Farm Advocates and Scientists Voice Concern Over Use of Crop Chemicals

By: Justin Chan

As the United States Department of Agriculture faces criticism from concerned parents over the use of pink slime in school food, another agency is facing heat for not doing enough to limit the use of crop chemicals.

According to Reuters, scientists, environmentalists and farm advocates have been increasingly irked by the use of agricultural chemicals in boosting crop production. As the world's population continues to grow, critics are worried that the consequent demand for food has led to health and environmental risks. Some have already issued warnings and calls for government action, while the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has taken a more serious route by filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Evidence reveals that agricultural residues have been found in water supplies and air samples of some of the farming communities across the country, causing more anxiety among critics. Two particular trends, some say, may explain the root cause for concern. The first trend relates to the mounting food demand and the pressure on farmers to keep up with production. Many farmers have applied more herbicides, fertilizers and insecticides to crops under the impression that such chemicals will increase food productivity. The second trend, perhaps, may be even more disturbing. As farmers use biotech seeds to avoid dealing with weeds and pests, they have found themselves using more chemicals to fight off these very nuisances.

"Production is growing," said Pat Sinicropi, legislative director at the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. "The pressure on agriculture is mounting to squeeze as much yield out of their land as possible, which is driving more and more chemical use."

Experts argue that mutual cooperation between the government and farm advocates is needed in order to address such issues. Critics have attempted to push the government to conduct a more thorough analysis of the effects of crop chemicals and change the incentives that have encouraged farmers to grow chemical-heavy food. They have also cited the heavy environmental damage chemicals, such as nitrogen fertilizers, have caused. A study showed that at least half of all rivers, streams and lakes in the country have been affected by nitrogen fertilizer run-off.

"Nitrogen pollution is considered by scientists among the handful of most serious impacts on the environment that humans cause. It has been increasing," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a plant pathologist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Those with the NRDC say that the government has also not done enough to limit the use of 2,4-D, a herbicide that has been linked to cancer. Government regulators have asserted repeatedly that such link does not exist, but scientists at the NRDC are skeptical. "EPA is dragging their feet on this issue," said Gina Solomon, senior scientist with the organization. "They need to grapple with the science and the current situation where U.S. agriculture is on the cusp of the vast increase of the use of this chemical."

Photo: Macomb Paynes

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Promoting Organic Farming: An Interview With The Rodale Institute

By: Justin Chan

Many people are accustomed to going to their local grocery store and picking up fruits and vegetables that have been processed through conventional methods. More often than not, these products have gone through a series of chemical spraying, which keeps parasitic pests from cluttering around the food consumers eat. Some critics have voiced health concerns over this procedure but concede that these products are affordable to those who cannot purchase healthier food. One organization, the Rodale Institute, is determined to change the perception that only the rich can afford organic food and that organic farming is not sustainable.

Headquartered in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, the Rodale Institute is a nonprofit organization that focuses on promoting organic agriculture and farming through research and outreach. Its Farming Systems Trial, for instance, compares conventional chemical agriculture with organic farming. The institute also offers workshops, tours and programs geared at raising awareness about the benefits of growing food organically.

We got an inside look at the workings of The Rodale Institute through an interview with the organization's executive director, Coach Mark Smallwood. Check out what he had to say about their mission...

What kind of work is the Rodale Institute involved in?

We were founded in 1947 by J.I. Rodale, who was the first North American to use the word "organic agriculture." This is where the organic movement was born. We are focused on research. We have greenhouse and compost operations. We plant different styles of gardens. We have livestock here. We have a dairy operation here. With everything we do, there's a research component. We have had hundreds of publications and scientists come through here. In fact, in 2011, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of our Farming Systems Trial, the longest-running side-by-side comparison of conventional and organic farming.

The Farming Systems Trial has three core farming systems: a manure-based organic system, a legume-based system and a synthetic-based conventional system. Can you briefly describe these management practices?

A manure-based system is designed to mimic a beef or dairy operation. The source of nitrogen here is composted manure. The process is much like [one conducted by] a dairy farmer who has access to lots of farm manure. Farmers here compost it and apply it as a fertilizer. There are also two different treatments they can use to apply the manure: a till or a no-till system. A legume-based system uses legumes such as ryes and clovers as a source of nitrogen. This system also applies these legumes through a till or no-till treatment. The conventional system uses chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Like the other two systems, the conventional system can be used with a till or no-till treatment, but the no-till treatment involves a chemical process.

According to your research, organic systems in the Farming Systems Trial are shown to match its conventional yields and even outperform them in years of drought and environmental duress. How is this possible?

There's more organic matter in organic soil. It's the organic matter and the biology that lives in the soil that holds water like a sponge. So in a drought, those plants do better.

What kind of impact has your Agriculture Supported Communities program had on food desert communities so far? What is the difference between the effects of this program and that of a community supported agriculture system?

Well, this is the first year we started the ASC program. We've hired five new interns. They're from Ohio, Missouri, Texas, New Jersey, and Alberta, Canada. At the end of our eight-month training program, they will go back to the food deserts they were recruited from and create their own businesses. We'll teach them how to grow organically and market their products. In regards to your second question, usually a person has to come up with a lump sum of around $700 in a community supported agriculture system. Some people can't afford that kind of money. Our program is a pay-as-you-go shareholder agreement. Unlike community supported agriculture systems, our program also accepts SNAP (Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program) money. We accept food stamps.

Although the global market for organic products has grown, food prices have gone up particularly in countries in Africa and the Middle East. What do you think needs to be addressed in order to make organic food more affordable in these countries?

Well, like I said, there are two ways to grow food: conventionally or organically. Conventional farming is supplemented by government funding. It aims to provide as much food as possible at an affordable price, and that's its goal. Organic farmers, on the other hand, try to grow as much nutritious and healthy food as possible. In order to make organic food more affordable, these government subsidies should go to organic farmers instead. One of the major problems with growing food conventionally is that there can be groundwater contamination.

Global warming has been a huge issue lately. How have organic farmers adjusted to extreme weather changes?

I can speak regionally. We've seen our season extended here in Pennsylvania. It's been warmer. The question now is how we can take advantage of it. Still, during this past growing season, we had a really wet spring, which made it really difficult for farmers to plant. Then, we went through seven weeks of drought in June and July. In August, we had the most amount of rainfall in the history of Pennsylvania. The cycles are unpredictable, and it's difficult for farmers to adjust to them.

In cities where local farmers often have to compete with huge supermarket chains that sell chemically-altered food, what is the most effective way for these farmers to expand their appeal?

The most effective way for these farmers to expand their appeal is to have the government stop subsidizing the chemically-produced food and have it reflect the true cost of what that food is. If you look at the Chesapeake Bay, there's a dead zone that's been created by chemical agriculture. The government can charge the taxpayers to clean up the bay but not the farmers. That lowers the costs that these farmers have to pay. It's the government's fault. The issue here is that it's being lobbied by lots of dollars. We meet with politicians all the time to talk about this issue.

For more information about The Rodale Institute, visit their website here.

Photo courtesy of the Rodale Institute.

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Department of Agriculture Will Speed Up Approval of Genetically Modified Crops

By: Justin Chan

Several days after the United States and Europe agreed on a pact that will recognize each other's certified organic products, the United States Department of Agriculture announced that it will speed up approval of genetically modified crops.

According to BusinessWeek, seed companies such as Monsanto Co. will get faster regulatory reviews of their crops under the new policy changes. Michael Gregoire, USDA's deputy administrator, said that the department plans to cut the time needed to approve biotech crops by half. Under the new guidelines, upgraded versions of current crop technologies will be reviewed for at least 13 months. New technologies will be reviewed for approximately 16 months. The changes are expected to take place this month, once they are published in the Federal Register.

"If you can reduce the approval time, you get sales that much faster,"  said Jeff Windau, an analyst at Edward Jones & Co. "It could be significant for the companies like Monsanto and DuPont." The approvals used to take six months but have since lengthened because of legal challenges and increased public interest. Farmers have expressed uneasiness about the effects of a lengthened approval, which, they believe, could put them at a disadvantage against competitors abroad. Countries such as Brazil have been quicker to approve biotech products.

The USDA said it will invite the public to voice their opinion as companies, such as Monsanto, file a petition for the deregulation of a biotech crop. As Gregoire noted, this will allow the department to address any concerns while it conducts its risk assessment. "We can improve the quality of decisions by providing for this earlier public input in the process," he said. "We are not sacrificing quality at all."

Others, however, have claimed that the department's real motive is to ignore the criticism over its handling of regulating modified crops. "They are trying to work the system so they can dismiss public comments more quickly and easily in order to speed things up," said Bill Freese, a policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety. "It's a rubber-stamp system. A real regulatory system will occasionally reject something."

Photo: tillwe

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'Rotting Crops' Call For Immigration Reform

By: Justin Chan

Weather changes only account for part of the problem that affects agricultural output. According to Bloomberg, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned last week that immigration reforms are necessary in order to maintain a sufficient workforce and prevent crops from rotting.

"The sad reality is that crops will be raised in this country this year that may not be harvested because there simply is not the workforce," he said. ""All of America, but especially farm country, needs comprehensive immigration reform, and we need it now."

Immigration has been a testy issue in the country in recent years. Conservatives have argued that illegal immigrants have taken away jobs that could have gone to Americans, while liberals have defended immigrants of all statuses and have praised their contributions to the economy. Several states have already pushed for measures that would limit the number of illegal immigrants in the country. Alabama's immigration legislation, for instance, has targeted farm workers.

Some have argued that immigration labor is necessary in crop production. A study conducted by Barry Estabrook, for example, revealed that the agricultural output from skilled migrant workers far exceeds that from unemployed felons who are assigned the same job. In an era when the global economy has been unpredictable, immigration to the United States has continued to spike at unprecedented levels while the country's agricultural production remains erratic due to the quality of unskilled labor.

Vilsack said that Congress needs the "political courage" to reform current immigration policies, since many farmers have been left without enough workers to harvest crops.

"There's a risk of rotting crops, and with that risk, there's no excuse for the efforts of some seeking to demonize immigrant labor or prevent meaningful reform of a system that everyone in the Congress and in the country admits is not functioning," he said.

Photo: tomylees

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Illogical Economics: Inefficiency in Food Production Causes Problems

By: Dylan Rodgers

The relationship between Supply and Demand constitutes the simplest economic model.  But economics is far from simple; the complex web that connects each and every commodity and its prospective value makes the Supply and Demand model an unbelievably multifaceted system.  So when we wonder why food prices have skyrocketed by nearly 300 percent in some areas in the world, there is no one answer to this growing problem.

We'll start with the good news-food prices are expected to continue to drop as they have over the last few months.  Some predict it will bottom out, a result bad for investors and good for hungry families.  This reprieve may be enough for struggling countries to begin to get back on our feet at least in terms of feeding ourselves.  But what about the future?  How can we as the World's economy levee against a future flood of skyrocketing food prices?

The Economic Viewing Glass

Until now, we have let our tastes dictate the crop production rather than our economic and environmental effects.  Take meat for example; 1/3 of the world is used to produce food and 3/4 of that is used to raise livestock.  Through economic eyes, we'd see that eating less meat (and opting for the less desirable parts from time to time) would result in major effects on our crop yield, food prices, and health.

Accordingly, growing crops in a regionally specific manner would also allow resources to be used more efficiently.  Take New Mexico's peanut farming for example.  Peanuts have to be soaked in 6 inches of water weekly order to grow, but New Mexico's annual rainfall (in the peanut production areas) can be as low as 12-15 inches.  That's only two weeks' worth of what's needed for peanut development.  New Mexico also struggles with extremely low amounts of drinking water.  By growing more regionally natural crops, New Mexico could solve multiple problems at once.  That's a win/win no matter how you look at it.

Fictional Over-Value

Organizations make billions from speculating on the coming food prices based on insufficient knowledge of future events (for a complete explanation, click here).  So even if production is high (i.e. lowering prices), the speculators may have bet it would be lower months before.  So as the food price market naturally fluctuates from high to low and back, speculators who make a profit on high prices cause the market to be high, plateau, then go higher.  This suggests that the natural ebb-and-flow of Supply/Demand has been disrupted by people gambling on our future.  Without serious regulation on these greedy 'crystal-ballers', food prices will continue to be high regardless of the Supply/Demand reality.

The Economic Butterfly Effect

The more the global economy intertwines, the more dependent we as Americans become on the well-being of other countries.  It's the economic butterfly effect.  There are plenty of ways we could internalize our production and become a less dependent nation, but it all requires breaking some economic ties to other countries and distant regions, a touchy subject to say the least.  This is by no means a call to burn our international bridges.  It has more to do with subjecting our own to the economic hardships brought on by uncontrollable weather conditions and poor decisions elsewhere.

Conclusion

These are but three categories in the game of world economics, and in a way I am oversimplifying its complexity.  The point here is that there are many more ways to improve our food related economic foundation while working to prevent monetary disaster.  If we continue to address the problem of food prices by increasing production, we will keep trying to jam a square peg into a round hole.

Real economic shifts inevitably ruin aspects of the market; companies who have built empires on the old ways must change or be crumbled under the unsustainable weight of their own methods.  The important part is that we don't let the economic system we have built deny us nourishment.  And because the economic butterfly effect often starts here in the U.S., the decisions we make affect the lives of everyone living on this planet.  The question follows-will we choose to sustain the modern machine or survive against it?

Change is the only constant.  Hanging on is the only sin.

                                                             -Denise McCluggage

Photo: Or Reshef

Dylan Rodgers is a writer with dreams of existential understanding and lyrical nonsense.  Share with him in the well of human experience @dylangers.wordpress.com.

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