Why Paul Roberts’ End of Food deserves to be digested

In the Middle East, water-poor nations are using petrol profits to buy farmland in economically depressed countries like Pakistan and Sudan. China, with its own farmland under pressure from development and pollution, is using some of its vast export income to snap up land in Africa and Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, Brazil — the globe’s emerging agricultural powerhouse and an increasingly important food supplier to China — recently threatened to nationalize its fertilizer deposits. Such a move would rankle huge U.S. grain-trading firms like Cargill and Bunge, which dominate Brazil’s ever-expanding fertilizer market. In other words, food production is rapidly emerging …

Why market conditions mean more M&M-fed beef and less grass-fed

A great WSJ video on the mad economics of cow farming

This wonderful little video by Wall Street Journal Multimedia originally came out in July, but the newspaper embedded it today in an article on feed prices. It contains two highly interesting bits of information. 1) With corn prices hovering at historically high levels, industrial-scale meat producers are turning to junk food as a feed supplement to cling to razor-thin profit margins. A feedlot operator calmly tells the Journal that he’s cutting corn rations with potato chips and a “byproduct from Hershey’s and M.M. Mars” featuring cocoa shells and M&Ms(!). 2) Producers of grass-fed beef are doing even worse than their …

Not a sweet proposition

As GMO sugar beets sneak into the food supply, citizens fight back

“Never underestimate the power of a few committed people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” — Anthropologist Margaret Mead Even if you’ve heard the above quote many times before, the sentiment expressed is so powerful that I think it’s worth repeating. All around the world, small groups of people are organizing public support for improved food safety and successfully challenging large corporations to change their behavior. That’s exactly what Flint Michigan residents Kathleen Kirby and Mark Fisher are banking on: their power to influence change. They’re participating in a nationwide consumer boycott of …

Aussies should fight climate change by eating kangaroo, says study

Australians who want to make a dent in climate change just need to eat more kangaroo, says a new study in the journal Conservation Letters. The methane-producing burps and farts of sheep and cattle contribute 11 percent of Australia’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions. Kangaroos, however, emit little methane. Researchers say that 175 million kangaroos could produce the meat of 7 million cattle and 36 million sheep, and a switch-to-roo by 2020 could lower Australia’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 3 percent each year. They also note that reducing the number of hard-hoofed livestock tramping around would reduce soil erosion. While some farmers think …

The dog days of summer mean bountiful farm stands and spicy salsas

This is the time of year we flatlanders pine for the snows of January, when it’s a full 100 degrees colder than it is right now, and all the humidity is frozen to our windshields. August in Iowa may be unbearable for humans, but vegetables love it — the hot, sticky dog days bring us sweet corn (different from the “field” corn that feeds confined hogs and ethanol plants), hot peppers, and the very first tomatoes. At this time of the year in Iowa City, you can shop at farmers markets every day of the week, if you pay attention …

EPA refuses to lower requirement for ethanol in fuel supply

The U.S. EPA gave a big, husky hug to corn ethanol Thursday, declining a request from Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) to reduce the amount of ethanol required to be blended into the U.S. fuel supply. The federal Renewable Fuel Standard mandates that 9 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol be poured into U.S. gas tanks this year — which will suck up about a third of the U.S. corn crop. The mandate jumps to 15 billion gallons by 2015 — if corn production holds steady, that will be about 55 percent of the corn supply. Perry requested a reduction because …

An agricultural Waterloo

Globalization failed, cheap oil is gone, local production is the only way forward

Bigger is always better, isn’t it? Big cars, big houses, big businesses, big farms. If you were big, you made more money. Clearly, that is the way of the world. When Europeans colonized the Americas, they wanted more land — not some of it; all of it. Napoleon wanted more land. Nothing stopped him until Waterloo. So, do you think that the human race, has reached its Waterloo? Have we finally hit the wall with our never-ending desire for “bigness”? I decided years ago that I didn’t want my farming operation to get bigger. I liked milking 45 cows, raising …

Free to be E.U. and me

Uncertainty, the precautionary principle, and GMOs

Even if we had perfect information on the environmental impacts of industrial chemicals and processes, determining the appropriate levels of regulation would be extremely difficult. In our modern economy, all of us are willing to accept some level of risk, some health and environmental impacts, in order to elevate our material standard of living. In essence, there is no "zero impact" equilibrium, unless we envisage some type of pre-industrial age (and even then it is debatable). Determining the appropriate level of regulation is made exponentially more difficult in a world of tremendous uncertainty about the impacts of even the most ubiquitous industrial chemicals. Our current state of knowledge with respect to most chemicals is extremely low; even what we do know is taken mainly from questionable animal research and we know virtually nothing about the synergistic effects of hundreds of chemicals swimming around our bloodstreams and our ecosystems over decades. Faced with this great uncertainty, different types of regulatory schemes have developed. The U.S. model puts more of the onus on those who think a chemical or process poses a risk to prove that it does, while in the E.U. the onus is more on the producers to prove that compounds of processes are safe; the E.U. model is based more on the "precautionary principle." As Mark Schapiro's excellent work has demonstrated, the E.U. model seems to be paying dividends not only with respect to health and environmental safety, but also economically; as the E.U.'s market share grows, companies around the world are ratcheting up their environmental standards in order to meet stricter E.U. guidelines. In turn, the E.U. now is much more influential in setting world standards than the U.S., which used to be the leader. This is a great development that environmentalists and economists should take not of: high environmental standards can be compatible with increased trade, productivity, and market share.

Dispatches From the Fields: How CAFOs came to Iowa farm country

Ironically, a lost battle against a hog factory planted the seeds for a sustainable farm

In "Dispatches From the Fields," Ariane Lotti and Stephanie Ogburn, who are working on small farms in Iowa and Colorado this season, share their thoughts on producing real food in the midst of America's agro-industrial landscape. ----- One Step at a Time Gardens is a model of agricultural sustainability. Over 50 varieties of vegetables grow in rotation on six acres of fine Iowa topsoil that receive no synthetic chemicals. Compost, cover crops, and chicken manure feed the soil. Pests and weeds are kept at bay through the use of physical barriers, biological products, and cultivation. The crew is made up of members from the community and a couple of non-local folks, such as myself. The farm provides produce to supply a local food system. More the merrier? A typical confinement holds 2,500 hogs. Yet when the wind blows from the northwest over One Step at a Time Gardens just east of the town of Kanawha, Iowa, visions of agricultural sustainability quickly fade as the sweet stench of pig manure from the local Confined Animal Feeding Operation or hog confinement, as they say around here, envelops the farm. The Kanawha CAFO consists of five buildings that can each house up to 2,500 hogs. Behind the buildings lies the lagoon, the source of the stench, where all of the manure and waste (dead hogs) are dumped. Factory hog farming now dominates certain counties in Iowa, the nation's number-one hog-producing state. But it wasn't always so. The practice didn't really take off until the mid-1990s, when state law governing CAFOs changed. The Kanawha CAFO played a significant role in that change -- and Jan Libbey and Tim Landgraf, who now run One Step at a Time Gardens but then worked as a county naturalist and a metallurgical engineer, respectively, battled the Kanawha CAFO from the start. The fight against the CAFO is what inspired them to start their farm in the first place.

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