New agriculture treaty signed at Rio+20

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Today at 11:00, I attended a high level international roundtable for a biotech treaty.  The treaty was actually signed during the roundtable meeting. There was some of the typical conversation. ‘Sustainable development will not be realized until hunger is addressed worldwide’.  The phrase ‘grow more food with less’ which sounds very noble but is a phrase at the root of the intense agriculture we have today. A ‘call for innovation’ and pledges from countries to fund the R&D and implementation of the treaty.

But then it started to get really interesting. “Respect farmers rights and allow them access to biotechnology and benefit sharing”.   Wow! That is a major shift but as an anthropologist, I want to hear about culturally important foods. Just as I think it, what I seek is delivered. Within the Six Points of Action for the treaty; # 4 – ‘utilize species of local and regional importance’.  Unbelievable! Then it gets better.  Within the treaty is the understanding that there is an ‘added value of diversity to food security’.  ‘That diversity is the answer to many of the agricultural issues of climate change and that we must realize what nature has already given us’. Additional new language was a ‘call for corporate transparency especially in issues of land grabbing’. Then my favorite,  ‘plant diversity should be seen as a way to respect and guarantee cultural diversity’ At this point I am amazed.

I have attended close to a hundred agriculturally related sessions and events in the five years I have been involved with the United Nation Commission on Sustainable development and never have I heard this type of language. I’ve heard it in small group discussions. I’ve heard farmers and women’s groups advocating for rights and traditions but never have I heard this language in a session  and now I am hearing it in a treaty. 

There is the grumbling of criticism that nothing will come out of Rio+20 but with just the announcement of this treaty I tend to disagree. Rio+20 did not just happen in the last few days.  It is a process that has been ongoing and the goals of the summit are to produce definite courses of action that can be implemented after everyone goes home. Everyone in the process accepts that what we have been doing the past 20 years isn’t working. Everyone is looking for new and different solutions to all the issues.

Agriculture is the green economy.  If we can solve the numerous environmental and social justice issues that surround current agricultural practices we are surely on our way to the realization of what a green economy will look like in 2022 and maybe we won’t need to have Rio+30.

 

Island Sustainability

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I am attaching a post I wrote a few years ago while visiting Kaua’i. I recently found it and it contains some interesting items for discussion about food sustainability in general and the future of agriculture in a state like Florida specifically which shares many characteristics with an island system.  Enjoy!

BEEF, MILK AND EGGS

Kaua’i is not immune to the high food prices we all feel these days. Those of us who eat high on the food chain with our organic health food habits would be very much at home here. The island is abundant with organic markets, health food stores and local fruit markets so it isn’t that difficult to find diverse offerings of some of the same products offered on the mainland.

It is an Island though and while we were here the supplier was out of organic 1% and 2% milk. No organic mid-fat milk on the island for three days. Hardly torture. Whole milk is better in my coffee anyway and my waistline, well, no guilt, no calories I always say. Anyway, food prices are affected two fold here by the issues that hit all of us at the grocery store plus the “Island Factor”. Organic milk is $5.75 a half gallon instead of $4.75 on the mainland. Organic eggs are $6.25 instead of $4.95. Now if I lived here I would never pay for an organic eggs because Kaua’i is overrun with wild chickens. Being the nature/farm girl I am, I would have my own flock of trained hens laying fresh eggs for me everyday just like at home but at a fraction of the cost. Chickens on Kaua’i have no predators so that $800 hen house I built last year would be subtracted from my overall poultry management budget.

Now let’s get back to the milk. Kaua’i raises beef. Kaua’i grazed beef naturally raised can be seen roaming the wide open spaces and conveniently frozen in a grocery store near you. So why not Kaua’i dairy cows too. Great idea but no one is doing it because current non-sustainable infrastructures makes it easier to just get milk from the mainland dairies. What are the food miles on that milk? About the same as the organic milk I buy for my home in Florida. Need I mention that Florida is also the third largest producer of beef and I have yet to eat a Florida grass fed cow in my 25 years living in the sunshine state that has not been shipped out of Florida to a feed lot somewhere and then shipped to a slaughter house somewhere else to be shipped to a packing house and then back to my area grocery store butcher. Somewhere in this tangled web of wasted energy is some better way.

Where does one find some sanity to all this? Indigenous knowledge. The ancient Hawaiians had a system of dividing up land called ahupua’a. This system divided the island into pie shaped sections giving each division a mixture of forest, agricultural land, mountains and sea coast. The boundaries extended to the ocean and included deep sea fishing rights and the rights to harvest the bounty of the reefs. Because of the variety of the land the ahupua’a were self-sufficient. Wow! How’d they think of that?

To move forward we must move our thinking back. Back to a time where meeting the basic needs of a community were more important than the branding image of the cute little cow by the red barn in the meadow on the organic whole milk I poured in my coffee this morning.

 

Superbugs and Bt corn

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A report came out just the other day that the western corn rootworms has become resistant to the genetically modified Btcorn developed by Monsanto. The first five pages of google are filled with interpretations of this breaking news. This is not new news. Resistance is an ongoing issue. It’s not new to the GMO game. Before we panic, let’s get some logical facts straight before we spread the doom and gloom of resistant superbugs around the world.

First of all, Bt or Bacillus thuringiensis is used in organic farming as well. Without geeking out on the science, let’s just say Bt has many non-toxic applications to farming.  http://www.bt.ucsd.edu/organic_farming.html  ttp://www.veggiegardeningtips.com/bt-the-organic-caterpillar-control-that-works-naturally/    Second, the problem is not completely the GMO crop; it is the methods of farming we are currently using.

Crop rotation is the single most important method of pest control. Following that, soil health. Both these things are missing in many modern day fields.  The drive for increased yields has caused some farmers to abandon their traditional ways.  This loss of respect for the land and the abandoning of traditional farming methods is the problem and the reason why some western corn rootworms appear to have become resistant to GMO Bt corn.

Prior to the development of GMO Bt corn farmers were using pesticides. Large quantities of pesticides to battle these pest. Post WWII chemical warfare has been directed towards our food for the past several decades, and in many cases still is. What would you rather have Bt corn or tons of pesticides in your corn? GMO companies are well aware of the success and limitations of this technology. They know biology is smarter than they are. This said, there are some things I do not like about current corporate biotechnology practices but there are also many things I do not like about current farming practices in general.

As an organic farmer/gardener for over 25 years I know that when I have a bug outbreak chances are my soil is off. Soil Ph and nutrient content are vital for plant health. Moisture holding and “good bug” content are also vital. Making great soil is an art. Another thing I do if I have a large bug outbreak is not plant that crop the next cycle and sometimes harvest what I have and pull the current plants out. This of course is after all my “fruit and nut” organic pest management methods have failed which actually rarely happens.  Farming wisdom is our lost cultural wisdom. We were feeding ourselves for thousands of years before biotech companies even existed.  There really was not widespread famine and starvation because most people had – gardens.

 

More on those Chilean apples

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Yesterday on Facebook I was invited to chat with a young man I have known since he was about 12. I would guess he is around 30 now. I was living overseas with his parents when he was just a boy. I was surprised and happy to speak with him. He was writing because he had read my blog about Chilean apples and he just happens to now work for, a Chilean apple company. After all our family inquiry we discussed the importance of apple export to Chile as well as the high price people in Chile are even willing to pay for Washington apples during their off season. I knew that Chile had spent years developing their apple export business. I explained I have nothing against Chilean apples I just think they should eat their apples and we should eat ours. There are plenty of countries in South American to export to, right? Well not really he said. He said Chile depends on northern countries to import apples.

The issue here is not really apples. It’s about how apples fit into our theory of “living green”. We can not talk about fossil fuel consumption as if it is the devil, drive a Prius and then eat an organic apple with a 3,000 mile plus footprint. You’d be better off driving a Hummer and eating an organic mcintosh apple from upstate New York. The carbon footprint might actually be less with the Hummer scenario and you kept a farmer working in the good ol’ USA.

Another important point is we don’t need Chilean apples because apples store well in cold storage and it is easy to have a supply year round. We have done this for decades. There have always been apples in the store. What was exciting about autumn was the ‘new crop’ apples and the varieties that are not as suited for cold storage would hit the grocery shelves. Autumn was a true celebration of the harvest with grapes, corn, and pumpkins to follow.

Knowing where your food comes from is important. Even more important now. Every decision you make about food has a much larger impact on the global sustainability picture. I raised two boys, now 16 and 18, on only produce grown in the USA or in my garden. If half of us did just this the effect on our economy would be tremendous. Better management of our farms and more support for our small farmers would allow us to have a steady supply of home grown fresh produce all year long. This doesn’t mean we would not import some produce; spanish clementines are still one of my favorites, but we should support an agricultural system in the USA that supplies most of our needs.

Just to make some of you nervous, China grows half the worlds apples but botanically that’s logical because the apple originated in, China. Happy eating!

Send those apples back to Chile!

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There was once a brilliant essay written called Self-Reliance. It contains the most thorough statement of one of Emerson’s repeating themes, the need for each individual to “avoid conformity and false consistency, and follow his or her own instincts and ideas.” I think Emerson’s voice is something we all need to listen to again when addressing the future of how we will eat.  My thoughts turned to Emerson after reading the chapter “A year of eating locally”  in Deep Economy by Bill Mckibben.  The sections that disturbed me the most states that “American may soon get out of the food business because it will be unprofitable to tie up resources in farming and ranching.” Who has decided that the ability to feed ourselves is unprofitable? This mindset started taking shape as early as 1999.

I take you now to 2011 and the realities of this in action right this very moment in my local, regionally owned health food store.  As I reached for the bag of apples on my list, I paused as I saw something incredibly disturbing. Shocked at what I saw, I immediately asked the produce manager if this was true – was I truly looking at a bag of organic apples from CHILE.  What makes this even worse is the fact its September, the front end of the apple season in the USA. He explained that it was the only apples the organic supplier had. An organic apple that has traveled over 3,000 miles is in no way, shape or form part of a sustainable agriculture system. I refused to buy those apples, as should you. The carbon footprint of those apples negates any organic quality those apples may possess.

In the spirit of Emerson, we must use our own judgement if we truly care about the future of eating in the USA. Our greatest power is the power of how we spend our dollars and the only way to change the system is to not buy those things which are inconsistent with supporting a sustainable future for all of us. So I urge you today to just make one commitment to how you buy food – buy only food grown in the USA. Because at this juncture what is most important is we keep farmers farming in the USA – helping them grow more organic food will be the next step.

The Culture in Agriculture

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It’s obvious when you look at the word, that culture is part of agriculture.  But what does that mean? If culture is a way of life, how many of us are participating in the culture of growing food? How many of us possess the knowledge of the land, of the animals and of the plants? When we stop to think about this, the bearers of this knowledge are few and disappearing everyday. How do we preserve this knowledge? How do we share it? Is it the knowledge of feeding oneself or the knowledge of feeding each other that we seek to preserve? Is this knowledge different? Is it the same?

The land and the people are intimately linked yet we have forgotten the land and our responsibility to be stewards of the land. How do we remember when those who can remind us disappear everyday? In preserving agricultural knowledge we preserve ourselves but do we have enough time? It’s great to say we should eat more organic food to be healthy but who will grow it? It’s a great idea to have more local farms but where is the land to do it?    As long as the highest and best use of land is other things than feeding our communities where will the farms be?

However, there is a more subtle reason why agriculture has shifted to corporate control and industrialized farming and it is because of us.  We the consumer drove agriculture in that direction by the choices and preferences we have about food. Only when we change the way we eat, the way we shop, the way we cook and entire way we interact with food will this paradigm change. Are you truly ready for a food revolution? Or is it just fun to talk about it? When the blaming finally stops is when true transformation will occur. Just like any true spiritual path the transformation starts from within. Cultural is constructed around what we value, so when you think about agriculture think about what it is we value as a society and everything else will fall into place