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Industrial Agriculture

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A growing problem: Notes from the ‘superweed’ summit

Last week, the National Academy of Sciences hosted a summit to discuss “superweeds,” or the widespread problem of herbicide-resistant weeds currently afflicting millions of farm acres across the United States.

Superweeds -- the “weeds that man can no longer kill!” -- have been in the news for several years. All across the Midwest and Southeast farmers have been photographed and filmed standing in fields surrounded by the giant plants. They bemoan the cost of pesticides and point to industrial rows of crops that don’t have a chance when up against feisty weeds that grow up to three inches a day.

Superweeds have been especially likely to appear alongside genetically engineered (GE) crops, which are engineered to withstand large amounts of pesticide and herbicide use. And these weeds show no sign of going away any time soon.

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University strikes back against Occupy the Farm

Photo by Steve Rhodes.

“Maybe you’ll be my one phone call from jail,” urban farmer and activist Ashoka Finley says, just before our phone conversation ends.

He’s joking, but I imagine he can probably see a group of police officers out of the corner of his eyes as he says it. Finley is one of a group of Occupiers who have been living and farming on a 10-acre piece of land on the outskirts of Berkeley, Calif., called the Gill Tract.

Finley has also just told me that he’s prepared to get arrested if things at the Gill Tract escalate. “We’re not going anywhere, we’re going to keep planting and farming,” he says, as if it’s the most defiant thing he can imagine.

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Cows cause as much smog in L.A. as cars do

Photo by Daniel.

L.A. gets a bad rap for its car culture. But it turns out that Americans' addiction to milk, cheese, and other delicious dairy products plays just as big a role in the city's smog problem these days. Scientific American reports that there are 300,000 cattle in the L.A. area, and the bacteria feasting on their waste create the same tiny particles of pollution that make smog particularly nasty.

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Proposed law would keep California farmworkers from overheating

In most jobs, if you have to spend even part of your workday exerting yourself under the hot summer sun, you’re likely to have drinking water nearby. And, if you don't, you probably won't be penalized for going to find some. But for many farmworkers in California, the largest agricultural producer in the country, the freedom to hydrate isn’t always so straightforward.

Even as temperatures climb above 90 degrees F, many of the state's 400,000 farmworkers don’t have access to shade; or the water station is too far from where they are picking a crop, and they have to put off getting a drink. And since farmworkers are so frequently paid on a piece-rate basis rather than hourly, there's strong incentive to put off that drink, if available at all, for as long as possible.

It’s not that there aren’t laws requiring water and shade (there are), but if you're a worker on a California farm, you're not likely to see labor inspectors patrolling the fields, making sure all the rules are being followed and workers are safe, let alone comfortable.

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Born to bee wild: How feral pollinators may help prevent colony collapse disorder

A rare cross-sectional glimpse of natural honeycomb construction. (Photo by Max Westby.)

In 2009, lifelong beekeeper Dan Harvey faced an existential crisis when he lost 
much of his honeybee stock to colony collapse disorder (CCD). So the former Vietnam-era Special Forces veteran did what came naturally: He took to the deep dark woods of the Pacific Northwest, searching for answers to his predicament.

Harvey began by hunting for wild and feral bees living near his home in Port Angeles, Wash. (These bees have escaped from commercial colonies and find refuge in the tall timber and glens enveloping the Olympic Peninsula). For years, he crossbred the feral bees he captured with honeybees in order to produce hybridized hives that would be well-suited to the dank climes of the temperate rainforest region.

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‘Bitter Seeds’ documentary reveals tragic toll of GMOs in India

When home-front battles over GMO labeling, beekeeping, and the Farm Bill get heated, we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that Big Ag’s influence extends far beyond our own borders. Micha Peled’s documentary Bitter Seeds is a stark reminder of that fact. The final film in Peled’s “globalization trilogy,” Bitter Seeds exposes the havoc Monsanto has wreaked on rural farming communities in India, and serves as a fierce rebuttal to the claim that genetically modified seeds can save the developing world.

The film follows a plucky 18-year-old girl named Manjusha, whose father was one of the quarter-million farmers who have committed suicide in India in the last 16 years. As Grist and others have reported, the motivations for these suicides follow a familiar pattern: Farmers become trapped in a cycle of debt trying to make a living growing Monsanto’s genetically engineered Bt cotton. They always live close to the edge, but one season’s ruined crop can dash hopes of ever paying back their loans, much less enabling their families to get ahead. Manjusha’s father, like many other suicide victims, killed himself by drinking the pesticide he spreads on his crops.

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Science says: Cut that steak in half to keep the climate in check

Photo by Jack Lyons.

Eric Davidson has no grand plan to turn you into a vegetarian.

But in order for us to avoid catastrophic climate change, this senior scientist and executive director at Woods Hole Research Center says people in developed nations may need to eat half as much meat. Yep -- you heard that right. This isn’t about the way animals are treated, nor is it about reducing heart disease. For the sake of the climate alone, we -- as a culture -- need to eat half as many burgers, and half as much bacon.

According to a recent study from Davidson, this controversial dietary shift is crucial if we want to get serious about reducing emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas.

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Crop yields are only part of the organic vs. conventional farming debate

A version of this post originally appeared on U.S. Food Policy.

Photo by Alternative Heat.

The journal Nature recently had an interesting meta-analysis -- or quantitative literature review -- about yields from organic agriculture. It's called "Organic farming is rarely enough," and the accompanying summary says, "Conventional agriculture gives higher yields under most situations." This is probably true.

Yet even environmentalists are overreacting to the study. A recent article by Bryan Walsh at TIME magazine's Ecocentric blog is titled, "Why Organic Agriculture May Not Be So Sustainable."

The evidence Walsh presents fails to support the headline, though the article does begin with two good points: Organic agriculture does often produce less food per acre (see the Nature article above). And environmentalists should care about efficiency. Getting more output for lower resource cost is good environmentalism.

Mostly, though, Walsh repeats common overstatements of the advantages of conventional agriculture. He writes, "Conventional industrial agriculture has become incredibly efficient on a simple land to food basis. Thanks to fertilizers, mechanization and irrigation, each American farmer feeds over 155 people worldwide."

But environmentalists discussing conventional agriculture should also remember several key themes.

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New child farm labor regulations dead — thanks to Sarah Palin’s expertise?

Last week, the White House abandoned proposed changes to labor rules that might have kept young people working on farms quite a bit safer. It was a move widely characterized as a cave to political pressure from Republicans and some Big Ag-friendly Democrats.

Sarah Palin added her two cents to the public discussion by posting a note on Facebook -- with her signature poetic subtlety -- entitled, “If I Wanted America to Fail, I’d Ban Kids From Farm Work.” It has since been “liked” by over 8,000 people. In it she seethed:

The Obama Administration is working on regulations that would prevent children from working on our own family farms. This is more overreach of the federal government with many negative consequences. And if you think the government’s new regs will stop at family farms, think again.

Opposition to the updated regulations hinged on the argument that they would hurt family farms, stirring fears of the Feds swooping in to arrest Farmer Joe for sending Joe Jr. out to milk the cows in the morning. But the new rules would not have applied “to children working on farms owned by their parents,” as the U.S. Department of Labor clearly stated when it announced the proposed changes.

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It’s official: China now eats twice the meat we do

If meat eating is a race, China is so far ahead of us we can't even see what color shorts it's wearing. Americans still eat about twice as much of the stuff on a per-person basis, but, well, China has a lot more people.

If you like geeking out about who eats what where and how it impacts the environment, you might enjoy spending some time with this very data-rich post about the recent doubling of China’s meat consumption from the Earth Policy Institute (EPI). But, for those who want a cheat sheet, I've collected what I think are some of the most memorable bits below.

First, take a look at this very telling chart, which shows plain and clear how fast things have been changing: