Tag Archives: food security

Something Old, Something New….

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It was an unexpected delight to read this piece on the Moringa plant! Unexpected because I have grown wary of the term “superfood”, but I was curious: what is this moringa? The delight was at discovering that the spotlight was on a favorite vegetable from my childhood, known to us as “drumsticks”.

The spotlight on the Moringa tree is welcome as it thrives under very hot and dry conditions which bodes well for its cultivation in times of climate uncertainty and water scarcity. And that is just the start, because here is what we learn about the Moringa:” it produces edible leaves that are unusually rich in protein, iron, calcium, nine essential amino acids, and Vitamins A, B, and C. Its seedpods, which are as thick as the meaty part of a drumstick and about a foot long, are also high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Jed Fahey, a biochemist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who has collaborated with Olson on Moringa research for more than a decade, has found that the tree’s leaves and pods have strong anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic properties, and may also contain enzymes that protect against cancer. Mature Moringa seeds can be pressed for vegetable oil, and the seed cake that is left over can be used to purify drinking water. (It contains a protein that makes bacteria glom together and die.) When dried, crushed seeds can also serve as a good fertilizer.”

As I read this, I can almost taste the steaming bowl of stems cooked in lentils from all those years ago, for once, “superfood” might just be an accurate description!

If one front in the effort to combat the impact of climate change on food production involves taking a second look at resources that have been neglected in the past, another strategy is to use technology to bring to farmers the information and data they need to make optimal decisions. An interesting read on how this is working in Africa is here.

Combating global hunger in a climate uncertain time will require all the tools we have, taking another look at old ones and trying out some shiny new ones as well.

(Image courtesy of zirconicusso at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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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)

What Is the EU Policy on GMOs?

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In forums across social media, opponents of  agricultural biotechnology often argue: “Ask why would Europe ban it?” But has the EU really banned GMOs? And what impact does this have on Europe?  A recent piece in the New York Times laments the turning away from science that forms the basis of the EU policy on GMOs. In April, following a decision from the European Commission allowing member countries to ban the cultivation of  GMO foods, 19 countries have so far announced that they would implement the ban. Does this mean the end of the road for GMO crops in Europe? Actually, no! Some countries are still open to adopting and growing genetically modified crops.

Romania was a leading cultivator of GMO maize before it joined the EU in 2007 and, being aware of the potential of this technology is seeking to expand further. Portugal and Spain also continue to grow genetically modified maize.

So some countries are continuing to weigh the benefits and follow the science in their policy toward cultivation of GMO crops. But what about genetically modified feed for livestock? In 2013, the EU imported about 35 million tonnes of GMO soybean to feed its livestock.  Nothing has changed there and not much is said about the apparent contradiction in allowing GMO feed while opposing the cultivation of crops.The European Parliament has just rejected a proposal to allow member countries to take individual decisions in banning GMO food and feed, insisting that the EU take a decision as a whole so the validity of the individual country bans appears unclear.

The ramifications of EU policy go beyond its borders. It impacts the adoption of new technology in African countries which are hesitant to adopt policies that would put them at odds with their traditional trading partners in Europe. If there is no possibility of selling crops in a market with robust profits, there is less motivation to pursue new technologies. Some indications of change here are encouraging as Tanzania and Uganda move toward adopting a science based position.

Interesting fact sheet on EU GMO policy is here.

(Image Courtesy: “Soybean in Glass” by Teddy Bear (Picnic), freedigitalphotos.net)

Will Humans Let Science Save the Banana?

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The answer, it seems, is at best a weak “maybe”. Still it was heartening to see an article in the media that was nuanced enough to acknowledge the public’s unfounded wariness of biotechnology with the pragmatic acknowledgement that in this instance, genetic modification is the strongest option in the tool box.  The piece also explores the reasons why relying on banana biodiversity alone cannot suffice. This is really the middle ground that we should be focusing on, instead of the yelling-across-lines-in-sand  type of communication which characterizes most food debates. The problems are real and the solutions will be a combination of various options and  rejecting some options out of baseless fear is not an optimum step. Some solutions and even, improvements, have been suggested, the hope is that they will not be blocked.

(Image Courtesy: bplanet 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)

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)