USDA: What pesticide use?

The agency cravenly stops measuring the poisons used in U.S. farming

The USDA’s “Agricultural Chemical Use Database” is a wonderful thing. With a few clicks, consumers, researchers, and anyone else kind find all manner of information on pesticides, broken down by crop and by state. As an agriculture writer, I have an interest in industrial corn, by far our biggest crop. With a simple search, I find that corn farmers have increased applications of glyphosphate — Monsanto’s broad-spectrum herbicide Roundup — by a factor of eight since Monsanto rolled out its Roundup Ready corn seeds in 1995. I also follow farm-worker justice issues. I find that in strawberry fields, use of …

Organically killed

Are ‘organic pesticides’ the way forward for organic agriculture?

How are proponents of regenerative agriculture supposed to respond to news like this? Green pesticide and herbicide developer Marrone Organic Innovations is nearly done raising $7 million in a second round of funding, CEO Pamela Marrone said Wednesday. Wow, somebody’s investing in organic agriculture — millions, no less. That’s news. But does it have to involve pesticides? Pesticides aren’t just problematic because they’re derived synthetically. They’re also troubling because what’s toxic to plants and insects also harms people. Plant-based substances, in concentrated form, can of course be quite toxic. Moreover, using them usually means entering a “pesticide treadmill.” Say a …

Downer and out?

The USDA’s new ban won’t keep sick cows out of the food supply

Months after the downer-cow scandal of last winter, USDA chief Ed Schafer announced plans to ban all downer cows from the food supply. The rule involves cows that get sick after an initial inspection by veterinarians before slaughter. Under old rules, such cows could be reinspected by vets and then cleared for slaughter if the vet decided they posed no threat. In the press release announcing the proposed new rules, Shafer had this to say: Last year, of the nearly 34 million cattle that were slaughtered, under 1,000 cattle that were re-inspected were actually approved by the veterinarian for slaughter. …

Night of the living farm bill

After blunder, the legislation slouches back to limbo

For the first time in its long process, the 2008 — née 2007 — farm bill was going according to script. Congress finally came up with a final version. Bush vetoed it, just as he had promised. The House overrode the veto, just as everyone knew it would. Next stop: the Senate, where Bush’s veto was due meet another overwhelming override. And after that, law. Remember at the end of Chinatown, when everything gets hopelessly screwed up? Leading away a stunned and speechless Jack Nicholson, his old friend says, "It’s Chinatown, Jake." Because, you know, Chinatown is where all sorts …

Certified organic, fair-trade free riders

If you support the standards but not the certifiers, then what?

At my local Saturday farmers market, I stopped to buy some coffee at the local roaster's booth. I was eying the wares when I noticed that the spendy bags of coffee ($9 for 12 oz.) labeled "Fair Trade" didn't have the any independent certification of that fact. I asked the guy behind the booth, and he said, "Well, it is fair trade coffee, and the owners pay the fair trade price, but they don't want to pay for the label mark because it just pays people here in the U.S. -- it just raises the price of a bag of beans, but none of that money goes to the farmers." So I asked, "But how can the system work to certify fair trade buyers if consumers don't pay for that assurance? I'm sure you're actually paying a fair price, but what keeps the next guy and the supermarket from saying the same thing? Besides, what does it add to the price of a bag, anyway?" He repeated his bit about the owners not wanting to spend the money on certifiers, and he said that going the certified route would have added a dime to every bag sold. I said that I would have been willing to pay a dime more for a certified bag, and that I hoped he would tell the owners that, unless they could come up with a way to have truly independent but in-country certification (so the money spent on certifying compliance with fair trade practices went to the country of origin), I wasn't buying their beans or their argument about where the money goes. I've been thinking about it more this week, while I drink some Bolivian certified organic, shade grown, certified Fair Trade coffee.

Profit Actually

Monsanto execs make millions off farmers’ backs

Hugh Grant -- Monsanto chair, CEO, and president -- probably won't notice the increased price of a loaf of bread. And if he does, it will be with a smile. Grant is $13-million-and-change wealthier today than he was on Monday, as he choose to exercise stock options -- 116,000 shares worth -- that netted him a profit of over $114 per share. Like many of us, I wouldn't mind paying the extra dollar per loaf of bread if I knew the majority of that dollar was going back into the hands of farmers. Instead, the higher prices at the checkout line are funneled to the agri-giants like Monsanto and Cargill, companies making record profits. Remind you of gas prices and oil companies? Reminds me that these agri-giants spent $100 million on getting their way in the Farm Bill, an investment with huge dividends -- for Monsanto's Hugh Grant, anyway.

Lessons from a sustainable-food conference at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Information you can eat. Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder A couple of months ago, I wrote about how the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California comes up with its wallet-sized cards — the ones that tell us what seafood choices are sustainable. I got so interested in the topic that when I got an invitation to attend the aquarium’s annual Cooking for Solutions conference, I couldn’t pass it up. The event brings together high-profile chefs from across the country who are devoted to sustainability, and puts them in the same room with luminaries from the sustainable-food world. For me, it was …

Farm and function

Agriculture produces more than just crops — and it’s time for policy to reflect that

In spite of the best efforts of sustainable agriculture, environmental, and healthy food advocates over the past two years to reform U.S. farm policy, the bill recently passed by Congress lacks fundamental reform. Although the bill includes some environmental and healthy food system improvements over existing legislation, the system of commodity subsidies remains intact, and it is these subsidies, together with biofuels subsidies and mandates embodied in the farm bill and energy legislation, that drive the basic structure of the U.S. farm and food system. To break the farm-block stranglehold on farm and food policy the next time around, we need a need a new vision of agriculture: one that recognizes that farmers produce more than just food, feed, fuel, and fiber. We also count on farmers to take care of vast swaths of critically important land. What we need, in short, is a "multifunctionality" vision of agriculture.

The truth about no-till farming

It does not save carbon and is not a carbon offset

The list of very knowledgeable folk who still are pushing no-till farming as a greenhouse-gas mitigation strategy -- even though science passed them by a while ago -- includes: Sen. John McCain Princeton University* [PDF] The Chicago Climate Exchange [PDF] The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions [PDF] I buried the science in the McCain post, but it deserves higher visibility. As a major review article [PDF] from Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, "Tillage and soil carbon sequestration -- What do we really know?" concluded:

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