Tag Archives: Farmers voice

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)

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)

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)

#Farming Friday 24: Renting to Young Farmers

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Although farming is attracting  interest among some younger people , they are often prevented from pursuing it because land is too expensive to buy. On the other hand rural areas which have emptied out, have older farmers who no longer farm the entire land they own but have no children to carry on either. But a program that encourages older farmers to rent out land at low rates to younger farms just starting out might provide a solution that works for everyone.

Conservation and Agriculture in the Age of Climate Change

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When I first started learning and writing about food issues, it was the food landscape that was in my mind: the growing of food, its journey to markets and stores and, finally, to our homes and the table. As climate change moves into the center of our lives and we realize its enormous impact  on our environment, I am starting to look at the landscape in a different way, one where the need for conservation and food production exist in the same landscape. The challenge, I am learning, is to balance the need for food with the need for conservation at a time of climate uncertainty.

We depend on the land and water sources for food but no farm land has important benefits too. Woodlands, grassy areas, slow down the movement of pathogens and pesticides into the rivers and lakes, are providing a sort of natural filter for our water supply. Preserving natural habitat on farms provides a living area for pests that serve as predators for primary pests that attack crops and thus reduce the need for pesticide to control agricultural pests. There is a perception that  food production and biodiversity conservation are opposed goals, the solution actually lies in achieving the best balance we can between these ends.

What is crucial is recognition that there are competing uses of land and we have to find the optimum strategy to achieve biodiversity conservation, agriculture, urban development and carbon storage. I wanted to share in this post some examples of  an approach that looks at the entire landscape and handles several variables at once:  improving soil health, conserving habitats, lowering emissions, and ensuring food and livelihood security.

So what tools can we use, what are the strategies to follow? There are examples from different countries which have all looked at this issue.In essence, the idea centers around a more considered and thoughtful use of the landscape and its resources. Different policies give varying results and solutions that arise in response to local circumstances are likelier to succeed. In an example from Argentina , market led agricultural expansion resulted in the  deforestation of 8,000 hectares in one area but also led to a fall in grazing intensity. This meant a better recovery of wildlife habitat in the remaining area which is not being cultivated. In another part of the same region, government support for farms to provide incomes and increase food production has negatively impacted the local fauna and resulted in forest degradation because more people have moved in but the food production continues to be low.

In Kenya’s Kikuyu escarpment area, old forest growth, tea plantation, rare bird habitat, subsistence agriculture and dairy farming all coexist. Recognizing the negative impact of increasing population growth in the area on these activities, resources, habitat etc, a landscape approach was adopted which took into account food security, reliance on the environment for food, fuel and fodder and rural poverty. Having recognized these needs, the people of the community integrated agriculture, fish farming, confined livestock management, agroforestry into their farming practices. This helped them to work toward their goals of confining farming sprawl, maintaining soil quality and nurturing bird and wildlife habitat in the farmed areas.  To achieve the goal of livelihood security, this program is taking advantage of “landscape labeling” where products are able to command a price premium not only because of their quality but because they also meet green criteria such as maintaining wildlife habitats, clean water, carbon sequestration etc.

In California, urban expansion and drought have significantly reduced the wetlands where migrating birds would collect before moving further south. A conservation project initiated here involved a reverse auction, which paid farmers to flood their rice farms and create a wetland refuge for the migrating birds. The existing practice of flooding rice fields post harvest was used to engineer a “pop up habitat” for the birds and integrated conservation goals into a farming landscape.

And, in a really wonderful “when life gives you lemons” story, farmers in Bangladesh decided to grow pumpkins on the sandbars left by receding flood waters which destroyed their fields. After the floods, holes were dug in the bare islands of sand and silt and pumpkin seeds were planted. Farmers had a rich harvest and could store some of it to supplement income later in the year as well. In the dry winter season, the greenery that had sprung up as a result of sandbar cropping supported birds, insects and other fauna.

It is encouraging to know that innovative solutions exist, bringing them into practice is  a matter of working together on a bigger picture, we need to zoom out!

(Image courtesy:freedigitalphotos.net)