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Food and agriculture - May 7

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Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin


Organic farms 'produce less than HALF as much food as conventional ones'

reporter, the daily mail
The benefits to wildlife and increases in biodiversity from organic farming are much lower than previously thought, scientists said today.

Organic farms may be seen as wildlife friendly, but the benefits to birds, bees and butterflies do not compensate for the lower yields produced, according to research by the University of Leeds.

Experts from the Faculty of Biological Science carried out detailed, like-for-like comparisons of organic and conventional farming.

...The Soil Association criticised the study for basing claims about yield losses on one single crop, winter wheat. A study by Reading University in 2009 found that switching to organic would lead on average to only 30 per cent drops in wheat yields and actually lead to increases in beef and lamb production.

The Soil Association also criticised the study for underestimating the benefits of organic farming by comparing individual fields rather than the entire farms.

However, Professor Benton said organic farms had come out well in earlier research into biodiversity and wildlife because they tended to be found in areas with smaller fields, more hedges and woodland so they started with an advantage.

The Soil Association said this ignored the fact that organic farms did usually have more and smaller fields. Professor Benton said his study wanted to see if organic farming was still as good for wildlife if these landscape effects were taken out of the equation...
(5 May 2010)
related: Conservation and food production should be kept separate says study and Study spikes organic food environment claims

The link to the article citation is here. The article itself is behind a paywall.

Whether this report will be as publicly damaging as the UK Food Standards Agency sponsored-report which stated that organic food contained no more nutritional value than conventional food is hard to say. It will be interesting to see the full-blown response from the Soil Association which one assumes can't be long in coming.-KS



Study shows low carbon credentials of local food

Clare Goff, NewStart
Local food enterprises can play a key role in tackling climate change despite the relatively small impact of transport in the sector’s carbon emissions, according to a report.

By empowering communities to take greater control over food production, local food initiatives are helping to address environmental issues.

This is the key finding of a new report from Making Local Food Work, a Big Lottery funded programme.

Its study of community-led food initiatives outlines the complexities involved in measuring the carbon impact of food.

While ‘food miles’ are no longer a key focus, bringing food ‘closer to home’ can help in the shift towards low carbon systems.

‘Community food enterprises help people to take ownership of their food and where it comes from,’ said Peter Couchman, director of Making Local Food Work and chief executive of the Plunkett Foundation.

‘This feeling of ownership has helped many to take on the challenge of climate change through a variety of community-led initiatives and enterprises.’

Local food initiatives tend to use less carbon-intensive growing systems and inspire their customers to eat more seasonally and reduce their meat intake.

The report suggests a number of measures in which local food organisations can help reduce carbon emissions and called for a more supportive policy environment.

It says greater support should be provided to allow community food initiatives to work together and increase efficiencies, through for example the creation of regional food hubs.
(6 May 2010)
The report can be accessed from this page -KS



Can U.S. farms produce food without relying heavily on fossil fuels?

Melissa Mahony, smartplanet
Along with drought and blight worries, stressing about future fossil fuel prices and availability keeps many farmers counting sheep at night.

Conventional farmers in the United States use a lot of fossil fuels, and not just in tractors. Through petrochemicals comprising synthetic fertilizers, weed killers and insecticides, fossil fuels can help boost crop yields. These practices allow the agricultural industry to grow food at low monetary prices (though not low environmental and health costs).

Contemplating future uncertainties such as climate legislation and oil and gas prices, agronomists at Iowa State University have spent 6 years sizing up some alternatives. In a study published yesterday in Agronomy Journal, they tested planting and fertilizing methods to see how our farmlands could produce food without relying so heavily on fossil fuels.

The results were bountiful...
(4 May 2010)
The report can be found here Fossil Energy Use in Conventional and Low-External-Input Cropping Systems and related:

Saving Fuel on the Farm by Making Hay and How Can Farms Use Less Fossil Fuels But Keep the Same Productivity? -KS



Farmers Cope With Roundup-Resistant Weeds

William Neuman and Andrew Pollack, New York Times
For 15 years, Eddie Anderson, a farmer, has been a strict adherent of no-till agriculture, an environmentally friendly technique that all but eliminates plowing to curb erosion and the harmful runoff of fertilizers and pesticides.

But not this year.

On a recent afternoon here, Mr. Anderson watched as tractors crisscrossed a rolling field — plowing and mixing herbicides into the soil to kill weeds where soybeans will soon be planted.

Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of the weedkiller Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.

To fight them, Mr. Anderson and farmers throughout the East, Midwest and South are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.

“We’re back to where we were 20 years ago,” said Mr. Anderson, who will plow about one-third of his 3,000 acres of soybean fields this spring, more than he has in years. “We’re trying to find out what works.”

Farm experts say that such efforts could lead to higher food prices, lower crop yields, rising farm costs and more pollution of land and water.

“It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen,” said Andrew Wargo III, the president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts.

The first resistant species to pose a serious threat to agriculture was spotted in a Delaware soybean field in 2000. Since then, the problem has spread, with 10 resistant species in at least 22 states infesting millions of acres, predominantly soybeans, cotton and corn.

The superweeds could temper American agriculture’s enthusiasm for some genetically modified crops. Soybeans, corn and cotton that are engineered to survive spraying with Roundup have become standard in American fields. However, if Roundup doesn’t kill the weeds, farmers have little incentive to spend the extra money for the special seeds...
(3 May 2010)


Fears That a Lush Land May Lose a Foul Fertilizer

Elisabeth Malkin, The New York Times
Night and day, Marcelo Mera Bárcenas slops the fetid water that has coursed 60 miles downhill from the sewers of Mexico City and spreads it over the corn and alfalfa fields of this once arid land.

The New York Times
Mexico City's sewage irrigates Hidalgo State's farmland.
From the roads here in the Mezquital Valley, fields stretch to the hills in a panoply of green, graced by willow trees. But up close, where Mr. Mera is paid for every acre of field he irrigates, the smell and look of the water that feeds this lushness chokes the senses.

With only rubber boots for protection, he does not buy into the general belief here that the water does no harm, that a scrub with detergent each night will cure whatever ills it brings. Itchy boils break out on his hands, he said. He is often sick with colds and the flu.

“Of course it affects us because the water is so dirty,” said Mr. Mera, a laborer who has worked in the muck of these fields for 38 years, since he was 15. “But there’s nothing else to do.”

For 100 years, Mexico City has flushed its wastewater north to irrigate the farmland of Hidalgo State. This foul cascade, which the farmers call “the black waters,” flows through a latticework of canals and then trickles over the fields.

So when word got out that the government was finally going to build a giant wastewater treatment plant, one might have expected the farmers around here to be excited. Instead, they were suspicious.

“Without that water, there is no life, “ said Gregorio Cruz Alamilla, 60, who has worked his family’s 12-acre farm since he was a boy.

Mr. Cruz knows the water is loaded with toxic substances, including chemicals dumped by factories, and he tires of clearing his field of plastic bottles and wrappings every time he irrigates.

But like many others here, he worries that treating the water, though it may remove harmful contaminants, will also strip away some of the natural fertilizers that even the authorities here say have helped make this valley so productive. And despite the government’s assurances, the farmers here suspect the worst: that once the water is treated, it will be pumped back to Mexico City, leaving the farms dry...
(4 May 2010)


Domestic blitz

Annabel Ross, The Age
They are known as radical homemakers - suburban warriors empowering themselves with long undervalued skills in a fight against consumerism.

SAM McGrath's rented Donvale property buzzes with agricultural activity. Jap pumpkins spring from a vine trailing the front verandah. The concreted backyard is bordered with every kind of fruit tree from loquats to peaches, and at the rear a huge shed houses four chickens and two ducks. Two big wooden boxes in the centre of the yard act as compost bins, and vegetables and herbs grow in abundance.

The current batch of chickens will be killed when they stop laying. McGrath has no qualms about that and will swing the axe herself. ''I believe that if I can't kill it, I shouldn't be eating it,'' she says. ''I don't enjoy it, but I also think it's a terrible, terrible waste not to use everything that you possibly can.''

She recently served duck that she killed and roasted herself to a family around the corner, accompanied by homemade plum sauce. ''It was a really nice experience to be able to share that meal with somebody else,'' she says. ''I learned how to prepare the duck through somebody in my permaculture group. The chickens I learned how to prepare a long time ago. I think it's really important that the boys know where their food comes from.''

A former quarantine inspector, McGrath left her job when pregnant with her first son nearly four years ago. These days, her work consists of growing and producing the bulk of her family's food, caring for her sons Oscar, 3, and Tristan, 17 months, and involvement in co-ops and community groups.

While she might not label herself as such, McGrath bears all the hallmarks of a growing band of women (and some men) - identified in American writer Shannon Hayes' book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture - who have turned their backs on traditional work to focus on running a self-sustaining household.

It's a post-feminist, anti-consumerist movement that is about providing for family and community rather than feeding the economy, where the home is seen not as a site of entrapment and servitude, but one of empowerment.

A graduate of environmental studies at Griffith University, McGrath once had ambitions to work for fisheries and border patrol in the Southern Ocean, but all that changed when Oscar was born. ''I really didn't want a child as an accessory, and that's not having a go at other people necessarily, but if I have a career and need to fulfil myself outside of my family, then what is my family for? I may as well do something else.''

Childcare was never going to be an option. ''I don't see the point in getting someone else to teach my child what I need to teach them. What if they're suddenly 15 and have these ideas and values and I go, where the hell did that come from? I'm not handing control over to somebody else.''

Jessamy Berkholz, who met McGrath through a natural parenting playgroup, agrees. ''I believe there's a great deal of power in raising your children yourself, to understand the world as you see it, and not as the carer or whoever's raising them sees it,'' says Berkholz. ''I think a lot of women sell themselves really short. The feminist movement had a huge amount of positives, but it meant that women not only had to cook the food and do the housework, they also had to work full time and give their children over to someone else's care - and I just couldn't do that to my own children.''

According to Shannon Hayes, radical homemakers live by four basic tenets: ecological sustainability, social justice, family and community. It's been a way of life for McGrath and Berkholz for years, albeit to a less radical extent than Hayes and some of the homemakers in her book, many of whom home school their children, with neither parent working outside the home...
(2 May 2010)
Very long article talking about this significant new trend. Also see RADICAL HOMEMAKERS TALK RECAP: “The home as a space of production and not consumption” on these old new traditions, a site which features the writings of Myra Eddy, who embodies the radical homemaking ethic if anyone does. -KS



Pollan and Hurst Debate the Future of Agriculture

Andrew Batt, Iowa Public Television
Michael Pollan: “I think farmers have the key to solving our two biggest problems. And that’s why this argument that I’m somehow the agricultural anti-Christ is really offensive to me.”

Whether he’s deemed the enemy of production agriculture or the savior of the local food movement, Michael Pollan seems to provoke passionate opinions in every corner of American agriculture.

Michael Pollan: “My message is this: Our food system is broken. It’s not serving consumers and it’s not serving farmers. Farmers have to get much bigger to get even. Farmers are not making a lot of money and they are dependent on federal subsidies. There is this flood of cheap food which turns out to not be a good thing. And we as consumers have a massive obesity problem.” (6:40 in)

Pollan’s critique of what he calls a broken “food empire” received national praise with the release of his New York Times bestselling novel: The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The self-described “History of Four Meals” chronicles the food trail from dinner plate back to farm gate. He’s also a major contributor for the controversial documentary FOOD Inc.

Whether it’s corn-fed beef…corn-fed pork…or high fructose corn syrup…Pollan concludes that the backbone of America’s diet can almost always be traced to one place: A Midwestern cornfield.

Pollan: “I have nothing against corn per se. It’s what we’re doing with it that is troubling. Feeding it to our cars. To our cattle. But some of the best pork I’ve ever had was fed on Iowa corn. Pigs should eat Iowa corn…I don’t know about cattle though.”

Pollan’s critique of a core commodity like corn is not well received in many farm circles. Even less popular are his views that a western diet based heavily on processed corn and soy products is the leading cause of obesity in America.

The National Corn Growers Association calls his views “naïve and dangerous.” And one Missouri farmer received national attention for his online rebuttal.

Blake Hurst: “We do have a problem with obesity in this country. I’m not sure how that’s the fault of agriculture or how that’s my fault.”

If you type Blake Hurst into any online search engine, chances are you’ll find an article entitled “The Omnivore’s Delusion.” Despite his public condemnation of what he calls agri-intellectuals, the third-generation Missouri farmer is no scholarly lightweight. And he sees trouble on the horizon for conventional agriculture.

Blake Hurst, Westboro, MO: “We can have this whole ethical debate of how we’re going to eat. Do I think they’re going to outlaw Roundup tomorrow? No. But is the trend moving away from my way of life. Yes. I think we’re in trouble. We’re not sexy.”

In his online column, Hurst blasts what he deems a growing movement to “turn back the clock” to prior generations of production agriculture...

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