One of the most disturbing details included in the recently leaked IPCC report is that climate change could begin reducing farm yields worldwide by up to 2 percent a decade. Meanwhile, demand for crops is increasing 12 percent per decade.
You don’t have to be a math whiz to see how that (doesn't) add up.
A collision between a rising need for food and falling yields would be terrible for the environment, as well as for people. When people are starving, they are forced to make really bad tradeoffs: You might cut down your forest to feed your kids, even if you know it will lead to landslides that might ruin your farm the next year.
But that collision only happens if we don’t act, said Jonathan Foley, of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. There are a lot of things we can do to keep ourselves -- and, more probably, our fellow humans in developing countries -- from starving.
“Agriculture could change more than climate does,” Foley said.
Opponents of Washington state's initiative to label genetically engineered food effectively crushed the measure under a giant pile of money.
As of this writing (with 1 million ballots counted of about 1.3 million total votes cast), Washington's measure 522, which would have required prominent labels for foods containing genetically engineered ingredients, was losing by 9 percentage points, which amounted to nearly 50,000 votes, out of about a million votes cast.
Opponents of the initiative outspent supporters by about 3 to 1. Results are here.
Earlier this year, a report was circulating from desk to desk in the White House. This document [PDF], from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, suggested that the United States was not prepared for the agricultural problems of the future: climate change, new pests, environmental degradation, and poor nutrition. Our Nation’s agricultural research enterprise is not prepared to meet the challenges that U.S. agriculture faces in the 21st century for two major reasons. First, PCAST finds that the proportion of Federal funding for agricultural research allocated through competitive mechanisms is far below the proportion in other agencies, …
When Kauai passed stringent regulations over transgenic crops, I made a big to-do, saying that the new law represented "an anti-GMO wave rising." Well, that wave has met a seawall in the form of Kauai's mayor, Bernard Carvalho, who vetoed it on Halloween.
Carvalho said he actually supports the spirit of the law, but thinks it that it conflicts fatally with other laws already on the books.
Politicians are back to debating the farm bill. There were some other issues (something about a government shutdown maybe?) that got in the way for a while.
Back in June, when the bill was just a year late, it looked like Congress might pass something. But then the House and Senate deadlocked. Now we are at the end of the road: If the House and Senate don’t make a deal (one that the president would sign) by January, we’ll revert to a mid-20th-century version of the law. Which would be inconvenient for all of us, not just farmers.
This explainer from the Washington Post provides the background in just two minutes.
There are a few other interesting angles here, besides the fight over food stamps and subsidies.
Voters in Washington state have already begun casting their ballots to decide whether to label genetically modified foods. The official vote on the initiative is on Nov. 5. Twenty-three other states are considering something similar. It’s a good time to ask whether labeling is a good idea -- both in general and, in this case, in particular. Washington’s initiative would require products made using genetic engineering to clearly declare as much in a visible place -- that is, a “front of the box” label. It has been in the news because it's a case of direct democracy. Since voters rather …
Richard Jefferson was talking fast, too fast for me to take notes. He was trying to explain what’s wrong with our food system, and what to do about it, but there was too much to say, and we'd already stretched the lunch hour past its breaking point. He kept moving forkloads of salad toward his mouth, but the food couldn't swim up the cascade of words. It always ended up back on his plate.
Jefferson talks this way because he’s passionate, and because he’s a polymath. He was on the team of public scientists that created the first transgenic plants (one day before Monsanto did it). He invented a genetic marker that earned him notoriety in the field. Then he became an intellectual property expert and created a framework for open-source biological invention. Now, he’s trying to radically transform the entire system of innovation to make it more inclusive and local: He wants a system that empowers farmers in Africa to invent their own solutions, rather than looking to multinational corporations for fixes.
This sounds like it falls somewhere on the spectrum between shooting at the moon and tilting at windmills, but he's been able to persuade some serious funders -- the Gates Foundation, the Lemelson Foundation, and others -- to back him.
“The real problem with GMOs is not about science, it’s about business models,” he said. Actually, he said, the problem isn’t limited to GMOs: The real problem is that the people who need new solutions most, like farmers in developing countries, are isolated in a system that discourages ground-level innovation. Instead, we have a small group of companies in rich countries, with a stranglehold on patents, designing all the solutions to fit their own business models. This system works primarily to bring in money for these companies, to maintain their privilege, and to exclude competition.
Michael Skinner didn’t start the experiment with the hypothesis that he’d find a connection between the insecticide DDT and obesity.
“We didn’t expect to find that,” he said. “In fact, the frequency of obesity really came as a surprise.”
Skinner, a scientist at Washington State University, wanted to take a close look at the way DDT affected inheritance. So his team injected DDT into pregnant rats and watched first their children, and then their grandchildren (or is it grandrats?). It was only in the third generation, the great-grand-rat, that they saw it: Fully half of these rats were obese. The implication is that the same thing could be happening with humans.
If you have an image in your head when you think "plow," it’s probably a moldboard plow: a deep cutting edge that swoops up and out into a curved wing, the moldboard. As the plow moves forward, it lifts the earth and flips it, inverting sod into neat lines of corduroy.
The point of plowing is to kill. It wipes out perennial plants and buries seeds deeply enough that they’ll never have a chance to grow. There’s something beautiful about the plow and its action of bringing linear order to the chaos of a weedy field. But there’s nothing natural about the act. Nature only rarely turns the land upside down -- only during disasters.
As a result, soil organisms have not evolved to thrive in this kind of tillage. Soil ecosystems, made up of insects and worms, microbes and fungi, are arranged according to depth and chemical needs. For instance, many soil microbes near the surface need oxygen, but oxygen is toxic to others that live deeper down. This ecosystem responds to being turned upside-down the same way a rainforest would: It falls apart. In the process, soil erodes, waterways are polluted, and greenhouse gases are released.
Monsanto and its competitors advertised herbicide-tolerant transgenic plants as a solution to this problem. Instead of plowing, you could use chemicals to deal with the weeds. Genetic engineering would lead to a boom in no-till farming, company representatives said.
Is that what actually happened? There are indeed farmers around the world who have embraced no-till farming because herbicide-tolerant corn made it easier. But judging from the statistics, most low- or no-till farmers in the U.S. are more like Brian Scott.