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Food & agriculture - October 17

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How India squared up to Monsanto’s 'biopiracy'

Rosie Spinks, the ecologist
Following allegations of defying India's Biological Diversity Act (BDA), Monsanto faces a lawsuit from the Indian government, reports Rosie Spinks

What do Agent Orange, DDT, aspartamine, bovine growth hormone, GMOs and now, biopiracy all share in common? Other than being the stuff of environmentalists’ nightmares, each one owes its provenance to a single source: the biotechnology giant Monsanto.

The Indian government recently took an unprecedented step in filing suit against the corporation’s joint venture in India (known as Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech Limited) for the 'unlawful' attempt to obtain and modify the indigenous crop brinjal. Known elsewhere as aubergine or eggplant, brinjal is cultivated and consumed by many Indians, with roughly 2,500 unique varieties.

This commercialisation of indigenous knowledge is an offence known as biopiracy. In 2002, the Indian governent enacted the Biological Diversity Act (BDA) to prevent the plunder of the nation’s rich agricultural biodiversity, which is among the highest in the world.

The BDA requires that any modification of a plant for commercial or research purposes must first be approved by India’s National Biosafety Authority (NBA), a step Mahyco-Monsanto is accused of bypassing in efforts to develop their own genetically modified (GM) variety called Bt brinjal.

While some anti-GM activists in both India and the West may hail the Indian government’s decision to stand up to the corporate behemoth as activism, Suman Sahai, scientist and director of the Indian NGO Gene Project, says this is a straightforward case of a violation of due process of law...
October 12, 2011)



Study debunks myths on organic farms

Paul Hanley, The Star Phoenix
The results are in from a 30-year side-by-side trial of conventional and organic farming methods at Pennsylvania's Rodale Institute. Contrary to conventional wisdom, organic farming outperformed conventional farming in every measure.

There are about 1,500 organic farmers in Saskatchewan, at last count. They eschew the synthetic fertilizers and toxic sprays that are the mainstay of conventional farms. Study after study indicates the conventional thinking on farming - that we have to tolerate toxic chemicals because organic farming can't feed the world - is wrong.

In fact, studies like the Rodale trials (www.rodaleinstitute.org/ fst30years) show that after a three-year transition period, organic yields equalled conventional yields. What is more, the study showed organic crops were more resilient. Organic corn yields were 31 per cent higher than conventional in years of drought.

These drought yields are remarkable when compared to genetically modified (GM) "drought tolerant" varieties, which showed increases of only 6.7 per cent to 13.3 per cent over conventional (non-drought resistant) varieties.

More important than yield, from the farmer's perspective, is income, and here organic is clearly superior. The 30-year comparison showed organic systems were almost three times as profitable as the conventional systems. The average net return for the organic systems was $558/acre/ year versus just $190/acre/year for the conventional systems. The much higher income reflects the premium organic farmers receive and consumers pay for.

But even without a price premium, the Rodale study found organic systems are competitive with the conventional systems because of marginally lower input costs...
(October 14, 2011)
You can access the Rodale report here.



Planning reforms will threaten Britain's ability to grow food

Richard Gray, The Telegraph
Planning experts have warned that the proposed changes to the planning system, which opponents say will result in more development in the countryside, risk harming the country's ability to grow its own food by failing to safeguard the best agricultural land.

The Town and Country Planning Association say the new rules do not require local authorities to replace prime agricultural land that could be lost to building developments and future sea level rises.

Other campaigners also fear the draft National Planning Policy Framework, which introduces a "presumption in favour of sustainable development" could even see some of the most productive farmland being at greatest risk of being turned over to make way for housing.

The document says that land of lowest environmental value should be developed first, but campaigners fear that because some of the most productive arable farmland tends to be dominated by just one species of plant, it could fall under this definition.

The fresh warnings come as the Coalition prepares to end a three month consultation on the draft framework, which has provoked intense criticism from environmental groups and heritage organisations led by the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

Dr Hugh Ellis, chief planner at the Town and Country Planning Association, said the NPPF fails to address the kind of key strategic planning needed to ensure food supplies can be grown here in the UK.

"Planning needs to deal comprehensively on food security and the NPPF is silent on that issue," he added.

"There needs to be an increased emphasis on food security because of climate change and some of our most productive land is threatened by environmental change on a grand scale."

His views are supported by Professor Tim Lang, an expert in food policy at City University London. He said: "We need to give more priority in land use policy to what I call 'sustainable food systems' – producing more food, in better environmental ways to feed people."...
(October 16, 2011)
Related: Hand Off Our Land: Planning reforms will ruin our high streets, warns John Lewis



Bitter harvest: migrant workers on UK farms 'still exploited'

Andrew Wasley, the ecologist
Migrant workers are vital for meeting the UK's demand for year-round fruit and vegetables. But despite improvements since the Morecambe Bay tragedy, allegations of poor conditions and abuse in the horticulture sector persist. Andrew Wasley reports

'There's no justice, there's discrimination... people are treated like cattle, not human beings, I never expected it could be like this,' Irena Jaysenka says, before breaking down into a flood of tears. Irena's a migrant worker from Lithuania who until recently was employed in the UK's horticulture sector. Like thousands of others – from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and beyond – she left her homeland in order to earn a living harvesting British fruit and vegetables. But Irena says her experience – and that of others – has been marred by exploitation and harsh working conditions.

She became unemployed after being dismissed – unfairly and without warning, she says – from her job packing tomatoes for a company supplying UK supermarkets. She'd been away and upon her return was told by the agency that employed her that there was no more work available. She managed to find a job picking strawberries at another farm but was sacked, she claims, after taking time off to attend a union meeting. 'I didn't encounter these problems at all in Lithuania in my whole working life,' she says, sobbing again.

In the seven years since the Morecambe Bay tragedy, which saw more than twenty Chinese workers drown whilst harvesting cockles, conditions for migrant workers employed in the UK's agricultural and food sectors have had a spotlight shone on them like never before. The deaths led to the introduction of the Gangmasters Licensing Act and the establishment of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) to regulate labour providers across the food processing, packing, agricultural, horticultural, forestry and shellfish gathering sectors. The GLA aims to ensure workers receive a minimum wage, adequete accomodation, safe transport, contracts and decent working conditions.

The tough stance of the agency and its high profile operations – it uncovered more than 800 workers being exploited, prosecuted a dozen companies and revoked the licences of over 30 gangmasters in one recent 12 month period – combined with an industry-wide drive to clean up its act is widely believed to have curtailed many of the worst abuses that would have been common a decade ago. Back then, according to one industry source, some of the UK's major horticultural growing regions – Lincolnshire, West Sussex, Kent – were more like 'the wild west, with criminals and gangsters running the show and everybody turning a blind eye'.

But an Ecologist investigation has uncovered fresh allegations that working conditions for some migrant workers employed in Britain's fields, greenhouses and packing plants remain poor, with exploitative practices continuing. Additionally, there are concerns that funding cuts could reduce the GLA's operational ability – the organisation itself acknowledges it faces 'a major challenge' to continue its work with the prospect of fewer resources.

...Donna Simpson, a researcher with the Centre for Food Policy at City University, London, spent several months living and working with migrant farm workers as part of a Phd study into the horticulture sector, Salad, Sweat and Status. Her research uncovered a wide variety of experiences for migrants – some positive and some negative – and she is cautious about drawing simplistic conclusions which paint the entire system as exploitative: 'There are some farms and horticultural employers that clearly do value their seasonal workforce and make great efforts to retain them hence the provision of good accomodation and social activities,' she said.

Despite this, Simpson said no-one should be in any doubt that problems do exist, or that the work in question is physically tough: ‘Having experienced three months of harvesting lettuce myself, I can honestly say that it was only by doing this work that I appreciated and understood the intensity of it. There are too many notions of the rural idyll and romanticism about physical work. The current work regimes in horticulture make injured robots out of people in an environment that is industrial in its scale of production. We have factories in the fields and small islands of workers living in caravans.’
(10 October 2011)



Trees 'boost African crop yields and food security'

Mark Kinver, BBC news
Planting trees that improve soil quality can help boost crop yields for African farmers, an assessment shows.

Fertiliser tree systems (FTS) also help boost food security and play a role in "climate proofing" the region's arable land, the paper adds.

Researchers from the World Agroforestry Centre say poor soil fertility is one of the main obstacles to improving food production in Africa.

The results appear in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability.

"In Africa, it is generally agreed that poor soil management - along with poor water management - is most greatly affecting yields," explained co-author Frank Place, head of the centre's Impact Assessment team.

He said that despite chemical fertilisers having been on the market for more than half a century, farmers appeared reluctant or unable to buy them.

"Therefore, there have been a lot of attempts to bring in other types of nutrients from other systems - such as livestock and plants" he told BBC News.

"We have been working quite a lot on what is broadly referred to as 'fertiliser tree systems'."
(October 2011)
The link to the journal article is here.



A New Approach to Feeding the World

Janet Ranganathan, Craig Hanson, Solutions Journal
For centuries, Minqin Oasis, along the Silk Road in northwestern China, provided a welcome port of call to travelers, serving as a natural barrier against the unremitting dryness of the Tengger and Badain Jaran deserts. That changed in the 1950s, when Chairman Mao implemented a national plan to boost food production. The resulting cultivation, deforestation, irrigation, and reclamation of the oasis initially boosted food output, but inadvertently degraded the capacity of Minqin’s natural ecosystems to provide freshwater and prevent soil erosion. Without these critical ecological defenses, the fertile land succumbed to encroaching deserts, forcing residents to abandon their homes and farms.1

Decades later and thousands of miles away, in the Gulf of Mexico, nutrient runoff from intensive crop, livestock, and biofuel production in the Mississippi River basin has cut a devastating path through coastal ecosystems and fisheries.2 The result is a dead zone roughly the size of the state of New Jersey.3

Unfortunately, these two examples are not isolated cases. Replicated countless times across the globe, they serve as stark illustrations of the unintended consequences of humankind’s growing demand for food. And they join a parade of ecosystem casualties from modern food production systems, including deforestation (driven by palm oil in southeast Asia and beef and soybeans in the Amazon); wetland draining to make way for arable land; and overfishing, one of the leading local threats to 60 percent of the world’s coral reefs.4

In many ways the modern food production system has been a miraculous success. Dramatic increases in food production over the past 50 years have supported significant improvements in human well-being. Yet, at the same time, the relentless spread of farmland and accompanying massive inputs of chemicals have undercut the capacity of ecosystems to provide the very services that underpin food production, including freshwater, pollination, erosion control, and water regulation (see Box).5-7

Scientists worry that increased food production is masking a time lag between ecosystem degradation and the resulting effects on human well-being. The chipping away at the Amazon, for example, could push the entire region to a tipping point beyond which it experiences widespread dieback and transitions into savanna-like vegetation.8 The resulting changes in forest cover and rainfall could seriously impact both crop production and cattle ranching in the region. As climate change impacts exacerbate food production stresses on ecosystems, it is conceivable that such collapses could become commonplace. The implications for food security are serious, especially in developing countries where 2 billion rural poor depend on healthy ecosystems for sustenance.

It may be tempting to dismiss the latest concerns about food price spikes. After all, at least since Malthus, the “glass half empty” crowd has worried unnecessarily that food production would not keep up with population growth. Yet human ingenuity has always found ways to boost production by creating new varieties of plants, bringing more land into production, inventing new forms of mechanization, or introducing practices such as irrigation.

But this time things are different. As ecosystem services continue to degrade, soil fertility diminishes, and rainfall runoff and soil erosion increase, continuing to rely on improved seeds and chemical fertilizers is likely to yield diminishing returns. And beyond declining productivity of cropland, other worrying trends are converging to threaten food security, including rising populations, climate change, and competing demands for water, land, and crops.

These trends beg an obvious and increasingly urgent question. Can the current food production system feed a growing population in a changing climate while sustaining ecosystems? The answer is an emphatic “no.”

Food Production: Key Culprit in Ecosystem Degradation

Habitat conversion: Approximately 43 percent of tropical and subtropical forests and 45 percent of temperate forests have been converted to croplands.

Overexploitation: 70 percent of global freshwater is used for agriculture.

Invasive species: The introduction of aquatic alien fish species has led to the extinction of native species in many parts of the world.

Pollution: Only a fraction of the nitrogen applied as fertilizer is used by plants, the rest ends up in inland waters and coastal systems, creating eutrophication and dead zones.2

Climate change: Agriculture directly contributed to around 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2005 and drives additional emissions through its role in deforestation....

...Money and Food Growing under Trees: Agroforestry in Niger

Despite ranking 167th out of 169 nations in the 2010 Human Development Index, Niger is the setting for a farmer-led “re-greening” movement that has reversed desertification and brought increased crop production, income, food security, and self-reliance to impoverished rural producers.9

Agroforestry, the integration of trees into food crop landscapes to maintain a green cover year-round, was a traditional African farming practice until colonization introduced the mindset that trees and crops should be separated. Trees were removed from vast expanses of land across Africa, and creeping desertification ensued....

...Having Your Palm Oil and Forest, Too

As we implied earlier, there is an urgent need to halt the expansion of food production into natural ecosystems whose services, in turn, underpin agriculture. A readymade solution may be at hand. Globally, more than 1 billion hectares of cleared and degraded forestlands—an area the size of Brazil—may hold potential for increased human use. And while more research is needed to know how much of this is suitable for food production, while respecting the rights of local people, restoring even a small percentage would help reduce pressure on natural ecosystems.

Around the world, there are more than 1 billion hectares of cleared and degraded forestlands. The Indonesian government is now looking to use degraded lands for future palm oil plantations to avoid clearing intact rainforests.

The government of Indonesia, home to a tenth of the world’s remaining tropical rainforests, is exploring such an approach, seeking to break the link between crops and deforestation. In May 2010 degraded land made it onto the Indonesian national agenda when President Yudhoyono declared a new strategy to develop oil palm plantations on degraded land instead of forests or peatlands...

...Saving Our Daily Bread from Wastage
Food is wasted in many ways: it’s discarded, lost, or degraded or consumed by pests between field and fork. All this adds up, and an estimated minimum of 30 percent of all food grown worldwide never reaches human mouths. In developing countries, wastage typically occurs post harvest, while, in developed countries, consumers and the food services sector are the largest sources of wastage. Tackling food wastage offers a rare opportunity for a quadruple win-win solution by reducing pressures on land, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, reducing water use, and saving money.

Reducing food wastage is not typically discussed as a food security solution. However, as the squeeze on food supply tightens and demand rises along with population growth, this is likely to change. And a few scattered examples of success are starting to emerge, in both developing and developed countries, which could offer scale-up potential.

A UN Food and Agriculture Organization project in Afghanistan, for example, reduced post-harvest losses from around 20 percent to less than 2 percent, by improving grain storage facilities and enhancing the skills of local tinsmiths in silo construction. Silos protect food from pests, rodents, birds, and fungi. Participating farmers used silos to store cereal grains and grain legumes, creating higher incomes and longer storage possibilities.

In developed countries, too, simple changes can dramatically reduce consumption-side food waste. In the United States, where one survey concluded that 76 percent of consumers erroneously believe certain foods are unsafe to eat after the “best before” date has passed, organizations like ShelfLifeAdvice.com are working to educate consumers about what food labels really mean. Meanwhile, in Britain, the Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs is planning the release of new guidance for consumers that will reform “best before” and “use by” dates on packaged foods. In the food services industry, too, small steps can make a big difference. For example, a survey of U.S. colleges found that food waste fell 25 to 30 percent per person when trays were removed from dining halls. Students took less food, only going back for seconds if needed...

This article is based on a paper for the World Resources Report (WRR) 2010–2011, “Decision Making in a Changing Climate.” The topic of the next WRR will be food futures.
(October 2011)

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