From bee collapse to good cheap wine, tasty morsels from around the web
When my info-larder gets too packed, it’s time to serve up some choice nuggets from around the Web.
Way to bee, man
Over on Salon, Julia Scott’s got a strong piece on that stubbornly persistent mystery, bee-colony collapse. Since 2006, the nation’s conventionally kept honey bees have been undergoing large annual die-offs, and experts can’t figure out precisely what’s going on. Since a huge portion of our crops depend on domesticated honeybees for pollination, the problem is urgent.
In her piece, Scott looks at the contribution of imidacloprid, a hot-selling insecticide from Bayer CropScience. Imidacloprid is used everywhere, from fruit and vegetable plantations to gold courses to lawns. Scott shows that Bayer’s blockbuster bugkiller poses a threat to honeybee populations–Bayer itself recently revealed it had found “imidacloprid in the nectar and pollen of flowering trees and shrubs at concentrations high enough to kill a honeybee in minutes,” Scott reports.
The revelation forced the EPA to review its approval of imidacloprid, but get this: its tests won’t wrap up until 2014. Meanwhile, farmers, landscapers, and homeowners will continue applying it. As Scott shows, imidacloprid isn’t likely the sole cause of colony collapse–it’s been in use for years, and bee health took sudden plunge in 2006. But it’s clearly placing severe pressure on hives at a time when they’re particularly vulnerable.
Agribiz: Don’t worry, we’ll feed the world!
While agrichemicals threaten honeybees and the EPA dithers in the lab, agri-execs are buzzing around St. Louis at a high-powered confab with “government agriculture ministers and non-governmental organizations to discuss sustainable methods of boosting food production,” Bloomberg reports.
The basic message from the agribiz chiefs: don’t worry about stuff like colony collapse–our high-tech products offer the only viable way to feed the world! An exec from the vast agrichemical and GMO seed firm Syngenta even pulled a line from the ad campaign of rival Monsanto: “We need to grow more from less,” he declared. The more-from-less line refers to the idea that genetically modified crops will improve yields of commodity crops like corn and soy. So far, GMOs have largely failed to boost yields and succeeded mainly in jacking up sales of pesticides like Monsanto’s Roundup.
And this bit can’t be good news for people in Sudan, one of the world’s poorest countries:
Foreign investment in Sudanese agricultural land will increase fivefold to cover 5.4 million acres (2.2 million hectares) within five years as countries work to boost food security, Abdeldafi Fadlalla, Sudan’s federal agricultural commissioner at its Investment Ministry.
In other words, foreign investors are snapping up the best farmland there–boosting their own food security at the expense of the Sudanese.
National Geographic: visions for the future of food
If agribiz execs mouthing marketing platitudes to ag ministers isn’t your idea of a choice nugget, try this National Geographic feature on the global food crisis called “The End of Plenty.” In it, reporter Joel K. Bourne — who a couple of years ago did a pretty good backgrounder on biofuels — surveys the state of debate on how to feed a growing global population in an age of climate change.
The whole article is well worth reading, and contains a variety of perspectives. I’ll drop in here two visions for development policy in the global south–one that is endorsed by the above-mentioned ag execs, and one that they deplore bitterly. The first one involves a project cooked up by Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs, agribusiness’ greatest apologist in the global south since Green Revolution founder Norman Borlaug:
Phelire Nkhoma, a small whipcord of a woman, is the agricultural extension officer for one of Malawi’s two Millennium Villages-actually seven villages with a total of 35,000 people. She describes the program as we ride in a new UN pickup from her office in Zomba District through fire-blackened fields dotted with the violet flush of jacaranda trees. Villagers get hybrid seeds and fertilizers for free-as long as they donate three bags of corn at harvesttime to a school feeding program. They get bed nets and antimalarial drugs. They get a clinic staffed with health workers, a granary to store their harvests, and safe-drinking-water wells within a kilometer of each household. Good primary schools, improved road systems, and connection to the power grid and the Internet are on the way in these villages, and in the “Madonna” village, which is farther north…..
Good times are apparent in the Millennium Village, where Nkhoma shows me new brick houses topped with shiny corrugated-steel roofs, a grain bank full of seed and fertilizer, and beneath a shade tree, a hundred or more villagers patiently listening to a banker explaining how they can apply for an agricultural loan. Several are queued up at the teller window of an armored truck from Opportunity International Bank of Malawi. Cosmas Chimwara, a 30-year-old cabbage seller, is one of them. “The cabbage business is going well,” he says. “I have three bikes, a TV and mobile phone, and a better house.”
Here’s the other one:
In northern Malawi one project is getting many of the same results as the Millennium Villages project, at a fraction of the cost. There are no hybrid corn seeds, free fertilizers, or new roads here in the village of Ekwendeni. Instead the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC) project distributes legume seeds, recipes, and technical advice for growing nutritious crops like peanuts, pigeon peas, and soybeans, which enrich the soil by fixing nitrogen while also enriching children’s diets. The program began in 2000 at Ekwendeni Hospital, where the staff was seeing high rates of malnutrition. Research suggested the culprit was the corn monoculture that had left small farmers with poor yields due to depleted soils and the high price of fertilizer.
The project’s old pickup needs a push to get it going, but soon Boyd Zimba, the project’s assistant coordinator, and Zacharia Nkhonya, its food-security supervisor, are rattling down the road, talking about what they see as the downside of the Malawi Miracle. “First, the fertilizer subsidy cannot last long,” says Nkhonya, a compact man with a quick smile. “Second, it doesn’t go to everyone. And third, it only comes once a year, while legumes are long-term-soils get improved every year, unlike with fertilizers.”
At the small village of Encongolweni, a group of two dozen SFHC farmers greet us with a song about the dishes they make from soybeans and pigeon peas. We sit in their meetinghouse as if at an old-time tent revival, as they testify about how planting legumes has changed their lives. Ackim Mhone’s story is typical. By incorporating legumes into his rotation, he’s doubled his corn yield on his small plot of land while cutting his fertilizer use in half. “That was enough to change the life of my family,” Mhone says, and to enable him to improve his house and buy livestock. Later, Alice Sumphi, a 67-year-old farmer with a mischievous smile, dances in her plot of young knee-high tomatoes, proudly pointing out that they bested those of the younger men. Canadian researchers found that after eight years, the children of more than 7,000 families involved in the project showed significant weight increases, making a pretty good case that soil health and community health are connected in Malawi.
Ah, a tale of two visions. One relies on Western largesse and imported synthesized nitrogen fertilizer–a massive emitter of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. The other relies on … beans. Which is a more robust and sure way to “feed the world” for the long haul?
Do these agrichemicals make my ass look fat?
Evidence is mounting that the widening of the American waistline isn’t just about lack of exercise and too many calories: there’s also creepy stuff happening around the way the human body interacts with chemical toxins–including agrichemicals. The latest data point: a group of Korean researchers have have published a peer-reviewed study linking trace levels of the herbicide atrazine to obesity and insulin resistance. For more info on this woefully under-discussed topic, go here.
Cash: not much greener on the other side?
It’s good to see that somebody is making decent money writing about food politics for a Web-based publication. At least I assume the writers at FarmPolicyFacts.org, which launched recently, are doing reasonably well. “Supporters” of the site include some of the biggest of Big Ag commodity groups: American Sugar Alliance, the National Association of Wheat Growers (go here for a look at their dodgy campaign on behalf of GMOs), and the National Cotton Council.
But then again, maybe the new publication’s scribes aren’t getting paid any better than the rest of us. I say that based on something I read recently about a blog launched by GMO seed giant Monsanto. Given that Monsanto clears more than $2 billion per year in profit on $12 billion revenue, you’d think the company’s kept bloggers might earn a decent salary. Right?
Not so, according to a recent exchange (see comments) etween Monsanto blogger Chris Paton and food politics blogging doyenne Bonnie Powell on Bonnie’s Ethicurean site. Bonnie had speculated that a “dedicated Social Media Manager like yourself commands at least $60,000 a year.” Paton’s riposte: “I’ll have to bring your salary analysis to my HR person. I’m apparently not getting paid enough. To you and the other commentors concerned with my salary, it’s less than Bonnie theorises…”
Monsanto pays its bloggers less than 60K a year? So much for my dreams of selling out high. If we food-pol bloggers had a union, we’d be filing a grievance on this one.
Eric Asimov on cheap(ish) U.S. wine
Along with Alice Feiring, The New York Times’ Eric Asimov is my favorite wine writer working today. (I also admire UK-based Janice Robinson, but don’t get to read her much). Asimov and Feiring cut through wine-industry propaganda and help us identify interesting, distinctive, place-based wines — ones not computer-programmed and stepped on to taste “big,” “jammy,” “oaky,” etc. Those adjectives describe what has become known as the “global palate”: rules for what wine should taste like laid down by high-powered critics like the unbearable Robert Parker and the unspeakable Marvin Shanken of Wine Spectator infamy.
Nearly always, the wines championed by Asimov and and Feiring are the products of sustainable agriculture. And while they’re not in the Two Buck Chuck price range, they tend to be affordable enough for even food-politics bloggers like me to get to enjoy once in a while: $10-$20 .
In his latest article, Asimov lays out why it’s hard to find good cheap U.S. wine–and proceeds to identify several interesting bottles under $20. So what’s up with cheap U.S. hooch? Here’s Asimov:
Some of these bottles are like food from franchise restaurants: assembled according to formula to achieve a predetermined flavor profile intended not to offend, which in itself is offensive. Even worse are the wines whose artifice is obvious – the layered vanilla of oak chips, the overly effusive fruit, each bottle “crafted,” as the wineries love to say, for your pleasure.
How is the U.S. situation different from Europe?
Centuries ago in Europe, when winemaking and distribution were largely local, each region, and sometimes each town, had its own set of grapes. In northern Italy, for example, grapes for white wines include ribolla gialla in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, garganega for Soave in the Veneto, arneis and cortese in the Piedmont and blanc de Morgex in the Valle d’Aosta. These are just a small fraction of the grapes that were once grown and are still grown today. Because so many of these wines are little known, the demand for them is low and they sell for far less than the higher-status wines.
Compare that with the white grapes you might see in American wines on a typical shelf: chardonnay, sauvignon blanc; sauvignon blanc, chardonnay; viognier, maybe. You get the idea. European wines have a built-in historical variety to them that is sustained by tradition, though in many areas of Europe these traditions are threatened. That’s another story.
In effect, then, California produces a small amount of top-flight wine along with an ocean of generic wine that seeks to imitate the top echelon, often through artifice like oak substitutes and additives. All too often, the choices are expensive cabernet or chardonnay, and imitation expensive cabernet or chardonnay. Is this always the case? Of course not. But it’s true often enough that the search for good and interesting values is not an easy one.