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 -



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