Thursday, 14 August 2014

A Pesticide Morality Tale

You could hear Ed Rice trying to find the balance when he was asked about concerns for Charlottetown's water supply now that its new well field is out there in farming country.  Yes it's a concern, but no this latest fish kill isn't a risk, but yes  it's something we'll pay attention to in the future. The good people of Miltonvale have their own worries. They've hired a local watershed group to monitor water use by Charlottetown so they don't end with dry streams or wells like what's happened in the Winter River watershed.

It was one of Ed Rice's comments that caught my ear. He was being pressed about recent efforts to stop the use of pesticides on PEI. He cautioned that homeowners use many of the same pesticides as farmers.  I thought that was a courageous thing for him to say.  The easy thing for a politician, particularly one from an urban community, and one who's taken on responsibility for the quality and supply of water for Charlottetown would have been to say he'd welcome the move. He didn't and I respect that.

I've written and reported on pesticide issues for many many years, and I'm sure I'm as stuck in my own beliefs as anyone else. For what it's worth here's some of what I believe, and I'm still trying to learn:

1. I'm not trying to be stupid or hard headed, but I'm not sure what a "pesticide-free" PEI really means. I think Stewart Hill has got it right. He taught ecological agriculture at MacDonald College outside Montreal for decades.  I had invited him to lecture a class I was teaching at Carleton University in the mid 1970's. I was also an "organic" market gardener at the time (see earlier post).   He thinks pesticides have been and always will be used in agriculture, the question is which ones and how they're used. I had asked him about using captan, a fairly toxic fungicide, on seeds planted early in the Spring when it's cold and wet.  He said if it's necessary to get the seeds to germinate and grow, he had no problem with that.  His view was that as long as farmers made the effort to truly understand the pests or diseases they're fighting, and then determined the product  or action that would have the least impact on the environment, then that's what they should do. And he's still telling audiences and students  that there are examples where a targeted synthetic pesticide is better to use than a broad spectrum organic insecticide which kills every bug. I had flea beetles chewing up broccoli and cauliflower seedlings, I'd lost dozens in the last ten days. I hand picked, sprayed water, etc. Finally I dragged out some rotenone dust to kill them off.  It was that or not having any brocolli in the freezer. Did I use a pesticide? Did I also kill beneficial insects? Yup.  And if I was doing this on a commercial basis the problem would be bigger, and a solution much more necessary.

2.  Organic farmers use pesticides too, and some like Kocide and rotenone, kill fish as efficiently as the fungicides and insectcides used in conventional agriculture. The difference is that organic farmers manage their soils much more effectively, longer rotations, high organic levels, so they're much, much less risk. So preventing fish kills isn't just as an issue of "going organic", but making sure that pesticides, all pesticides, are kept out of waterways. 

3. People's fear and anger is really directed at potato farming.  I think there was a great opportunity missed in the mid 1990's as the industry expanded to supply the new french fry plants (now plant after Mccain announced it's leaving) that the government and many in the farming community resisted the common sense recommendations coming out of Elmer MacDonald's Roundtable report: the need for proper buffer zones, using organic matter as a measure of sustainable farming practices, restrictions on row cropping on sloping land, proper crop rotations, and so on.  We've waited almost twenty years for some of these to be implemented, and are still waiting on others. Would it have prevented fish kills, dead zones in rivers, nitrates in wells?  I don't know. I think it would have made these problems occasional, and manageable. Now they're the expected, and that makes it much more difficult for politicians and farm leaders to create confidence that they know what they're doing. That's when joining the "pesticide free" team seems like the only answer.   And for what it's worth, don't forget the dozens of watersheds where fish still thrive even after heavy rains,  and don't be surprised if the cause of the North River fish kill wasn't a potato field but something else. And if that's the case, no that doesn't mean everything is OK.

4. Two of the most condemned pesticides these days are neonicitinoids, and glyphosphate (our old pal Round-up), and for good reason. Here's the but. It's not as if either were introduced into a Garden of Eden that's now been poisoned.   When both were initially introduced they were replacing herbicides and insecticides that were far more damaging to the environment, and people, some of the old World War Two nerve agents, and herbicides like agent orange and paraquat.   The problem with both (and I've written a fair amount on this before)  is how they're used. GMO roundup ready crops have lead to millions of acres of farmland saturated with glyphosphate, and the same issue with the neonics, coating grain and corn seed. It's estimated that more than 80% of the neonics being used every year never get close to a real pest, but hurt beneficials like bees.

And here's a well written article from this week on what happens when pesticides aren't used properly. The really aggravating thing for me is that the pesticide companies never seem to have to answer for how their products are used, and then they benefit again when they're no longer effective.

Invader Batters Rural America, Shrugging Off Herbicides

Scott Harper, the weed expert at Harper Brothers Farms in Indiana, inspected a soybean field for invasive, herbicide-resistant weeds known as palmers. Credit Daniel Acker for The New York Times
WHEATFIELD, Ind. — The Terminator — that relentless, seemingly indestructible villain of the 1980s action movie — is back. And he is living amid the soybeans at Harper Brothers Farms.
About 100 miles northwest of Indianapolis, amid 8,000 lush acres farmed by Dave Harper, his brother Mike and their sons, the Arnold Schwarzenegger of weeds refuses to die. Three growing seasons after surfacing in a single field, it is a daily presence in a quarter of the Harper spread and has a foothold in a third more. Its oval leaves and spindly seed heads blanket roadsides and jut above orderly soybean rows like skyscrapers poking through cloud banks. It shrugs off extreme drought and heat. At up to six inches in diameter, its stalk is thick enough to damage farm equipment.
“You swear that you killed it,” said Scott Harper, Dave Harper’s son and the farm’s 28-year-old resident weed expert. “And then it gets a little green on it, and it comes right back.”
Botanists call the weed palmer amaranth. But perhaps the most fitting, if less known, name is carelessweed. In barely a decade, it has devastated Southern cotton farms and is poised to wreak havoc in the Midwest — all because farmers got careless.
Mr. Harper uprooted a palmer by hand, the last resort in fighting the weed. Each plant can produce up to 200,000 seeds in an average field. Credit Daniel Acker for The New York Times
Palmer, as farmers nicknamed it, is the most notorious of a growing number of weeds that are immune to the gold standard of herbicides, glyphosate. Cheap, comparatively safe and deadly to many weeds, glyphosate has been a favorite ever since the Monsanto Company introduced it under the name Roundup in the mid-1970s.
After Monsanto began selling crops genetically engineered to resist glyphosate in the 1990s, the herbicide’s use soared. Farmers who once juggled an array of herbicides — what killed weeds in a cotton field might kill cornstalks in a cornfield — suddenly had a single herbicide that could be applied to almost all major crops without harming them.
There were even environmental benefits: Farmers relied less on other, more dangerous weed killers. And they abandoned techniques like tilling that discouraged weed growth, but hastened erosion and moisture loss.
But constantly dousing crops in glyphosate exacted a price. Weeds with glyphosate-resisting genetic mutations appeared faster and more often — 16 types of weed so far in the United States. A 2012 survey concluded that glyphosate-resistant weeds had infested enough acreage of American farmland to cover a plot nearly as big as Oregon, and that the total infestation had grown 51 percent in one year. Glyphosate-resistant palmers first surfaced in 2005, in a field in Macon County, Ga. Nine years later, they are in at least 24 states.
“There’s no substantive argument about whether the problem’s gotten far worse in this era of genetically resistant crops,” said Charles Benbrook, a professor and pesticide expert at Washington State University. “The advent of herbicide-tolerant crops made it possible for farmers to load up so much herbicide on one crop that it was inevitable that it would develop resistance.”
Now farmers are going back to older techniques to control weeds, using more varieties of herbicides, resuming tilling — and worse.
Palmer amaranth is the prime example. Consider the cotton fields that blanket many Southern farms: Without glyphosate, almost no herbicides can kill the weed without also damaging cotton plants. Some farmers have mowed their crops to keep palmer seeds from maturing. In 2009, Georgia spent $11 million to send laborers into a million acres of cotton fields to pull palmers out by hand.
For many farmers, including the Harpers, manual labor has become a last resort in the battle against carelessweed.
Herbicides lose effectiveness as palmers grow. Credit Daniel Acker for The New York Times
“I consider myself a Roundup baby, and it was great,” Scott Harper said. “You didn’t have to think about anything. And now we get this weed that flips everything on its head.”
The Harpers’ 2,500-acre soybean crop is an object lesson in palmer’s adaptability and how far farmers must go just to keep it in check.
Palmer amaranths seem as if they were designed by nature to outwit herbicides and farmers. Unlike many weeds, it has male and female versions, increasing genetic diversity — and the chances of a herbicide-resistant mutation — in each new seed. And each plant is astonishingly prolific, producing up to 200,000 seeds in an average field, said Dave Mortensen, a professor of weed and plant ecology at Pennsylvania State University.
“If one out of millions or billions of seeds contains a unique trait that confers resistance to herbicide,” he said, “it doesn’t take long when a plant is that fecund for it to become the dominant gene.”
William G. Johnson, a Purdue University professor of botany and plant pathology, said the weed probably arrived at the Harpers’ farm in typical fashion: in manure, purchased as fertilizer, from cows that ate cottonseed — and, inadvertently, palmer seeds.
The Harpers initially mistook the weed for waterhemp, a close relative. Before they learned otherwise, combines had already harvested fields containing mature palmer seed pods and had spread the seed far and wide.
A glyphosate-resistant palmer is a mighty beast indeed. Its seeds can germinate any time during the growing season, so herbicide sprayed in April is useless against a palmer that appears in July. Once sprouted, palmer amaranth can grow more than two inches a day. Once it exceeds four inches, even herbicides for which it lacks resistance begin to lose their effectiveness.
The Harpers have kept palmers at bay in their 5,500 acres of corn by spraying dicamba, a weed killer that is benign to corn. Soybeans are a different matter.
Scott Harper put herbicide on an infested field. Herbicides lose effectiveness as palmers grow. Credit Daniel Acker for The New York Times
Last year, the Harpers sprayed palmer-infested fields several times with glyphosate and two other herbicides, pushing herbicide costs to $80 an acre from $15. About eight in 10 palmers died. The rest wilted for a couple of weeks, then resumed growing.
This year, they are trying a different chemical cocktail that raises herbicide costs only to $45 an acre. Their big gun, a herbicide that blocks palmers from synthesizing amino acids, was sprayed on July 3, the first of two applications allowed each summer.
“I came back from the Fourth of July weekend, and they looked dead,” Mr. Harper said. “I said, ‘I think we smoked ’em.’ My dad says, ‘Awesome.’ ” He paused. “Ten days later, there’s green coming all over them again.”
Should the second herbicide application fail, Mr. Harper said, he is unsure what to do next.
More broadly, experts in glyphosate’s travails — farmers, scientists, regulators, the herbicide industry, environmentalists — feel much the same way.
The industry has readied a new barrage of genetically engineered crops that tolerate other weed killers. The Environmental Protection Agency is set to approve plans by Dow AgroSciences to sell soybean seeds that tolerate not only glyphosate, but a much older herbicide, 2,4-D, and a third widely used herbicide, glufosinate. Monsanto hopes to market soybeans and cotton next year that resist dicamba.
Dr. Mortensen and others say the companies are simply repeating the history that made palmers resistant to glyphosate. He says natural solutions, like planting what are known as cover crops that keep light from reaching germinating palmers, may cost more but are also effective.
Mr. Harper said he believes Dr. Mortensen is right. He also said he cannot wait for Monsanto and Dow to begin hawking their new soybeans anyway.
“I’m not stupid. I know you can only ride a pony so far,” he said. “It’ll probably take another 10 years before palmer becomes a real big problem again. But that just brought me 10 years I didn’t have.”

Monday, 11 August 2014

Good Life but not a Living

I did it for four years in the 1970's and was always one truck breakdown from bankruptcy. If I hadn't been growing some of that "wacky tobacky" I'd have lost the ten acres of poor farmland I was trying to make a living off of. Market gardening, small scale farming, whatever you want to call it is very hard work with very few rewards.  It was the beans that always got me. You'd spend thirty minutes picking 15 pounds, and know the reward would be about five bucks.  I was very lucky. Through bizarre and undeserved circumstances I ended up making  a living writing and talking about growing food instead. I pay back by always giving farmers more than they're asking for, and trying to remind people that if we want these young headstrong farmers to keep at it we've got to find some way to make sure they're properly paid. This was captured in a good piece in the New York Times today. It's a conversation I've heard many times amongst market gardeners here.

Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers

NEW HAVEN — AT a farm-to-table dinner recently, I sat huddled in a corner with some other farmers, out of earshot of the foodies happily eating kale and freshly shucked oysters. We were comparing business models and profit margins, and it quickly became clear that all of us were working in the red.
The dirty secret of the food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living. After the tools are put away, we head out to second and third jobs to keep our farms afloat. Ninety-one percent of all farm households rely on multiple sources of income. Health care, paying for our kids’ college, preparing for retirement? Not happening. With the overwhelming majority of American farmers operating at a loss — the median farm income was negative $1,453 in 2012 — farmers can barely keep the chickens fed and the lights on.
Others of us rely almost entirely on Department of Agriculture or foundation grants, not retail sales, to generate farm income. And young farmers, unable to afford land, are increasingly forced into neo-feudal relationships, working the fields of wealthy landowners. Little wonder the median age for farmers and ranchers is now 56.
My experience proves the trend. To make ends meet as a farmer over the last decade, I’ve hustled wooden crafts to tourists on the streets of New York, driven lumber trucks, and worked part time for any nonprofit that could stomach the stink of mud on my boots. Laden with college debt and only intermittently able to afford health care, my partner and I have acquired a favorite pastime in our house: dreaming about having kids. It’s cheaper than the real thing.
But what about the thousands of high-priced community-supported agriculture programs and farmers’ markets that have sprouted up around the country? Nope. These new venues were promising when they proliferated over a decade ago, but now, with so many programs to choose from, there is increasing pressure for farmers to reduce prices in cities like my hometown, New Haven. And while weekend farmers’ markets remain precious community spaces, sales volumes are often too low to translate into living wages for your much-loved small-scale farmer.
Especially in urban areas, supporting your local farmer may actually mean buying produce from former hedge fund managers or tax lawyers who have quit the rat race to get some dirt under their fingernails. We call it hobby farming, where recreational “farms” are allowed to sell their products at the same farmers’ markets as commercial farms. It’s all about property taxes, not food production. As Forbes magazine suggested to its readers in its 2012 Investment Guide, now is the time to “farm like a billionaire,” because even a small amount of retail sales — as low as $500 a year in New Jersey — allows landowners to harvest more tax breaks than tomatoes.
On top of that, we’re now competing with nonprofit farms. Released from the yoke of profit, farms like Growing Power in Milwaukee and Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., are doing some of the most innovative work in the farming sector, but neither is subject to the iron heel of the free market. Growing Power alone received over $6.8 million in grants over the last five years, and its produce is now available in Walgreens stores. Stone Barns was started with a $30 million grant from David Rockefeller. How’s a young farmer to compete with that?
As one grower told me, “When these nonprofit farms want a new tractor, they ask the board of directors, but we have to go begging to the bank.”
And then there are the chefs. Restaurants bait their menus with homages to local food, attracting flocks of customers willing to pay 30 bucks a plate. But running a restaurant is a low-margin, cutthroat business, and chefs have to pay the bills, too. To do so, chefs often use a rule of thumb: Keep food costs to 30 percent of the price of the meal. But organic farming is an even higher-risk, higher-cost venture, so capping the farmer’s take to a small sliver of the plate ensures that working the land remains a beggar’s game.
The food movement — led by celebrity chefs, advocacy journalists, students and NGOs — is missing, ironically, the perspective of the people doing the actual work of growing food. Their platform has been largely based on how to provide good, healthy food, while it has ignored the core economic inequities and contradictions embedded in our food system.
Unlike our current small-bore campaigns, previous food movements of the 1880s, 1930s and 1970s were led by highly organized farmers’ organizations — like the American Agricultural Movement, National Farmers Union and Colored Farmers’ National Alliance — trailblazing new paths for the economy.
They went toe to toe with Big Ag: crashing shareholder meetings; building co-ops and political parties; and lobbying for price stabilization. In the late 1970s, for example, small-scale family farmers organized a series of protests under the slogan “Parity Not Charity,” demanding a moratorium on foreclosures, as well as the stabilization of crop prices to ensure that farmers could make a living wage. They mobilized thousands of fellow farmers to direct action, including the 1979 Tractorcade, where 900 tractors — some driven thousands of miles — descended on Washington to shut down the nation’s capital.
It’s not the food movement’s fault that we’ve been left behind. It has turned food into one of the defining issues of our generation. But now it’s time for farmers to shape our own agenda. We need to fight for loan forgiveness for college grads who pursue agriculture; programs to turn farmers from tenants into landowners; guaranteed affordable health care; and shifting subsidies from factory farms to family farms. We need to take the lead in shaping a new food economy by building our own production hubs and distribution systems. And we need to support workers up and down the supply chain who are fighting for better wages so that their families can afford to buy the food we grow.
But none of these demands will be met until we start our own organizations — as in generations past — and shape a vision of a new food economy that ensures that growing good food also means making a good living.


We can’t stomach the real cost of food

Elizabeth Renzetti

I’m going to apologize right now if you’re eating breakfast, particularly if it includes a nice bit of bacon and a lovely runny egg. Look away now, because this column is about the crappy things we do to animals in our pursuit of a cheap breakfast – or lunch, or dinner, or one of the 60 snacks that seem to fall between.
I’m a meat eater, an omnivore, a slurper of chicken soup and a cruncher of bacon, but sometimes I wonder how I can continue when faced with the reality of animals’ largely miserable journey from feedlot to plate. Like many people, I feel a momentary revulsion whenever I see one of those undercover videos of chicks being thrown live into grinders, pigs unable to turn in their crates and cows beaten with iron bars. Then, a day later, I’m glad I have enough loose change in my wallet to buy a club sandwich.
Those videos, which tell the story of the real costs associated with cheap, factory-farmed food, are painful to watch. They are shaming. And, for that reason, they are also under threat in the United States, where so-called “ag-gag” laws punish anyone who goes undercover at a farm or processing plant to take surreptitious video (the term “ag-gag” was coined by The New York Times food writer Mark Bittman.)
Seven states in the U.S. have these laws, which punish whistle-blowers who either try to expose cruel practices, or who falsify their applications to get jobs in the agriculture industry (which is how activists capture their evidence). Nearly 20 other states have tried to pass similar legislation.
You might have seen some of the video that these laws would block, such as the footage of cows being rammed with a forklift, shot secretly by the U.S. Humane Society in 2007. That particular exposé of a California slaughterhouse and its cruel, unhealthy practices led to the largest meat recall in U.S. history.
In Idaho and Utah, a disparate group – including animal-rights and First Amendment activists, alongside food-safety groups and unions – have launched challenges to the ag-gag laws in federal courts. In Washington, investigative journalist Will Potter has a successful Kickstarter campaign called “Drone on the Farm” to subvert ag-gag laws by using airborne cameras to photograph factories from above.
But their opponents, who raise the meat and bring it to market, have deep pockets, and rely on the public’s desire for cheap chicken to outweigh its passing disgust. (In both Canada and the U.S., consumption of red meat has fallen over the past three decades, but demand for poultry has soared, if you’ll pardon a bad pun.)
As the Guardian newspaper wrote in recent undercover exposé of vile conditions in U.K. chicken-processing plants, where two-thirds of fresh chicken is infected with the potentially toxic campylobacter bacteria, “poultry firms and retailers are locked in to an economic structure of their own making in their race to produce the cheapest possible chicken.” But who demands the cut-rate nugget and the fire-sale fajita? That would be us, the consumers.
We may not have ag-gag laws in Canada, but we still rely on the undercover surveillance of activist groups like Mercy for Animals to expose the dirty links in our food chain. In two recent high-profile cases, Mercy for Animals revealed alleged abuses (and got action) that would otherwise have been overlooked. Its undercover investigators released a video showing the suffering of live turkeys at Hybrid Turkeys in Ontario, which led to 11 charges of animal cruelty being laid against the company.
At Chilliwack Cattle Sales, the country’s largest dairy producer, Mercy for Animals captured footage of cows being beaten and abused with farm machinery by young employees who whooped with glee. The question “who tortures cows for fun” is not one I am equipped to address, but at least when I watched the footage I was pretty sure I could identify the dumb animals in the frame. Those workers were fired, and the company’s milk temporarily boycotted. Once again, public outrage soon faded.
I’m sure Mercy for Animals would like us all to turn vegan so they could hang up their cameras, but this is not likely to happen in the near future. In the meantime, we could at least acknowledge the price we pay for convenience, and cost-saving, and have the guts to look it in the eye.