Sustainable biotech crops -- solution or oxymoron?

Industry report touts potential for biotech crops to combat climate change

I am always a sucker for a catchy sounding report -- like the one the World Business Council for Sustainable Development released last week: "Agricultural Ecosystems: Facts and Trends." It had it all: the noble sounding "Council," the association between agriculture and ecosystems, and the appeal to my inner science-geek with words like "facts" and "trends." I printed it out enthusiastically and got out my highlighter, ready to read all of the fascinating new insights into agriculture, food, and the environment. I was intrigued by the beginning section on consumer patterns which detailed the increased demand for meat in developing countries and the impact this might have worldwide. One section focused on the role of animal production in climate change. I skipped along to the climate section nodding my head in agreement the entire time: converting grasslands to agriculture is a huge source of carbon dioxide emissions; conventional agriculture can threaten biodiversity; and agricultural greenhouse gas emissions can be mitigated by integrated crop management and minimum tillage. I balked a bit when they cited that agriculture produced 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the year 2000 (since then the United Nations has stated that animal production alone produces 18 percent of our global greenhouse gas emissions), but I still felt confident that the report might be worth something. Maybe I set my expectations a bit high.

Nuts about global warming

Grape-Nuts releases global warming ad

I have no idea what this ad means. But I saw it in Newsweek and had to scan it onto the blog:

An economist's eye view

Outline for a move to a sustainable agriculture system

The agricultural industry is one of the biggest users of water, energy, and chemicals on the planet. Overall it poses one of the biggest threats to global biodiversity, which is why it deserves significant attention from the environmental community. But when it comes to defining what is meant by "sustainable agriculture," there is a lot of confusion. Many people think "organic," or "local," or "non-GMO," or even "biodynamic." It will come as little surprise that economists don't think of the issue in this way; they primarily examine the basic conditions for the efficient use of resources in the agricultural sector. The following outline is the beginning of what a move toward a sustainable agricultural system would entail:

Dispatches From the Fields: From tepary beans to arugula -- and back

Can locavores embrace a truly place-based agriculture?

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.   The architectural remnants of an ancient agrarian civilization known as the Ancestral Puebloans cover the Southwest. Photo: Stephanie Ogburn. It's somewhat astonishing that there's a thriving local food scene where I live, in Montezuma County, Colorado. Not because the area is poor, rural, and thus removed from the trendiness of the local food movement that has hit most large population centers -- rather, because it's so difficult to grow food here.   In a normal year, towns in Montezuma County get between 13 and 18 inches of precipitation. The growing season is short; although most of the region falls into zones 6a/5b on the USDA hardiness map, it frosted here on June 12 this year, and that's not unusual. Temperature variation between day and night can easily range 40 degrees, as the thin desert air heats up with the sun but fails to retain any of that heat due to the lack of humidity.

Industrial food and fuel forever!

If we just trust Monsanto and ADM, we can eat and drive to our heart’s content

I’ve been a pretty harsh critic of industrial agriculture for a while. I’ve also been known to utter unkind words about the government’s extraordinary, multibillion-dollar effort to promote ethanol. But I’ve changed my mind. I now believe chemical-dependent, monocrop agriculture can be counted on to not only “feed the world,” but also keep its hundreds of millions of cars on the road — now and forever. What turned me around? This news: Archer Daniels Midland Co., DuPont Co., John Deere, Monsanto, and the Renewable Fuels Association have banded together to launch the Alliance for Abundant Food and Energy. And guess …

'Lazy locavores,' revisited

The WSJ reports on lavish second-home gardens

I got a bit of flack for my post on “lazy locavores” earlier this week. Riffing off of a New York Times “trend” piece, I questioned the practice of “outsourcing one’s veggie patch” — paying someone to install, tend, and harvest a home veggie garden. I accused folks who use such services of having a “hyper-consumerist” take on local food — of wanting the trappings and status of a home garden without getting their hands dirty. Several people — including energy blogger extraordinaire Bart Anderson – cogently critiqued my position. “Is it not a good thing to support local organic …

A gastronomic renaissance

Farmers markets and local agriculture: age-old systems for the future

We often think that farmers markets are products of our times as they spring up in cities and small towns across the country. Truth is, a farmers market is the traditional way of selling agricultural produce around the world. The really nice aspect of this transaction is that the farmer receives just compensation for his product and the eater can be assured the product is fresh, local, and grown in a manner that is acceptable to all. If these criteria are not met, the consumer can look for another farmer whose products better suit his or her needs. After the industrialization of agriculture, farmers still sold at farmers markets, but it was just a matter of time before supermarkets were developed and farmers started selling to large companies that moved food all over the world; many Americans stopped planting gardens because it was so much easier to get "everything" at the store. We certainly have gained something through the globalized food system: more variety, foods we cannot grow in cold climates, and, of course, cheap food that is mass-produced by underpaid farmers and farm workers. Some good news, some bad. I certainly like coffee and chocolate, but I want to know the growers and workers were paid fair wages and that the crops were grown in an environmentally-responsible manner. I would like to be sure all the food I need to buy meets those same standards, whether imported or locally grown.

Farm-subsidy shenanigans

Beware of U.S. trade officials bearing gifts

U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab made headlines this week by offering to reduce U.S. farm subsidies. The context was the so-called Doha Round of trade talks — the WTO’s latest, oft-stalled effort to grease the wheels of global trade. Among sustainable-food advocates, there’s a reflexive tendency to cheer whenever farm subsidies go on the chopping block. But as is often the case in the farm-policy debate, this progressive-looking offer is anything but. First of all, let’s look at the conditions of Schwab’s offer. According to the Financial Times (via the indispensable blog Farm Policy): [U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab] said …

After a mass bike ride across Iowa, a slow-food chef picks up the pace

Do the ride thing. Photo: David Wade Every year for the last 36, Iowa plays host to a unique event. At the beginning of the last full week of July, more than 15,000 people dip the rear tires of their bicycles in the Missouri River — and seven days and about 450 miles later, they dunk their front tires in the Mississippi. That ceremonial immersion draws to a close a ride that is sometimes called “Burning Man on Wheels,” or “The World’s Longest Pub Crawl,” but is formally referred to as RAGBRAI, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. …

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