Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Is the incidence decreasing or is the internet tired of talking about this? Exhaustive and informative coverage of the crisis by P. Sainath, Jaideep Hardikar and others continues on IndiaTogether.com.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
This is the kind of research we need if farming is to become truly scientific:
"What is the importance of the involvement of microbes in plants? It hasn't really been examined," Bais notes. "We think that plants are doing everything on their own, but there is a whole world of microbes underground, associated with the roots of plants, that has yet to be analyzed."Harsh Bais is a Assistant Professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at University of Delaware.
Scientists have long known the symbiotic relationship between legume plants such as beans and the bacteria known as rhizobia that colonize the plants' roots and enable the plants to convert nitrogen from the air into fertilizer.
More recently, in research reported last fall, Bais and his colleagues showed that when the leaves of the small flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana were infected by a pathogen, the plant secreted an acid to recruit beneficial bacteria in the soil (Bacillus subtilis) to come to its defense.
Friday, September 4, 2009
The total-ecosystem-management view of agriculture put forward in Permaculture and Natural Farming are increasingly gaining acceptance as a legitimate academic research subject, often called Agroecology. Almost all major universities in the US now have agroecology research and education programs: UC Berkeley, Penn State, UC Santa Cruz, NCSU, UIUC, and Iowa State, to name just a few.
Miguel Altieri (UC Berkeley) and Stephen Gleissman (UC Santa Cruz) are probably the leading academic researchers in this field.
Despite this activity, true sustainability in agriculture is faced with multiple challenges. From the "Barriers to Implementation" section of Prof Altieri's article* Modern Agriculture: Ecological Impacts and the Possibilities for Truly Sustainable Farming:
...some well-intentioned groups suffer from "technological determinism", and emphasize as a key strategy only the development and dissemination of low-input or appropriate technologies as if these technologies in themselves have the capability of initiating beneficial social changes. The organic farming school that emphasizes input substitution (i.e. a toxic chemical substituted by a biological insecticide) but leaving the monoculture structure untouched, epitomizes those groups that have a relatively benign view of capitalist agriculture. Such perspective has unfortunately prevented many groups from understanding the structural roots of environmental degradation linked to monoculture farming....
On the other hand, the large influence of multinational companies in promoting sales of agrochemicals cannot be ignored as a barrier to sustainable farming. Most MNCs have taken advantage of existing policies that promote the enhanced participation of the private sector in technology development and delivery, positioning themselves in a powerful position to scale up promotion and marketing of pesticides. Realistically then the future of agriculture will be determined by power relations, and there is no reason why farmers and the public in general, if sufficiently empowered, could not influence the direction of agriculture along sustainability goals.
* The whole article is a must-read. In just under 4000 words, Altieri gives an excellent overview of
- the effects of industrial agriculture
- the anticipated (and current) effects of genetic engineering
- the alternative offered by Agroecological approaches
- and the barriers to implementation
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
The BBC News website has an excellent feature on the upcoming resource crunch. The main story gives an overview:
...the warning from John Beddington, the UK government's chief scientific adviser, of a possible crisis in 2030. Specifically, he points to research indicating that by 2030 "a whole series of events come together":As far as I can see, that's doesn't include the impact of the lost environmental services due to natural resource degradation and climate change. Considering these aspects, I think we'll face serious crises sooner, especially in the high-population density developing world.• The world's population will rise by 33%He foresees each problem combining to create a "perfect storm" in which the whole is bigger, and more serious, than the sum of its parts.
• Demand for food will increase by 50%
• Demand for water will increase by 30%
• Demand for energy will increase by 50%
There are accompanying articles with video on the three big aspects of the problem:
- Mega Cities and population growth (Delhi and Mumbai)
- Growing demand for resource (China)
- Deteriorating natural resources (Water shortages in California)
- The changes in life style required
- The role of science
- The new agricultural trends and the case for more GM food
We have of course survived the previous Malthusian predictions, but this time it might be different:
Since the late 1980s, we have been in overshoot - the Ecological Footprint has exceeded the Earth’s biocapacity - by about 25%. Effectively, the Earth’s regenerative capacity can no longer keep up with demand – people are turning resources into waste faster than nature can turn waste back into resources.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Looks like an Indian version of the Environmental Protection Agency is on the cards:
According to Jairam Ramesh, environment minister, the Congress party-led government plans to set up an Environmental Protection Agency, modelled on that of the US, which would ensure that standards were implemented and monitored.
It has also sought parliamentary approval for the creation of other new environmental institutions including "green courts" aimed at resolving cases long stuck in the existing, overburdened judicial system.
The new push comes as India finds itself in the spotlight in the run up to December's Copenhagen conference on climate change, where world leaders are hoping to hammer out a successor to the Kyoto agreement. India, China, and other developing countries are under pressure to come up with firmer plans to reduce emissions.
Let's hope the EPA is staffed with the best environmentalists we can get, and more importantly, it is actually able to enforce its policies.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
The State of the Environment report says that at least 45% of India's land area is "degraded due to erosion, soil acidity, alkalinity and salinity, water logging and wind erosion".IBN:
in the past, a combination of rainfall and surface and groundwater supplies were sufficient for the population. But now it says that rainfall has become more erratic, groundwater supplies are becoming more depleted and surface water is becoming more polluted.
"with an economy closely linked to a natural resource base", India faces big challenges in the future including a scarcity of water and lower crop yields.
...the level of respirable suspended particulate matter--the small pieces of soot and dust that get inside the lungs--had gone up in all the 50 cities across India studied by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and the Central Pollution Control Board.On the plus side:
10 percent of its wild flora and fauna are on the threatened list... The main causes, according to the report, were habitat destruction, poaching, invasive species, overexploitation, pollution and climate change.
about 700 million Indians directly face the threat of global warming today, as it affects farming, makes droughts, floods and storms more frequent and more severe and is raising the sea level.
over two-thirds of the degraded 147 million hectares can be regenerated quite easily, ... and India's forest cover is gradually increasing
India contributes around 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions. That is about a quarter of the emissions of China and the US. ... Indian per capita emissions are one-twentieth of the US and one-tenth of Europe and Japan.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
For the first time, satellite remote sensing of a 2000-kilometer swath running from eastern Pakistan across northern India and into Bangladesh has put a solid number on how quickly the region is depleting its groundwater. The number "is big," says hydrologist James Famiglietti of the University of California, Irvine--big as in 54 cubic kilometers of groundwater lost per year from the world's most intensively irrigated region hosting 600 million people. "I don't think anybody knew how quickly it was being depleted over that large an area."Also:
groundwater was being pumped out 70% faster in this decade than the Central Ground Water Board of India estimated it was in the mid-1990s. The apparent surge in withdrawal would have been large enough to turn a once-stable water table into a falling one that demands ever-deeper wells and bigger pumps and may draw in salty or polluted water
The world's food production needs to double by 2050 to feed the world's growing population. But over this period, climate change, reduced access to water and changing land use are likely to make growing crops harder rather than easier.- BBC News
Saturday, August 1, 2009
Organic/natural farming is not just about indirect environmental benefits:
The carbon-footprinting process often produces surprises. An environmentally conscious consumer in the crisps aisle of the supermarket will probably be thinking about packaging or “food miles”. The Carbon Trust reckons that about 1 per cent of the climate impact of a packet of crisps is from moving potatoes around. The largest single culprit is the production of the nitrogen fertiliser, and half of the climate impact in general takes place at the agricultural stage.
Labels: global warming
Monday, July 6, 2009
The issues of farm productivity, water scarcity, deforestation, human health, social equity, are all so completely interrelated, that it is hard to figure out a solution to just one of these without addressing the others, and practically impossible to implement such a solution successfully. This is one of the things that I have been discovering over the past couple of months.
What is the solution to this complex scenario? Integrated development is certainly desirable, but not easy to implement either. My project for the next few months will be to visit various organizations around who have successfully implemented this project on scale, and learn about the common elements of their success.
On a related note, BBC's earth Watch blog ponders the interrelatedness and prioritization of various environmental problems:
I've tried to find rational ways of figuring out answers to the prioritisation conundrum.
One sample question is this: if climate impacts are at present largely reversible but the loss of a species self-evidently isn't, does that make biodiversity loss more important than climate change?
Another is this: if environmental issues are so interlinked, then why do we bother separating them out in the way that the Rio conventions do? Woudn't it be more logical to try to sort everything out en masse?
A third is this: if the fundamental drivers of all the trends are the swelling in the human population and our expanding thirst for raw materials, why aren't these the things that politicians and environmental groups are shouting about and trying to change?
Friday, June 5, 2009
The June issue of National Geographic* has a special report on the future of the global food system -
In an era of tightening supplies and rising prices, our hot and hungry world could face a perpetual food crisis.The article is an excellent review of the previous "Green Revolution", its positive and negative consequences**, and the enormous challenges we face finding a better future for humans and other species through the twin challenges of global warming and population growth:
...is a reprise of the green revolution—with the traditional package of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, supercharged by genetically engineered seeds—really the answer to the world's food crisis? Last year a massive study called the "International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development" concluded that the immense production increases brought about by science and technology in the past 30 years have failed to improve food access for many of the world's poor. The six-year study, initiated by the World Bank and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and involving some 400 agricultural experts from around the globe, called for a paradigm shift in agriculture toward more sustainable and ecologically friendly practices that would benefit the world's 900 million small farmers, not just agribusiness.***
And so a shift has already begun to small, underfunded projects scattered across Africa and Asia. Some call it agroecology, others sustainable agriculture, but the underlying idea is revolutionary: that we must stop focusing on simply maximizing grain yields at any cost and consider the environmental and social impacts of food production. Vandana Shiva is a nuclear physicist turned agroecologist who is India's harshest critic of the green revolution. "I call it monocultures of the mind," she says. "They just look at yields of wheat and rice, but overall the food basket is going down. There were 250 kinds of crops in Punjab before the green revolution." Shiva argues that small-scale, biologically diverse farms can produce more food with fewer petroleum-based inputs. Her research has shown that using compost instead of natural-gas-derived fertilizer increases organic matter in the soil, sequestering carbon and holding moisture—two key advantages for farmers facing climate change. "If you are talking about solving the food crisis, these are the methods you need," adds Shiva.
* Previously on this blog: September 2008 Nat Geo article on Soils.
** Previously: NPR radio story on India's Green Revolution
*** Previously: UNEP report: The Environmental Food Crisis
Hat tip to Abhijit Dingare for pointing out the article.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
On one hand, we are loosing our water reservoirs - groundwater, snow packs and glaciers, freshwater lakes - rapidly. Water tables are falling almost everywhere in India, due to "Green Revolution" methods that emphasized pumping groundwater:
To date, India’s 100 million farmers have drilled 21 million wells, investing some $12 billion in wells and pumps. In a survey of India’s water situation, Fred Pearce reported in the New Scientist that “half of India’s traditional hand-dug wells and millions of shallower tube wells have already dried up, bringing a spate of suicides among those who rely on them. Electricity blackouts are reaching epidemic proportions in states where half of the electricity is used to pump water from depths of up to a kilometer.”
In Tamil Nadu, a state with more than 62 million people in southern India, wells are going dry almost everywhere. According to Kuppannan Palanisami of Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, falling water tables have dried up 95 percent of the wells owned by small farmers, reducing the irrigated area in the state by half over the last decade. As a result, many farmers have returned to dryland farming. [ref]
On the other hand, impending climate fluctuations will disproportionately affect small farmers dependent on un-irrigated farmland:
Even a small increase in temperatures ... could push down crop yields in southern regions of the world... A greater frequency of droughts and floods, the agency added, could be particularly bad for agriculture.
"Rain-fed agriculture in marginal areas in semi-arid and subhumid regions is mostly at risk," Diouf said on a visit to the southern Indian city of Chennai. "India could lose 125 million tons of its rain-fed cereal production, equivalent to 18 percent of its total production."
The current approach to solving this problem is a combination
- build ever larger dams and canal networks [ref],
- exploit deep water aquifers,
- build expensive water desalination plants [ref], and
- commodify water [ref, ref]
A much better approach that solves the underlying problem, makes water truly more abundant, and actually benefits the people most at risk is to
- promote universal small scale water harvesting, especially on drylands [see previous post] and
- phase out annual crops that are completely dependent on rains in favor of perennials and tree crops that can withstand inconsistent and unpredictable weather patterns.
Monday, May 11, 2009
Water is probably the most critical resource for successful farming. Lack of water is certainly bad in the short run, but improper use of water also has ill effects like increasing the salt content of the soil, making it unfarmable.
We have seen before that harvesting and managing water intelligently is one of the goals of Permaculture design. The two volumes of Brad Lancaster's Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond are the most authoritative books on water harvesting that I have come across.
The books are written in a very accessible language and have plenty of illustrations that show how each method works. In addition, the formulas for each method are also included, with examples, so that you can calculate the amount of water you can get. The books also contain plenty of practical tips and tricks that Lancaster has accumulated through his own experience as well as from others. Volume 1 contains an overview of the methods of water harvesting - small earthworks and water storage in cisterns etc, while volume 2 goes into deeper detail about earthworks.
Two of the most important points I learned from the books:
- The soil is our best water reservoir.
- What's important is not how much rain falls in an area, but how much stops in that area, and how it is used.
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Recently I came across an exciting new project to improve sustainability and rehabilitate the environment of a group of sixteen villages in eastern Nepal. Called क्रिषिको अाशा or Hope for Agriculture, this is a movement started by Rajeev Goyal (based on his interaction with these villagers as a Peace Corps Volunteer) and Priyanka Bista. Along with a few of the villagers, Rajeev and Priyanka are also going to travel in Nepal and India to learn from various sustainability projects, and we might co-ordinate some of our visits. To plan this trip, they have started a map of such projects in the subcontinent:
Read more about Hope for Agriculture on their blog, and in this Huffington Post article. If you have any suggestions for organizations that should be on this map, please let us know.
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Attention Conservation Notice:
A rapid education about life, consciousness, and society, as well as a thorough discussion of the problems we face in corporate institutions, globalization, and food and resource supply. This book has something for everyone, and everything for someone. Recommended.
Written by Fritjof Capra, (The Tao of Physics, The Turning Point, etc.), and published first in 2002, The Hidden Connections is a very thorough and convincing overview of the change we need to create in this world if we want humanity to survive and thrive for the next thousand years.
Part one is a rapid (and fairly dense) information download about the processes and evolution of life, cognition and consciousness, and sociology, especially with respect to the patterns and processes common to these three levels of organization. Capra then wants to apply the understanding of these patterns and processes in part two to solve problems facing big corporations, global capitalism, and biotechnology.
Part two, however, is mainly a review of the state of thing in these three arenas, the important current events, and what other people have thought and written about these. While link between parts one and two is somewhat tenuous, (both in terms of the application of the patterns to solving the global problems as well as in the writing style) the chapters in part two themselves link together very well, and explore the very important issues of global finance, and the inequality it has generated, as well as agricultural biotechnology, which is endangering biodiversity and sustainability of farming world over.
All in all, the book is an excellent overview of some of the major problems we face in the world today, and how we can solve them. Be sure to read it.
Sunday, May 3, 2009
I'll be reaching Pune on Tuesday, May 5. The goals of my trip are:
- To set up a network of people interested in spreading sustainable agriculture, esp. in Maharashtra.
- To visit sustainable farms and sustainable agriculture organizations all over India, to learn about their techniques.
- To figure out a strategy for accelerating the spread of environmentally and economically sustainable agriculture in India, and especially the states hit by farmer suicides.
Saturday, May 2, 2009
Recently, I wrote about the report from the Union of Concerned Scientists about the non-existent benefits of genetically modified crops:
Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered CropsBiotechnology crops, like the Roundup Ready seeds from Monsanto are exacerbating the problems they were supposed to solve:
... Despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase U.S. crop yields. ...
As more acres of "Roundup Ready" crops are planted, the use of the pesticide has increased. The increased application has led some weeds to develop a resistance to glyphosate, the generic term for the chemical in Roundup. And, in turn, farmers have had to apply stronger doses of pesticide to kill the superweeds.Nonetheless, we tend to think of technological progress as a net positive. Is biotechnology the answer to the problems of mechanical and chemical technology of the past few decades?
Do we need biotechnology to feed the world?
We've seen that the world already produces enough food for everyone. Hunger is not a result of scarcity, but of inequitable distribution.
... The second fallacy is that genetic engineering boosts food production. Currently there are two principal types of biotechnology seeds in production: herbicide resistant and "pest" resistant. [Herbicide resistant crops] allow farmers to apply [Roundup] in ever greater amounts without killing the crops. ... [The "pest" resistant crop] produces its own insecticide.(The other troubling aspect of GM foods - the terminator seed technology, is currently under a de-facto ban. It is legally prohibited in India and Brazil.)
genetically engineered seeds do not actually increase overall crop yields. ... [in] more than 8,200 field trials... Roundup ready seed produced fewer bushels of soybeans than similar natural varieties.
Is biotechnology safe?
- There is no overall reduction in pesticide use with genetically modified crops.
- GM foods brings its own pollution hazard - biological and genetic pollution. The harmful effects of GM organisms on natural ecosystems is well documented.
- Genes from modified organisms can spread to other organisms, with unpredictable consequences*.
- Biotechnology may bring new toxins and allergens into the human food supply.*
Despite the billions of dollars spent creating transgenic organisms, biotechnology is yet to bring to market a single product that actually benefits consumers. Why should the public pay for this effort that offers no advantages, but increases risks?
* For example the StarLink corn recall: Wikipedia, New York Times, and more stories from the NYTimes.
Friday, May 1, 2009
We've read a while ago that even many environmentalists think of the corn-belt style agriculture as a necessary evil, to be tolerated so that the environment elsewhere can be protected. I've personally heard this argument from a very well educated and knowledgeable friend. This just goes to show that Big Food propaganda machine has been very successful.
Propoganda - Sustainable agriculture is "low-yield":
A typical claim of the industrial apologists is that the industrial style of agriculture has prevented some 15 million square miles of wildlands from being plowed under for "low-yield" food production. ... They also claim that if the world does not fully embrace industrial agriculture, hundreds of thousands of wildlife species will be lost to low yield crops and ranging livestock.There is overwhelming evidence of higher productivity and efficiency of small, biodiverse, low mechanization, petro-chemical free agriculture (see also here and here). Can anybody really believe that industrial agriculture and factory meat-farming, which are net destroyers of energy, water, and soil can benefit the environment in any way?
...sustainable or alternative agriculture minimizes the environmental impacts of farming on plants and animals, as well as the air, water, and soil, often without added economic costs. ... Organic and diversified farming practices increase the prevalence of birds and mammals on farmlands and ensure biological diversity for the planet.Poisoning the environment:
Pesticide use - endemic to industrial agriculture - has been clearly identified as a principal driving force behind the drastic reduction in biodiversity on America's farmlands. .... there are no fewer than 50 scientific studies that have documented the adverse environmental effects of pseticide use on bird, mammal, and amphibian populations across USA and Canada.Wildlife habitats:
Chemical fertilizers - which are also a key component of industrial agriculture - pose an even greater risk to soil and water quality... Aquatic and marine life are especially vulnerable to the tons of residues from chemically treated croplands that find their way into our major estuaries each year.
... the huge, monocultured fields characteristic of industrial agriculture have dramatically reduced the wildlife populations by transforming habitats, displacing populations of native species, and introducing non-native species. ... Diversified farming techniques, on the other hand, incorporate numerous varieties of plants, flowers, and weeds, and encourage the proliferation of various wildlife, insect, and plant species.
No myth can hide the fact that decades of industrial agriculture have been a disaster for the environment. Its chemical poisoning has caused eco-cide among countless species. ... the tilling, mowing, and harvesting operations of industrial agriculture have affected, and continue to catastrophically destroy wildlife, soil, and water quality.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
Food, Inc. is a new documentary by Robert Kenner that examines the state of food, and particularly "Big Food" in America. Doesn't look like it has been released widely yet, but should be certainly worth watching. Check out the trailers below:
Along with the illusion of abundance, supermarkets create an illusion of choice (40 types of breakfast cereals! 60 varieties of juices!). However, if you look at the ingredients, this illusion breaks down rapidly.
The illusion of the package:
Each year, more than 15,000 new food products come to market in the U.S. ... However, these introductions rarely represent an increase in food choices for the consumers. The packages attempt to hide the fact that we are essentially increasing the same set of ingredients over and over, even though they go by different names. ... a full 95% of the calories we eat come from only 30 varieties of plants.The loss of diversity:
By growing all our crops in monoculture, industrial agriculture not only limits what we can eat today, but also reduces the choices of future generations. ... a study of the seed stock readily available in 1903 vursus the inventory of the U.S. National Seed Storage Laboratory... found an astounding loss of diversity: we lost nearly 93% of lettuce, over 96% of field corn, about 91% of field corn, more than 95% of tomato, and almost 98% of asparagus varieties."Big Food" dictates what we eat:
A handful of companies own most of the food brands in the market. For example, Kraft Foods, (the second largest food company in the world, after Nestlé) owns around 150 brands worldwide. Large food manufacturers have also been acquiring and introducing organic brands.
Why does this matter?
The goverment, bending under pressure from agribusiness, has never required labels that inform consumers about pesticides and other chemicals used on crops, or the residues still left on those foods at the time of purchase. ... "nuked" processed foods are not labled*. ... under pressure from the biotechnology industry, [the U.S. FDA] has decided not to require genetically engineered foods to be independently safety tested or labled. ... Agribusiness not only uses its political muscle to prevent food labling, it also has pushed through laws to stop critics from getting importnat information about food to consumers ... [by pressuring] 13 states to pass "food disparagement" legislation.What's the alternative?
By choosing ... local, small-scale organic farming ... we could not only give ourselved the choice of safe and healthy food and a cleaner environment, but we could also incorporate literally thousands of ddifferent varieties and tastes into our diets.
*For the latest on food irradiation labling, see here.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Proponents of mega-farming often insist that highly mechanized, chemical intensive industrial agriculture produces food more effciently than small scale farming. I have already written about The Myth Of Large Farm Productivity, as well as the Energy Cost Of Food to show that this is false economically as well as energetically. Below are the facts against the proposed "efficiency" of mega-farming from the book Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy Of Industrial Agriculture:
Numerous reports have found that smaller farms are actually more efficient than larger "industrial" farms. ... when farms get larger, the costs of production per unit often increase, because larger acreage requires more expensive machinery and more chemicals to protect crops. ... small farms almost always produce far more agricultural output per unit area than larger farms. This is now widely recognized by agricultural economists across the political spectrum, as the 'inverse relationship between farm size and output.' ... even the World Bank now advocates redistributing land to small farmers in the third world as a step toward increasing overall agricultural productivity.
... how does the "bigger is better" myth survive? ... because of a deeply flawed method of measuring farm "productivity" ... as the production per unit area of a single crop. ... If we are to compare accurately the productivity of small and large farms, we should use total agricultural output, balanced against total farm inputs and "externalities," rather than single crop yield as our measurement principle....Though the yield per unit area of one crop may be lower, the total output per unit area of small farms, often composed of more than a dozen crops and numerous animal products, is virtually always higher than that of larger farms....There is virtual consensus that large farms do not make as good use of even [farm labor and modern technology] because of management and labor problems inherent in large operations. Mid sized and many smaller farms come far closer to peak efficiency when these factors are calculated.
Monday, April 27, 2009
It is time to transform agriculture into a sustainable enterprise, one based on systems that can be employed for centuries -- not decades -- without undermining the resources on which agricultural productivity depends. The question is how to do it. The choices are to stick with the current system and adjust around the edges or to fundamentally rethink it. UCS is aiming for the transformation of U.S. agriculture to a system that is both productive and practical over the long-term. Apparent advantages of the current, industrial approach – from high yields per acre, to chemical industry profits, to profitable CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), to foreign sales by corporate giants like Sara Lee, ConAgra, and Cargill – look very different when considered in the light of the health and other problems the approach creates, as well as the many ways in which consumers actually subsidize the destructive system with their tax dollars.Also of interest from the UCS website:
Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops
As the world grapples with concerns about food availability, this groundbreaking UCS report debunks widespread myths about the superiority of GE crop yields.
People in the developed world spend the least fractions of their household expenditure on food. ("We should all thank our productive and efficient farmers and ranchers for making that bargain possible." - Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture) Does this reflect the true costs of industrial agriculture?
Intensive use of pesticides and fertilizers seriously pollute our water, soil, and air. ... animal factories produce 1.3 billion tons of manure each year. Laden with chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones, the manure leaches into rivers and water tables, polluting drinking supplies and causing fish kills. ... Currently, consumers pay billions of dollars annually in environmental costs directly attributed to industrial food production, not including the loss of biodiversity and topsoil...Health costs:
Conventional analyses also ignore the human health costs of consuming industrial foods, including the contribution of pesticides, hormones and other chemical inputs to our current cancer epidemic... Taken together, these medical health costs [of cancer, food borne illnesses, obesity, diabetes etc.] are clearly in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually.Tax subsidies:
Price supports, price "fixing", tax credits, and product promotion are all forms of welfare for agribusiness. ... Taken together, these subsidies add almost $3 billion to the hidden cost of food to consumers.In conclusion:
When we calculate the real price, it is clear that far from being cheap, our current food production system is imposing staggering monetary burdens on us and future generations [in the form of environmental, health and social costs]. By contrast, non-industrial food production significantly reduces, and can even eliminate most of these costs.
This is the third in the series of excerpts from the book Fatal Harvest. While these facts are now much better known, at least in the "organic lifestyle" community in the first world, industrial farming practices are increasingly being promoted by corporations and governments in the developing world. Hence, I am posting these excerpts so that they are available to everyone who is interested in this issue.
Friday, April 24, 2009
There are numerous laws and regulations about food safety in the United States, but is the food really safe? What are the effects of the industrialized the food production system?
Increases diseases from pesticides:
... at least 53 pesticides classified as carcinogens [and 165 potential carcinogens] are presently applied in massive amounts to our food crops. ... A National Cancer Institute study found that farmers who used industrial herbicides where six times more likely than non-farmers to develop non-Hodgkin's lymphoma... exposure to compounds like PCBs and organophosphate insecticides during critical periods of development [in young people] can cause permanent, long-term damage to the nervous and reproductive systems.Increased infections:
... reported cases of disease from salmonella and E. coli pathogens are ten times greater than they were two decades ago... The CDC saw none of these pathogens in meat until the late 1970s when "animal factories" became toe dominant means of meat production. ... fruits and vegetables get contaminated by these pathogens through exposure to tainted fertilizers and sewage sludge.Increased diseases from diet:
... nearly 50 percent of U.S. antibiotics are given to animals... Infections resistant to antibiotics are now the 11th leading cause of death in the United States.
... people are consuming more calories, preservatives, and sugar than ever in history, while reducing their intake of fresh whole fruits and vegetables. ... these changes have lead to overwhelming increases in obesity, Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease among Americans. ... The Surgeon General has determined that two out of every three premature deaths is related to diet.What is the solution?
Increased dependence on chemical, nuclear, or genetically engineered inputs will only intensify the problem. The real solution is to return to sound organic agricultural practices. ... food production that is safe for the environment, human to animals, and based in community and independence is also a food supply that is safe and nutritious for humans.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
We hear over and over again that industrial agriculture is the only way to feed the growing global population and end world hunger. What's the truth?
There is no shortage of food:
...enough food is grown worldwide to provide 4.3 pounds of food per person per day, which would include two and a half pounds of grain, beans, and nuts, a pound of fruits and vegetables, and nearly another pound of meat, milk, and eggs.Why do 800 million people go hungry every day?
Industrial system has ... [forced] subsistence peasants off the land, so that it can be used for growing high priced export crops. ... the new 'landless' then flock to the newly industrialized cities where they quickly become a class of urban poor ... Their access to food is solely by purchase. Very often, they simply do not have enough money to buy food, so they starve.Global corporations favor luxury, high-profit items:
As export crops and livestock use up available land, small farmers are forced to use marginal, less fertile lands. Staple food production for local use plummets, and hunger increases. ... during industrial agriculture's prime years (1970-90) the number of hungry people in every country except China actually increased by more than 11 percent.What's the solution?
We need a major shift in efforts to feed the world, where the focus is on supporting local agriculture, where people live close to (or on) land, grow food to feed their own communities, and use ecologically sustainable techniques. In other words, hunger can only be solved by an agricultural system that promotes food independence.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
I have been reading quite a few books in the past month or so, mostly on academic research towards increasing agricultural sustainability. While most of these are probably not of interest to non-academicians, the general message is that making small scale changes, using appropriate technologies, and incorporating biodiversity to utilize and enrich local natural resources is the way forward.
One of the books that everyone should read is Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy Of Industrial Agriculture.
Written by world renowned scientists, activist, and thinkers, Fatal Harvest is a comprehensive and eye opening exploration of the biological, ecological, and social aspects of managing land for long term sustainability and productivity. Wendell Berry, Vandana Shiva, and Miguel Altieri are some of the contributing authors.
The individual essays are grouped in seven sections -
- Farming as if Nature Mattered: Breaking the Industrial Paradigm
- Corporate Lies: Busting the Myths of Industrial Agriculture
- Diversity, Scale, and Beauty: Contrasting Agrarian and Industrial Agriculture
- Industrial Agriculture: The Toxic Trail from Seed to Table
- Biodiversity and Wildlife: The Overappropriation of Wildlife Habitat by Agriculture
- A Crisis of Culture: Social and Economic Impacts of Industrial Agriculture
- Organic and Beyond: Revisioning Agriculture for the 21st Century
Along with the highly readable, informative, and thought-provoking text, the many beautiful photographs (often contrasting industrial and sustainable approaches) in Fatal Harvest get the point across. All these articles and photos do make the book quite large (15 x 12 inches!) and heavy though.
If you want a more mobile version, try the The Fatal Harvest Reader, which is a condensed version of the book, (and sans many of the photographs), as well as the Fatal Harvest website.
Monday, April 20, 2009
This is a bit late, but in case you haven't read it, the September 2008 issue of National Geographic has a very interesting feature story about soils around the world, the rapid degradation we're causing, and the efforts around the world to improve farming that did and didn't work out:
In the first—and still the most comprehensive—study of global soil misuse, scientists at the International Soil Reference and Information Centre (ISRIC) in the Netherlands estimated in 1991 that humankind has degraded more than 7.5 million square miles of land. Our species, in other words, is rapidly trashing an area the size of the United States and Canada combined.There are, of course, beautiful and poignant photographs accompanying the article.
Journalists sometimes describe unsexy subjects as MEGO: My eyes glaze over. Alas, soil degradation is the essence of MEGO. Nonetheless, the stakes—and the opportunities—could hardly be higher, says Rattan Lal, a prominent soil scientist at Ohio State University. Researchers and ordinary farmers around the world are finding that even devastated soils can be restored. The payoff, Lal says, is the chance not only to fight hunger but also to attack problems like water scarcity and even global warming. Indeed, some researchers believe that global warming can be slowed significantly by using vast stores of carbon to reengineer the world's bad soils. "Political stability, environmental quality, hunger, and poverty all have the same root," Lal says. "In the long run, the solution to each is restoring the most basic of all resources, the soil."
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
National Public Radio recently did a two part story on the state of India's 'Green Revolution':
Part 1: India's Farming 'Revolution' Heading For Collapse
The state's agriculture "has become unsustainable and nonprofitable," according to a recent report by the Punjab State Council for Science and Technology. Some experts say the decline could happen rapidly, over the next decade or so.Part 2: 'Green Revolution' Trapping India's Farmers In Debt
One of the best-known names in India's farming industry puts it in even starker terms. If farmers in Punjab don't dramatically change the way they grow India's food, says G.S. Kalkat, chairman of the Punjab State Farmers Commission, they could trigger a modern Dust Bowl.
When India's government launched the Green Revolution more than 40 years ago, it pressured farmers to grow only high-yield wheat, rice and cotton instead of their traditional mix of crops.
The system worked well for years, but government studies show that farmers have pumped so much groundwater to irrigate their crops that the water table is dropping dramatically, as much as 3 feet every year.
Kalkat says only one thing can save Punjab: India has to launch a brand new Green Revolution. But he says this one has to be sustainable.
The problem is, nobody has yet perfected a farming system that produces high yields, makes a good living for farm families, protects and enhances the environment — and still produces good, affordable food.
Nanak Kheti, a farm of natural farming, is being adopted by farmers in Punjab as a response to ill effects of chemical farming practices:
...during the last four to five years, the soil in several parts of Punjab has been regenerated and rejuvenated, these natural farmers are convinced, so much so that your feet feel happy and healthy on coming in contact with the soil. You can see earthworm castings, which had completely disappeared in the fields, says a visibly happy and proud Hartej Singh of Mehta village in Bhatinda district. "Our farmers will offer you a handful of soil which you will find soft and with all the natural aromas that are associated with the infinite life of our earth. That is the kind of work we are doing," he adds.
Thanks once again to Rachel Nisselson for the tip-off about the NPR story.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
The course is almost over, it was an amazing learning experience; especially meeting and interacting with all the motivated, talented, and passionate permaculturists, and learning from their knowledge and experiences.
Meanwhile, here's a slide show of some photos we took around the island:
You can view and download the individual photos on Flickr, or email me to get the original high resolution photos.
Friday, April 10, 2009
Saturday, April 4, 2009
Learning a lot of things and connecting with some very good like minded people at the PDC. Here's something I found out a few days ago:
The Environmental Food Crisis: The Environment's Role in Averting Future Food Crises was released by the United Nations Environment Programme in February 2009. A short summary is in this press release, the whole report is available for download here (15 MB pdf).
The natural environment comprises the entire basis for food production through water, nutrients, soils, climate, weather and insects for pollination and controlling infestations. Land degradation, urban expansion and conversion of crops and cropland for non-food production, such as biofuels, may reduce the required cropland by 8–20% by 2050, if not compensated for in other ways.The report recommends seven strategies to tackle this crisis:
Food prices may increase 30 to 50 per cent within decades, forcing those living in extreme poverty to spend 90 per cent of their income on food.
Over 80% of all endangered birds and mammals are threatened by unsustainable land use and agricultural expansion.
- Regulate food prices and provide safety nets for the impoverished;
- Promote environmentally sustainable higher-generation biofuels that does not compete for cropland and water resources;
- Reallocate cereals used in animal feed to human consumption by developing alternative feeds based on new technology, waste and discards;
- Support small-scale farmers by a global fund for micro-finance in developing diversified and resilient ecoagriculture and intercropping systems;
- Increase trade and market access by improving infrastructure, reducing trade barriers, enhancing government subsidies and safety nets, as well as reducing armed conflict and corruption;
- Limit global warming; and,
- Raise awareness of the pressures of increasing population growth and consumption patterns on ecosystems.
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Friday, March 27, 2009
I'm off to the Permaculture Design Certificate Course in Molokai tomorrow. Blog updates will probably be infrequent for the next couple of weeks, but stay tuned on twitter.
You've probably heard that each calorie of food we eat takes more than one of fossil fuel calorie*:
All together the food-processing industry in the United States uses about ten calories of fossil-fuel energy for every calorie of food energy it produces. ... It takes thirty-five calories of fossil fuel to make a calorie of beef this way; sixty-eight to make one calorie of pork. - The Oil We Eat, Harper's MagazineThe following is from Table 1.1 in The Natural Way of Farming.
|Farming Method||(Energy Output)/(Energy Input)|
|Large scale mechanized agriculture (ca. 1980)||2|
|Medium scale mechanized agriculture (ca. 1970)||4|
|Small scale mechanized agriculture (ca. 1960)||10|
|Farming with animals (ca. 1950)||20|
Now watch the presentation below by Saul Griffith about the components of our energy use, and the changes we need to make (including reduction in energy consumption and ramping up clean energy production) in the next 25 years to have any chance of controlling global warming. (If you're in a rush, skip the first 10 minutes or so to the -18.45 mark.)
It's pretty clear that highly mechanized industrial farming can not be a part of any long term scenario.
* See here and here for more in-depth discussion.
It's unbelievable that I have managed to not discuss guilds, the quintessential permaculture concept, for so long on this blog! We have discussed them indirectly by considering beneficial interdependence, sunlight harvesting, and complex systems with multifunctional components. But, without any more delay:
Simply put, a guild is a combination of plants and animals, where each plant or animal performs one or more beneficial functions. As these plants and animals are selected to fulfill each others' requirements, the system becomes almost entirely self-managing, requiring no external inputs and very little labor apart from harvesting.
I've found a couple of very well written descriptions of guilds, so let me just quote from them -
Stacia and Kristof Nordin of NeverendingFood write:
A good Permaculture guild generally has seven components:Read their full description here.
- Food for us
- Food for the soil
- Ground Cover
Meg Howe and Graeme Young of Small Farm Permaculture and Sustainable Living describe guilds as:
A guild in Permaculture landscape design is a harmonious assembly of species (plant or animal) physically associated with a central plant or animal species to provide it with some benefit.Read their full description here.
The range of benefits that can be derived from guild species include:
- Providing mulch
- Offering shelter and protection from frost, wind or sun
- Hosting predators
- Remove pest habitat
- Prey on or deter pests
- Killing root parasites or pests
- Providing nutrients
- Facilitating root penetration
Masanobu Fukuoka, in 'The Road Back to Nature':
I don't plow my fields, but I do sow clover. This is the easiest way there is to grow rice. With the arrival of spring, the clover grows thick and fast. I sow rice seed in this clover and later flood my field to weaken the clover and favor the rice. Then I drain the water and leave the field to itself.
A week or two before harvesting the rice, I take anywhere from about four to ten quarts of barley seed, place it in a basket, and scatter it over the field. This also takes about an hour. After the rice is harvested and threshed, I scatter the straw back over the field.
The straw and clover do more for the fertility of the soil than large tractors. So this is certainly not a primitive method of farming from the past. It may seem primitive if all you pay attention is the the word "no-till," but it is in fact a biological method of farming that uses plants and animals rather than heavy machinery. If you think of this as a means for raising soil fertility using microbes, as cultivation with plant roots, then it becomes the most advanced science.(p217 and p223, 1987, Japan Publications Inc, New York*)
The goal of sustainable farming is not to farm in a primitive manner and be satisfied with low yields, but rather to get the highest possible yields with lowest energy and effort input, and to improve the local natural resources at the same time. To do this, we need to use natural components to create the most stable, productive, self managing systems and then avoid interfering with the natural processes.
* I will post an overview of 'The Road Back to Nature' soon. The excerpt above is quite atypical for the book, which, while certainly worth reading, primarily examines the philosophy of farming and modern lifestyles in Japan and Europe and America (with a healthy dose of 'get-off-my-lawn'!). Fukuoka's 'The Natural Way of Farming' is the one that has detailed information on natural farming techniques.
Also, when Fukuoka speaks of 'sowing' he means just scattering seeds on the field, rather than drilling them in the ground. The rice is also not transplanted from growing beds.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems With Ecosystems is written by a group of professional farmers, journalist, ecologist and biologists, most of them from the mid-western United States. This is somewhat surprising, since this area is the "corn belt" of America, with vast monoculture plantations of corn and soy-beans, factory farmed animals, and little else. Even most environmentalist consider this area an environmental sacrificial zone, since these vast monocultures are purportedly critical for "feeding the world".
The Farm as Natural Habitat critically examines this status-quo from various angles, and gives numerous examples of eco-friendly and sustainable farming operations in the corn belt that conserve the local land, improve water quality and wildlife habitat, and are highly profitable. Not all of these farms are completely organic, and since they are on the order of hundreds of acres, most of them use machinery to some extent.
The book covers the issue of protecting and promoting biodiversity on farms in four parts:
- Agriculture as Ecological Sacrifice
- Restoring Nature on Farms
- Ecosystem Management and Farmlands
- Steps Towards Agroecological Restoration
- We should conserve biodiversity not just due to ethical and aesthetic reasons, but also because the natural ecology of an area provides us with tremendous value in natural resources that can not be replaced artificially at any cost once the ecosystems are damaged.
- While the sacrifice is made in the name of "feeding the world", in reality, about 80% of the grain produced is used as animal feed benefiting only the first world. In fact, world hunger has consistently worsened despite increasing monoculture in the corn belt.
- And of course, there are numerous catastrophic effects on human health and on the environment due to the industrial approach to agriculture and the associated diet and lifestyle.
The book is written for the lay-person, and most of the data is presented in terms of direct examples, but at the end of each chapter there are a large number of references to books, academic and policy publications, etc. Certainly worth reading for anyone interested in the future of agriculture in the coming low carbon economy.
Monday, March 23, 2009
D V Sridharan is one of modern India's heroes. A retired merchant navy officer, Mr. Sridharan started the website GoodNewsIndia.com in 2000, reporting on numerous grass roots efforts in India. Having covered a wide variety of philanthropic projects, he came to this interesting realization:
My stories were about two broad types. One set of projects was conceived from the beginning to become self-sustaining, which I shall call SS-projects. Holistic land based, environmentally sound projects were of this type. The other type usually served a humanitarian need and required steady inflow of funds. As they seemed to constantly fight a fire instead of ever able to douse it, I shall call them fire fighting or FF-projects. Orphanages, special education centres and gender issues are typical FF-projects.By 2006 Mr. Sridharan decided that he needed to do more than just report on good efforts. This resulted in the beginning of project pointReturn to regenerate a "waste-land" and establish a self reliant community on it. He soon started posting regular updates about the logistics of pointReturn. The whole saga is definitely worth reading for anyone who is considering landscape restoration projects.
...SS-projects were almost always rooted in caring for resources like water and soil. FF-projects were invariably funded by foreign donors; the corollary being, Indians are not very forthcoming in supporting charitable initiatives. Several of the FF-projects became addicted to seeking money and became notoriously unprofessional in terms of accounting for the funds received and the manner of their use.
Along with describing the logistics, Mr. Sridharan continues to write insightful observations and commentary, for example in the articles India, browning, Gandhigram, an interlude, and A spell of inaction.
From 'A spell of inaction':
Deep in its collective heart, India’s political establishment believes rapid industrialisation is the goal to aim for; that an open door trade and investment policy in every economic activity is the way to get there; that income inequalities will be evened out by prosperity trickling down; that the numerous special economic zones created, -often on agricultural lands- will generate jobs and sustained properity; that India in the long run must come to have no more than 5% of its population in agriculture and that until that ideal balance comes about the only thing to do is to manage the inevitable social churning. Policy makers’ further tenets are that unending supply of industrial grade power must be assured for high standards of living; that such a living will create demand for products and services to keep the economy growing; that rising world trade will make all products available everywhere; that all food can be grown by mechanisation and engineered crops or freely imported from global markets;that the environmental costs of modern production processes are inevitable, over estimated and in any case, can be ‘fixed’ with the surpluses that a booming economy will produce.
The urban world is formally well informed about inflation, climate change, stock and commodity exchanges,the nation’s budget, recession etc but it can escape the negative effects of these in the shorter term because of the cash in its pockets. Rural India on the other hand, has no formal knowledge of these but directly experiences them- consequences of unseasonal rains and rising costs of farm inputs for instance hit them almost immediately. The remaining question is whether rural India can survive these in the longer term. The answer would be yes, for it is closer to the neglected earth. But the yes is a qualified one. The malign neglect of farming must stop, convictions must grow that natural farming -as against chemical farming- can be profitable.
One of the major costs in conventional farming is the continuous manual or mechanical work required. In sustainable farming practices any unnecessary activity is consciously designed out. We've already seen how the functions of tilling and pest control are achieved by employing natural services, and how features of the land are employed to minimize labour and energy requirements.
In permaculture design, the zone system is used to minimize the effort required in managing and harvesting the farm.
On a sustainable farm with a lot of different plants and animals, some need more frequent attention and harvesting than others. These should be placed closer to the home to make it easier to visit them. Zones are a way of guiding this layout scheme:
|Zone||Purpose||Need for Activity|
|1||Leafy vegetables, herbs, strawberries, plant nursery, work area||Multiple times a day|
|2||Smaller fruit trees, fruit vegetables, beehives, chickens, compost bin||Once a day|
|3||Main crop for domestic consumption and sale, food forest||Once a week|
|4||Semi-wild foraging zone with large trees, mushrooms, firewood, grazing animals||Once a week|
|5||Protected natural area/wilderness for observation and learning only||Never|
Saturday, March 21, 2009
After playing with the text on this blog for a long time on wordle.net, and with a lot of help from my wife, I created this word cloud about sustainable farming. I did go a little crazy with the colors, and the results are available for you to enjoy on Flickr. I'll be happy to send you higher resolution images - in any color combination you want - just drop me a line. (The original sizes are not available for download on Flickr because I don't have a Pro account there.)
Of course, the logical next step would be to put this on a T-shirt! Now you can support a great cause, and look great doing it! :)
In about a month, I will be traveling to India to set up sustainable farming demonstration and training centers, and to visit and document the methods currently used on successful sustainable farms there. This will be my full time occupation for at least the next year or so, and is currently almost entirely self financed.
There are a number of ways you can contribute to this project:
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Having talked the talk for the past month on this blog (and for longer elsewhere), I have decided to now walk the walk. One of the important things I discovered while trying to get people in India excited about sustainable farming practices was that there was a lack of awareness about the many examples of successful use of these methods in India, and hesitation to change practices due to this lack of awareness.
So I have decided to go to India for a while to -
- survey and document current sustainable agriculture practices adapted for Indian environments.
- popularize the need for wide adoption of these sustainable agriculture.
- establish one or more demonstration and training centers in Maharashtra.
- visiting as many sustainable/natural/organic farms in India as possible, particularly in and around Maharashtra.
- learning about current training and popularization programs.
- work with a few rural development organizations to augment their current programs with sustainable farming practices.
(Since this project is going to be self financed, I'm especially looking for suggestions about raising funds for this project, including fellowships, sponsorships etc.)