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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Increase in Global Heat Leads to Decrease in Agricultural Output

By: Saira Malhotra

Last week, Reuters reported how the United States, the world's largest food exporter, showed growing concerns regarding its agricultural output. At an agronomist meeting last week in San Antonio, scientists engaged in a hot topic: heat. Experts have always considered global warming with regards to its impact on melting glaciers and over flowing water tables, but what seems to be having a more direct and immediate impact on agricultural production is the rise in climate.

With the early start to sun rise accompanied by significantly hot evenings, the days are getting longer and hotter, particularly in the Southern parts of the country like Florida. Such spikes in temperature are making it difficult for crops to thrive and in some cases they have ceased to even grow.  According to Ken Boote, crop scientist of the University of Florida, "we don't grow tomatoes in the deep South in the summer. Pollination fails." Snap peas were no strangers to the soil of Florida, but now even they have fallen in to the bucket of the agronomic past.

These rise in temperatures have brought about a change in approach. Gerald Nelson is an economist for the International Food Policy Research Institute funded by Bill and Melinda Gates. His role is to identify crops that would prosper in these conditions. Scientists are identifying that while steps are being taken to mitigate the agricultural challenges from the climate, they are focused more on insufficient rains rather than heat. Even insurance claims demonstrate that crop failure occurs due to lack of water, and as a result, the main issue gets overlooked again. "The magnitude of recent temperature trends is larger than those for precipitation in most situations," highlighted a study performed by David Lobell, a Stanford University agricultural scientist. Lobells findings also demonstrate heat and not rainfall impacted the output of corn, wheat, soybean, and rice over the last three decades.

According to Reuters, there is higher seed supply to cope with the hunger needs around the country, but the challenge is to plant them in an environment which sets them up for success.

Photo: Cristian V.

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Will Hurricane Irene Raise Food Prices and Concerns?

Hurricane Irene has made its mark on farmlands across the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. and farmers are constantly tacking up the damage done. USDA's Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, explored areas hit by Hurricane Irene this past Tuesday.

Within New York and Vermont, dairy farmers felt the pressure of Irene as gallons of milk were dumped because tanker trucks couldn't make their rounds. As found in Patrick Jonsoon's piece "Hurricane Irene adds to US Farm Woes. Will it Raise Food Prices?", Dean Norton, a Genesee County, New York dairy famer, believes "this is a unique situation we are facing" as food prices could rise because of the storm's damage. Prices of milk may rise and if so, many may take a step away from having a nice tall glass of milk everyday.

North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler told reporters, "Crop-wise, this is a very tough time of year to have something like this happen. There are going to be some crops that are a total loss in some areas." Crop losses are still being tallied up to decipher how much of a loss has occurred because of Hurricane Irene.

With much crop damage through the Eastern Seaboard states are marking up which crops are destroyed. In New England and mid-Atlantic the corn crop damage was widespread. In New Jersey blueberry bushes have been hit hard. The Hudson Valley estimated a 10% loss of apples, while North Carolina's tobacco and soybean crop loss is unknown. Needless to say there are a variety of crops that are being damaged because of Hurricane Irene.

Tom Vilsack is awe struck, "I've not seen the kind of flooding and damage to crops that I saw briefly today. And if this is representative of what North Carolina has suffered, it's a fairly significant blow." With substantial damage to crops many continue to wonder if the US will be hit with food inflation. Many hope the answer to that question is no as according to the Consumer Price Index food inflation is slated to hit 4.5% this year.

Photo: flick.a

Genetically Modified Crops and Their Genetically Modified Bugs

Reading about a super plague attacking genetically-modified corn seems like a story out of ancient times and the future put together. Yet, that is exactly what is occurring in the United States and Europe as we speak. As the debate of pros and cons of genetically-modified foods continues, this turn of events can count as a con to those rallying for GMO foods.

A pest has now succumbed to feeding off of genetically modified corn, though this type of corn was developed by Monsanto to thwart off rootworms. Ironically, nature still finds a way. The concept Monsanto has created has been working for over a decade, hence farmers continue to plant the corn year after year. A good farmer knows, however, that if you plant the same product year after year there will be no growth as the plant will become accustomed to the soil. While this has occurred, worms that have attached themselves to the genetically modified corn are figuring out how to survive and therefore are turning into "superbugs"; something no farmer wants lurking in their fields.

The superbugs are causing problems for all facets of the world of corn. According to Eve Toreh's piece of genetically modified corn, Darin Newsom, a senior agriculture analyst at DTN states "corn prices are booming because of more demand to feed animals, to send overseas, and to make ethanol." Needless to say, farmers can't afford to have these superbugs taking over their genetically modified corn, as there is such a high demand for corn right now.

Monsanto is telling its farmers to not back away from the genetically modified corn but is already finding a way to fix this problem. They have developed bags that contain a mix of unprotected and protected seeds, which disenable the superbugs to attach to their growing corn. From Mira Oberman's genetically modified corn superbugs piece she quoted Lee Quarles from Monsanto in saying that corn "continues to provide tremendous performance to farmers and we're seeing that performance on greater than 99% of all acres planted." Why stop a good thing some might say. When the superbugs vanish genetically modified corn around the world will be growing like weeds. Which makes you wonder, which is the pest- the bugs or the GMO crops themselves?

Photo: Peter Blanchard