Category Archives: Food Policy and Advocacy

Nothing Green about the Green Revolution

This post is one of the reading assignments in my class, STOCKSCH 391A – Dialogue on Agricultural Issues, taught during the Fall semester 2018.

By Dr. Vandana Shiva


The system that drives farmers into a debt trap creates malnutrition. The solution lies in shifting from a toxic, high-cost system to a nutritious, low-cost, sustainable food production model

There is no reason why India should face hunger and malnutrition, and why our farmers should commit suicide. India is blessed with the most fertile soils in the world. Our climate is so generous we can, in places, grow four crops in a year, compared to only one in most of the industrialised West. We have the richest biodiversity in the world, both because of diverse climates and because of the brilliance of our farmers as breeders. They have given us 200,000 varieties of rice, 1,500 varieties of wheat, 1,500 varieties of mangoes and bananas.

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Sir Albert Howard, who was sent to India in 1905 to introduce chemicals in farming, saw how fertile the soils were with no pests in the fields. He decided to make the Indian peasants his professors and wrote An Agricultural Testament, which spread organic farming worldwide on the basis of India’s ecological farming, today recognised as

Continue reading Nothing Green about the Green Revolution

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How Foodies Can Understand Capitalism and Farm-to-Table Justice

From:  Yes Magazine: Powerful ideas – Practical actions 

Couple preparing food before cooking

NOTE:  If food justice is of interest, you might be interested in our new online class, Food Justice and Policy, being offered this summer at UMass Online! 

A new book aimed at the socially conscious food activist explores how our food system can be a place for transformation through an alliance between the progressive and radical wings of the food movement.

As advocates for a just food system, most of us try to live by our beliefs. Shopping at the farmers markets: Check. Buying local and grass-fed: Check. We rail against Big Food, yet don’t dare, or bother, to look too far beneath the surface when we shop at Whole Foods or order from the organic aisle of Fresh Direct. We are walking, kale-stuffed characters out of Portlandia, better-intentioned than informed. After all, what are we really doing to change the system?

If this undercurrent of low-level guilt is one you’ve experienced, you might be a target of Eric Holt-Gimenez’s new book, A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat. The book, by and large, delivers on its goal of serving as a political economic toolkit for the food movement. It’s Capitalism 101 for the socially conscious, would-be food activist. Continue reading How Foodies Can Understand Capitalism and Farm-to-Table Justice

UMass Professor Reports on Pesticides

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heAccording to Dr. Lili He, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, “our food system is indeed very vulnerable. It can be contaminated intentionally and unintentionally by many agents. Generally speaking, there are three types of contaminants in food system, 1) microbes, including bacteria, virus, fungi, parasites, and their toxins, 2) chemicals, such as pesticides, antibiotics, adulterants, allergens, and 3) engineered nanomaterials (ENMs).”

The following is a recent article in the New York Times exploring pesticides in food

Q. Do pesticides get into the flesh of conventional fruits and vegetables like cantaloupe, apples and cucumbers?

A. Pesticides sprayed on fruits and vegetables accumulate on the outer peel or skin, but the skin does not form an impermeable barrier, and some pesticides are actually designed to be absorbed into the tissue of the fruit or vegetable to protect it from pests that penetrate the skin to suck out the liquid inside.

Continue reading UMass Professor Reports on Pesticides

Climate Change and Organic Agriculture

By Bill Duesing…..

Many of us participated in the inspiring People’s Climate March on 9/21/2014 in New York City. Marchers represented a wide variety of religious, educational, environmental, energy, social justice, peace, health, labor, cultural and other organizations.  Though they all had their own agendas for solving problems and making the world a better place, they agreed that climate change is very serious and needs to be addressed.

From right, soil scientist, permaculturalist and CT NOFA founding Board member Cynthia Rabinowitz, CT NOFA Executive Director Eileen Hochberg and former executive director Bill Duesing at the beginning of the People’s Climate March.

Organic farmers and consumers marched with the “We Have Solutions” section. We’ve known for a long time that organic food and agriculture are an important part of the solution to many of our environmental problems.  Organic methods and systems are valuable tools for building health and biodiversity in the soil, in our communities and in our bodies.

Organic Solutions

We are just now understanding how organic agriculture not only slows down climate change and increases our resilience in the face of it, but also actually removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it in the soil.  Organic agriculture even has a powerful potential to reverse some of the damage we’ve already done to the atmosphere.

The key organic methods which encourage carbon storage reduce or eliminate tillage and bare soil, keep the soil covered with a diversity of growing plants and eliminate synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.  Soil that is not disturbed encourages greater soil biodiversity, especially more fungal growth.  Fungi function as liquid carbon pathways, carrying energy-rich carbon compounds from plant roots to the billions of soil organisms surrounding the roots.  Between 30 and 60 percent of the carbon plants take out of the air flows out through the roots.  This carbon energizes nitrogen-fixing and other soil organisms which eventually turn it into long-lived humus, a safe carbon repository which greatly increases the soil’s water-holding capacity.

The Chemical Contrast

This organic advantage is nearly the opposite of what chemical agriculture does.  In many ways, from its production to its leaching into the environment, synthetic nitrogen damages our planet.

University of Illinois scientists studied the nitrogen fertilizer records and soil carbon levels at the Morrow plots, the nation’s oldest experiment field with records going back 100 years. Researchers found that chemical fertilizers deplete the soil’s organic carbon.  They discovered that synthetic nitrogen fertilizer had not only stimulated decomposition of all the organic residues (corn stalks, soy plants) that had been added to the soil over fifty years, but also had volatilized almost five tons per acre of carbon from the native soil.  Read the study HERE

All told they found that chemical nitrogen fertilizers had driven about 100 tons of carbon out of the soil, and into the air as carbon dioxide, from each acre of the experiment farm. Inorganic nitrogen, especially when combined with tillage, greatly damages the soil ecosystem.  It inhibits nitrogen-fixing organisms and the fungi that feed them with carbon exuded by plant roots.

In contrast, studies on four continents have shown that organic farming can store from just under a ton to over three tons of carbon, per acre, per year.  Multiply that by the number of crop acres world wide and you get a number close to the amount of excess carbon we need to remove from the atmosphere to stabilize the climate. Only the ocean can hold more carbon. Amazing!

The application of nitrogen fertilizer is also responsible for about three quarters of this country’s nitrous oxide emissions.  Nitrous oxide has 310 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

All these greenhouse emissions are in addition to those released as inorganic nitrogen is taken from the atmosphere by the energy-intensive process to create nitrogen fertilizer using natural gas.  The whole process likely releases even more greenhouse gases if that natural gas is the result of hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) which is becoming the norm these days. Read Tom Philpott’s explanation of how cheap gas from fracking and hefty subsidies from taxpayers are encouraging greater domestic production of this soil and climate destroying substance.

After all that pollution from its making and application, 60 to 90 percent of the applied nitrogen fertilizer is leached into water, volatilized into the air or immobilized in soil. Nitrogen pollution is responsible for dead zones on our coasts and undrinkable well water in the heartland. (See photo.)

Notice in a Kansas State Park, August 2014. Nitrates are from nitrogen fertilizer.

Look at the Summer and Fall issues of NOFA’s The Natural Farmer for more details on the soil, carbon and nitrogen connections.  Dr. Christine Jones’ articles are especially helpful.  (While you are looking at the Summer issue, be sure to read Connecticut “carbon farmer” Bryan O’Hara’s article, “No-Till Vegetables at Tobacco Road Farm.)

Put simply, chemical agriculture releases great quantities of greenhouse gases while organic agriculture sequesters them.

SLOW change

Despite the dismal reality, don’t expect a swift change away from chemical nitrogen to organic methods without a lot more activist pressure.

We’ve known about many of the advantages of organic agriculture for over 100 years. Knowledge alone won’t do it in the face of some giant corporations wanting to make and sell more chemical fertilizers (and pesticides and the seeds that need both). Other corporations demand access to low-cost feed for confined animal feeding operations, and to low-cost ingredients for soda, junk food and even beer.

Some rich and powerful entities are able to manipulate government programs and public opinion for their benefit while financially squeezing farmers and driving them off the land.

As a University of Minnesota ecologist notes in another Philpott article: …the problem lies not with farmers but with farm policy and the market/political power of agribusiness—a “behemoth largely created by lobbyists, trade associations, big businesses and the government.”

How to Prepare for WHATEVER Comes Next

NOTE:  Joanna Macy is a scholar of Buddhism, systems thinking and deep ecology.  I rely on her work when I teach STOCKSCH 379 – Agricultural Systems Thinking.  I had her permission to modify one of her essays and share it under the title of The Shambhala Worker.   Stockbridge instructor, Catherine Sands, sent me this interview.  If you think life looks pretty bleak right now…. read this!
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Yes, it looks bleak. But you are still alive now. You are alive with all the others, in this present moment. And because the truth is speaking in the work, it unlocks the heart. And there’s such a feeling and experience of adventure. It’s like a trumpet call to a great adventure. In all great adventures there comes a time when the little band of heroes feels totally outnumbered and bleak, like Frodo in Lord of the Rings or Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress. You learn to say ‘It looks bleak. Big deal, it looks bleak.’”

Joanna Macy on How to Prepare Internally for WHATEVER Comes Next

This is an interview with Joanna Macy published in Ecobuddhism.
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Ecobuddhism: How do you feel about the Sixth Mass Extinction?

Joanna Macy: It’s happening. It’s combined with so much else that promises wholesale collapse. How do we begin to deal with the plastic in the ocean that covers areas the size of countries? What are cell phones and microwaves doing to our biological rhythms? What exactly is in our food? How do we address genetic modification of crops? We are so hooked on all of this, on every level. How do we begin to contain it?

The most immediate level of crisis concerns the Earth’s carrying capacity. Many civilizations prior to ours, starting with Mesopotamia, could no longer support themselves because they exhausted their natural resources. Carrying capacity is the level most people talk about. It’s a defining aspect of the climate crisis. How will we grow the food we need given huge variations and extremities of weather? How will we handle the natural disasters and famines that will result from a chaotic climate?

New England Ag goes against national trends

I’m being interviewed today by a reporter who wants to know about trends in New England agriculture. So in preparation, I’ve pulled up the following facts (and thought I’d share them here as well).  For example, did you know that:

  1. While the number of farms nationally continues to decline, farms have increased about 5% in New England since the last Ag Census to around 35,000 farms.
  2. The land in agriculture has also decreased nationally, while land in productive farming in New England has increased by about 4% to 4.2 million acres.
  3. Farmland in New England is being converted from hay production to more valuable crops such as nursery crops, small fruits and vegetables.
  4. Beginning farmers (those with less than 10 years of experience) declined nationally but increased in New England.
  5. The fastest growing demographic category in New England agriculture is in farms managed by women, up 15% in the past 5 years.

And in Massachusetts:

  • Massachusetts was one of only 10 states that saw an increase in both the number of farms and land in farms.
  • Massachusetts operators include a greater percentage of women and a relatively high percentage of beginning farmers.
  • Massachusetts crops feature an emphasis on nursery crops, and a good amount of fruits, nuts and berries.
  • The sales channels in Massachusetts are also different than the national norm, with unusually strong direct- to-consumer sales, direct sales to retail outlets (such as stores, restaurants, and institutions), and community supported agriculture (CSA) arrangements.

 

“Cheap” Food has a High Cost

The industrial food system that provides 95-99% of the food to U.S. households results in the least expensive food anywhere in the world on a price basis… at a very high social, environmental, and human and animal health cost.  We can do better….


HANOVER — The United States needs a new food policy, much like it already has an energy policy and an agriculture policy, journalist and author Michael Pollan told a crowd of more than 700 on Monday.

The country’s existing so-called food policy, as it has remained over the last 50 years, is to ensure Americans’ food is “plenty and cheap,” Pollan said.

On that metric, we’ve succeeded, he said — Americans spend about 9.5 percent of their disposable income on food, while Europeans spend 14 to 15 percent. United States citizens, Pollan said, enjoy cheaper food than do the citizens of any other country, now or ever.

“In the history of humankind, that is a blessing,” he said.

But cheap food incurs costs elsewhere, Pollan said.

Americans need a more thoughtful food policy, Pollan said, because left unchecked this $1.5 trillion industry produces environmental, social and medical harms, of which the public remains largely unaware.

For instance, one-third of anthropogenic greenhouse-gas pollution today results from the agriculture industry, Pollan said. Nitrogen pollution from farms — used to fertilize fields depleted by monocultural agriculture — has created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Massachusetts, he said. Oligopolies in the meat industry (only four meat packers slaughter 85 percent of the beef in the country, he said) mean that farmers are forced to accept unfairly low prices for their livestock — prices that prevent them from adopting sustainable practices, Pollan said. Overuse of antibiotics in the meat industry has led to evolution of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, he said. Americans suffer more chronic diseases from dietary choices than from any other cause, he added.

These and other consequences of Americans’ food consumption and food production ought to be addressed intentionally and holistically, Pollan said, through a national food policy.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote in a memo leaked to the press that the Obama administration needs to coordinate such a food policy. Vilsack was on Hillary Clinton’s short list for vice presidential candidates, and Pollan said he’s likely to have her ear should Clinton win the election.

It’s worth watching for steps in this direction, should Clinton prevail, he said, but advocates for better food policy have been disappointed before. Clinton has also said she’d pursue antitrust litigation against the few meat-packing corporations that currently control the industry — “I’ll believe that when I see it,” Pollan said.

A professor at Vermont Law School is currently working with her peers at the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic to draft a blueprint for what a national food policy might look like.

Today, numerous agencies oversee food-related issues, and no overarching policy guides their actions with respect to food, so the agencies and the other policies they try to put in place “are not coordinated, and sometimes they’re at cross-purposes, and sometimes they undermine each other,” said Laurie Ristino, who teaches at Vermont Law School and heads the institution’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems.

“We’d really benefit from a coordinated approach” to food, Ristino said.

As president, Clinton might invest the time and political capital that a national food policy would require, but it’s hard to say for certain, since candidates this year have articulated relatively few specific policy positions, Ristino said. No president is likely to undertake a food policy without clear support from voters, she said.

“I don’t think it’s impossible or out of the question that Clinton would focus on it … but really it has to coalesce and be part of [her] agenda, which is partly our responsibility — to say, ‘This is important,’” Ristino said.

One thing standing in the way of food-policy reform in the U.S., Pollan said, is the food movement itself.

It’s a very diverse coalition, Pollan said, “and not all interests in it care about each other.”

For instance, many activists working toward improved food-production practices care primarily about animal welfare, Pollan said. These activists don’t care nearly as much about the working conditions laborers experience while picking produce in fields or while preparing meals in fast-food restaurants, he said. Those who feel most strongly about workers’ conditions aren’t animated by concern for the environment, and those who care most about the environment aren’t typically worried about processed foods’ deleterious effects on public health, he said.

Pollan likened the situation to that experienced by members of the gay rights movement a decade ago — fractured and heterogeneous, until “some part of it decided to work on marriage equality” — and said a similar focus on a single issue could lead to real improvements in the industry.

Another obstacle to food policy reform, Pollan said, can be seen even in the congressional committees devoted to agriculture, which are composed almost entirely of representatives for agricultural interests. There are no committee members chosen to represent “eaters,” or ordinary American citizens, Pollan said.

The result is agriculture policies written to serve the agriculture industry, and to a lesser extent, farmers, he said. Ordinary Americans ought to have a seat at the table that makes these decisions, Pollan said, because, for instance, current agricultural policies drive national public health problems that ramp up health care costs.

Although corporations exercise significant influence over what Americans eat and what Americans wish to eat, Pollan said, consumers also play a role in shaping the country’s approach to food.

Among the most influential decisions Americans make in their food habits, Pollan said, is the choice to eat meat.

Americans on average consume half a pound of meat per person every day, he said.

“In the history of humankind, this is a new thing,” he said. “Meat was a luxury for most of humankind for most of human history.”

Meat requires enormous resources to produce, he said, to the point that eliminating meat from their diet is among the single most effective methods individuals have to combat anthropogenic climate change.

At some point, he said, Americans’ current meat-eating habits “will seem irresponsible.”

“I’m old enough to remember when, if you had any litter in your car, you threw it out the window,” Pollan said, and when “smoking in public places was something routine.

“I think meat eating’s going to suffer the same thing,” he said.

Although Pollan professed to enjoy eating the flesh of other animals, he said that at some point the environmental community will need to reckon with the practice.

Once that happens, he said, meat’s likely to become “something very special you have on Sunday night.”

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