Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Sustainable Agriculture Blog

What is sustainability? Is it important? Why? Give some examples of sustainable practices that could (some may already be) be implemented to improve the sustainability of agriculture? And, what are some ways that the consumer can contribute to the sustainability of agriculture?

Wow! Again - go look at some of my previous posts! Just kidding. I'll summarize my favorite ideas:

Reduce your carbon footprint - plant a garden! Never mind the fuel you save, using natural compost and green manure cover crops actually acts as a way to sequester carbon. Even a small patio container garden saves on overall emission contributions.

Buy locally. You can argue that it doesn't save money to buy from a local farmer. However it's proven that locally spent dollars generate more money, income, jobs, etc, within the community. Besides, I'd rather have a fresh juicy tomato or peach picked that morning than one stuck in a refrigerated box car for transportation. Also, farmers tend to have more interesting and flavorful heirloom varieties, which preserves our genetic seed diversity.

Did you know that THE big incentive for transporting food long distances is the ability of corporations to deduct the transportation costs on their taxes? So basically, our tax payer dollars are subsidizing the transportation of foods long distances, so that we get second rate foods at a "bargain" price...

Let your representatives know you support sustainable ag. The pending Farm Bill has the potential to turn our nation's ag production around, but not without your voice and support. Several recent university studies have proven that organically produced crops are equal or nearly equivalent in productivity and cost as their conventional counterparts. However, most large-scale farmers continue with their existing practices because of the financial incentives provided by the government to do it that way.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Food & the Environment

How do you predict that global warming will impact global food production in the future?

In California, we have a diverse climate that has traditionally allowed for the production of a wide range of foods. In fact, California is responsible for producing 95% of most of the nations's fresh produce. Production of warm season items such as tomatoes can continue most of the winter in the Imperial Valley near the Mexican border, while cool-weather strawberries are produced year-round on the foggy central coastline.

Much of the agriculture in our state relies on our predominately Mediterranean climate of cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers. Reservoirs store winter rain and snow, allowing for irrigation during the 6-7 dry months of the year. Climate predictions suggest a change in both the amount and type of precipitation - decreased amounts of precipitation, with less snow accumulation as a result of warmer average winter temperatures.

Other impacts of warmer temperatures are huge for agriculture. All fruits, including olives, need a certain amount of chill exposure in winter to initiate fruit production the next season. Fruit varieties tend to be selected by the number of chill hours appropriate for a region. Warmer winter temperatures of even a few degrees could result in too few chill hours, resulting in huge economic losses for entire regions as they are forced to replant with varieties which require fewer chill hours.

Warmer temperatures have many other impacts as well. Most insects respond to warmth accumulation, or degree days to initiate their life cycles for the season, while plants respond to either day length cues or warmth, or a combination of the two, and most birds respond strictly to day length cues. As temperatures climb, trees come into flower early, insects are productive longer, and their avian predators are out of sync, leaving harmful insect pests unchecked. Insect pollinators are also increasingly out of sync, leaving flowers unpollinated.

Some of the apparent boons of a warming climate in California mean a longer growing season, increased weed stimulation, increased insect pests and elevated CO2 levels. However, this all translates into increased water usage, at a time when we have less water to use.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


The information posted this week points out some of the negative impacts of the globalization of agriculture. What are some positive aspects of globalization? How does globalization impact your life? In your blog feel free to reflect on the negatives as well, many of which were pointed out in the readings for the week.

This touches on many of the issues I hold near and dear, namely, how can something which was manufactured or produced thousands of miles away really be good for me, the environment, or the global economy? Sure, it's nice to get raspberries for New Year's Eve champagne, or mangoes year round. And chocolate? I still give in to the impulse buy for a Hershy with almonds at checkout, even though it is not fair trade and probably produced using child labor and DDT. None of these things would be possible without the globalization of our economy.

I think the most important and overlooked commodity related to agriculture is not the seeds and fertilizers, but the knowledge needed to produce crops. Growing food is a knowledge-intensive endeavor, as anyone who has attempted a first time garden will understand. Annuals, perennials, dry or irrigated farming are just the tip of the iceberg. Most growers I talk to always confirm this idea that farming and gardening provide a constant schoolroom for learning. Cheaper and faster (almost instantaneous) communication has meant the translation of growing systems to far-flung regions, and the sharing of ideas and traditional systems has lead to new research focusing on not just the Green and Gene Revolutions, but especially the development of sustainable ag techniques.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Food Safety

Reflect and react to the following question: Whose responsibility is food safety? Give reasons for your answer.

This is sort of a toough question. You want to automatically reply, "It's the governments job; it's part of why we pay taxes like good, diligent citizens. Right?" However, since our government has a history of doing the bare minimum and leaving a lot up to "voluntary" reporting on the part of the producers, including recalls of known bad foods. However, the government at the same time has initiated procedures that make it very difficult for the small-scale producer or home grower to produce foods that meet USDA requirements.

Most of these requirements have very little to do with foods that are produced and consumed at a local or personal level. For example, take a look at what most dairy producers must do to sell their products: separate bathroom and washing facilities from the home, daily processing of milk, a separate, paved entrance to the dairy from the main road, and certain voltage lighting located a specified distance from the storage tanks. Not to mention that you can't sell raw milk in most states - it must be at least pasteurized. If traveling long distances then it is usually ultra-pasteurized to stabilize the product, destroying much of the nutritional value.

Another example of our government letting us down is the 1% testing for mad cow disease. When Great Britain had outbreaks of the disease, they took extensive measures to ensure the safety of beef. Most cattle were tested, and regulations were put in place to quarantine infected soils and destroy infected animals. After two years, they were able to continue their beef production. Most countries test a very high rate of animals, and destroy animals who potentially exhibit early signs of the disease. In our country, we barely test and testing and reporting is voluntary on the part of the producers. Who is protecting who? Sounds like the producers are getting it easy, while consumers are getting a questionable, but cheap product...

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Organic Food Production

This week Blog about what the term "organic" means in the U.S. Is it good or bad for the food industry and the consumer that the term was legally defined by the federal government? Are organic foods better for people and the environment than traditionally produced food? What are the drawbacks to organic food production? How do you feel about the "big business" of organic i.e. retailers like Whole Foods??? Make sure you are supporting your claims with valid evidence....Include anything else that interests you...

Holy crap - like I could put everything I think about "organic" food production into one blog topic. I read entire books on this subject, have spent the last three years of my life selling organic farm and garden supplies and am preparing my grad school application to get a PhD in sustainable ag!

Seriously though, I recently posted about a series of independent short films about sustainable/organic food production and its impacts. I really liked one of the points made in Ripe for Change, that for not just organic production, but for sustainable production, you look at other factors than just using non-synthetic inputs, especially socio-economic and ecological factors. For example, most of our world concerns about hunger really are issues of poverty and distribution rather than food production.

Some of the biggest drawbacks to defining organic is the abuses that can then take place when the letter, but not the underlying intent, of the law is followed. For example, many big-ag corporations and farms are simply substituting non-synthetic pesticides and fertilizers for their synthetic forms and are otherwise carrying on as normal. Loop holes for increasing organic herd size were abused by several large scale dairies seeking to produce organic milk. Lack of action by the USDA-NOP in response to complaints about label-violations for large scale organic dairy producers such as Horizon and Aurora (producers of "organic" milk for Safeway, Costco and large markets) has resulted in a class-action lawsuit for misrepresentation and other violations.

It really boils down to the fact that a lot of truly organic production relies on integrity, which is hard to legislate.

Many large scale organic productions still rely heavily on petroleum for fuel and transportation. Is it really organic when it traveled several thousand miles? Can we trust the so-called organic practices of Mexico or China? Is it better to buy locally produced, uncertified produce from a farmers market or certified organic in the supermarket imported out of season from a foreign country? Is the food still as nutritious when not all of the practices are followed? Are the farm laborers being paid a living wage?

Unfortunately, the grass isn't necessarily greener on the other side depending on one's practices. Many of the natural and organic inputs used in organic and/or local farming such as rock powders and natural pesticides and fungicides, such as sulfur and copper, are strip mined and shipped to distributors before ending up in the soil or on plants. Also, natural sulfur and copper are dangerous compounds which must be used with as much care as their synthetic counterparts - breathing masks, gloves, goggles and long-sleeved clothing are recommended to as protective gear for the home user, and required for the commercial grower. People have a mistaken notion that natural equals safe to which I reply, "Arsenic is completely natural and will kill you just as dead."

The lack of good research into organic productivity is finally changing. A recent 13-year study at the University Wisconsin published in the March-April 2008 issue of Agronomy Journal found that organic cropping systems can be as productive, or nearly productive, as conventional systems.

Conventional food producers would have you believe that food is equally tasty and nutritious. However, over 40 studies, summarized by The Organic Center, keep proving that organic produce is more nutritious than it's conventionally produced counterparts.

However, the spirit of the eco-farm movement continues. Permaculture, biodynamic and local and sustainable ag are current hot topics for research. These farming regimes are the answer for improving farming practices in marginal areas around the world where the Green Revolution failed to improve local agriculture, and in some cases increased the rates of soil erosion, desertification and removed local farmers from the land.

Even the United Nations has changed it tune about importance of organic production in their most recent FAO report, Organic Agriculture and Food Security. Here are some highlights from the report:

  • Global food supply is sufficient, but 850 million are undernourished and go hungry
  • Use of chemical agricultural inputs is increasing; yet grain productivity is dwindling to seriously low levels
  • Costs of agricultural inputs are rising, but commodity costs have been in steady decline over the past five decades.Knowledge is increasingly provided through fast information technologies, but nutritionally related diseases are rising
  • Industrialised food systems cause deaths through pesticide poisonings and high numbers of farmer have committed suicides, while millions of jobs have been lost in rural areas.
In contrast, organic agriculture offers an alternative food system that improves agricultural performance to better provide access to food, nutritional adequacy, environmental quality, economic efficiency, and social equity. This is crucial if agricultural production in developing countries is to rise by 56 percent by 2030 to meet nutritional needs, as stated in the Report.

Want to learn more? In addition to the eco-farm links above, check out the following links for more info:

Want to eat local/organic food but don't know where to find it or what to do with it?

Criticisms of conventional ag

What I believe about the future of ag is probably best summed by this statement from ATTRA about organic production practices:
No agriculture can continue to feed a growing population if it depletes or fouls its resource base. The path undertaken by conventional agriculture is ultimately a dead end in this regard, though there is an almost mystical faith that genetic engineering and other complex technologies will always triumph. Agriculture needs to be sustainable. Therefore, those who promote organic agriculture as a true alternative are well advised to do their part in ensuring that certification and regulation does not create a “compliance agriculture” in which sustainability becomes little more than an afterthought.