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Fertile for problems

South America’s industrial-ag powerhouse eyes rainforest potash deposits

I've been writing for a while about industrial agriculture's fertilizer problem -- about how mass-scale food (and biofuel) production relies on finite, geopolitically problematic, and environmentally destructive resources to maintain soil fertility. (See posts here, here, and here.) Well, that story is heating up down in Brazil, an increasingly important hub in the global industrial food system. Brazil ranks as the world's second-largest soy producer (soon to overtake the U.S. for the top spot), third-largest corn producer, and leader in coffee, orange juice, and sugar. According to a must-read Reuters story, Brazil policymakers and farming magnates are getting nervous about …

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No farmers? No food

Much depends on finding a new generation to put dinner on the table

Every time I come in from my farm fields and tune into the news these days, the headline is about food: food prices, food scares, food shortages, food riots. Food has America's attention these days, but folks are overlooking a critical piece of the brewing crisis: a national shortage of farmers. We farmers make up a mere 1.6 percent of the U.S. population right now. Picture an inverted pyramid balanced precariously on its nose: that's our national food supply, with about 3 million of us feeding three hundred million of you. In food terms, our nation resembles an elephant perched …

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Not-so-organic salmon

USDA considers first-ever organic standards for farmed fish

You may have seen "organic salmon" on the menu in your favorite seafood restaurant or counter. Guess what? It's not organic, according to the USDA. It turns out that some fishmongers have been promoting their fish as organic with definitions of their own. This week, a USDA advisory panel will consider a key element of the country's first-ever standards for "organic" farmed fish, including salmon. The surprising news is that this standard -- if adopted -- could be a boon for both seafood consumers and conservation. Salmon are carnivorous fish. It can take up to 10 pounds of wild fish …

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The 'maverick' speaks on agriculture

McCain thunders against ag subsidies, vows fealty to trade agenda

Speaking before the National Restaurant Association on Monday, John McCain delivered a stirring rant against agriculture subsidies and the latest farm bill (text here.) No doubt burnishing his "maverick" image among editorial writers, the senator lambasted the bill as a giveaway of "billions of dollars in subsidies to some of the biggest and richest agribusiness corporations in America -- many of which are heavy political contributors to members in both parties." Well, that's not quite right -- but I think I know where McCain is coming from. The subsidies don't directly go to agribusiness giants, but rather to large scale …

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Federal food-aid package promotes GMOs

A $770 million food-aid package proposed by the Bush administration may also aid U.S. agribiz, as the feds have slipped in language promoting the use of genetically modified crops in developing countries. Proponents of bioengineering say that GM crops are hardier in harsh climates and can produce higher yields; opponents say that just ain't the case. The food-aid package must be approved by Congress, and even then it may face resistance: In 2002, African countries in the throes of extreme drought were highly wary of the U.S.'s offer of genetically modified sustenance, with some even turning it away.

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Food sovereignty

An alternative to global industrial agriculture

At the conclusion to an article on the global food crisis, Walden Bello discusses an idea put forward by an international farmer's group, Via Campesina: Food sovereignty means, first of all, the right of a country to determine its production and consumption of food and the exemption of agriculture from global trade regimes like that of the WTO. It also means consolidation of a smallholder-centered agriculture via protection of the domestic market from low-priced imports; remunerative prices for farmers and fisherfolk; abolition of all direct and indirect export subsidies; and the phasing out of domestic subsidies that promote unsustainable agriculture. …

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Nitrogen bomb

‘Science': nitrogen as important as carbon in climate change

Speaking of the troubles associated with industrial agriculture and its fertilizer regime, check this out: The public does not yet know much about nitrogen, but in many ways it is as big an issue as carbon, and due to the interactions of nitrogen and carbon, makes the challenge of providing food and energy to the world's peoples without harming the global environment a tremendous challenge. The speaker is University of Virginia environmental sciences professor James Galloway (quoted in an AP piece), talking about his paper published (abstract here) in the latest Science. According to Galloway, "We are accumulating reactive nitrogen …

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The farm bill, Archer Daniels Midland's man at USDA, and me

I loathe the farm bill but can’t bring myself to accept the Bush administration’s party line

People keep asking me what I think about the new farm bill -- the one that will soon likely become law, since both houses of Congress passed it with majorities that would withstand Bush's threatened veto. I hate it; it fails utterly to make the investments we need to rebuild local and regional food systems around cities and in rural areas. But I think I hate the Bush administration's vision for agriculture even more. The debate between Congress and the Bushies has changed little over the past few months. Back in February, I wrote: None of the versions of the …

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Why that organic label on your milk doesn’t tell the whole story

Tastes great, but who's paying the health-care bills? As a writer, one of my goals is to demystify farming for non-farmers -- to remind people that their food comes from somewhere, grown by someone, often drawing down finite resources. Less than 2 percent of Americans farm, yet all of us eat. Whether you're scarfing a Whopper or savoring a farmers' market peach, food has a history tied to people and the earth; and that history matters for both. The organic label, for all its success, sometimes complicates my job. Rather than challenge consumers to learn more about their food, the …

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