Category Archives: Food

Greed, drought threaten America’s farmland


For generations, immigrants left their homes for a new land, and of homesteading farms on some of the millions of acres of virgin soil.

But now the land is under threat from giant agribusiness corporations, many of them owned by investment bankers, real estate developers, and, more ominously, by the threat of climate change, which is literally squeezing th last drops of water out of once-fertile soils.

While the first threat seeks to end the role of the smallholder, the latter two change the very nature of the land itself.

We come from a long line of farmers. The first Brennemans were political refugees, fleeing religious persecution in Europe in the 1600s in search of farmland in Pennsylvania, a colony founded by a religious dissident to provide a safe haven for other religious dissidents.

We know that small farmers care about their land, developing intimate relationships with each contour, learning which patches of soil bring the highest yields and which need special care, while investment bankers obsess only over the bottom line.

Many farmers agonize over the growing corporate control of their own land in an age when companies genetically alter the crops they plant by retaining ownership of the seeds themselves, barring farmers from doing what farmers have done for millennia — saving seeds from this year’s crop to grow next year’s harvest.

And then there are the patented chemicals made by those same corporations, chemicals needed to grow those same patented crops.

The investment funds move in

Like vultures, investment funds circle America’s wounded businesses and institutions, waiting for the opportunity to swoop in and harvest “troubled assets” everything from apartments and newspapers to — since the crash of 2008 — America’s farmland.

At the University of California, Santa Cruz, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Madeleine Fairbairn has been looking at the change of ownership of America’s farmland, as the university reported last year:

“We’re seeing growing interest in farmland acquisition, and we are seeing new investment vehicles being developed, but we have no idea what it means for small and mid-sized farmers,” said Fairbairn, who received a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study “farmland financialization” in areas of peak agricultural production in California and Illinois.

Until about 2008, financial services companies looked askance at buying farmland, but today, they are snapping it up at an impressive pace: As an example, Fairbairn says TIAA, the leading retirement investor for the academic community, owned no agricultural land before about 2007; today, TIAA controls $8 billion worth of farmland globally, investing on behalf of itself as well as other institutional investors.

“We’re in the beginning stages of what could be a significant shift in land ownership,” said Fairbairn. “Pension funds have enormous resources because they manage money for so many individuals. This has potentially major implications, since access to affordable land is a cornerstone of American agriculture.”

A rural sociologist, Fairbairn has tracked the trend since it first emerged. She has attended agricultural investment conferences where “farmland funds” were pitched to potential investors, and witnessed the development of investment vehicles that cater to the phenomenon, including publicly traded real estate investment trusts (REITs) that first came on the U.S. market in 2013.

“Land ownership is a really important part of agriculture, but one that most people spend very little time thinking about,” said Fairbairn.

California and Illinois represent two poles of U.S. agriculture: California is dominated by high-value specialty crops and “permanent crops” like almonds and wine grapes; land is very expensive; and corporations already are major players. Illinois produces commodity row crops like corn and soybeans, and is home to more small, family-owned farms.

There’s another force at work too, and that’s overseas investors.

Consider, for example, the Saudi royals, who have been scooping up American soil, buying acreage to raise hay to feed the imperial horses.

But the extent of the land grab is much greater, as the Midwest Center for for Investigative Reporting revealed in a 22 June 2017 account:

[B]etween 2004 and 2014, the amount of agricultural land held by foreign investors doubled from 13.7 million acres to 27.3 million acres — an area roughly the size of Tennessee.

While representing only about two percent of total farmland, the value of the foreign-owned U.S. farmland soared from $17.4 billion (in today’s dollars) to $42.7 billion during that same time period, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Most of today’s foreign investment in agricultural land began to increase in 2005, according to the Midwest Center’s analysis.

Of the top foreign investors who own agricultural land, nine bought most of their land between 2004 and 2014, about $8.1 billion worth of farmland, the Midwest Center found.

The final threats: Destruction of the soil itself

Worse still are those threats that destroy the land itself.

Of the two, we’ll consider the less threat first — the destruction of land through development.

We begin with a map, depicting the amount of farmland lost to the bulldozer between 1992 and 2012, as revealed in Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farmland, a new report from the American Farmland Trust [click on the image to enlarge]:

Conversion of agricultural land to urban and low-density residential development between 1992 and 2012

The development of agricultural land is shown in relationship to the low-to-high continuum of productive, versatile, and resilient values for agricultural land. The conversion of agricultural land to urban and low-density residential uses between 1992 and 2012 is shown as high (dark brown-red, > 25% conversion within a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) radius], moderate [light brown-red, 10–25% conversion] and low [tan, 5–10% conversion]. Urban areas are shown in gray.

From the report:

  • Our analysis, the most comprehensive ever undertaken of America’s agricultural lands, shows that nearly twice the area of farmland was lost than was previously known. Additional major findings, include:
  • Between 1992 and 2012, we lost nearly 31 million acres of land. That’s 175 acres an hour, or 3 acres every single minute
  • 11 million of those acres were among the best farmland in the nation—classified as the most productive, most versatile and most resilient land
  • Development disproportionately occurred on agricultural lands, with 62 percent of all development occurring on farmland
  • Expanding urban areas accounted for 59 percent of the loss. Low-density residential development, or the building of houses on one- to 20-acre parcels, accounted for 41 percent

And the temperature’s rising

The final threat up for consideration today is the long-term and destructive impacts of global warming on the soil itself.

As any farmer can attest, soil is more than just inert dirt. Each soil is a complex ecosystem, harboring microbes that process soil minerals, digest dead organic matter, and release carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gasses.

Crops favor specific soil types as well, requiring significant levels of fertilizers when planted in less-favorable soils. A considerable body of science reveals that changing water levels changes the microbial community, and the drier soils become, the fewer species of soil microbe can thrive, resulting in a collapse of soil biodiversity.

And now a new study reveals that drier soils also play a direct role in global warming, as starkly captures in these maps, with the upper maps reflecting the regions average temperature increases between 1965 and 2014 compared. to a 1902-1951 baseline period. The lower maps feature of projection of temperature rises for 2050-2099 compared to a 1951-2000 baseline [click on the image to enlarge]:

More from the University of California, Irvine:

Dry months are getting hotter in large parts of the United States, another sign that human-caused climate change is forcing people to encounter new extremes.

In a study published today in Science Advances  [open access], researchers at the University of California, Irvine report that temperatures during droughts have been rising faster than in average climates in recent decades, and they point to concurrent changes in atmospheric water vapor as a driver of the surge.

“Available soil moisture can remove surface heat through evaporation, but if the land is dry, there is no opportunity to transport it away, which increases the local temperature,” said lead author Felicia Chiang, a UCI graduate student in civil & environmental engineering. “Atmospheric conditions can influence soil, and we argue that they’re shaping the temperatures we experience during droughts.”

UCI’s research team analyzed observed temperature and precipitation data from the early and late 20th century and discovered that regions undergoing droughts warmed more than four times faster than areas in the southern and northeastern United States with average weather conditions. In addition, climate models showed a significant warming shift in Southern states between the late 20th century and early 21st century.

These changes point to a greater number of droughts and heat waves co-occurring. This can lead to such calamities as wildfires and loss of crop yields. Widespread conflagrations, spurred on by abnormally high summer temperatures, are currently burning around the world, including in parts of California, Scandinavia and Greece.

“Heat waves and droughts have significant impacts on their own, but when they occur simultaneously, their negative effects are greatly compounded,” said co-author Amir AghaKouchak, UCI associate professor of civil & environmental engineering and Earth system science. “Both phenomena, which are intensifying due to climate warming, are expected to have increasingly harmful consequences for agriculture, infrastructure and human health.”

He suggested that society has a responsibility to respond to the challenges presented by this new climate reality.

“The observed escalation in the number and intensity of wildfires is likely caused by the increase in frequency of hot droughts,” AghaKouchak said. “We need to bolster our resiliency against these threats to protect our population health, food supply and critical infrastructure.”

This study was partially supported by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

Advertisements

Chart of the day: How Americans use the land


From Bloomberg, a look at how the nation uses it’s land, with each color representing the total of land occupied by the accompany usage [click on the image to enlarge]:

Suit: ‘Ghosts’ wrote Monsanto Roundup™ research


Explosive allegations rising from a California lawsuit charge that Big Agra corporate giant Monsanto used ghost writers to created research the company used to win federal approval of  glyphosate, the weed-killer in Monsanto’s market-leading Roundup™ herbicide.

With the EPA poised for massive cuts under the new administration, the litigation reveals problems calling for stronger, rather than weaker, enforcement powers for the agency created by Republican Richard M. Nixon.

The disclosure comes just as a federal court upheld a law mandating their product carry a cancer warning.

From teleSUR English:

Agrochemical giant Monsanto used ghostwriters on scientific reports to cover up the risk of cancer from its flagship weedkiller, plaintiffs in a case in a U.S. Federal Court in San Francisco have claimed in a lawsuit.

Lawyers suing Monsanto on behalf of farmers and others in the mass litigation presented documents to the court claiming that the company had failed to warn the public that exposure to its most popular weedkiller, Roundup, was known to cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer. Roundup is the most-used weed killer in history.

Employes at the company were accused of writing reports that were used to determine if one of the key ingredients in Roundup, glyphosate, was not carcinogenic. The company’s toxicology manager is accused of ghostwriting sections of a scientific report in 2013 under the names of other scientists and another manager was seen to ghostwrite sections of another report from 2000.

On the back of the false reports, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deemed that Roundup posed no cancer risk. The company has denied that it carried out such activities and says that the claims the allegations are based on “cherry-pick” from one email.

In the email in question, an executive from the company said that ghostwriters could help cut down on costs and researchers “would just edit & sign their names so to speak.”

While court filings said that the EPA “may be unaware of Monsanto’s deceptive authorship practice,” former deputy director of the EPA, Jess Rowland, was accused of colluding with Monsanto to bury the real scientific research on glyphosate and its links to cancer.

Citing an email from a Monsanto employee, Roland reportedly said, “If I can kill this (the study) I should get a medal.”  Rowland has been the central figure in more than 20 lawsuits in the U.S.

In a separate lawsuit, a district court ruled that California could classify glyphosate as a cancer risk. The World Health Organization had previously upgraded glyphosate as a carcinogen.

California: Roundup™ must carry a cancer warning


A new California law will force Monsanto to slap a cancer warning on its Roundup weedkiller.

Score one for the good guys.

The story, from RT America:

California to force Monsanto to label its herbicide as possibly carcinogenic


Program Notes:

Agrochemical giant, Monsanto has lost its court battle in California after a Fresno county judge ruled that the active ingredient in the company’s notorious weed killer ‘Roundup,’ glyphosate, can be added to the state’s list of cancer-causing agents. Once the chemical is added to the list, the company will have one year to label that it’s a possible carcinogen on their products. RT America’s Brigida Santos reports, speaking to Zen Honeycutt, founder of Moms Across America, and Alexis Baden-Meyer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association.

Charts of the day: Latin American land inequality


Two significant graphics from Unearthed: land, power and inequality in Latin America, a major study of land distribution in Latin America, reveal the gross inequalities of land distribution in the Americas.

First, a look at agricultural land tenure rates, featuring the percentage of farms in each country owned by the top one percent of landowners:

More from the report:

Latin America is the world’s most unequal region in terms of land distribution. The Gini coefficient for land—an indicator of between 0 and 1, where 1 represents the maximum inequality—is 0.79 for the region as a whole, 0.85 in South America and 0.75 in Central America. These figures indicate much higher levels of land concentration than in Europe (0.57), Africa (0.56) or Asia (0.55).

According to this indicator, Paraguay (with a Gini coefficient of 0.93) is the country where land is most unequally distributed, followed by Chile (0.91) and Venezuela (0.88). At the other end of
the spectrum is Costa Rica (0.67), which has the most equitable land distribution in the region. Most Latin American countries have extremely high levels of concentration with Gini coeffi-
cients above 0.80, while the ratio is over 0.90 in Chile and Paraguay.

Compared with the distribution of income—for which Latin America is also the most unequal region in the world—land distribution is even more inequitable. The regional Gini coefficient for income is 0.48 compared with 0.79 for land, and is higher than in Sub-Saharan Africa (0.43), North America (0.37) or the East Asia-Pacific region (0.37).

And, next, a look at what crops are planted on those vast latifundias:

Note particularly the vast acreage devoted to soybeans.

The great majority of those acres are planted with Monsanto’s genetically modified soybeans, according to this September report from Reuters:

South American farmers are expected to sow 57 percent more area with Monsanto Co’s second-generation, genetically modified soybean seed Intacta RR2 Pro in the new planting season, a company executive said.

Intacta, which tolerates the herbicide glyphosate and resists caterpillars, was planted on 14 million hectares in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay in 2015/2016.

Farmers are expected to plant 18 million to 22 million hectares this season, Maria Luiza Nachreiner, head of South American soy operations, said in an interview before Monsanto announced it would accept a $66 billion takeover bid from rival Bayer.

“We have a positive outlook this crop,” Nachreiner said.

Intacta will account for 31 percent to 38 percent of the planted area in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, up from 24 percent this season, she noted.

Monsanto does not release specific numbers about the area planted with its seeds in Brazil, the world’s largest soybean exporter. For years, its Roundup Ready Soybeans dominated the regional GMO seed market, peaking in 2013/14 with 84 percent of Brazil’s soybean area, according to data from local consultant Celeres.

To maintain those crops, farmers are also basically forced to use Monsanto weed-killers, most notably glyphosate, the main chemical ingredient in the company’s Roundup,.

Roundup has been linked with a growing number of human health problems, but weeds have been growing tolerant, forcing the company to create new blends featuring even more toxic chemicals, including 2,4-D, one of two chemicals used in the toxic Agent Orange blend sprayed over much of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, resulting in a growing number of severe infant deformities.

Chart of the day: World environmental child deaths


From the World Health Organization’s Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment [open access], a graph of the leading environmental causes of childhood deaths worldwide [click on the image to enlarge]:

With the Trump Administration rapidly dismembering the Environmental Protection Agency, a new report reveals just why protecting the environmental saves lives, especially young ones.

From the World Health Organization:

More than 1 in 4 deaths of children under 5 years of age are attributable to unhealthy environments. Every year, environmental risks – such as indoor and outdoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, and inadequate hygiene – take the lives of 1.7 million children under 5 years, say two new WHO reports.

The first report, Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment [open access] reveals that a large portion of the most common causes of death among children aged 1 month to 5 years – diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia – are preventable by interventions known to reduce environmental risks, such as access to safe water and clean cooking fuels.

“A polluted environment is a deadly one – particularly for young children,” says Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. “Their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water.”

Harmful exposures can start in the mother’s womb and increase the risk of premature birth. Additionally, when infants and pre-schoolers are exposed to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke they have an increased risk of pneumonia in childhood, and a lifelong increased risk of chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma. Exposure to air pollution may also increase their lifelong risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.

Top 5 causes of death in children under 5 years linked to the environment

A companion report, Don’t pollute my future! The impact of the environment on children’s health, provides a comprehensive overview of the environment’s impact on children’s health, illustrating the scale of the challenge. Every year:

  • 570 000 children under 5 years die from respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution, and second-hand smoke.
  • 361 000 children under 5 years die due to diarrhoea, as a result of poor access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene.
  • 270 000 children die during their first month of life from conditions, including prematurity, which could be prevented through access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene in health facilities as well as reducing air pollution.
  • 200 000 deaths of children under 5 years from malaria could be prevented through environmental actions, such as reducing breeding sites of mosquitoes or covering drinking-water storage.
  • 200 000 children under 5 years die from unintentional injuries attributable to the environment, such as poisoning, falls, and drowning.

Ongoing and emerging environmental threats to children’s health

“A polluted environment results in a heavy toll on the health of our children,” says Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “Investing in the removal of environmental risks to health, such as improving water quality or using cleaner fuels, will result in massive health benefits.”

For example, emerging environmental hazards, such as electronic and electrical waste (such as old mobile phones) that is improperly recycled, expose children to toxins which can lead to reduced intelligence, attention deficits, lung damage, and cancer. The generation of electronic and electrical waste is forecasted to increase by 19% between 2014 and 2018, to 50 million metric tonnes by 2018.

Continue reading

U.N experts slam pesticides as a global health threat


And they’re calling for an end to their use and a shift to sustainable agriculture worldwide.

It’s a message we heartily endorse, but it won’t sit well a Trump administration and national legislature dominated by corporate interests.

From the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights:

Two United Nations experts are calling for a comprehensive new global treaty to regulate and phase out the use of dangerous pesticides in farming, and move towards sustainable agricultural practices. They say: “excessive use of pesticides are very dangerous to human health, to the environment and it is misleading to claim they are vital  to ensuring food security.”

The Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, and the Special Rapporteur on Toxics, Baskut Tuncak, told the Human Rights Council in Geneva that widely divergent standards of production, use and protection from hazardous pesticides in different countries are creating double standards, which are having a serious impact on human rights.

The Special Rapporteurs pointed to research showing that pesticides were responsible for an estimated 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year. The overwhelming number of fatalities, some 99%, occurred in developing countries where health, safety and environmental regulations were weaker.

Chronic exposure to pesticides has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, hormone disruption, developmental disorders and sterility. Farmers and agricultural workers, communities living near plantations, indigenous communities and pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable to pesticide exposure and require special protections.

The experts particularly emphasized the obligation of States to protect the rights of children from hazardous pesticides. They noted the high number of children killed or injured by food contaminated with pesticides, particularly through accidental poisonings, the prevalence of diseases and disabilities linked to chronic exposure at a young age, and reports on the exposure to hazardous pesticides of children working in global food supply chains, which is one of the worst forms of child labour.

The experts warn that certain pesticides can persist in the environment for decades and pose a threat to the entire ecological system on which food production depends. The excessive use of pesticides contaminates soil and water sources, causing loss of biodiversity, destroying the natural enemies of pests, and reducing the nutritional value of food. The impact of such overuse also imposes staggering costs on national economies around the world.

Continue reading