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Conspicuous in Their Absence. Pesticides and Environmental Impacts.

This week a new paper entitled Leverage Points for Improving Global Food Security and the Environment was published in the journal Science. (Science Daily summary)

The authors focus on the 17 major crops that account for the vast majority of calories produced and consumed, inputs used and environmental impacts from agriculture. The heavy hitters, no surprises. Corn, wheat, rice and cotton. The big impacts that they focus on are water use; carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and methane pollution of air and water, and tropical deforestation. The major points of leverage included switching from crops for meat production to crops for human consumption, better irrigation, closing the massive yield gap in countries with low performing agriculture, reducing food waste (especially meat waste) and improving the precision use of inputs like nitrogen and water in countries where overuse is the biggest problem.

Two things might surprise folks who get their sustainable ag news from urban reporters and not from academics. The first is that the percentages of over use of inputs in the US are fairly low, while our impact is large, not because our farmers are out of control, but rather that we produce so much freaking food that a few percentage points of over use is a big impact relative to the production in other countries.

The second is the absence of even a mention of pesticides as a major environmental impact anywhere in the paper. Why is this? Because, while pesticides remain a labor issue for farm workers, especially in developing countries, they have improved so much in their mode of action and use in the last half century that they really don’t rate as a major environmental impact, at least in comparison to the big foot issues raised in this paper.

The salience of pesticides as an environmental impact doesn’t come from the size of their effect on the environment, but rather on their psychological impacts. It’s better understood by run of the mill chemophobia. Just as we are more afraid of shark attacks than slipping in the shower, pesticides as poisons or carcinogens have a much greater grip on the public imagination than unsequestered carbon, gulf deadzones, or methane pollution. Tropical deforestation may be the biggest agricultural impact, but there aren’t many mommy bloggers wondering about how it could affect their kids health. As Steve Savage has explained, neither the ag companies that have improved their products nor the environmental groups that have pushed for improvements have much incentive to publicize the changes, so they go unheralded.

The other reason that it has great salience for the general public is because it is the main political football in the culture war between organic and so-called conventional agriculture. Pesticide use, while not absent from organic farming, is the most visible and highly touted difference that sets organic apart. On issues like carbon, methane, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, organic doesn’t have much to brag about. When it comes to the yield gap, it’s organic that has some splainin’ to do. Thus, a big to-do is made about synthetic pesticides, despite their relatively minor environmental impacts.

There is more to look at in this paper, but the absence of pesticides as a major environmental impact was the first thing that popped out at me.

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Is Transformation Really that Different from Backcrossing?

GUEST POST: Benjamin Edge

Benjamin Edge (@edgeben) is a former wheat breeder for Pioneer Hi-Bred, International, a DuPont Company, and for Clemson University. He has released 10 PVP protected wheat varieties and is a co-inventor of record for 5 wheat variety patents. He has taught classes in plant breeding, biology, and computer technology.

Transformation, the insertion of genes into an organism through the use of a ‘gene gun’ or a bacterial vector, is a tool used by plant breeders to introduce new traits to a crop when there is not enough readily useful variation present in the crop they are trying to improve. Transformation results in what we commonly refer to as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. While some consider this a risky technology,  transformation is actually very similar in effect to what conventional breeders do when they find a gene of interest in a wild relative, and use backcrossing to incorporate that gene into an adapted variety.

Backcrossing is a VERY effective tool of conventional plant breeders (Briggs and Knowles, 1977). Once you find a trait you are interested in, you can move that trait from a wild relative (closely related species) or from any member of the species you are working with into an adapted variety with great repeatability (reproduced or repeated easily). Backcrossing is used when you have a well adapted variety, say plant A, with high yield, large seeds, and strong stems, but with some weakness, such as susceptibility to a disease. If you find a plant, say plant B, with disease resistance, but poor yield, small seeds, and weak stems, you can use backcrossing to incorporate that disease resistance trait into plant A, what we call introgression of the trait.

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If Alternative Farming worked, it would just be called “Farming”

First published on Skepteco Feb 8th 2014

by Graham Strouts

Another insightful critique of permaculture, this time from Chris Smaje, which I take the liberty of quoting from at length as Smaje summarizes the issues better than I can:

PDC {Permaculture Design Course} syndrome can involve one or more of the following symptoms:

  • a belief that no till or mulching or forest gardening or polycultures or mob-stocking or chicken tractors or perennial crops or compost teas or various other techniques must invariably be practiced in preference to any alternatives
  • a belief that whatever Bill Mollison or David Holmgren or a handful of other authors have written is above criticism;
  • likewise, a belief that the way things are done by certain famous permaculturists or on certain famous permaculture holdings must always be faithfully reproduced elsewhere
  • a belief that permaculture has cracked the problem of creating a low input – high output farming system
  • a belief, consequently, that anyone who struggles to make a living out of farming must be failing because they are not properly following the correct principles
  • a slightly superior smile at the sight of weeds, hoes, spades, tractors etc
  • a belief that a small garden crammed with edible perennial things is proof positive that permaculture can feed the world
  • a belief that controlled trials and numerical analysis are reductionist and unnecessary
  • a belief that people who question aspects of permaculture principles are simply nay-sayers who sap the movement’s joie de vivre
  • most importantly, a ready admission that permaculture is not a set of approved techniques or received dogma that must always be applied everywhere but a way of thinking, a broad set of handy design principles, before cheerfully reverting to any of the preceding affectations.

  • I’m exaggerating a little of course. And the good news is that the condition is rarely permanent – it usually fades within a few years of taking a permaculture course, faster if the sufferer takes on a farm themselves (the quickest cure recommended by physicians). Perhaps I’m just being over-sensitive to criticism: God knows there are plenty of things I’ve done on my holding that deserve it. And in case it seems like I’m putting myself above those who suffer from this troubling condition, let me tell you that I had a very bad case of PDC syndrome myself for a couple of years. It’s not that I feel I have nothing to learn from recent PDC graduates, but I do weary of the judgmental spirit that too often seems to accompany the process.

    From my perspective as a small-scale agroecologically-oriented commercial grower, I’d offer the following criticism of the package that many PDC graduates seem to emerge with:

  • a tendency to over-emphasise the role of smart design tricks and to under-emphasise the important but unglamorous basics of sound growing/farming skills
  • a tendency to be over-impressed by the media schtick of various global permaculture gurus who very rarely make a living from producing basic food commodities, and a tendency not to notice what many unsung local farmers and growers are achieving as ‘implicit permaculturists’ who simply apply good design in their practice
  • a tendency to a religious mode of thinking, in which the rudiments of scientific rigour are rejected as ‘positivism’ or ‘reductionism’ and replaced by an overwhelming faith in the views of permaculture gurus as per my previous point
  • a metropolitan disdain for farmers past and present, and a conviction that the way they have done things is wrong
  • an insufficiently fine-grained understanding of agro-ecosystems

In truth, I would personally hesitate to say some of those things so baldly without having specific evidence I could point to to back them up; as with Ann Owen’s post discussed last week, Smaje does not mince his words or shy away from direct attack on his prey; nevertheless, I understand everything he is saying and can concur that this is also my experience with that special tribe of permaculture people.

Note Smaje’s accusation towards the end of his list of “a tendency to a religious mode of thinking, in which the rudiments of scientific rigour are rejected as ‘positivism’ or ‘reductionism’ “
This seems odd since elsewhere Smaje continues to accuse me also of “irrationalist faith-based scientism”- which seems to be exactly the kind of response he is complaining of receiving himself from the permaculture world.

Just as Owen completely rolled back on her concurrence with myself and Peter Harper that “Permies dont do numbers” by asserting that “No book learning can compete with a farming family’s generations of experience” -in other words, anecdotes trump data- so Smaje seems unable to see that those he criticizes will tar him with the self-same epithet he throws at me.

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NJ Explains: The Rain on the Plains, Mainly to Blame?

Maybe partly.

Nathanael Johnson starts us off with some good news.

As you can see, farmland has leveled out at about 75 percent. But erosion has gone down. The most interesting part of that first graph, to me, is the far right-hand side: There’s been less topsoil washing down the Raccoon River in the last two decades than at any other time. Or at least any other time on this record: If you go back before European settlement, there was very little erosion on the prairie. But still, for the period in which anyone was farming, the modern farmers look like the best stewards; the year with the lowest recorded sediment loss was 2000.

But point out that in other parts of Iowa high corn prices have driven the kind of fence row to fence row plant that results in stream and creek bank erosion. The disheartening thing we learn is that while the USDA has spent billions on agricultural conservation efforts and farmers have made great strides, climate change erases many of those gains.

And then there’s the weather. A huge part of the erosion and water pollution that occurs each year can be traced back to one or two big storms — gully washers that rut fields. And we are seeing more of these big weather events, as abnormal becomes the new normal. “We claim improvement in a dry year, and then the sky is falling in a wet year,” said Keith Schilling at the Iowa Geological and Water Survey, who co-wrote the Raccoon River study that got my attention.

As Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say, “It’s always something.”

So, while we should give credit and encouragement where it’s due, in sum we’re still polluting with our food system.

What’s the solution? In a word, plants: Plants sheltering the earth during the big storms; plants slowing raindrops with their leaves; plants holding down the earth with their roots. In places, people have begun to restore critical sections of the old prairie. There was once 167 million acres of tall-grass prairie in the land where we now grow corn and soybeans, and less than .1 percent of that prairie remains.

When I asked Eugene Turner, a professor at Louisiana State University, about this, he sent me the Marsden Farm study, which offers a potential way to mimic the prairie while still turning a profit. Researchers mixed things up by adding some grasses into the usual rotation of corn and soy.

Successful demonstration projects like this are sometimes hard to scale — it’s a lot easier to get results when you have a team of researchers scrutinizing the fields than if you are just one farmer trying to figure it out as you go along. And in recent years farmers have been pushed by a strong market incentive to just plant as much corn as possible. But as corn prices come down, perhaps more farms will look for alternative methods.

I know farmers who are as on top of this stuff as can be, but I also know that I’m interacting with some of the smartest, most engaged farmers out there.

Read the whole thing. There are good links and interest charts as well.

You Can’t Have It All: Kenyan Farming Edition

The Economist has a fine short piece on the tensions running through the thriving Kenyan horticultural trade. Kenya is a fantastic place to grow things. Their export market is thriving. The problem is that consumers on the other end of that trade want two contradictory things:

more value for money and more corporate social responsibility (CSR). Many shoppers’ incomes have been stagnant since the financial crisis. But at the same time Westerners worry increasingly about labour conditions in poor countries and environmental degradation. Britain’s supermarkets are particularly powerful conveyors of these messages: the four biggest, which control about 70% of the grocery market, are relentless in imposing their will on their suppliers. They are caught up in a fierce price war: even the posh ones, such as Waitrose, promise to match competitors’ prices. They are also caught up in a CSR race to show they are model employers: a wallchart in an office in Longonot is jam-packed with the dates of inspections by NGOs and industry groups.

How to square that circle? Consolidation and vertical integration:

These three forces are producing a wave of consolidation and vertical integration, as economies of scale and close ties to retailers become more important. Large companies such as the VP Group (which owns Longonot Farm), Swire and Finlays are expanding while smaller family farms are going out of business. The big firms are creating production chains that stretch from seeds to cellophane and spawning subsidiaries to handle transport and marketing. They are also forming tight relationships with European retailers. The people who once dominated Kenyan horticulture—independent farmers, many of them white, and sharp-eyed middlemen, many of them Indians—are being displaced by company men who speak of scale economies and integrated supply chains.

Which provokes further tensions:

The Kenyan horticultural industry has provoked a predictable debate. Critics say it is folly to transport flowers, fruit and vegetables halfway across the world. Defenders retort that growing roses in Kenya, where it is hot and light all year round, produces fewer carbon-dioxide emissions than growing them in dank, dark Britain or the Netherlands. Critics complain that poor Kenyans are labouring long hours to produce salads for lazy Europeans. Defenders reply that horticulture is creating jobs in parts of Kenya where they are in short supply. But the most interesting thing about the industry is the way that it is shaking up ideological certainties. The West’s demand that companies be good citizens is confounding many on the left by consolidating more power in the hands of giant agribusinesses. At the same time it is confounding many on the right: far from choking enterprise, it is encouraging firms to become more productive and innovative.

I would underscore four things here. We have to be clear about the tensions embodied within what we demand from the economy. We need to always be aware that the social costs of displacement are often more obvious and emotional compelling than the broad and diffuse benefits of economic and technological progress. Instead of turning to a ‘common sense’ metric like food miles, we we need to really do the math when comparing the environmental impact of two alternatives. Finally, small independent businesses are not always the best way to achieve high returns on the triple bottom line.

More on Walmart’s new organic push

Following up from Rob Wallbridge’s commentary on Walmart’s new organic gambit, we find Colin Schultz writing for the Smithsonian:

But for organic food producers, it’s more complicated.

Organic farmers have an issue with scale—although there are some examples of organic yields meeting conventional yields, in general, organic production just can’t produce as much food per unit of land as regular farming. As such, organic food costs more to make. If Walmart is going to start selling it without a markup, those shortfalls are going to hit someone.

Over recent decades, rising demand for organic foods has already been squeezing American farmers, says NPR. Unable to keep up with demand, American farmers have turned to importing organic grains from Asia. Working under the scale and stability of a Walmart contract could give the company’s partners confidence to invest locally. But, until that can happen, the environmental and global health costs of increased international shipping ultimately detract from an organic farm’s potential benefits. This adds to the fact that, though organic farms are better for the environment on a “per acre” basis, they’re actually worse on a “per product” basis.

Aside from all that, the mass adoption of organic agriculture isn’t a practical plan from a more fundamental standpoint. As it stands, organic farms rely on nutrients trickling down from conventional farms. Many organic products rely, indirectly, on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. As organic agriculture gains a larger share of food production then, some scientists suggest, crop yields could drop even further.

We overestimate the sustainability of organic and underestimate the sustainability gains of conventional farming in less than helpful ways. The sooner we move away from defining sustainable agriculture by ideology and towards measuring it by metrics, the better.

The business of agriculture is business

Two interesting pieces in my news feed this morning.

The first from NPR on the rise of suburban, urban and even inner city Future Farmer’s of America chapters around the country:

Unlike FFA members of the past, Melton didn’t grow up on a farm. His parents did. And that’s the norm for the 60 other students in his chapter. “We’re in an urban area, so most of our members do not grow up on property, though they still have that connection to agriculture,” he says.

But because most millennials are several generations removed from the farm, the school district is going to great lengths to make agriculture appeal to more students.

Lauren Hart, the district’s FFA adviser and an agriculture instructor, says in her eight years of teaching, she has noticed a shift. A greater number of students are interested in organic farming methods, grass-fed beef and cage-free eggs. And Hart says she can’t just ignore what students want to learn about. “The interest and the ability both of students going into production agriculture is declining,” she says. “It’s just not something that a high school student either wants to or believes they can get into.” That’s why Hart reaches into areas you wouldn’t typically associate with farming — law, public policy, entrepreneurship and bookkeeping. And that’s something that doesn’t always sit well with a few students’ parents who hail from farm country.

They say, ” ‘When are you going to have my student on a tractor?’ ” Hart says. “Well, never.”

The second from Kristen Schmidt who uses her transition from the corporate world to sustainable agriculture to talk about how people can put a business background to work in sustainable agriculture and/or food advocacy:

Currently, sustainable agriculture jobs – and green jobs in general – are driving the U.S. economy. According to a recent report released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, green jobs are quickly becoming one of the fastest growing employment sectors within the country and an article in the LA Times notes that the increase in green jobs crosses industries, stretching from manufacturing to education to compliance. While people often think of beekeeping, dairy farming or urban gardening when they think of sustainable agriculture jobs, there’s also a major need for traditional skills within this non-traditional environment. For example, a food advocacy organization is hiring a communications manager, a large organic yogurt company is seeking a farmer relationship manager, another organization is looking for a director of educational programs, and a large publishing company is hiring a managing editor for its agricultural sector (all jobs that are currently accepting applications as of the publication of this article).

There is a lot of great stuff going on out there, a little business skill and sense would be a welcome addition to more than a few operations.