Last year, after a record drought in 2012, Iowa experienced the wettest spring in its recorded history. The rains triggered massive runoff from the state's farms into its creeks, streams, and rivers, tainting water with toxic nitrate from fertilizer. Nitrate levels in the state's waterways reached record levels -- so high that they emerged as "a real issue for human health," Bob Hirsch, a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, told the Associated Press.
The event illustrated two problems facing Iowa and the rest of the nation's topsoil-rich grain belt. The first is the challenge of climate change: How to manage farmland in an era when weather lurches from brutal drought to flooding, as it likely will with increasing frequency. The second, related one is the largely invisible crisis of Iowa's topsoil, which appears to be eroding at a much higher rate than U.S. Department of Agriculture numbers account for -- and, more importantly, at 16 times the natural replacement rate.
Before I respond to Nathanael Johnson's assertion that the "stakes are so low" in the debate over GMOs, I want to address a smaller point. "The debate isn’t about actual genetically modified organisms -- if it was we’d be debating the individual plants, not GMOs as a whole," Johnson writes.
That's a good place to start: actually existing GMOs. What traits are on the market today, in use by farmers? First, I'll note that there's no shortage of land devoted to GMOs. Since the novel seeds hit the market in 1996, global GM crop acreage has expanded dramatically, reaching 420 million acres by 2012, reports the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. That's a combined landmass more than four times larger than California. The pro-GMO ISAAA hails this expansion as "fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture."
Chatting with David Brandt outside his barn on a sunny June morning, I wonder if he doesn't look too much like a farmer -- what a casting director might call "too on the nose." He's a beefy man in bib overalls, a plaid shirt, and well-worn boots, with short, gray-streaked hair peeking out from a trucker hat over a round, unlined face ruddy from the sun.
Brandt farms 1,200 acres in the central Ohio village of Carroll, pop. 524. This is the domain of industrial-scale agriculture -- a vast expanse of corn and soybean fields broken up only by the sprawl creeping in from Columbus. Brandt, 66, raised his kids on this farm after taking it over from his grandfather. Yet he sounds not so much like a subject of King Corn as, say, one of the organics geeks I work with on my own farm in North Carolina. In his g-droppin' Midwestern monotone, he's telling me about his cover crops -- fall plantings that blanket the ground in winter and are allowed to rot in place come spring, a practice as eyebrow-raising in corn country as holding a naked yoga class in the pasture. The plot I can see looks just about identical to the carpet of corn that stretches from eastern Ohio to western Nebraska. But last winter it would have looked very different: While the neighbors' fields lay fallow, Brandt's teemed with a mix of as many as 14 different plant species.
"Our cover crops work together like a community -- you have several people helping instead of one, and if one slows down, the others kind of pick it up," he says. "We're trying to mimic Mother Nature." Cover crops have helped Brandt slash his use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. Half of his corn and soy crop is flourishing without any of either; the other half has gotten much lower applications of those pricey additives than what crop consultants around here recommend.
But Brandt's not trying to go organic -- he prefers the flexibility of being able to use conventional inputs in a pinch. He refuses, however, to compromise on one thing: tilling. Brandt never, ever tills his soil. Ripping the soil up with steel blades creates a nice, clean, weed-free bed for seeds, but it also disturbs soil microbiota and leaves dirt vulnerable to erosion. The promise of no-till, cover-crop farming is that it not only can reduce agrichemical use, but also help keep the heartland churning out food -- even as extreme weather events like drought and floods become ever more common.
Like dot-com moguls in the '90s and real estate gurus in the 2000s, farmers in Western Kansas are enjoying the fruits of a bubble: Their crop yields have been boosted by a gusher of soon-to-vanish irrigation water. That's the message of a new study by Kansas State University researchers. Drawing down their region's groundwater at more than six times the natural rate of recharge, farmers there have managed to become so productive that the area boasts "the highest total market value of agriculture products" of any congressional district in the nation, the authors note. Those products are mainly beef fattened on large feedlots; and the corn used to fatten those beef cows.
But they're on the verge of essentially sucking dry a large swath of the High Plains Aquifer, one of the United States' greatest water resources. The researchers found that 30 percent of the region's groundwater has been tapped out, and if present trends continue, another 39 percent will be gone within 50 years. As the water stock dwindles, of course, pumping what's left gets more and more expensive -- and farming becomes less profitable and ultimately uneconomical. But all isn't necessarily lost. The authors calculate that if the region's farmers can act collectively and cut their water use 20 percent now, their farms would produce less and generate lower profits in the short term, but could sustain corn and beef farming in the area into the next century.
And that would be great.
But I think it's also worth asking what, exactly, they'd be sustaining. The following chart, pulled from the study, shows the amount of corn grown in the region since 1980 -- both irrigated and un-irrigated (i.e., grown without added irrigation water), as well as the amount of corn that has been consumed by cattle in the region's feedlots. The latter metric, denoted by the red dots below, is a pretty good proxy for just how teeming those feedlots have gotten over the decades.
Ever since May, when a state-controlled Chinese company agreed to buy U.S. pork giant Smithfield, reportedly with an eye toward ramping up U.S. pork imports to China, I've been looking into the simultaneously impressive and vexed state of China's food production system. In short, I've found that in the process of emerging as the globe's manufacturing center -- the place that provides us with everything from the simplest of brooms to the smartest of phones -- China has severely damaged its land and water resources, compromising its ability to increase food production even as its economy thunders along, its population grows (albeit slowly), and its people gain wealth, move up the food chain, and demand ever-more meat.
Now, none of that should detract from the food miracle that China has enacted since it began its transformation into an industrial powerhouse in the late 1970s. This 2013 report from the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) brims with data on this feat. The nation slashed its hunger rate -- from 20 percent of its population in 1990 to 12 percent today -- by quietly turbocharging its farms. China's total farm output, a broad measure of food churned out, has tripled since 1978. The ramp-up in livestock production in particular is even more dizzying -- it rose by a factor of five. Overall, China's food system represents a magnificent achievement: It feeds nearly a quarter of the globe's people on just 7 percent of its arable land.
But now, 35 years since it began reforming its state-dominated economy along market lines, China's spectacular run as provider of its own food is looking severely strained. Its citizens' appetite for meat is rising along with incomes, and mass-producing steaks and chops for 1.2 billion people requires tremendous amounts of land and water. Meanwhile, its manufacturing miracle -- the very thing that financed its food miracle -- has largely fouled up or just plain swallowed those very resources.
In this post from a few weeks ago, I told the story of the dire state of China's water resources, which are being increasingly diverted to, and fouled by, the country's insatiable demand for coal to power the manufacturing sector.
Then there's land. Here are just a few of the findings of recent investigations into the state of Chinese farms:
First, the good news: The annual "dead zone" that smothers much of the northern Gulf of Mexico -- caused by an oxygen-sucking algae bloom mostly fed by Midwestern farm runoff -- is smaller this year than scientists had expected. In the wake of heavy spring rains, researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had been projecting 2013's fish-free region of the Gulf to be at least 7,286 square miles and as large as 8,561 square miles -- somewhere between the size of New Jersey on the low end to New Hampshire on the high end. Instead, NOAA announced, it has clocked in at 5,840 square miles -- a bit bigger than Connecticut. It's depicted in the above graphic.
Now, for the bad news: This year's "biological desert" (NOAA's phrase) is much bigger than last year's, below, which was relatively tiny because Midwestern droughts limited the amount of runoff that made it into the Gulf. At about 2,900 square miles, the 2012 edition measured up to be about a third as large as Delaware.
Smaller than expected though it may be, this year's model is still more than twice as large as NOAA's targeted limit of less than 2,000 square miles. Here's how recent dead zones stack up -- note that the NOAA target has been met only once since 1990. Low years, like 2012 and 2009, tend to marked by high levels of drought, and high years, like 2008, by heavy rains and flooding.
When European settlers alighted upon what's now known as New England, they gaped at the bounty of the shoreline, reports William Cronon in his classic 1983 book Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. Cronon lays out contemporary accounts of coastal waters teeming with cod, streams thick with salmon, of oysters “almost a foot long.”
Lobster barely registers in Cronon's survey of this almost mythically productive ecosystem, but it existed in abundance, unloved as food but exploited all the same. Native Americans used it as farm fertilizer and fishing bait, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute reports, and it emerged as a kind of trash food for the colonialists, who “served it to children, to prisoners, and to indentured servants.”
Lobster's rise from culinary afterthought to white-tablecloth delicacy has become almost the stuff of cliché. For years, overharvesting led to falling catches and high prices -- seeming to ensure lobster's highfalutin status.
But something odd has been brewing off the coast of Maine for more than a decade. Despite fears of an imminent collapse, lobster landings have skyrocketed. As a Chronicle of Higher Education article put it back in 2001, "Scientists have warned that lobsters are in danger, but nobody bothered to tell the lobsters."
Since then, the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery has only gotten more productive. "Maine lobstermen caught 123.3 million pounds of lobster during the 2012 season, which represents a 15 percent increase from 2011 and an 88 percent increase from landings two decades ago," according to news site MaineBiz. The stuff has gotten so abundant, MaineBiz reports, that New England-area Walgreens are sprouting live lobster tanks. What gives?
Cross-posted from Mother Jones. Many people claim they don't have time to cook fresh meals "from scratch." In Tom's Kitchen, Grist's former food editor discusses some of the quick and easy things he gets up to in ... well, his kitchen. Forgive the lame iPhone photography. Welcome to my occasional cooking column. The idea of Tom's Kitchen isn't to show off my flashy cooking skills (which are actually quite modest), or rub your face in how amazing it is to cook on a small veggie farm. Rather, what I want to do is contribute to a tradition established by much …
Photo: Randy Bayne Cross-posted from Mother Jones. Back in 1975, a young, newly elected California governor named Jerry Brown signed into law a historic bill recognizing the right of his state's farmworkers to unionize. Nicknamed "Governor Moonbeam" for his new-age tendencies, Brown might have been a bit spacey, but he didn't waver in standing up to his state's powerful agribusiness interests. In the decades since, the protections offered by that law have eroded. Farmworkers say field bosses use intimidation to keep people from voting to form unions. The United Farm Workers have been pushing for years for new protections that …
The meat industry routinely abuses workers and animals. Cross-posted from Mother Jones. As a long-time student of the meat industry, I read Ted Genoways' extraordinary article on conditions at the "head table" of a factory-scale pig-processing plant with delight. As a human being, my reaction was revulsion. In a single long piece, Genoways lays out the crude history of U.S. meat over the past 80 years. We get the unionization of the kill floor in the wake of Sinclair's The Jungle, the post-war emergence of meatpacking as a proper middle-class job, the fierce anti-union backlash of the '70s, followed by …