need to know what is in their food and so, blocking labeling makes it seem like the producers of food containing GM ingredients are hiding something. One would like to ask the question: how would knowing this be useful to the consumer anyway? If they do not want to purchase GMO products, there is already a label for them: it says “organic” or that fascinating mystery term, “natural” which many seem to rely on.

It is important to remember that this debate is being played out in parts of the world that have the luxury to debate about food. In other areas, where people are going hungry every day, children are malnourished and suffering from dietary deficiencies, food on the table is a survival issue. Biotechnology offers a way to combat global hunger. By  blocking labeling and letting the “there is something to hide” misinformation gain ground, we are denying choices precisely to those who are most vulnerable. If we continue to block labeling, the ultimate aim of the anti-GM lobby; to take biotechnology out of the options forever, would be achieved and this would be a disaster in the struggle to deal with hunger and malnutrition.

Instead, imagine a situation where the labeling issue is actively owned by those seeking to make sure the benefits of GM foods actually reach the public. Companies need to proactively steer the labeling issue in a positive direction: uniform labels for the whole country so that the same chaotic battles do not have to be fought over and over again in each state, providing more opportunities for spreading misinformation. The actual words on the label are crucial and that should not be dictated by the naysayers. Ideally, I would propose :”This product contains GM ingredients which have been more rigorously tested than most products in your grocery store. They are produced using less pesticides and so are better for the farmers who grow them and our planet. They are also fortified with Vitamin A (for example) which will prevent blindness and death in millions of children.” But that is a dream and in the real world, companies will have to work hard to merely ensure that negativity is minimized.

In purely economic terms, there is a far bigger market out there as measured by currently undernourished/malnourished people than the few who might switch from buying products post labeling. And, most important to remember, the one piece of information on the label which seals the deal for a consumer on a budget is the price.If there is an initial cost increase involved, companies need to refrain from passing that on immediately to the consumer. Instead, let them read the label, see the price, compare it to the high priced organic option and make their decision.

You can read more on both sides of this here and here.