You know that feeling you get when the door to someone else’s world opens just long enough that you forget you’re in your own? That slight expansion we experience when we hear someone’s true story is what motivated documentary photographer and writer Lisa Hamilton’s latest project, Real Rural (and all of her other work too, from what I can tell).
If you want to understand the state of American commodity agriculture at the moment, you need only read this recent Bloomberg article. It begins:
U.S. farmers will plant the most acres in a generation this year, led by the biggest corn crop since World War II, taking advantage of the highest agricultural prices in at least four decades.
They will sow corn, soybeans and wheat on 226.9 million acres, the most since 1984, a Bloomberg survey of 36 farmers, bankers and analysts showed. The 2.5 percent gain means an expansion the size of New Jersey, as growers target fields left fallow last year and land freed up from conservation programs.
According to the article, American farms brought in a net income of over $100 billion last year. As farmer Todd Wachtel told Bloomberg, “There is unlikely to be any ground that won’t be planted this year ... Farmers know that they have to plant more when prices are high because they may not last.”
Last month, I wrote about the very real possibility that Monterey County -- one of the biggest farm counties in California -- would pass a resolution to ban the fumigant methyl iodide.
Well, on Tuesday morning, Valentine's Day, the Moneterey County Board of Supervisors did just that. They'll join Santa Cruz County (another big ag county) in urging California Gov. Jerry Brown to re-examine the registration and approval of this known carcinogen on farms.
Methyl iodide is being seen as a replacement for the ozone-depleting methyl bromide, which will be phased out of use in the state by 2015. And while farmers appear to be holding off on using this highly toxic chemical (only a handful of applications have been recorded in the state so far), that fact hasn’t stopped anti-pesticide advocates from pushing lawmakers to to reconsider the decision.
In 2004, Paul François, a French farmer, breathed in the vapor of Monsanto's Lasso weedkiller while cleaning out the tank of a crop sprayer. He lost consciousness and later suffered from memory loss and headaches. Monday, a French court found that Monsanto could be held liable for poisoning François.
McDonald's has announced that it's requiring pork suppliers to phase out gestation stalls -- pig-sized pig cages where pregnant sows are confined, often unable to stand up or move around. Whoa, McDonald's food has actual pigs in it? Who knew.
Monsanto is getting a taste of its own medicine; the company is being taken to court.
In this corner, we have a corporate biotech giant with a tighter grasp on the agricultural Monopoly board than your over-enthusiastic little sister on game night. (Their patented genes are in more than 80 percent of the soybeans, corn, cotton, sugar beets, and canola seeds grown in the U.S.) And in this corner, 83 scrappy plaintiffs representing non-GMO seed producers, farmers, and agricultural organizations who say they want the biotech company to stop suing and threatening them. While most are organic, not all of them are.
“See that, see that?! ... Oooh, something is going on. They are spraying tonight.” A large cylindrical truck whooshed past us.
I am driving along a state road with Becky, a local activist, who is narrating from behind the wheel. “I once stuck around to see them spray and I had to turn the car around and get out of there, the smell was so overpowering.”
We pull over and I hop out to get a close-up look at the orange groves. I am in California’s Central Valley, America’s fruit basket, where agriculture is king.
And I’m not talking about Monsanto’s recently approved “drought-tolerant” seeds, which the USDA itself has observed are no more drought-tolerant than existing conventional hybrids.
No, the “exciting” new seeds are simply resistant to more than one kind of pesticide. Rather than resisting Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup alone, they will now also be resistant to Dow AgroScience’s pesticide 2,4-D .
While the topic of climate change in this country often feels like the truth that dare not speak its name, there is no escaping what Grist's own David Roberts refers to as its "brutal logic." The planet will warm no matter how international climate negotiations -- the latest round having just occurred in Durban, South Africa -- play out.
It's because of that inevitable warming that Britain's chief scientist, John Beddington, along with an international group of scientists, have taken to the pages of Science magazine this month to ask climate negotiators to stop ignoring agriculture.
Agriculture has been hovering just on the margins of climate change policy. Of course, that's no coincidence. Precise measurement of the climate impact of many industrial farming practices remains difficult and controversial, and the U.S. in particular has resisted any attempts to formalize the agricultural sector's obligation to climate mitigation.
I wasn’t surprised when the Associated Press reported last week that Colorado-based Jensen Farms had been fined for housing its workers in unsanitary, unsafe conditions (workers had little choice but to crowd into company-owned "motel" rooms that lacked beds, laundry facilities, and smoke detectors). After all, the huge cantaloupe farm had been found responsible for last fall’s deadly listeria outbreak -- a major food safety oversight that killed at least 30 people, made 146 people sick, and soured melon season for farmers around the nation by planting a fear of cantaloupes in the minds of many eaters.
And although the AP story reads, “The fine was not linked to the outbreak,” it’s clear that there are links between food safety and the treatment of workers.