Category Archives: Agriculture

New study: Organic ag better for feeding the world

Here at esnl, we’ve long believed that agroecology, the science of working with rather than against the natural environment, is the best solution for feeding us big-brained bipeds.

While modern industrial agriculture treats the environment as an externality, something of no value in itself other than as a source of profit, agroecology looks at raising living things for our own consumption as an integral process, in which the environment is to be embraced.

Think of the difference between the two system as similar to the difference between war and peace. In one, nature is seen as something to be conquered; in the other, the natural environment is embraced in a relationship of mutuality.

One way to perceive the relationship is embodied in this chart, from a groundbreaking the study from Washington State University, published in Nature Plants, sadly hidden behind a $35 paywall [and click on the image to enlarge]:

An assessment of organic farming relative to conventional farming illustrates that organic systems better balance the four areas of sustainability.

An assessment of organic farming relative to conventional farming illustrates that organic systems better balance the four areas of sustainability.

The lead author learned agroecology at two University of California campuses, Berkeley and Davis, back when Berkeley had a thriving agroecology program. Sadly, Berkeley has radically downsized agroecology while major corporate grants have transformed the curriculum to one which places heavy emphases on creating GMO crops.

And now for details on the new study, via the Washington State University newsroom:

40 years of science: Organic ag key to feeding the world

Washington State University researchers have concluded that feeding a growing global population with sustainability goals in mind is possible. Their review of hundreds of published studies provides evidence that organic farming can produce sufficient yields, be profitable for farmers, protect and improve the environment and be safer for farm workers.

The review study, “Organic Agriculture in the 21st Century,” is featured as the cover story for the February issue of the journal Nature Plants and was authored by John Reganold, WSU regents professor of soil science and agroecology, and doctoral candidate Jonathan Wachter.

It is the first study to analyze 40 years of science comparing organic and conventional agriculture across the four goals of sustainability identified by the National Academy of Sciences: productivity, economics, environment and community well being.

“Hundreds of scientific studies now show that organic ag should play a role in feeding the world” said lead author Reganold. “Thirty years ago, there were just a couple handfuls of studies comparing organic agriculture with conventional. In the last 15 years, these kinds of studies have skyrocketed.”

Organic production accounts for one percent of global agricultural land, despite rapid growth in the last two decades.

Critics have long argued that organic agriculture is inefficient, requiring more land to yield the same amount of food. The review paper describes cases where organic yields can be higher than conventional farming methods.

“In severe drought conditions, which are expected to increase with climate change, organic farms have the potential to produce high yields because of the higher water-holding capacity of organically farmed soils,” Reganold said.

However, even when yields may be lower, organic agriculture is more profitable for farmers because consumers are willing to pay more. Higher prices can be justified as a way to compensate farmers for providing ecosystem services and avoiding environmental damage or external costs.

Numerous studies in the review also prove the environmental benefits of organic production. Overall, organic farms tend to store more soil carbon, have better soil quality and reduce soil erosion. Organic agriculture creates less soil and water pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions. And it’s more energy efficient because it doesn’t rely on synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

It is also associated with greater biodiversity of plants, animals, insects and microbes as well as genetic diversity. Biodiversity increases the services that nature provides, like pollination, and improves the ability of farming systems to adapt to changing conditions.

Reganold said that feeding the world is not only a matter of yield but also requires examining food waste and the distribution of food.

“If you look at calorie production per capita we’re producing more than enough food for 7 billion people now, but we waste 30 to 40 percent of it,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of producing enough, but making agriculture environmentally friendly and making sure that food gets to those who need it.”

Reganold and Wachter suggest that no single type of farming can feed the world. Rather, what’s needed is a balance of systems, “a blend of organic and other innovative farming systems, including agroforestry, integrated farming, conservation agriculture, mixed crop/livestock and still undiscovered systems.”

Reganold and Wachter recommend policy changes to address the barriers that hinder the expansion of organic agriculture. Such hurdles include the costs of transitioning to organic certification, lack of access to labor and markets and lack of appropriate infrastructure for storing and transporting food. Legal and financial tools are necessary to encourage the adoption of innovative, sustainable farming practices.

Charts of the day: California’s reservoirs rising

While levels remain low at California’s reservoirs, sources of both drinking water for the state’s ever-growing cities and irrigation water for its farmlands, one reservoir, Folsom near Sacramento, has finally topped the historical averagae for the year to date.

From the California Department of Water Resources:

BLOG Reservoirs

And the levels are considerably above those for a month ago:

BLOG Reservoirs 2

Agriculture triggered early global warming

The earliest evidence of anthropogenic has now been pushed back seven millennia, Newswise reports:

A new analysis of ice-core climate data, archeological evidence and ancient pollen samples strongly suggests that agriculture by humans 7,000 years ago likely slowed a natural cooling process of the global climate, playing a role in the relatively warmer climate we experience today.

A study detailing the findings is published online in a recent edition of the journal Reviews of Geophysics, published by the American Geophysical Union.

“Early farming helped keep the planet warm,” said William Ruddiman, a University of Virginia climate scientist and lead author of the study, who specializes in investigating ocean sediment and ice-core records for evidence of climate fluctuations.

A dozen years ago, Ruddiman hypothesized that early humans altered the climate by burning massive areas of forests to clear the way for crops and livestock grazing. The resulting carbon dioxide and methane released into the atmosphere had a warming effect that “cancelled most or all of a natural cooling that should have occurred,” he said.

That idea, which came to be known as the “early anthropogenic hypothesis” was hotly debated for years by climate scientists, and is still considered debatable by some of these scientists. But in the new paper, Ruddiman and his 11 co-authors from institutions in the United States and Europe say that accumulating evidence in the past few years, particularly from ice-core records dating back to 800,000 years ago, show that an expected cooling period was halted after the advent of large-scale agriculture. Otherwise, they say, the Earth would have entered the early stages of a natural ice age, or glaciation period.

The Earth naturally cycles between cool glacial periods and warmer interglacial periods because of variations in its orbit around the sun. We currently are in an interglacial period, called the Holocene epoch, which began nearly 12,000 years ago.

In 2003, Ruddiman developed his early anthropogenic hypothesis after examining 350,000 years of climate data from ice cores and other sources. He found that during interglacial periods, carbon dioxide and methane levels decreased, cooling the climate and making way for a succeeding glacial period. But, only during the Holocene era, these gas levels rose, coinciding, he said, with the beginning of large-scale agriculture. He attributed the rise to this human activity, which began occurring millennia before the industrial era.

He attributed the rise in carbon dioxide emissions to the slash and burn techniques widely used by early farmers to make available large areas of land for crops. Ruddiman found that carbon dioxide levels rose beginning 7,000 years ago, and that methane began rising 5,000 years ago. He said this explains why a cooling trend didn’t happen that likely otherwise would have led to a new glacial period.

In the new study, Ruddiman and his colleagues have delved more deeply into the climate record using Antarctic ice-core data, dating back to 800,000 years ago. This use of a deeper historical data set clearly shows, they say, that the Holocene is unlike other interglacial periods in its abundance of carbon dioxide and methane, further implicating the impact of humans.

In the development of his hypothesis, Ruddiman and colleagues have drawn from numerous studies across scientific disciplines: climatology, anthropology, archaeology, paleoecology, and population dynamics, all to better understand how humans may have affected climate beyond the relatively recent industrial revolution and the widespread burning of fossil fuels.

They cite a recent study that also summarized archaeological studies and found that early rice irrigation, which releases methane gas to the atmosphere, explains most of the anomalously high rise in atmospheric methane beginning about 5,000 years ago. A proliferation of livestock farming during that time period also may explain part of the methane increase.

“After 12 years of debate about whether the climate of the last several thousand years has been entirely natural or in considerable part the result of early agriculture, converging evidence from several scientific disciplines points to a major anthropogenic influence,” Ruddiman said.

Chart of the day: But the reservoirs are still low

Following up on our Map of the day. . .

While rainfall has increased dramatically, it hasn’t boosted the levels of the state’s major reservoirs, the source of water for California’s growing population and its irrigation dependent agriculture.

From the California Department of Water Resources:

BLOG Reservors

Quote of the day: Bill and Melinda, Gateskeepers

We’ve written extensively about the role of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in privatizing the worker of public university researchers, folks then work they did at, say, UC Berkeley, then turn into mechanism for private profit, and in so doing belie the hypocrisy inherent in their declarations of altruism.

Now Gated Development: Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good? [PDF], a major report by Mark Curtis for Global Justice Now takes a close look at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and comes to the same conclusion:

[T]he trend to involve business in addressing poverty and inequality is central to the priorities and funding of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We argue that this is far from a neutral charitable strategy but instead an ideological commitment to promote neoliberal economic policies and corporate globalisation.

Big business is directly benefitting, in particular in the fields of agriculture and health, as a result of the foundation’s activities, despite evidence to show that business solutions are not the most effective. For the foundation in particular, there is an overt focus on technological solutions to poverty. While technology should have a role in addressing poverty and inequality, long term solutions require social and economic justice.  This cannot be given by donors in the form of a climate resilient crop or cheaper smartphone, but must be about systemic social, economic and political change – issues not represented in the foundation’s funding priorities.

Perhaps what is most striking about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is that despite its aggressive corporate strategy and extraordinary influence across governments, academics and the media, there is an absence of critical voices. Global Justice Now is concerned that the foundation’s influence is so pervasive that many actors in international development which would otherwise critique the policy and practice of the foundation are unable to speak out independently as a result of its funding and patronage.

Greeks take to the streets in rage over austerity

Any hope that a Greek coalition government led by the leftist Syriza party of Alexis Tsipras could save the country from the domination of the IMF/European Commission/Eurobank Troika’s harsh asuterity demands has proven illusory, and Greeks are once again hitting the streets to express their outrage of the immiserization of lives.

From the Guardian:

Farmers’ roadblocks, ferries immobilised in ports, pensioners taking to the streets: protest has returned to Greece in what many fear could be the beginning of the crisis-plagued country’s most confrontational winter yet.

From the Greek-Bulgarian frontier to the southern island of Crete, farmers are up in arms over the spectre of more internationally mandated austerity.

“It’s war,” says Dimitris Vergos, a corn grower speaking from the northern town of Naoussa. “If they [politicians] go on pushing us to the edge, if they want to dehumanise us further, we will come to Athens and burn them all.”

From PressTV, a look at one protest, a tractorcade — a form of agrarian protest launched here in the U.S. in the 1970s by the National Farmers Union:

Greek Farmers Block Roads In Anti-Austerity Demo

Still more on the farmers action from euronews:

The Greek government’s plans for pension reforms have brought thousands of farmers out on the streets in protests in the north of the country, and in Athens it was pensioners who voiced their anger.

The farmers have threatened to block key roads with their tractors on Wednesday.

“We have to stop this pension reform plan, because in the end we will be left both without pensions and without health care. They just keep cutting and cutting with each bailout that comes,” said one elderly woman in Athens.

“Their goal is for social security as we know it to cease to exist,” said an 82-year-old man.

Reuters covers another aspect of today’s actions:

Public and private sector workers plan a national walkout on Feb. 4 but ship workers took early action on Wednesday by starting a 48-hour strike that brought passenger shipping activity in the seafaring nation to an effective standstill.

Ferries remained docked at Greek ports and farmers poured milk onto the streets on Wednesday in protest over plans to revamp Greece’s pensions system, a condition for the country’s multi-billion euro bailout.

Public anger is growing over the leftist-led government’s drive to cut its costly pension bill by some 1.8 billion euros this year, the equivalent of about 1 percent of national output.

This footage from the Adalou Agency shows the action — or rather inaction — today at Piraeus, port for the city of Athens, where the engines of the normally bustling ferries are silent and the ships remained moored. Via Video-News:

Protest against government’s plans on social insurance and pension reform in Athens

Program notes:

Mooring ferries during a 48-hour strike of National Seamen’s Federation against the government’s new social security reform, at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece,on 20 January 2016. The National Seamen’s Federation (PNO) announced a 48-hour nationwide strike on 20 and 21 January, during which no ships will set sail from ports around the country. People take fruits and vegetables as open-air fruit and vegetable vendors block with their products the entrance of Labor Ministry, downtown Athens, Greece, and gave away their produce to passersby. The protesters oppose government’s plans on social insurance and pension reforms.

Ekathimerini covers the so-called “necktie protest” in Athens itself:

More than 6,000 Greek white-collar professionals including doctors, lawyers and engineers protested in Athens on Thursday, waving their neckties as they marched against proposed pension reforms required by the country’s creditors.

“No to the law that dumps us in the street,” read one of the banners of the workers who joined in what the Greek media has dubbed the “Necktie Revolution”. Police estimated the crowd at 6,000-strong.

Greece’s leftist government recently proposed reducing the highest pension benefits and increasing social security contributions by both employers and staff.

“According to this proposed law, 84 percent of our earnings will go to taxes and other contributions (to the state),” said a 35-year-old engineer who gave his name as Haris.

RT’s RUPTLY has raw video of the Athens protest:

Greece: Rise of the professionals – architects, engineers and lawyers take to Athens’ streets

Program notes:

Thousands of engineers, lawyers and freelancers marched through Athens, Thursday, to protest against government-proposed reforms to social security payments and pensions, as mandated in the latest tranche of Troika measures.

SOT Katerina Fasoula, Protesting Egineer (Greek): “I voted for Mr. Tsipras two times, because I believed in him and his word, I thought he would understand us engineers, but unfortunately they do not understand anything and only care about strictly personal benefits.”

SOT Vassilis Donas, Protesting Engineer (Greek): “It is impossible for us freelancers to be paying more than 90% of our income in insurance contributions and taxes to the state.”

Syriza campaigned and won on a pledge to overturn the Troika’s austerian regime, and now that it has knuckled under, one wonders what impetus their failure will give to the hopes of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, the only other significant party with a firm anti-Troika stance.

One shudders to think.

Headline of the day II: Signs of a turnaround?

From InvestmentWatch:

Monsanto has terminated 16% of its workforce in recent months, as demand for GMO crops continues to plummet (and organics skyrocket!)