Category Archives: Food

Africa’s ‘Green Revolution’ helps only the richest


As for the poor, forget about it.

In reality, the set of practices endorsed by neoliberals in Washington and Europe, is a cover for driving the poorest farmers into debt as they are driven to buy fertilizers, seeds, herbicides, and pesticides from Big Agra companies in the North.

driven into debt and foreclosed when they can’t pay because of crops failures and poor yields, the only beneficiaries are large landholders.

From the Thomson Reuters Foundation:

Rather than alleviating poverty, a farming revolution aimed at increasing and modernising agricultural production in Africa could be harming the poorest, according to a new study.

The University of East Anglia research details how changes brought on by modernisation programmes disrupt subsistence practices, deepen poverty, impair local systems of trade and knowledge, and threaten land ownership.

The “green revolution” of the 1960s and 70s – when policies supporting new seeds for marketable crops, sold at guaranteed prices, helped many farmers and transformed economies in Asia – has also become increasingly popular in Africa where up to 90 percent of people in some countries are smallholder farmers.

In Rwanda, government, donors and development institutions such as the International Monetary Fund have hailed the strategy as a success for the economy and in reducing poverty.

But in interviews with villagers in Rwanda’s mountainous west the researchers found only a relatively wealthy minority had been able to keep up with modernisation, while the poorest cannot afford the risk of taking out credit for the seeds and fertilisers required for modernised agriculture.

Here’s the summary from the study from the report, Green Revolution in Sub-Saharan Africa: Implications of Imposed Innovation for the Wellbeing of Rural Smallholders, which is available free in its entirety from the journal World Development, under a Creative Commons agreement sponsored by  Natural Environment Research Council:

Green Revolution policies are again being pursued to drive agricultural growth and reduce poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. However conditions have changed since the well-documented successes of the 1960s and 1970s benefitted smallholders in southern Asia and beyond. We argue that under contemporary constraints the mechanisms for achieving improvements in the lives of smallholder farmers through such policies are unclear and that both policy rationale and means of governing agricultural innovation are crucial for pro-poor impacts. To critically analyze Rwanda’s Green Revolution policies and impacts from a local perspective, a mixed methods, multidimensional wellbeing approach is applied in rural areas in mountainous western Rwanda. Here Malthusian policy framing has been used to justify imposed rather than “induced innovation”. The policies involve a substantial transformation for rural farmers from a traditional polyculture system supporting subsistence and local trade to the adoption of modern seed varieties, inputs, and credit in order to specialize in marketable crops and achieve increased production and income. Although policies have been deemed successful in raising yields and conventionally measured poverty rates have fallen over the same period, such trends were found to be quite incongruous with local experiences. Disaggregated results reveal that only a relatively wealthy minority were able to adhere to the enforced modernization and policies appear to be exacerbating landlessness and inequality for poorer rural inhabitants. Negative impacts were evident for the majority of households as subsistence practices were disrupted, poverty exacerbated, local systems of knowledge, trade, and labor were impaired, and land tenure security and autonomy were curtailed. In order to mitigate the effects we recommend that inventive pro-poor forms of tenure and cooperation (none of which preclude improvements to input availability, market linkages, and infrastructure) may provide positive outcomes for rural people, and importantly in Rwanda, for those who have become landless in recent years. We conclude that policies promoting a Green Revolution in Sub-Saharan Africa should not all be considered to be pro-poor or even to be of a similar type, but rather should be the subject of rigorous impact assessment. Such assessment should be based not only on consistent, objective indicators but pay attention to localized impacts on land tenure, agricultural practices, and the wellbeing of socially differentiated people.

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.

Chart of the day III: Dye, food, dye


From Seeing Red: Time for Action on Food Dyes [PDF], a new report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the amount of federally approved food dye production in the U.S., as measured in milligrams per person per day:

The per capita production of artificial colorings approved for use in food increased more than five-fold since 1955, with Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 comprising about 90 percent of all dyes used today. In 1950, 1.6 million pounds of dyes, or 12 mg per person per day, were certified for use in foods. By 2015 that figure jumped to over 17 million pounds, or 67 mg per person per day.

The per capita production of artificial colorings approved for use in food increased more than five-fold since 1955, with Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 comprising about 90 percent of all dyes used today. In 1950, 1.6 million pounds of dyes, or 12 mg per person per day, were certified for use in foods. By 2015 that figure jumped to over 17 million pounds, or 67 mg per person per day.

And by all means, read the report for evidence linking food dyes to, among other things, evidence of their role in causing major behavioral problems in children, evidence which has led to their being banned in most European countries.

Gut feelings: Intestinal microbes and the brain


Torturers were long aware that our digestive track is loaded with nerves, and I recall talking to one American solider captured by the Germans during World War II who was subjected to ice water enemas in order to get him to talk. He said he’d never experienced anything so painful before or since, including burns.

Beyond the direct link the SS torturers employed, there’s another, more subtle link between gut and brain, namely the role the microbes harbor in our viscera play in shaping emotions, extroversion and introversion, and, quite possibly, the development of addictions, obsessive behaviors, and even autism and Parkinson’s disease.

From a 5 September 2013 New York Times report:

The trillions of bacteria that live in the gut — helping digest foods, making some vitamins, making amino acids — may help determine if a person is fat or thin.

The evidence is from a novel experiment involving mice and humans that is part of a growing fascination with gut bacteria and their role in health and diseases like irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease. In this case, the focus was on obesity. Researchers found pairs of human twins in which one was obese and the other lean. They transferred gut bacteria from these twins into mice and watched what happened. The mice with bacteria from fat twins grew fat; those that got bacteria from lean twins stayed lean.

The study, published online Thursday by the journal Science, is “pretty striking,” said Dr. Jeffrey S. Flier, an obesity researcher and the dean of the Harvard Medical School, who was not involved with the study. “It’s a very powerful set of experiments.”

The enteric nervous system harbors more neurons than the spinal cord, and is constantly signalling the brain.

And, it turns out, the nature of those signals is shaped by the billions of critters that dwell within us, the microbes that play vital roles in the digestion of out food.

And, it turns out, they may also make us happy or sad.

Consider the following from a 23 June 2015 New York Times report:

Since 2007, when scientists announced plans for a Human Microbiome Project to catalog the micro-organisms living in our body, the profound appreciation for the influence of such organisms has grown rapidly with each passing year. Bacteria in the gut produce vitamins and break down our food; their presence or absence has been linked to obesity, inflammatory bowel disease and the toxic side effects of prescription drugs. Biologists now believe that much of what makes us human depends on microbial activity. The two million unique bacterial genes found in each human microbiome can make the 23,000 genes in our cells seem paltry, almost negligible, by comparison. ‘‘It has enormous implications for the sense of self,’’ Tom Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, told me. ‘‘We are, at least from the standpoint of DNA, more microbial than human. That’s a phenomenal insight and one that we have to take seriously when we think about human development.’’

Given the extent to which bacteria are now understood to influence human physiology, it is hardly surprising that scientists have turned their attention to how bacteria might affect the brain. Micro-organisms in our gut secrete a profound number of chemicals, and researchers like Lyte have found that among those chemicals are the same substances used by our neurons to communicate and regulate mood, like dopamine, serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). These, in turn, appear to play a function in intestinal disorders, which coincide with high levels of major depression and anxiety. Last year, for example, a group in Norway examined feces from 55 people and found certain bacteria were more likely to be associated with depressive patients.

So critical is the nervous system in our guts that many scientists now call it our “second brain.”

From a 12 February 2010 Scientific American report

“The system is way too complicated to have evolved only to make sure things move out of your colon,” says Emeran Mayer, professor of physiology, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (U.C.L.A.). For example, scientists were shocked to learn that about 90 percent of the fibers in the primary visceral nerve, the vagus, carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around. “Some of that info is decidedly unpleasant,” Gershon says.

The second brain informs our state of mind in other more obscure ways, as well. “A big part of our emotions are probably influenced by the nerves in our gut,” Mayer says. Butterflies in the stomach—signaling in the gut as part of our physiological stress response, Gershon says—is but one example. Although gastrointestinal (GI) turmoil can sour one’s moods, everyday emotional well-being may rely on messages from the brain below to the brain above. For example, electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve—a useful treatment for depression—may mimic these signals, Gershon says.

Given the two brains’ commonalities, other depression treatments that target the mind can unintentionally impact the gut. The enteric nervous system uses more than 30 neurotransmitters, just like the brain, and in fact 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is found in the bowels. Because antidepressant medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) increase serotonin levels, it’s little wonder that meds meant to cause chemical changes in the mind often provoke GI issues as a side effect. Irritable bowel syndrome—which afflicts more than two million Americans—also arises in part from too much serotonin in our entrails, and could perhaps be regarded as a “mental illness” of the second brain.

And with that by way of preface, here’s a talk given by Dr. Emeran at UC San Francisco Medical School in December and just posted to the Web by University of California Television [and yes, it’s a bit on the technical side, but there’s enough there that’s accessible to a lay viewer that we though it worthwhile to post]:

The Microbiome Mind and Brain Interactions

Program notes:

Dr. Emeran Mayer, an expert on the clinical and neurobiological aspects of the gut-brain axis, is a Professor in the Department of Medicine, Physiology and Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He is also the Executive Director of the Oppenheimer Family Center for Neurobiology of Stress, and Co-director of the CURE: Digestive Diseases Research Center. Recorded on 12/10/2015.

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!)

Fact of the day: Ocean plastics to outweigh fish


From a new report from the World Economic Forum, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics [PDF]:

Each year, at least 8 million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean – which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute. If no action is taken, this is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050. Estimates suggest that plastic packaging represents the major share of this leakage. The best research currently available estimates that there are over 150 million tonnes of plastics in the ocean today. In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight).

Headline of the day: Breaking corporate ranks


From the Guardian:

Campbell Soup to become first major food company to label GMO ingredients

The world’s largest soup maker also said it supports federal legislation for mandatory labeling of genetically modified organisms on food packaging