From ‘International Herald Tribune’ a powerful blog…
A new report proposes agro-ecology as a way to feed the world
The oldest and most common dig against organic agriculture is that it cannot feed the world’s citizens; this, however, is a supposition, not a fact. And industrial agriculture isn’t working perfectly, either: the global food price index is at a record high, and our agricultural system is wreaking havoc with the health not only of humans but of the earth. There are around a billion undernourished people; we can also thank the current system for the billion who are overweight or obese.
Yet there is good news: increasing numbers of scientists, policy panels and experts (not hippies!) are suggesting that agricultural practices pretty close to organic — perhaps best called “sustainable” — can feed more poor people sooner, begin to repair the damage caused by industrial production and, in the long term, become the norm.
On Tuesday, Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the Right to Food, presented a report entitled “Agro-ecology and the Right to Food.” (Agro-ecology, he said in a telephone interview last Friday, has “lots” in common with both “sustainable” and “organic.”) Chief among de Schutter’s recommendations is this: “Agriculture should be fundamentally redirected towards modes of production that are more environmentally sustainable and socially just.”
Agro-ecology, he said, immediately helps “small farmers who must be able to farm in ways that are less expensive and more productive. But it benefits all of us, because it decelerates global warming and ecological destruction.” Further, by decentralizing production, floods in Southeast Asia, for example, might not mean huge shortfalls in the world’s rice crop; smaller scale farming makes the system less susceptible to climate shocks. (Calling it a system is a convention; it’s actually quite anarchic, what with all these starving and overweight people canceling each other out.)
Industrial (or “conventional”) agriculture requires a great deal of resources, including disproportionate amounts of water and the fossil fuel that’s needed to make chemical fertilizer, mechanize working the land and its crops, running irrigation sources, heat buildings and crop dryers and, of course, transportation. This means it needs more in the way of resources than the earth can replenish. (Fun/depressing fact: It takes the earth 18 months to replenish the amount of resources we use each year. Looked at another way, we’d need 1.5 earths to be sustainable at our current rate of consumption.)
Agro-ecology and related methods are going to require resources too, but they’re more in the form of labor, both intellectual — much research remains to be done — and physical: the world will need more farmers, and quite possibly less mechanization. Many adherents rule out nothing, including in their recommendations even GMOs and chemical fertilizers where justifiable. Meanwhile, those working towards improving conventional agriculture are borrowing more from organic methods. (Many of these hybrid systems were discussed convincingly in Andrew Revkin’s DotEarthblog last week.)
Currently, however, it’s difficult to see progress in a country where, for example, nearly 90 percent of the corn crop is used for either ethanol (40 percent) or animal feed (50 percent). And most of the diehard adherents of industrial agriculture — sadly, this usually includes Congress, which largely ignores these issues — act as if we’ll somehow “fix” global warming and the resulting climate change. (The small percentage of climate-change deniers are still arguing with Copernicus.) Their assumption is that by increasing supply, we’ll eventually figure out how to feed everyone on earth, even though we don’t do that now, our population is going to be nine billion by 2050, and more supply of the wrong things — oil, corn, beef — only worsens things. Many seem to naively believe that we won’t run out of the resources we need to keep this system going.
There is more than a bit of silver-bullet thinking here. Yet anyone who opens his or her eyes sees a natural world so threatened by industrial agriculture that it’s tempting to drop off the grid and raise a few chickens.
To back up and state some obvious goals: We need a global perspective, the (moral) recognition that food is a basic right and the (practical) one that sustainability is a high priority. We want to reduce and repair environmental damage, cut back on the production and consumption of resource-intensive food, increase efficiency and do something about waste. (Some estimate that 50 percent of all food is wasted.) A sensible and nutritious diet for everyone is essential; many people will eat better, and others may eat fewer animal products, which is also a eating better.
De Schutter and others who agree with the goals of the previous paragraph say that sustainable agriculture should be the immediate choice for underdeveloped countries, and that even developed countries should take only the best aspects of conventional agriculture along on a ride that leaves all but the best of its methods behind. Just last month, the U.K.’s government office for science published “The Future of Food and Farming,” which is both damning of the current resource-intensive system (though it is decidedly pro-GMO) and encouraging of sustainable, and which led de Schutter to say that studies demonstrate that sustainable agriculture can more than double yields in just a few years.
No one knows how many people can be fed this way, but a number of experts and studies — including those from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the University of Michigan andWorldwatch — seem to be lining up to suggest that sustainable agriculture is a system more people should choose. For developing nations, especially those in Africa, the shift from high- to low-tech farming can happen quickly, said de Schutter: “It’s easiest to make the transition in places that still have a direction to take.” But, he added, although “in developed regions the shift away from industrial mode will be difficult to achieve,” ultimately even those countries most “addicted” to chemical fertilizers must change.
“We have to move towards sustainable production,” he said. “We cannot depend on the gas fields of Russia or the oil fields of the Middle East, and we cannot continue to destroy the environment and accelerate climate change. We must adopt the most efficient farming techniques available.”
And those, he and others emphasize, are not industrial but sustainable.
A series of floods have been affecting northeastern Australia, primarily in the state of Queensland and its capital city, Brisbane, since October 2010. The floods have forced the evacuation of thousands of people from towns and cities. At least 22 towns and over 200,000 people have been affected. Damage initially was estimated at around AU$1bn (£650m). This estimate was later revised up to AU$10-11bn.
Vast areas of Southern and Central Queensland, an area the size of Germany and France combined, were affected by the flood. About 300 roads were closed, including nine major highways. Coal railway lines were closed and numerous mine sites flooded. The floods have boosted fruit and vegetable prices.
The floods were a result of heavy precipitation caused by Tropical Cyclone Tasha that combined with a trough during the peak of a La Niña event. The 2010 La Niña weather pattern, which brings wetter conditions to eastern Australia, is the strongest since 1973. Isolated flooding started across parts of the state in early December. On 24 December a monsoonal trough crossed the coast from the Coral Sea, bringing torrential rain that fell in a broad swath from the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Gold Coast. By 28 December the worst of the rain had passed. The conditions also led to a large influx of snakes, as well as some crocodiles.
While flooding has been widespread across Queensland, major flooding has mainly occurred in the three river basins.
- Fitzroy River basin, including the Dawson and Nogoa Rivers
- Burnett River basin
- Condamine River/Balonne River basin, part of the Murray-Darling basin.
A later flood event affected the Mary River basin
Fitzroy River basin
The flooding initially forced the evacuation of 1,000 people from Theodore and other towns, described as unprecedented by the acting chief officer of the Emergency Management Queensland. The military transported residents by helicopter to an evacuation centre at Moura.
Emerald was cut-off by road on 29 December as the Nogoa River rose. By the next day, the river surpassed the 2008 flood peak level of 15.36 m (50.4 ft). At the peak of the flooding, 80% of the town was flooded, the worst the town ever experienced. 1,200 Emerald residents registered as evacuees.
Rockhampton had nearly a week to prepare for an expected flood peak from the Fitzroy River, which courses through the centre of the city. The airport was closed on 1 January. A metal flood barrier was erected around the terminal to prevent flood-borne debris from causing damage to the structure. An evacuation centre was set up at the Central Queensland University. The Bruce Highway leading south out of Rockhampton was closed to traffic. The river peaked at 9.2 m just short the of the predicted 9.4 m maximum.
The Port of Gladstone reduced its export capacity because the coal stockpiles at the port were saturated and further coal deliveries could not be made by rail. The Goonyella railway line which services a number of coal mines in the Bowen Basin was closed for one week and shipments of grain were also delayed.
Burnett River basin
The swollen Burnett River at Gayndah, 350 kilometres (220 mi) north west of Brisbane.
The central Burnett towns of Gayndah and Mundubbera saw major flooding on 28–29 December. The Burnett River peaked at 18.25m at Mundubbera—the highest river height since 1942—inundating more than 20 houses. Downstream at Gayndah, the river peaked at 16.1m with floodwaters reaching two houses. Both towns were isolated for several days and there was major disruption to the potable water supply and local agricultural production.
Condamine/Balonne River basin
Flooding in Dalby was the worst since 1981. The town’s water purification system was flooded, resulting in water restrictions that have hampered clean-up efforts. 112,500 litres (24,700 imp gal; 29,700 US gal) of water were transported to the town of 14,000 residents. Warwick was isolated when all roads into the town were cut-off.
Floodwaters are passing downstream along the Balonne River and threaten the towns of Surat and St George. The river is expected to peak at 12.5m at Surat and 14m at St George. The New South Wales towns of Angledool, Goodooga and Weilmoringle are expected to be isolated when floodwaters from the Balonne reach the Culgoa and Bokhara Rivers.
Mary River basin
Heavy rain in the Mary River catchment on 8-9 January 2011 lead to flooding at Maryborough and Gympie. The Mary River at Maryborough was expected to initially peak at 8.5m at midday 9 January with some houses and businesses inundated. A second peak is expected to arrive from rain falling upstream later that day. At Gympie, the Mary River is expected to peak at 16m, possibly increasing to 17m—over the major flood level—if rain continues to fall.
Toowoomba flash flood
In the Darling Downs, the city of Toowoomba was hit by flash flooding after more then 160 millimetres (6.3 in) of rain fell in 36 hours to 10 January 2011; this event caused four deaths in a matter of hours.
Nearby, Gatton saw voluntary evacuations as the Lockyer Creek rose to a record height of 18.92m, exceeding the previous record set in the 1893 Queensland floods. The surge passed through the Lockyer Valley town of Withcott, where the force of the water pushed cars into shops and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of people. The scene was described by an onlooker as “like Cyclone Tracy has gone through it … If you dropped an atom bomb on it, you couldn’t tell the difference.” Grantham was also hit hard by the flooding rains. Houses were left crumpled by what Premier of Queensland Anna Bligh described as an “inland tsunami“. Nine people were confirmed dead, with the toll expected to double that figure, and 66 were missing.
In South East Queensland, the Wivenhoe Dam filled to a level equivalent to 122% of its supply capacity, leading operators to open all five flood gates on 29 December. Brisbane experienced its wettest December since 1859.
On 11 January 2011 at around 2:30 pm EST, the Brisbane River broke its banks leading to evacuations in the Brisbane CBD and the suburbs of Fortitude Valley and West End. An evacuation centre was established for flood-affected residents at the RNA Showgrounds in Bowen Hills.
Sexy beast: Why Britain’s rare breeds could be the saviours of their species
In The Independent today: There may be only a few hundred Dairy Shorthorn in Britain, but Tulip and other rare breeds of cattle, sheep and pig aren’t just genetic dead-ends. As their impassioned owners explain, these beauties are the supermodels of animal husbandry – and, quite possibly, the saviours of the 21st-century farmyard
Comment: As a New Zealander growing up in towns bordering the countryside and having friends and adopted aunts and uncles who had huge farms, I have some affinity with sheep and cattle. I respect and admire the work farmers do and their contribution to the economy. I am however concerned about genetic breeding and putting all our ‘eggs’ in the same ‘genetic basket’!
Tall, broad-shouldered with snow-white hair and a steady gaze, Morgan cuts an impressive figure. After a brush and a wash – Fairy liquid, a bucket of water and firm grip are required – it’s showtime. Morgan, a 16-month-old Wiltshire Horn ram, is one of more than 50 native breeds that competed at the Singleton Rare Breeds Show at the Weald and Downland Museum in West Sussex this year. The show celebrated its 25th anniversary in July and the event has never been stronger. Indeed, it’s been a very good year for many of British farming’s rarest breeds.
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST), founded in 1973, monitors our most vulnerable breeds across a number of categories, from Minority and At Risk to Vulnerable, Endangered and Critical, and publishes an annual watchlist. In this year’s watchlist, several significant breeds, including the Middle White pig and the British White cattle, slid up a category or two. With animals in the Critical category numbering fewer than 100 breeding examples and Minority breeds fewer than 1,000, that can mean the difference between maintaining a viable population or simply curating a living museum.
It’s tempting to see rare breeds as agriculture’s misfits and eccentrics, overtaken by the more popular kids in class. In fact, they’re more like supermodels: highly refined for their role and, in the case of dainty Berkshire pigs, Portland sheep with caramel-tipped legs and black-nosed British White cattle, really quite beautiful.
The Wiltshire Horn, explains Morgan’s owner Michael Newall, is one of the RBST’s success stories. The breed left the watchlist in 2006 and the reason for its renaissance comes down to one thing: money. While the other breeds were prized for their heavy fleeces, the Wiltshire has a hairy coat that doesn’t need to be sheared. With British wool prices at rock bottom and travelling shearers charging up to £5 per animal, the Wiltshire suddenly becomes more interesting economically to smallholders.
Linda Rollason used to keep Wiltshires, before they were taken off the watchlist, and now breeds the Norfolk Horn, an At Risk breed with fewer than 1,500 breeding animals remaining: “The plight of the Norfolk is partly why the RBST was formed. Depending on who you talk to, they were down to about 10 ewes and two rams in the 1950s.” It’s a prime example of a breed too specialised for its own good. “The original Norfolk Horns were designed for the Norfolk Brecklands, which had shallow, sandy soil with little shade, making for hot, dry summers and cold, exposed winters. The breed has to take that. They have to be agile and walk long distances to find food, which is why they’re a tall, rangy shape. And they’ll eat anything.”
When modern fertilisers were used to improve the Breckland’s pasture, the thrifty Norfolk Horn became obsolete overnight, unable to compete with the Suffolk sheep. “With the pressure of post-war food shortages and the industrialisation of farming, people wanted productive animals with lots of fast-growing offspring, at the expense of taste and variation,” says Rollason.
The same happened in pig and cattle farming. In Billingshurst, Michaela Giles rears Saddleback pigs, a rare breed that has just fallen into the Minority category. “The problem with traditional breeds is that they take longer to get to slaughter weight,” she says. “We slaughter at around 24 to 28 weeks, not 16 weeks – that’s a lot of extra feed. We can’t compete with Tesco, or even Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.”
The change in farming practices was even more dramatic for the dairy cattle herd. In 1944, the Northern Dairy Shorthorn numbered 10,000 cows and 1,000 bulls. By 2007, there were just 55 females in five herds. By contrast, 220,000 black and white Holstein calves were registered in the UK last ‘ year, according to Simon Gee of Holstein UK. And modern farming has been supersized: 200 Holsteins can live on the 80 or 90 acres where there once used to be just 30. Some farms are entirely dependent on bought-in feed; there’s no grazing at all.
So, if these breeds can’t survive, why keep them on life support? “Rare breeds represent a huge number of things to us: a genetic heritage but also a social heritage,” argues Claire Barber, the RBST’s conservation officer. “We were able to progress as a country thanks to wool from certain breeds. They’re just as important to conserve as a stately home.
“Modern agriculture has used only a few breeds since the war. We’re now getting exotic diseases such as bluetongue and changing regional climates. If all your animals are virtually [or actually] clones, you’re in trouble. We learn more about the genetics of these animals all the time. Some may be more resistant to conditions such as foot rot. From that point of view alone they need to be conserved. You can take sentiment out of conservation.”
Rollason agrees: “The people who keep rare-breed sheep are running gene banks without the freezers. We don’t know what we might need in the future. Look at the Wiltshire – in a hotter climate they’re far more popular. But it’s more than that: I feel connected with people from hundreds of years ago. These breeds are a link to our past.”
Technology is changing the prospects of many rare breeds. Charles Castle is a vet working on an embryo-transfer scheme for his own Northern Dairy Shorthorn cattle. “It was the breed I grew up with in Yorkshire. The modern dairy cow is such an extreme animal, with in-built health issues, that it seems bizarre we’re letting the Northern Dairy Shorthorn go just for the sake of fashion. That didn’t seem to me to be a good enough reason.”
Embryo transfers have jumpstarted the breed, with 15 calves produced from 40 embryos. Fertilised embryos are taken from a donor cow and implanted in a recipient. The RBST is also creating a gene bank of rare breeds for future generations. Semen storage techniques that have long been used for cattle are now being extended to other breeds. It’s an expensive process – the project’s second year will cost £4,000 – and there’s no Government help; the RBST is funded entirely by donations, legacies and membership fees.
Castle has witnessed a revival in rare breeds over the past two or three years. “It’s a combination of many things: mid-sized farmers find continental breeds harder and more expensive to keep. Traditional breeds tend to be smaller and have quieter temperments, so suit hobby farmers. And there has been a great increase in consumer preference for products that are sustainable, traceable and natural.”
Yes, it comes down to what we buy. “The only secure survival route lies in finding a use for rare breeds,” says Barber. Many rare breeds, such as Berkshire pigs and Belted Galloway beef cattle, were developed for the dinner plate. Christabel Barran, who farms British White cattle, believes the local food movement is changing the market: “A tremendous number of restaurants in the North are serving locally sourced British White. A lot of breeders sell meat by the box method.” Most breeders at Singleton Rare Breeds Show sell surplus lambs and pigs. “We have no marketing strategy other than selling them to friends and family, but the piglets go like hotcakes,” says Giles. “Would I want to farm Norfolk Horns commercially?” asks Rollason “No. There are easier ways of earning a living. But I want my breed, my passion, to pass on not pass out.”
But who better than a banker to understand the cold, hard economics involved in commercial rare-breed farming? With around 90 pigs, Christine Coe farms Britain’s largest herd of Berkshires, a Vulnerable rare breed, at Glebe Farm in Warwickshire – but spends her days working in the City. The meat from her Berkshires, a breed prized by the Japanese for its pork, is sold in her farmshop – she makes her own sausages and cures her own bacon. But it wouldn’t be possible to give up the day job yet.
“Personally, I think the future of rare breeds is going to be difficult,” Coe says. “When you look at the numbers, they’re desperately low: the whole of one breed might be less than one third of a trailer of commercial pigs. They’ve survived so far thanks to passionate people, who are prepared to work 24/7 and find a niche for the animals. If that passion dies, what is their future?”
The RBST is committed to finding a commercial future for its most vulnerable breeds, so that others may join the Wiltshire Horn, the British White and the Saddleback in the relative safety of the lower categories. “We’re not there to carry the breeds,” says Barber. In some places, farming is returning to traditional systems, with low- maintenance rare breeds that are perfectly adapted to their environments. Despite changing eating habits and advancing science, grassroots breeders and shows such as Singleton remain exceptionally important to spread the word about rare breeds.
“I would like my grandchildren to have the option to use the Northern Dairy Shorthorn,” says Castle, “because I think they’re a valuable animal. I thought a lot of people would laugh at me but perhaps they don’t think I’m so silly now.”
The Independent reports today: Wheat is the new gold in time of plenty for America’s breadbasket
Comment: the US may well be ‘basking’ in the glow of good times regarding better conditions in agriculture, there is something to be said about being sceptical when things are ’too easy’ in terms of the natural world and its state of balance. Where we ’gain’ from the natural order, but at a price, there is usually a ‘reverse balance’/counter-swing in nature’s favour. Humans can only hope that this counterbalance does not in itself have a negative impact!
As fires wreck Russia’s harvests and poor countries brace for shortages, it’s boom time for Kansas farmers.
ildfires, floods, crippling droughts, and even a threatened plague of locusts have wrecked crops and ruined the world, raising fears of global food inflation shortage and food riots.
But as they hose off the dust and chaff caked on their exhausted combine harvesters, farmers in America’s plain states are adjusting to something possibly wonderful: a combination of unusually good wheat yields and suddenly soaring prices – thanks to disastrous circumstances elsewhere – has put them at the centre of a gold rush.
Wheat is the new gold in time of plenty for America’s breadbasket
As fires wreck Russia’s harvests and poor countries brace for shortages, it’s boom time for Kansas farmers.
The thin soil of the plains is not always so kind. Scorching drought and relentless rains are frequent visitors to the breadbasket of America. So it is startling for some to find themselves singled out for good fortune, while the rest of the US combats an unemployment rate that refuses to come down.
Russia announced that weeks of fierce heat and uncontrolled fires would cost the country a quarter of its crop and that its wheat exports, which will be frozen from tomorrow, may not resume until next year. Output in Ukraine and Kazakhstan has slumped too. Canadian wheat farmers have been struggling with crops drowned by rains that won’t stop, and in eastern Australia, the wheat crop could be devastated by a plague of locusts expected to start hatching next week.
Egypt, the world’s biggest wheat importer, and Indonesia and Thailand, which also both rely on imports of grain, complained this week that they face a sudden price squeeze on such staples as bread, pork and sugar and with that, the risk of social unrest of the kind witnessed in 2008, when food price hikes provoked riots in a number of countries.
Abdolreza Abbassian, a senior economist with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome, said Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and Iran all face higher budget deficits because of the amounts they spend on bread subsidies. “Some are politically unstable countries – they simply cannot afford” the social effects that bread queues could have on the urban poor.
Whether the risk abates could depend on farmers in the American Midwest and whether they decide to cash in by planting more wheat, the world’s most consumed cereal. The rosy outlook for them was confirmed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). It expects US exports to surge by 36 per cent this year.
The development and global implementation of a new environmental ratings system could make product comparisons easier for consumers across the world.
The US-based Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) announced on August 10 that it had partnered with Canadian Standards Association and international US-based group UL Environment, two leading standards organizations. The three groups intend to develop a series of new standards which can be used by governments, retailers and consumers worldwide to identify and promote environmentally responsible products.
The new standards of environmental efficiency will take into account not just the energy consumption of the product, but also its ecological impact across its lifetime. In a press release, the American and Canadian companies stated that they intended to develop a “metric that will instill consumer confidence.”
Increased transparency in environmental standards is needed as consumers become increasingly ecologically aware and manufacturers begin responding to their demands; it is not yet known when the firms will have completed drafting the new standards, or when they will be implemented.
Currently low environmental impact products are awarded under the Energy Star system and are available throughout America and Europe; energy-efficient EU products also carry a green flower symbol.
Consumer websites such as www.energystar.gov in the United States, www.energysavingtrust.org.uk in the UK and www.ecolabel.eu in Europe provide environmental ratings and information on a number of household appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines.
It is hoped that development of a new system of environmental ratings could lead to a comprehensive global standardized environmental rating system, simplifying product comparisons for consumers and allowing them to avoid “greenwashing” or misleading ecologically oriented marketing.