Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Nothing simple... again

I take no joy in writing this.  I've written a lot over the last few years (and yacked about it on TV for years before) about the need for fall cover crops and the need to stop fall plowing.  You only had to drive through central PEI this Spring to see why. The heavy snowfall melted quickly, and in bare fields there was terrible soil erosion. BUT..... when I've asked farmers about fall plowing they always say there's just too big a risk in the Spring that there won't be enough time to get the needed plowing, disking, harrowing, necessary for organic material to breakdown so a proper seedbed can be made.  That's certainly the case this year with fields too wet to work. I can just hear them saying "I told you so."  Soil erosion creates loss and harm not just for the farmer losing the topsoil,  but for the waterways and aquatic systems smothered wherever the soil ends up. We have to figure this out.

A couple of more things to think about by two interesting food/ag writers:

Leave ‘Organic’ Out of It

The ever-increasing number of people working to improve the growing, processing, transporting, marketing, distributing and eating of food must think through our messages more thoroughly and get them across more clearly. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I can say that a couple of buzzwords represent issues that are far more nuanced than we often make them appear. These are “organic” and “G.M.O.'s” (genetically modified organisms).
I think we — forward-thinking media, progressives in general, activist farmers, think-tank types, nonprofiteers, everyone who’s battling to create a better food system — often send the wrong message on both of these. If we understand and explain them better it’ll be more difficult for us to be discredited (or, worse, dismissed out of hand), and we’ll have more success moving intelligent comments on these important issues into the mainstream.
Let’s start with “organic.” The struggle to raise more food in more sustainable ways is as important as any, including the fight to slow climate change. (They’re related, of course.) But more sustainable does not mean “pure,” and organic often generates unreasonable expectations. Many experts are now using the term “agro-ecological,” which has the disadvantage of being unusable in casual conversation — why not just say, “We want to make crop production better?” Because we can improve industrial agriculture more quickly and easily than we can convert the whole system to “organic,” which is never going to happen. Unless, of course, we run out of cheap fossil fuel and have to stop moving chemicals and food around the globe willy-nilly.
Furthermore, there’s a very real difference between eating better and growing better. I can eat better starting right now, and it has nothing — zero — to do with shopping at Whole Foods or eating organically. It has to do with eating less junk, hyperprocessed food and industrially raised animal products. The word “organic” need not cross my lips.
Often I’m engaged in a discussion where I say precisely that: Eat more plants, try to wipe out junk food from your diet, cut back on industrially produced animal products, and so on. Inevitably, someone asks, “What if I can’t afford to buy organic?” Or, “What if I can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods?”
Let’s encourage people to eat real food, which for most people will mean eating better. This is affordable for nearly everyone in the United States. (I tackled this issue a couple of years ago, in detail.) For most people, eating better is mostly about will and skill. Those are not small items, but they’re much more easily dealt with than changing industrial agriculture. Yes, there are people who are too poor to afford real food; but that’s an issue of justice, the right to food and fair wages — not of whether the food is organic.
Eating organic food is unquestionably a better option than eating nonorganic food; at this point, however, it’s a privilege. But that doesn’t make it a deal-breaking matter. Reducing the overload of synthetic chemicals and drugs in agriculture and the environment is a huge issue, as is eating better, but neither necessitates “going organic.”
Then there are G.M.O.'s: OMG (the palindrome is irresistible). Someone recently said to me, “The important issues are food policy, sustainability and G.M.O.'s.” That’s like saying, “The important issues are poverty, war and dynamite.” G.M.O.'s are cogs in industrial agriculture, the way dynamite is in war; take either away, and you have solved virtually nothing.
By themselves and in their current primitive form, G.M.O.s are probably harmless; the technology itself is not even a little bit nervous making. (Neither we nor plants would be possible without “foreign DNA” in our cells.) But to date G.M.O.'s have been used by companies like Monsanto to maximize profits and further removing the accumulated expertise of generations of farmers from agriculture; in those goals, they’ve succeeded brilliantly. They have not been successful in moving sustainable agriculture forward (which is relevant because that was their claim), nor has their deployment been harmless: It’s helped accelerate industrial agriculture and its problems and strengthened the positions of unprincipled companies.
But the technology itself has not been found to be harmful, and we should recognize the possibility that the underlying science could well be useful (as dynamite can be useful for good), particularly with greater public investment and oversight.
Let’s be clear: Biotech in agriculture has been overrated both in its benefits and in its dangers. And by overrating its dangers, the otherwise generally rational “food movement” allows itself to be framed as “anti-science.”
If anti-G.M.O. activists were successful in banning G.M.O.'s, we’d still have industrial agriculture, along with its wholesale environmental degradation and pollution, labor abuse and overproduction of ingredients for the junk food diet.
What about labeling? I’m in favor of transparency — I want to know what’s in my food — and labeling G.M.O.'s may well be the thin end of the wedge. But that G.M.O.'s are in the forefront of the battle for transparency is perhaps unfortunate, since they play on irrational fears and are far less worrisome than the intensive and virtually unregulated use of antibiotics and agricultural chemicals.
Maybe all I’m saying here is this: There are two important struggles in food: One is for sustainable agriculture and all that it implies — more respect for the earth and those who live on it (including workers), more care in the use of natural resources in general, more consideration for future generations. The other is for healthier eating: a limit to outright lies in marketing “food” to children, a limit on the sales of foodlike substances, a general encouragement for the eating of real food.
Both sustainability and healthier eating affect us. Very few people can avoid struggling daily with the avalanche of bad food and the culture and propaganda surrounding it. Near-hysteria or simple answers lead to unachievable situations and nonsolutions. More effective would be shifting the food culture, the relevant business models and public policies — a gradual and concerted movement toward making production and consumption simply “better.” That is what the good food movement should be about.

Our alarming food future, explained in 7 charts

Earlier this year, President Obama signed a bill into law that will essentially preserve the status quo of US agriculture for the next half-decade. Known as the farm bill, the once-every-five-years legislation (among other things it does) shapes the basic incentive structure for the farmers who specialize in the big commodity crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice. This year's model, like the several before it, provides generous subsidies (mostly through cut-rate insurance) for all-out production of these crops (especially corn and soy); while also slashing already-under-funded program that encourage farmers to protect soil and water.
As I put it in a post at the time, the legislation was simply not ready for climate change. How not ready? A just-released, wide-ranging new federal report called the National Climate Assessment has answers. A collaborative project led by 13 federal agencies and five years in the making, the Assessment is available for browsing on a very user-friendly website. Here's what I gleaned on the challenges to agriculture posed by climate change:
Iowa is hemorrhaging soil. A while back, I wrote about Iowa's quiet soil crisis. When heavy rains strike bare corn and soy fields in the spring, huge amounts of topsoil wash away. Known as "gully erosion," this kind of soil loss currently isn't counted in the US Department of Agriculture's rosy erosion numbers, which hold that Iowa's soils are holding steady. But Richard Cruse, an agronomist and the director of Iowa State University's Iowa Water Center, has found Iowa's soils are currently disappearing at a rate as much as 16 times faster than the natural regeneration. According to the National Assessment, days of heavy rain have increased steadily in Iowa over the past two decades, and will continue doing so.
National Climate Assessment
But dry spells are on the rise, too. In spring 2013, Iowa experienced its wettest spring ever, with storms that washed away titanic amounts of topsoil. The previous summer, it underwent its most severe drought in generations. Such extremes can be expected to continue. This map shows the predicted increase in the maximum number of consecutive dry days, comparing the 1971-2000 period to projections for 2070-2090. The worst-hit regions will be in the west—more on that below—but key corn-growing states like Illinois and Indiana take their lumps, too.
National Climate Assessment
Crop yields will decline. All the carbon we've been spewing into the atmosphere over the past century and a half has so far probably helped crop yields—plants need freely available carbon dioxide, after all. But as the climate warms, that effect gets increasingly drowned out by heat stress, drought, and flood. And now, the Midwest is expected to see sharply higher average temperatures as well as days above 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This chart compares the region's average temps in the 1971-2000 period to those expected between 2041 and 2070.
And higher temperatures correlate to reduced crop yields—as this chart, comparing yields and maximum temperature data in Illinois and Indiana between 1980 to 2007, shows.
National Climate Assessment
California, our vegetable basket, will be strapped for irrigation water. California is locked in a severe drought. I recently noted that farmers in the state's main growing region, the Central Valley, are responding by rapidly drawing down underground water stores to keep their crops irrigated. The main driver: Farmers count on snow melt from the Sierra Nevada mountains to supplies the state's vast irrigation networks—and this year, the snows barely came. According to the report, as the weather warms up, they—and other farms in the Southwest—can expect much less snow going forward.
National Climate Assessment
And even if they can get enough water, heat stress and other climate effects will likely knock down yields of some crops. Different crops respond to higher temperatures in different ways. This chart projects yields for Central Valley crops under two scenarios—one in which greenhouse gas emissions continue rising, the other if we manage to reduce emissions. Crucially, these projections are based on the assumption that "adequate water supplies (soil moisture)" will be maintained—a precarious assumption.
National Climate Assessment
Wine grapes, nuts, and other perennial California crops will be hard-hit. In order to thrive, crops like fruit and nuts need a certain number of chilling hours each winter—that is, periods when temperatures range between 32°F and 50°F. Bad news: A warming climate means fewer cold snaps. The maps below show changes in chilling hours in the Central Valley in 1950, 2000, and a prediction for 2050 if current trends hold (the greener, the more chilling hours):
image: central valley images
National Climate Assessment
Overall, the report states, "the number of chilling hours is projected to decline by 30 percent to 60 percent by 2050 and by up to 80% by 2100." Worse, the "area capable of consistently producing grapes required for the highest-quality wines is projected to decline by more than 50 percent by late this century." It's enough to make you want to uncork a bottle, while you still have a chance.

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