A Billion Hungry People on Earth, More Coming Fast

June 14, 2009

bThe United Nations World Food Program reported this week that there are over a billion hungry people among the approximately 6.8 billion human beings now alive. That means that over one in seven of us is hungry or starving, and the number is rapidly climbing upward

“This year we are clocking in on average four million new hungry people a week, people who are urgently hungry,” according to Josette Sheeran, head of the UN Program.

At the G8 food summit in Rome last week, she told Reuters news service that high food prices have pushed another 105 million people into hunger in the first half of 2009.

The global financial crisis has made things worse. In terms of staple food, people in poorer countries today can only afford about a third of what they could afford three years ago.

Meanwhile, in an independent but equally ominous echo, the esteemed National Geongraphic has just published a special report on food and hunger – the end of plenty. “Last year the skyrocketing cost of food was a wake-up call for the planet,” Joel K. Bourne Jr. reported in the magazine.

“High prices are the ultimate signal that demand is outstripping supply, that there is simply not enough food to go around.”

Yet with world population spiraling toward nine billion by mid-century, these experts now say we need a repeat performance, doubling current food production by 2030.

In other words, we need another green revolution. And we need it in half the time. We also need it to be a clean, sustainable revolution, for the synthetic chemicals of the first ‘green revolution’ have proven themselves to be toxic and at variance with a healthy planet; the hybrid crops have shown themselves to be fragile; and ongoing overdoses of chemical fertilizer and pesticides have ruined vast stretches of agricultural terrain, and are suspected carcinogens.

Last year a massive study called the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development concluded that the immense production increases brought about by science and technology in the past 30 years have failed to improve food access for many of the world’s poor. The six-year study, involving some 400 agricultural experts from around the globe, called for a paradigm shift in agriculture toward more sustainable and ecologically friendly practices.

Though many people still do not hear it yet, hunger is one of the loudest voices calling from our land. This blog, and in particular the links page, offer direction and models that can be emulated by awakened citizens who recognize the wisdom of taking action now for food security.


The so-far silent tsunami: Global Food Crisis Growing

January 27, 2009

Two reports this week underscore the need for families, neighborhoods, and communities to take action this year to ensure their ongoing food security.

famineThe first report is somewhat longer in term.  The head of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), acknowledged on Monday that global food production — already under strain from the global credit crunch — must double by 2050 to head off mass famine.

Jacques Diouf said that the unfolding global food crisis pushed another 40 million people into hunger in 2008. That brought the global number of undernourished people to 973 million last year out of a total population of around 6.5 billion, he said.

“We face the challenge now of not only ensuring food for the 973 million who are currently hungry,” Diouf said, “but also ensuring there is food for nine billion people in 2050. We will need to double global food production by 2050.”

Diouf warned the global economic crisis was already undermining efforts to tackle food insecurity. The credit crisis makes it harder for farmers to get loans to buy materials and equipment to grow crops.

“This silent tsunami is completely unacceptable,” Diouf said of the mounting global food crisis.

Meanwhile, of more immediate concern, consumers may soon be paying even more as they chase a shrinking supply of fresh and frozen vegetables. According to news reports, many California farmers have started abandoning their fields in response to a crippling drought.

California’s sweeping Central Valley grows most of the country’s fruits and vegetables. But this winter thousands of acres are turning to dust as the state hurtles into the worst drought in nearly two decades. The consequences of the drought will soon impact store shelves and consumer wallets.

The credit crisis, ongoing instability in the realm of oil prices, the drought, and other mounting conditions make it important now – this year – for citizens to take steps to implement local and sustainable systems of food production.


Farmer Geiger’s Thanksgiving Grace

November 16, 2013

tramplingI was there in New Hampshire a year ago in September 2012, just a few miles away when dairyman Lincoln Geiger was badly hurt by a trampling bull.  

That Sunday they airlifted him to a hospital in Boston to reckon with life-threatening injuries. But Lincoln’s spirit was strong and he moved through the wounds and the shock, and the many phases of recovery to come back to the land.

“I was given a new outlook on the world, Lincoln later explained, “by what I now call a form of initiation. My whole sense of reality shifted from an objective view of nature and the environmental movement, to a deeply caring heart-centered understanding.

“I now feel that the way to engage people to improve our world is with an intelligence that emanates through the heart. We need to ensoul nature and all its creatures and feel like guests, friends, or part of the familywhen in the presence of the forest or the garden or the herd. That is the attitude that comes from the warmth of the soul through the wisdom of the heart.”

From the very beginning Lincoln has been one of the core farmers at the remarkable Temple-Wilton Community Farm. One of the first two Community Supported Agriculture farms (CSAs) in America, it is still growing strong nearing thirty growing seasons.

In a blog post recounting his recent visit to the farm, Robert Karp of the Biodynamic Association noted that the Temple-Wilton Community Farm, “keeps showing the way” for thousands of other CSA farms across the nation and around the world.

Fawn - photo by Elfer courtesy of Creative Commons.

Fawn – photo by Elfer courtesy of Creative Commons.

A day-and-a-half before his fateful encounter with the bull, Lincoln came and sat beside me in the barn loft at Stonewall Farm Center, just west of Keene. He shared a grace with our conference of people talking about implementing greater food security for the Monadnock Region of New Hampshire.

Lincoln sat as part of a circle of 40 of us or so — all Twentyfirst Century agrarians alive with a sense of doing something foundationally important in the world. After dinner, to offer a blessing, he talked with us for about ten minutes.

He began by telling the story of how on a spring day he had climbed aboard the farm’s tractor and set about mowing the high fields. He never noticed the place in the deep grasses where a fawn lay hidden, and so to his dismay and anguish he found that the blades of his mower had badly injured the fawn.

Within two weeks he had hit four fawns and felt the deer were trying to teach him something monumental. “The day I hit the last fawn I was super alert to make sure there would be no accident.  I stood on the tractor platform the whole time I was mowing. About a third into the 10-acre field I saw a deer standing about 200 feet from me. I stopped the tractor, got off and noticed that the deer was looking at me and then looked down and then back at me.

“I felt right away that she was standing by her fawn. I turned off the tractor and headed straight towards the deer. She ran away, I kept walking and soon there in front of me lay a beautiful fawn. I just stood with it for a while, then I called my dairy partner Andrew and our apprentice Sara to come to the field with a cage or something to hold the fawn while I finished mowing.

“I picked up the fawn, it was totally calm and carried it to the bottom of the field. Andrew and Sara came but had no cage, they brought it into the Forrest and let it go. I kept on mowing and just as I was finishing the last couple of swaths, as I look back, there it is with its hoof cut off an inch up. I cried out loud, turned off the tractor and picked it up in my arms again. My heart was broken so bad I can’t tell you. I brought my little friend into the forest, I knew it would never make it. I laid it on a large stone and crushed its beautiful head with a rock.

“Then I cracked open inside and screamed loudly for the world to hear our pain and our love,” Lincoln told us. Time went by. To bring some light and healing to all that arose with the death of the fawns, to respond by giving some beauty back to the world, Lincoln wrote graces.

A year ago Lincoln spoke one of his graces aloud for the circle gathered at Stonewall Farm, just west of The Grand Monadnock:


Thank you Earth so soft and strong

Thank you meadow filled with song

Thank you mountain, forest and stream

By you we rest and find our dream

 

Thank you creatures wild and tame

Your trust we love and hope to gain

Thank you for your milk and fleece

And for your meat that we may eat

 

Thank you root and leaf and seed

We’ll not forget your wondrous deed

You hold the earth

You catch the rain

You fill the world with air again

 

Thank you wind for bringing rain

Please help our friends who are in pain

For us who thirst and cry from hunger

Please bring hope, life and wonder

 

Thank you moon for guidance and grace

For heart bent flowers

With dew drop lace

 

Thank you sun as day begins

For golden light

By angel wings

 

With thankful hearts

and open hands

     We ask to share your loving lands.

– Lincoln Geiger, Temple-Wilton Farm

As of Thanksgiving 2013, Lincoln writes: “I am well and full of living.” The Temple-Wilton Community Farm is also well and full of living, as attested to by yet another article about the farm’s place in the history and the destiny of the CSA movement, complete with some wonderful photos. The story – The First CSAs – is published on page 10 of the John Deere company magazine, The Furrow.

 


World Food Production & Local Food Production

June 21, 2013

StalkWhen I heard about the historically feeble wheat crop of 2013 I began to look around again in the realm of world food production, and once again to connect dots. The sad state of the wheat crop in America’s Central Plains is happening right in my back yard of Nebraska, so that’s what captured my attention again. But the wheat tribulations of the Heartland are but part of far larger story about world food production with far greater implications for local food production.

Anyone paying attention to news about world food production should have snapped to attention by now, and should be motivated for action to promote, develop and expand local food production systems. That’s just common sense. The pattern of the news about food and farms is a steady concerning drumbeat, a thumping call to attention.

Yet further rigorous international studies released this week declare that the world is lurching towards an agricultural crisis, with crop production falling behind rates needed in coming decades.

stormIn one case, in a follow up to the United Kingdom’s Climate Change Risk Assessment, a just released official report stated that climate change abroad would have a more immediate effect than climate change at home. Taking the most reasonably optimistic view possible, the report states that the UK is likely to be hit by increasingly volatile prices of many food commodities as the climate is disrupted.

Global production of many key foodstuffs is concentrated in a just few countries. Those countries are likely to suffer increasing episodes of extreme weather. As a consequence, the report states, the biggest threats are shortages of particular items, increased volatility in food prices in general, and constricting protectionist measures over food.

Threats from climate change overseas appear an order of magnitude higher than domestic threats, the report’s authors told BBC News.

Those same events would, naturally, also impact the economy, food supply, and the cost of food in North America, and elsewhere. Like it or not, we are all one planet. That’s an inescapable fact of life in 2013.

The paper regards climate change not only as fact, but as a multiplier of other threats. “Already price volatility of resources is the new normal,” the authors told BBC News. “This only looks as though it will get worse.”

Meanwhile, arising from the Southern hemisphere, another report warns that famine and its ancient, aggravating companion, war, are becoming an increasingly likely part of Australia’s future as the world struggles to feed itself.

“Clearly, the world faces a looming agricultural crisis, with yield increases insufficient to keep up with projected demands,” according to authors of the report. ”We have no time to waste.”

Shortages and rising prices are creating a double whammy: families struggling to put food on the table, while at the same time governments in the US, Australia and elsewhere are cutting back on food support and other social welfare programs.

tpIn concert with obvious climate concerns is the political-corporate context. America’s Green Shadow Cabinet has just formally opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as an assault against food sovereignty. According to the Cabinet’s analysis, the trade agreement – now under secret international negotiation — places the profits of multinational companies ahead of the food security needs of individual nations.

One corner of our backyard garden in Lincoln, Nebraska.

One corner of our backyard garden in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Access to food is a basic human right, the Cabinet asserts. The TPP, however, expands the cold, materialistic notion that food is just another commodity subject to financial speculation and exploitation to increase the profits of multinational corporations.

TPP promotes not local, but rather export-oriented food production. In its analysis, the Cabinet found that  passage of the trade agreement would increase global hunger and malnutrition, alienate millions from their resources of land, water, seeds, and technology and, thwart generations of accumulated cultural knowledge.

“Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to control their own food and agriculture…to guarantee the independence and food sovereignty of all of the world’s peoples, it is essential that food is produced though diversified, community based production systems.”

* * * *

Open Harvest food coop in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Open Harvest food coop in Lincoln, Nebraska.

In the context of all these dots of information about world food production, and many others, local food production emerges as not just wise and beneficial for a host of reasons, but also imperative.

In my own life I think not just of my backyard vegetable garden as one wee element of local food production, but also of our local food coop, Open Harvest, which is now nearing 40 years of operation. Open Harvest is an active market agent buying food from over 110 organic, sustainable farms ranged around Nebraska’s capital city of Lincoln, and then selling that food at reasonable cost. Just participating in a local food coop as one of thousands of member-owner makes a huge difference in the push to develop local production systems.

There are hundreds of other proven pathways open now for the development of our local food systems, ranging from local farms, CSAs, coops, farmers markets, community kitchens, farm-to-school programs and other community agrarian initiatives. If you are paying attention to world food production, you will recognize that it is time now to be active in local food production, something both wise and increasingly imperative.


Cracks in the Land

August 23, 2012

“Our farmers and ranchers have never faced as many problems as they do today with drought, range fires, high gas prices…”
– Michael McCau

My cracked lawn.

The land is dry and cracking across the heart of America. Drought is the natural cracker, shriveling everything up till there are gaps that demand radical shifts for underground pipes and construction footings, doubtless as well for all forms of subterranean life.  Then there are mournful, moanful cracks in the land from the massively arrogant and suicidal impulse of industrial-scale fracking in a time of profound earth changes. Foundational cracks abound on planes both inner and outer.

Each day as I open my back door and step out into the world I see this inescapably. I’m confronted with a crazy quilt pattern of cracked land where once had been a lawn. It’s a troubling sight. Here at home all 93 of Nebraska’s vast, sprawling counties have been declared disaster areas because of the drought. Late August now, and the forecasters say we may not get substantial rain until Halloween.

Our U.S. Midwestern drought — impacting over 62% of the entire nation — is having and will have  global consequences: “People in wealthy industrialized countries spend between 10 to 20 per cent of their income on food. Those in the developing world pay between 50 to 80 per cent of their income. According to Oxfam, a one per cent jump in the price of food results in 16 million more people crashing into poverty — accelerating what global agriculture ministers call The Spiral of Hunger.

Meanwhile, with at least one more long month of melting to go for the Arctic Sea Ice, the pace of heat-driven destruction to our North is staggering in proportion. Behold this brief composite animation. It’s a must see. Just about every record has been shattered, with a month more of melting to come.

Watching the world’s larger patterns unfold like this is profoundly unsettling, and can be unbalancing as well without some active, creative initiative to respond to the urgent call of the land.

Proactive response is a key element of 21st Century Agrarianism, and thousands upon thousands of people and communities are responding dynamically, helping to establish healthy new footings and foundations on the land as ballast and complement to the surging waves of digital culture. What is needed now — in this extreme state — is positive creative response from millions upon millions of people.

If you are among those who will no longer ignore the call of the land, then here is one place to initiate a response: to become informed, to find ways to cultivate the land to restore its health and beauty, as well to grow clean food for yourself, your family, and your community. Check out the possibilities.


Food Coops 2012 Growing Strong

July 7, 2012

Coop members march the streets of Philadelphia on the way to the first ever public reading of the Declaration of Rights for America’s Food Coops. Photo by S. McFadden

As the summer Sun began scorching in earnest, I traveled to Philadelphia for the 56th annual conference of  the Consumer Cooperative Management Association (CCMA). That’s the group that networks 128 of America’s food coops.

Owned independently by their local citizens in cities and towns across the nation, food coops are a major web of market nodes in the overall good food movement. For decades, food coops have provided a principal connection between families who want clean, chemical-free food and the stalwart network of sustainable organic farmers who provide it.

In mid-June representatives from the independent coops gathered together to talk, to walk, and to make a declaration concerning coops, corporations, and the context of our era. Here are some of my notes from the gathering.

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Marion Nestle, long-time nutrition activist and author of several influential books including Food Politics, gave a keynote address on the final day of the conference. “There is a global food crisis right now,” Nestle told  us, “with one in seven people on the earth already hungry.” It looks as if the global food crisis will continue to intensify in the years immediately ahead. She said we would likely see the crisis play out not just with overseas famines, but also domestically in cost, volatility, availability.

The mounting clouds of the global food crisis that Nestle pointed out to us have been becoming increasingly evident in news stories, such as this July example from Bloomberg Business Week: Drought Stalks the Global Food Supply.

“Hunger and malnutrition are social problems,” Nestle told us, “and that is one of the reasons why food coops are so important. Coops are a viable alternative to Big Food. Because coops are both community-based and value based, they make a point of selling clean, healthy, nutritious food.”

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Michael Sansolo, a marketing consultant, also gave a keynote address. Sansolo said that conventional markets see that the movement now and over the next 30 years is toward organic, sustainable foods. Food coops have led the way for the last 40 years, but now profit-focused food corporations are in the mix and bringing their values to bear. As the NY Times reports, organic food has become “a wildly lucrative business for Big Food and a premium-price-means-premium-profit section of the grocery store.”

The theme of Sansolo’s talk was that there are, in his view, three central challenges now faced by everyone who is involved with the market for food: economics, demographics, and technology.

During the Q & A session after Sansolo’s talk a man rose to urge that he add a fourth challenge to his presentation: the natural environment. The environment is changing fast, the man said. Along with economics, demographics, and technology, coops had best take that that reality into account.

In his remarks Sansolo said that the notion of community has changed radically with technology in recent years. The face of America is shifting. It is already way more diverse. Also, we are seeing in all economic sectors the rise of women.  Women are stepping into leadership roles, especially in the food sector.  He advised that food coops and other initiatives actively reach out to a younger, multicultural base. “That’s where the future is,” he said.

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A coop member dressed as Ben Franklin reads the coop declaration of rights.

Ben Franklin initiated the first coop in America back in 1752 right in Philadelphia, the city where we had gathered 260 years later to size things up, and make plans for going forward cooperatively toward meeting a triple bottom line of economic, environmental, and social benefit.

A common experience for participants in the coop conference, and one I certainly experienced this year, is the realization that my local coop in Lincoln, Nebraska — Open Harvest — is but one node in a wide and growing network of food coops in North America and around the world — continuing to make creative progress as ethics-based businesses.

Another strong wave of coop development is currently underway. At the conference we heard that about 300 new food coops that are trying to get it together this year. However, Marilyn Scholl, a consultant with the CDS Consulting Coop, told me that if 20-30 of these new coop initiatives make it and actually establish themselves, that will be a strong outcome.

Colombia University professor Dr. Gary Dorrien has defined cooperatives as the foundation of economic democracy. They “extend the values & rights of democracy into the economic sphere…and create environmentally sustainable economies.”

Paul Hazen, former President and CEO of the National Cooperative Business Association and now ED of the Overseas Coop Development Council, commented that we are at a moment of profound consumer unrest and searching.

“Many are recognizing,” Hazen said, “that coops are a better kind of corporation…Right now the ‘free market’ is not meeting the needs of the people for clean, healthy, affordable food. That is where coops fill an important niche, because coops are value-led businesses. The economic and political momentum is swinging in our direction…Coops are a key to attaining food security.”


Global Food Crisis Expands – Project Censored

December 14, 2011

Project Censored has identified the dramatic expansion of the global food crisis as one of the Top 25 ‘censored’ stories of 2011.  The food crisis was ranked #4 on the list in terms of its importance and low degree of media coverage

For over 30 years, Project Censored has examined the coverage of news and information, define ‘modern censorship’ as the subtle yet constant and sophisticated manipulation of reality in mass media outlets. One way of manipulating reality is to ignore it. That is where Project Censored places its focus. And this year, one story given scant media attention is the global food crisis, something of critical importance to everyone.

“A new worldwide spike in agricultural commodity and food prices is generating both predictable and extraordinary fallouts,” Project Censored reports.

“Over the past year, food prices around the world shot sharply upward, surpassing the previous price surge in 2007-2008 to set a new record, as measured by UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization…

“…The search for causes once again leads to a conjuncture of flawed policies in trade, environment, finance and agriculture that is likely to produce more dangerous volatility in years to come.”

Of note, Reuters News Service just this week – December 15 -brought a facet of the story into focus when it  reported that a growing number of families in the United States are struggling to put food on the table. Poverty is on the rise in America. Hunger is increasing greatly.

The land is calling loudly, urgently at home and all around the globe. Time to respond creatively and intelligently.


Rivulets of Revelation Flow from Tales of Two Farm & Food Conferences

May 17, 2011

© 2011 by Steven McFadden

White Shell Woman, sculpture by Oreland C. Joe, Sr.

Eight years ago I was among a band of pilgrims privileged to set out on the annual Journey of the Waters, traveling the ancient route north from pool to pool along the spine of the Rocky Mountains. In this manner I learned something of the teachings of White Shell Woman and the sweet waters she is said to nurture.

As with the teachings of classical Greece and Rome, so in North America and in most traditions around the world, the elementals of water have predominantly been personified in feminine-yin form: Sirens, Jengus, Melusine, Yami, Morgens, Nereids and Naiads, the Lady of the Lake, Swan Maidens, and White Shell Woman, to name a few.

Whether dwelling in still pools, rushy streams, ornate fountains or plastic bottles for drinking, fresh water spirits around the world have most frequently been appreciated as feminine. Everywhere the Undines, water elementals possessing voices of lilting beauty, may be heard over the sound of water, sages have long maintained, if one takes care to listen.

Thus, early in May upon entering the global Water for Food conference hosted by the University of Nebraska at Lincoln (UNL) — a conference “generously supported” by Monsanto and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — I was immediately struck by the overwhelming male-yang dominance of the proceedings. By approximate measure, 75-80% of the conferees were men; likewise by my reckoning, the program listed 48 men presenters, just six women.

Conference talk flowed around themes of what people — and the nations and corporations they organize themselves into — either want or need to do with water, as if our relationship with this essential resource were one way. In traditional teachings of North America it’s understood fundamentally that the elements and forces of the earth should be considered: listening to the call of the water, so to speak, as basic tenet of living in right relation.

Dance of the Undines. Beadwork by Margie Deeb and Frieda Bates

After three days at the Water for Food gathering, yin drops of consideration finally condensed and rose to the surface during the closing panel discussion. Robert Meany, Senior VP at Valmont Industries, a maker of irrigation equipment, remarked, “hydrology and the humanities need to come together.”

Moments later, in response to a question from the audience, Dr. Simi Kamal, CEO of the Hisaar Foundation in Pakistan made an emphatic point. She said agricultural policies must not overlook the human dimension. She said policies — and I took it she meant corporate policy as well as political policy — “must empower and engage the dispossessed, the marginalized, the landless, including unpaid and underpaid women laborers in the developing world.”

“The challenges for women in developing countries represent a huge issue,” Kamal said. “We need to hear from them. Let’s bring women out of the niche they have been placed in, and also begin to see agriculture as part of the larger ecosystem…Next year this Water for Food conference needs to dedicate a day to the issues of gender, water and food.”

Slamming into the Ceiling

The same week, some 1,200 miles away from the Water for Food conference in Nebraska, another conference was unfolding a different vision. The Future of Food gathering sponsored by The Washington Post featured spokespeople not from corporations or universities, but rather advocates for organic, sustainable agriculture. The program included Marion Nestle, Will Allen, Deborah Koons-Garcia, Eric Schlosser, Vandana Shiva, Senator Jon Tester, England’s Prince Charles, and agrarian patriarch Wendell Berry.

Thanks to a bicycle I could attend the Nebraska conference, and thanks to the Internet I could also see and hear parts of the Washington conference. Both gatherings of high power food and farm leaders held potential for impacting policy, and shaping real activity around critical matters of water, land, and food. They embodied the yin and yang character in the parallel universes of agrarianism and industrial agriculture: the Tao of the Land 2011. These matters are in vivid relief this spring with over a billion hungry people on the planet. As the United Nations Environment Program once again made screamingly blunt this season with yet another report: humanity is slamming into the environmental ceiling. “Global resource consumption is exploding,” their report said. “It’s not a trend that is in any way sustainable.”

This year in Nebraska, for the third consecutive year, the global Water for Food conference grappled in its way with the immediate challenges of growing more food with less water. Many a speaker uttered the by-now familiar refrain: Earth’s population will rise to nine billion people by 2050; how will we double food production by then with increasingly diminished natural resources?

Feeding a growing world population with less water is “one of the greatest challenges of this century,” said Jeff Raikes as the conference opened. Raikes is a Nebraska native and now the CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation is a major supporter of and investor in Monsanto and their promotion of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as the response of industrial agriculture to global crop challenges.

Raikes said that the Gates Foundation aims to reduce poverty by helping farmers produce more efficiently and to move beyond producing only enough food for their own families. He noted that of the 1.3 billion or so of the world’s population who live in extreme poverty, about 75 percent depend on subsistence agriculture.

Agrarians actively question the corporate model of extensive high-tech farming and GMO crops as inappropriate for most of the developing world. They argue that it should not be pushed on the poorest farmers in the name of feeding the world, and that these schemes enrich only the corporations, not the people on the land.

The general thrust of discussion at the Nebraska conference, however, was that large-scale approaches and techniques such as hybrid GMO crops with fertilizers and pesticides could produce more food more quickly and with less water, including small-scale farms in developing countries. The Monsanto representative, VP for Global Strategy Kerry Preete, mentioned efforts to increase plant density, such that they could put 40,000 corn plants on one acre of land. In 2012-13 Monsanto will introduce a new GM corn variety that, despite reports showing this is dubious, he claimed would use less water. How could small-scale farmers in developing nations pay for such technology? Poor farmers can’t, Preete said, but rich farmers can and as they adopt technology, the cost comes down.

In Washington meanwhile critics vigorously questioned the claimed yields and pointed to recent studies stating that sustainable, organic farming methods use less water and could provide more food and better livelihoods for farmers in the developing world.  They cited research done by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD) which established that small-scale systems of agro-ecology are capable of producing enough food for the developing world while helping to preserve and replenish natural resources. A report published earlier this year by United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food came to similar conclusions, arguing that more sustainable systems could double food production in certain regions.

UNL President James B. Milliken said at the conference that the university’s new Water for Food Institute aims are “fully compatible” with the aims of the Gates Foundation. “The challenges are so numerous that we can’t expect to solve them all,” he said, advocating that a “network of knowledge around the world,” as represented at the conference, is essential. He expressed UNL’s intention that the Water for Food Institute evolve to become an international pivot point for disseminating such knowledge.

UNL is just now making a momentous switch in the Land Grant universe by joining the Big Ten Conference. The key importance of the new institute and the issue of water for food — globally as well in America’s agricultural heartland — was apparent in the ongoing conference involvement of top university officials: President  Milliken, Chancellor Harvey Perlman, and Vice Chancellor Prem Paul. All participated actively in the conference, and welcomed the formal agreement UNL signed with the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education. The agreement sets out the arrangements for cooperative research and education on matters of water and food. They said they intend a multidisciplinary institute mobilized to meet urgently impending matters.

In committing itself robustly to the means and ends of industrial agriculture, UNL has drawn criticism from both inside and outside the university. Critics have charged UNL with catering primarily to corporate agriculture, thereby giving only secondary support to  family-sized farms, mid-sized farms, and the far-flung rural communities of the Cornhusker state. With this emphasis, critics say, UNL is stinting in its obligation to carry out the fundamental land-grant mission — creating and applying “knowledge with a public purpose.”

New Realities: Signs All Over

András Szöllösi-Nagy, rector of the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in The Netherlands, told the Nebraska conference that food is closely linked with social and political issues. As food prices go up, he said, those issues come to the forefront. There is growing vulnerability in this, he said, because humans are driving dramatic change in global water systems and food production with population growth, trade, subsidies, political upheaval, technological implementation, and the reality of climate changes.

“Is climate change accelerating?” Szöllösi-Nagy asked rhetorically. “The hypothesis is yes it is accelerating, but we have no hard proof yet. What we do know is that global mean temperatures are clearly increasing…There is lots of uncertainty, and the Precautionary Principle should hold.

“Still,” he added, “something is changing. The signs are all over: more floods, more droughts, more extreme weather events. We have new realities we need to reckon with, he said, explaining that the whole concept of a 100-year flood is outdated. We must throw out the tools we use to characterize such extreme events, he said, because “so-called 100-year floods and storms are happening all the time and becoming routine.”

The very week of the two conferences in early May, those new realities again smashed into the news: Texas and much of America’s Southwest because of an exceptional drought, the Mississippi River for impending flooding of farmland and suburbs on a scale “never seen before,” and the Arctic Circle because of newly accelerated melting due to global warming.

Meanwhile in Washington at the Future of Food, England’s Prince Charles (textvideo) was setting out a case that our current use of the land, and our systems of food production do not address these problems but rather aggravate them. He said if we are going to address the challenges of climate change, water shortages, general resource depletion, and all the other things, then the current industrial model of agriculture and food systems is unsustainable. It requires radical transformation.

The Irrigation News

The Water for Food conference in Nebraska was brimming with intellectual acuity, technological sophistication, organizational aptitude, and sincere determination to overcome the global challenges. The event, fueled by a recent $50 million gift to UNL from the late Robert B. Daugherty, attracted more than 400 participants from 24 nations.

Daugherty, a Nebraskan who died last November, made his fortune developing and marketing center pivot irrigation systems through the Omaha-based company now known as Valmont Industries, Inc. UNL used his bequest to establish the new Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute as an information distribution center in partnership with national and international agencies, including UNESCO.

The current CEO of Valmont, Mogens Bay, told the Nebraska conference that despite problems irrigation is not going away. Without it, many farms around the world would dry up and blow into the far distance. Bay said center-pivot technology — which has made vast stretches of formerly unfarmable land productive — is adapting to become more efficient. His company’s newest center-pivot rigs use a variety of sensors linked to a central computer. The computer divides a quarter section farm field (160 acres) into 5,000 zones, with specific zone control for the rate of applying water, fertilizer or insecticide.

Circles of farmland with center pivot irrigation, a familiar scene for airplane passengers above America's Heartland.

Likewise, Anil Jain, managing director of Jain Irrigation Systems, Ltd. in India, told the conference about the “transformational impact” of drip irrigation. He said more than a billion people on the planet are small holders, tending 1-5 acres. Many of them must irrigate the land to produce a crop, he said, and drip irrigation can do the job efficiently and conserve water.

Jain spoke enthusiastically about “fertigation” — applying water and fertilizer in liquid form through the systems. Fertigation, he said, is a catalyst for high-tech agriculture hand-in-hand with biotechnology because the systems deliver fertilizers and pesticides directly to plants. He said solar-powered water pumps, rain-harvesting systems, and small-scale drip irrigation could be installed for $1,000 an acre. He said that smallholder farmers could pay that investment back fast with increased crop productivity — not the first time an enthusiastic farm-profit forecast was declared in the agricultural pivot of Lincoln, Nebraska.

Industry Leader Guys: Get Bigger

Kerry Preete, Monsanto’s VP for Global Strategy, appeared on the Industry Leader panel in Nebraska. He began by posing his variation on the standard rhetorical question: “How do we double the world’s food supply on the same footprint?” The world needs to produce 1.5 billion more tons of grain by 2050. The obvious industrial implication of his question was through transgenic crops, Monsanto’s profit pony.

As with many of the other speakers in Nebraska, Preete articulated the case for agriculture to become bigger and more efficient to meet global needs. A student participating in the conference asked the panel whether transgenic (GMO) crops are a safe way to meet this projected need? As if served a slow softball over the center of home plate, Monsanto’s Preete cheerily answered “Yes. After 20 years of wide use we are confident, as are all of the regulating agencies, that our seeds and crops are safe.”

Not everyone shares that confidence. Certainly not soil scientist Don Huber, who has warned of potential catastrophe, and certainly not the authors of a new literature review into the safety studies on GM food. The review documents the reality that most studies claiming that GM foods are as nutritional and as safe as those obtained by conventional breeding, have been performed by biotechnology companies or associates. The authors concluded “the controversial debate on GMOs…remains completely open at all levels.”

Meanwhile, in Washington, Jon Tester (D-Montana), the only farmer in the US Senate, was telling the Future of Food conference, “The rise of GMOs and who controls the seed, is one that’s particularly disturbing to me as a farmer. With GMOs, farmers don’t control the seed, multinational agribusiness does…You and I have heard over and over that our only hope to feed the planet as our population grows is GMOs,” Tester said. “Well, I’m here to tell you that I don’t buy it. What it has done and what it continues to do is take away options for family farmers. And it takes away options for consumers. If we keep moving down this path, farmers won’t be able to control their seed, something they have done since the beginning of time. And no longer will you truly know what you’re eating.”

Back in Nebraska, listening to Monsanto’s Preete, I could not help but think of Earl Butz, the Republican Secretary of Agriculture (1971-76), whose infamous mantra to farmers was to “get big or get out.” Butz’s challenging remarks immediately preceded the epic farm crisis of the 1980s that drove thousands of American families off of their farms, consolidating and concentrating good farm lands in far fewer hands, a process that continues pell mell not just in the US but globally.

This harsh reality of farm consolidation was cited in Washington where Will Allen, founder and chief executive of Growing Power, told the Future of Food conference: “We need more people growing food in their back yard, side yard, community farm. We need to support those existing farmers that are struggling. Our rural farmers are struggling, and they have been the backbone of our food system for so many years. In 1960, they told us farmers to grow soybeans and corn, fencerow to fencerow; we were going to feed the world. And we have what? A million less farmers. That system hasn’t worked.”

What does it profit a land?

In Nebraska, CEO Jeff Raikes said the Gates Foundation believes that an increase in technology leads to an increase in wealth, “We need to see farmers as customers,” he observed. “We need more affordable solutions, and we need to shift the mindset of farmers toward prosperity, somehow enabling them to see farming as a business…One of the greatest challenges of the century is getting more crop per drop.”

Raikes said that countries that have been able to move out beyond extreme poverty have done so, historically, by improving their agricultural productivity. “What ultimately happens is that improvement in agricultural productivity creates greater wealth in the economy, and that opens up new opportunities.”

This point of view was widely supported by presenters at the Nebraska gathering. Kebede Ayele, country director of International Development Enterprises in Ethiopia, said that while better technology is important, it has to be accompanied by education. “We have to convince them (farmers) and make them believe they can be profitable in agriculture.” Mick Mwala, Dean, School of Natural Resources, University of Zambia, also argued that farming is a business, urging that more and more farmers need to embrace this conception.

These messages struck my ears bluntly. They are distinct from the agrarian motivations and pathways I see as leading forward for generations to come. Farming as a business to make profit and feed people, or farming as a way of life in harmony with nature and health, and serving as a clean healthy foundation to support the high-tech digital culture evolving so swiftly in this new millennium?

In Washington, agrarian elder Wendell Berry delivered the agrarian gospel with no holds barred at the Future of Food conference: “We must abandon the homeopathic delusion that the damages done by industrialization can be corrected by more industrialization,” he said. “Our fundamental problem is world destruction caused by an irreconcilable contradiction between the natural world and the engineered world of industrialism.”

“…There is no use in saying that if we can invent the nuclear bomb and fly to the moon, we can solve hunger and related problems of land use,” Berry said. “Epic feats of engineering require only a few brilliant technicians and a lot of money. But feeding a world of people year to year for a long time requires cultures of husbandry fitted to the nature of millions of unique small places — precisely the kind of cultures that industrialism has purposely disvalued, uprooted and destroyed.”

– END –



Latter-Day Luther Nails Troubling Thesis to GM Farm & Food Cathedrals

March 29, 2011

© 2011 – by Steven McFadden

Don M. Huber, Ph.D.

After trucking across the high plains for five hours, and casting my eyes over perhaps 100,000 acres or more of winter’s still deathly gray industrial farmland, I came face to face with the newly famous Dr. Don M. Huber in the cave-dark meeting room of the Black Horse Inn just outside the American Heartland village of Creighton, Nebraska.

On the morning of March 24, along with about 80 farmers and Extension agents, I listened as Huber discoursed with erudition and eloquence upon industrial farming practices that may be impacting nearly every morsel of food produced on the planet, and that subsequently may also be having staggeringly serious health consequences for plants, animals, and human beings.

Huber is emeritus soil scientist of Purdue University, and a retired U.S. Army Colonel who served as an intelligence analyst, for 41 years, active and reserves. In Nebraska, he stood ramrod straight for three hours with no notes and spoke with an astonishing depth and range of knowledge on crucial, controversial matters of soil science, genetic engineering, and the profound impact of the widely used herbicide glyphosate upon soil and plants, and ultimately upon the health of animals and human beings.

Dressed in a conservative dark suit and tie, Huber set the stage for his presentation by observing that he has been married for 52 years, and has 11 children, 36 grandchildren, and a great-grandchild on the way. He then began his formal talk framed by a PowerPoint slide bearing a Biblical quote: “All flesh is grass.” – Isaiah 4:6. With this he emphasized the foundational reality that the biotech grains we eat, as well as the biotech grains eaten by cows, hogs, and chickens, are grown in vast herbicide-treated fields.

Martin Luther nails his theses to the church door.

For the domineering giants of industrial agriculture — multinational corporations, universities, and governments — Huber’s assertions about the impact of glyphosate, and the mounting scientific questions about GMO crops, may be as significant and disrupting as Martin Luther’s “heretical” act in 1517. That’s when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany to challenge the systemic problems in the almighty institutions of his era.

Luther disputed the claim that spiritual forgiveness from sins could be legitimately sold for money. Huber and other researchers say they are accumulating evidence that — along with the 2010 report of the U.S. President’s Cancer panel which bluntly blames chemicals for the staggering prevalence of cancers — raises profoundly challenging questions about the chemical and genetic-engineering practices of industrial agriculture. The challenge, if it holds up, has implications not just for agricultural institutions, but also for the primary food chain serving the Earth’s population.

Not an altogether new controversy, the complex matters of industrial agriculture, genetic engineering and the far-flung use of herbicides have been exponentially accentuated in the last year by virtue of its ominous context: last summer’s epic oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, the nation-ripping 9.0 earthquake in Japan earlier this month, with its subsequent tsunami and nuclear meltdown which is contaminating the nation’s water and food chain, in combination with the statistical reality that on our planet of nearly seven billion people, over a billion human beings — one of every six of us — is hungry.

All of this was brought into prominent public focus — both sharp and fuzzy — in January of this year by the unlikely matter of alfalfa.

Challenges to the Web of Life

The seminar with Dr. Huber, sponsored by Knox County Extension and the Center for Rural Affairs, commenced on a somber note. The moderator announced that Terry Gompert, 66, a veteran Extension educator and respected advocate for sustainable agriculture, and a man who had played a key role in organizing the conference, had just suffered a massive heart attack.  A moment of silence followed before Dr. Huber began his presentation. Mr. Gompert died on March 25, the day after the conference.

Dr. Huber discusses food and safety concerns at the Black Horse Inn, Creighton, Nebraska. (Photo by S. McFadden)

At the conference, Huber’s talk was highly technical, yet he had easy command of voluminous detail. For many in the audience, it must have sounded like an alien language as he spun out the esoteric terms: zwitterion, desorbtion, translocation, rhizosphere, meristemic, speudomanads, microbiocidae, bradyrhizobium, shikimate, and more.

Huber spoke about a range of key factors involved in plant growth, including sunlight, water, temperature, genetics, and nutrients taken up from the soil. “Any change in any of these factors impacts all the factors,” he said. “No one element acts alone, but all are part of a system.”

“When you change one thing,” he said, “everything else in the web of life changes in relationship.”

That brought him to the subject of glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide around the world, and a chemical most commonly recognized in the product named Roundup®. Because it is so widely used, Huber said, it is having a profound impact upon mega millions of farm acres around the world. More than 155 million acres of cropland were treated with glyphosate during the 2008 growing season, and even more by now. Subsequently, Huber said, this chemical is having a sweeping impact on the food chain.

He asserted that glyphosate compromises plant defense mechanisms and thereby increases their susceptibility to disease. He said that it reduces the availability and uptake of essential nutrients, and that it increases the virulence of pathogens that attack plants. Ultimately, Huber said, all of these factors reduce crop vigor and yield  (Yield Drag).

Most dramatically, Huber reported on what he described as a newly discovered pathogen. While the pathogen is not new to the environment, Huber said, it is new to science. This  pathogen apparently increases in soil treated with glyphosate, he said, and is then taken up by plants, later transmitted to animals via their feed, and onward to human beings by the plants and meat they consume. The pathogen is extraordinarily small. It can be observed only via an electron microscope operating at 38,000 power of magnification. The pathogen has yet to be phenotyped (descrubed)  or named, though that work is almost complete, Huber said. He specified that all the research and data would be published in a matter of weeks.

Huber warned that ignoring these emerging realities may have dire consequences for agriculture such as rendering soils infertile, crops non-productive, and plants less nutritious.  He said it could also, and apparently already is, compromising the health and well-being of animals and humans.

The Stratosphere of Controversy

Alfalafa

What propelled Huber, glyphosate and biotech crops into the stratosphere of public attention earlier this year was a pending decision on alfalfa (hay) by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The “queen of forages,” alfalfa is the principal feedstock for the dairy industry. The USDA was being asked to approve unrestricted use of genetically engineered alfalfa seeds, which could result in as many as 20 million more acres of land being sprayed with up to 23 million more pounds of toxic herbicides each year.

Because alfalfa is pollinated by bees that fly and cross-pollinate between fields many miles apart, the biotech crop will inevitably contaminate natural and organic alfalfa varieties.

Dr. Huber wrote a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack asking for a delay in making the decision, and for the resources to do further research. In his letter, Huber raised questions about the safety of glyphosate. Huber’s letter also warned of the new pathogen, apparently related to the use of glyphosate, which appears to significantly impact the health of plants, animals, and probably human beings. He said laboratory tests have confirmed the presence of the organism in pigs, cattle and other livestock fed these crops, and that they have experienced sterility, spontaneous abortions, and infertility.

“I believe the threat we are facing from this pathogen is unique and of a high-risk status,” Huber wrote. “In layman’s terms, it should be treated as an emergency.” Vilsack set Huber’s letter aside for later consideration, and on January 27 he authorized the unrestricted commercial cultivation of genetically modified alfalfa. Immediately thereafter, the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the USDA, charging that the agency’s approval of genetically engineered alfalfa was unlawful.

While Huber’s letter of warning was not intended for public consumption, it was leaked and immediately went viral on the Internet. In a matter of days Huber became a lightning rod, attracting intense attention from both the scientific community, and the general public, which is  understandably concerned about the genetically engineered food it has never wanted and — since GM food is unlabeled — never been able to identify. The prospect of a new and virulent pathogen sweeping through the food chain was profoundly unsettling

Meanwhile, researchers were deeply upset that they were not first notified by Huber of the new pathogen — as is customary — before the matter became public knowledge. They felt they had been blindsided. Huber says that his letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack was leaked, and thus its publication was not his doing.

Huber became the focus of tremendous pushback. His message of urgent concern and the need for delay until more research was completed was unwelcome in many corporate and university citadels, and was deemed heresy by some vested in the multi-billion dollar industry of GMO crops.

The biggest beef researchers have with Huber — who is well known in his field as a member of the American Phytopathological Society and as part of the USDA National Plant Disease Recovery System —  is that he has not yet made data available for scientific scrutiny. Many researchers, including some at Purdue, say Huber’s data and hypotheses, when studied, are not likely to hold up to peer review, and that in general his allegations are exaggerated.

When contacted for comment on Huber’s concerns, Monsanto, maker of Roundup ® (glyphosate) and producer of Roundup Ready® seeds, had their press office send me a link to a web page with a compilation of  criticisms of Huber’s work. Monsanto also sent along a copy of their official corporate statement: “Independent field studies and lab tests by multiple U.S. universities and by Monsanto prior to, and in response to, these allegations,” the statement reads in part, “do not corroborate his claims.”

Consequences

Glyphosate is a particularly strong broad-spectrum toxin with the power to kill many kinds of plants that have been designated as weeds. As a chelator, or binder, glyphosate changes the physiology and thereby makes plants susceptible to plant pathogens. Roundup Ready® plants are tolerant of glyphosate because technology inserts a new gene. While the RR plants do not die after the toxic herbicide is sprayed over farm fields, the plants do suffer a reduced efficiency in some crucial regards, according to some researchers, changing the nutrient balance in plants. When that change occurs, all subsequent relationships — including the diet of livestock and humans — is changed.

The extensive use of glyphosate and the rapid, widespread use of GM crops resistant to it, have intensified the deficiencies of essential micronutrients, and some macronutrients. This is leading, Huber argues, to weaker and more disease-prone plants, animals, and people. In his presentation, he offered a list of about 40 diseases that, he says, tend to increase in farm fields where glyphosate is used. Those plant diseases include Sun Scald, Leaf Chlorosis, Tomato Wilt, Apple Canker, Barley Root Rot, Bean Root Rot, Wheat Take All, Wheat Head Scab, Wheat Glume, and Grape Black Goo.

Subsequently, he hypothesized, the decrease in nutrients and the increase in the new pathogen in food lead to empty calories, which likely explains increases in allergies, and chronic diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

The list of diseases that Huber suspects may be affected by glyphosate and the new pathogen is, he said, increasing as growers and pathologists recognize the cause-effect relationship:

  • Increase in cancers of the liver, thyroid, kidneys, tests, and skin melanomas.
  • Increase in allergic reactions in general, and an increase of up to 50% in soybean allergies in the USA in the last three years.
  • Increase on an epidemic-scale in the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, perhaps as much as 9,000% over the last 30 years. Specialists say they expect the incidence of Alzhiemer’s to spike far higher over the next four years.
  • Increase in the incidence of Parkinson’s disease, which researchers say, is being provoked in part by the factor of chemical pesticides.

What Has Changed?

As if it were a mantra, during his three-hour talk Dr. Huber often raised a rhetorical question: What has changed?  If all of these troubling conditions are on the rise for plants, animals and humans in recent years, then what has changed to bring it about?

The most apparent change, he answered, is that glyphosate and genetically engineered plants are out widely in the world. According to Huber, farm animals, including cattle, pigs, horses and chickens that are fed GM crops grown on glyphosate-treated fields have shown an alarming increase in sterility, spontaneous abortions, and stillbirths. By way of anecdotal evidence, he said he gets two to three communications a week from farmers and veterinarians about this troubling phenomenon. “We can no longer ignore the increase in livestock infertility, stillbirths, and spontaneous abortions over the last three to four years,” he said.

GMO feed grown on glyphosate treated fields tends to irritate the stomach of livestock, such that many farm animals are fed daily rations of bicarbonate of soda in an attempt to sooth their stomach lining. Huber showed a slide bearing images of dissected hog stomachs; one from a hog fed GMO feed and the other conventional feed. The GMO hog had a rudely inflamed mass of stomach and intestinal tissue.

A handout from Dr. Huber that was made available at the Nebraska seminar cited 117 peer-reviewed scientific studies that raise serious questions about the impact of glyphosate. These studies have reached critical mass, Huber said, and they could no longer be discounted or ignored. Yet, there are also a substantial number of studies stating that glyphosate and GMO crops are safe and ought to be the cause of no concern.

What Is this Stuff?

Glyphosate is the most used herbicide in the USA. Every year, 5 to 8 million pounds are used on lawns and yards, and another 85 to 90 million pounds are used in agriculture. It is a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide used to kill weeds, especially weeds known to compete with crops grown widely across the Midwest. Initially sold by Monsanto in the 1970s under the trade name Roundup®, its U.S. patent expired in 2000, and thus glyphosate is now marketed in the U.S. and worldwide in different solution strengths under various trade names. Because these products may contain other ingredients, they may have different effects.

Glyphosate inhibits a key enzyme that is involved in the synthesis of amino acids in the plant.  Many fungi and bacteria also have this same pathway. Aromatic amino acids in plants are the building blocks for many of their defense compounds.

Some crops have been genetically engineered to be resistant to it (i.e., Roundup Ready®). Such crops allow farmers to use glyphosate as a post-emergence herbicide against both broadleaf and cereal weeds, but the development of similar resistance in some weed species is emerging as a costly problem.

Glyphosate kills plants by interfering with the synthesis of the amino acids which are used by the plant as building blocks in for growth and for defense against disease and insects. Plants that are genetically engineered to tolerate the glyphosate contain a gene that provides an alternative pathway for nutrients that is not blocked by the glyphosate herbicide. But this duplicate pathway requires energy from the plant that could be used for yield, thus many GMO crops experience Yield Drag – a reduction in yield.

Huber had several recommendations for growers, especially a much more judicious use of glyphosate, as small a dose as possible. He said farmers also need to provide supplementary nutrients to counteract its effects and thereby to restore plant resistance to toxins and diseases.

He mentioned that there are other herbicide products on the market, but they are more specific to particular weeds and degrade more swiftly, whereas glyphosate is broad spectrum and thus kills many types of weeds, and also endures for a longer span of time in the soil and plants.

“Slow down,” Huber said. “It takes time to restore soil biota if a field has been treated with glyphosate. We have 30 years of accumulated damage, so it may take some time to remediate all of this.”

“There are a lot of serious questions about the impacts of glyphosate that we need answers for in order to continue using this technology,” he continued. “I don’t believe we can ignore these questions any more if we want to ensure a safe, sustainable food supply and abundant crop production.”

Primary Realities

In his presentation at the Black Horse Inn Huber was convincing in his demeanor, encyclopedic in his knowledge, precise and eloquent in his delivery.  Late in the morning as he spoke of the fertility and yield issues, the complications for farmers, and the increased prevalence of disease, his eyes momentarily welled up with tears. Then as he concluded his talk he received a standing ovation from the assembly of about 80 Nebraska farmers and Extension staff.

Still, Huber’s personal integrity and his positive reception, at least at the Black Horse Inn, may be of small consequence in the face of a tsunami of criticism arising from the citadels of corporations and universities. None of that will be resolved until the data he and others have gathered passes peer review.

The primary realities in the GM and glyphosate debates are corporate avidity, scientific uncertainty, and overwhelming public disapproval. Many peer-reviewed articles suggest that biotech crops and foods are harmless; many suggest otherwise. The jury is still out. However, as Huber was arguing, the number of published articles showing that glyphosate and the biotech crops grown in its chemical soup cause harm to livestock is rising rapidly.

Studies showing the public has little taste for genetically engineered foods, and especially not for unlabeled  and thus unidentifiable genetically engineered foods,  remain convincing. According to reports from Food & Water Watch, 90% of Americans want GM foods labeled, and 91% say the FDA should not allow genetically modified pigs, chicken and cattle into the food supply. To date, the main parties keen about promoting unlabeled GM foods, and their herbicidal aides, are multinational corporations and their investors.

“Before we jump off the cliff,”  Huber said, “we need to have more research done. It takes a lot to reverse the problems.” Many observers would argue, convincingly, that we have already jumped off the cliff.

Huber sought just $25,000 to do sequencing to establish the phenotype of the newly identified pathogen, and then to name it. But no government, university, or corporation would provide that relatively paltry amount of money. Finally, a private individual came forward and made the money available. Then the lab that was originally keen to do the phenotyping backed out. The issue had become a hot potato and they did not want the controversy.  Still, Huber persevered, and he said they should have the phenotype established, and then be able to name the pathogen, in a matter of weeks.

“Let me emphasize that all of this is not a calamity,” Huber said, surprisingly, near the end of his talk. “Agriculture is the most critical infrastructure for any society. American agriculture has undergone a revolution and it will continue to progress.

“Still, I saw no reason to rush into the critical alfalfa decision and to thereby cause so many more acres to be treated with glyphosate,” he said. “Why take a chance until we get the answers? Research needs to be done…There is lots of new data that needs to be considered, lots of new studies that cannot be ignored.”

(Addendum – May 6, 2011 – Don Huber has written a second letter to the USDA with even further detail.


The Call Becomes a Howl

February 7, 2011

~ Food Plans Require Action Now ~

The call of the land is amping up into a howl sounded around the world, a howl that is beginning to echo down the aisles of food markets and within empty bellies, far and near.

World food prices hit a record high in January. They have continued their sharp rise through early February. By a convincing majority, observers of the global food scene expect supply to continue being pinched, and for prices to climb relentlessly upward, perhaps as much as another 40% in the Americas over the next two years, and even higher elsewhere.

“The world is now in an era where it has to be very serious about food supply.” – Josette Sheeran, director, UN World Food Program

Now is the time for action. We’re in a global danger zone. Ultimately, the Americas are entwined with all that unfolds in the realm of farms and food around the world. The UN’s acute concern is that the latest spikes in prices will spark a repeat of the deadly food riots that broke out in 2008 in Haiti, Kenya and Somalia. Just since the start of 2011, surging food prices have helped fuel the ongoing rage of citizens in Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan.

The UN expects to see more hunger and famine, and consequently more rebellion in the year ahead. For farms, food, and famine, three powerful forces are at work:

  • Speculators are heedlessly active for profit, snapping up commodities and thereby impelling food prices upward. UN reports show that up to 70% of business on commodity markets is speculation rather than trade.
  • Economist Paul Krugman writing in The New York Times points to another monster factor, climate change:  “While several factors have contributed to soaring food prices, what really stands out is the extent to which severe weather events have disrupted agricultural production…”
  • The third driving factor is Peak Oil. World food prices follow oil prices (93% correlation since 2000). The vast enterprise of industrial agriculture rests on the supply of oil for fuel, fertilizer, and chemicals. Fossil fuel prices are spiking upward again in earnest, boosting food prices with them

The global food situation is morphing rapidly. The potential for various levels of chaos is palpable. This critical reality calls for smart, swift response.

Thousands of pioneering households and communities, churches, and companies have already devised working, healthy, sustainable responses, and established models for taking care of the land, for producing an abundance of clean food, and of finding ways to knit themselves together around something foundational: our food and how we grow it. Those models stand out as intelligent and worthy responses to the howl of the times and of the land.

To portray a broad array of these positive, proactive models for households and communities, I teamed up with my partner Elizabeth Wolf and the skillful publishing trio at NorLightsPress.com to do something more comprehensive  as a guide for people. We wanted to offer readers an even wider and richer range of possibilities for creative responses to the urgent howl of the land. We accomplished our goal. We have completed our work assembling a greatly expanded 2nd edition of The Call of the Land: An Agrarian Primer for the 21st Century. You can check it out here.

Our hope is that the 2nd edition of The Call of the Land will serve as a rough guide for many as we navigate this era of change. We feel that farms, farmers markets, CSAs, schools, companies, and many other constellations of humanity will find it to be a good tool for teaching, and especially for building wider community support.

We have scheduled the official publication date of this 2nd edition of the book for April. However, owing to the global food crisis, we felt it important to make it available now.

– 30 –


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