05.01.2015 |

U.S. agriculture faces lack of young farmers, loss of local knowledge

Young farmers wanted (Photo: Robert S. Donovan/Flickr)

Across the United States, farmers are getting older and fewer young operators are entering the agricultural workforce than in the past, according to a new study published in the December issue of the journal Rangelands. The authors write that the family farms that once dotted the landscape and employed nearly half the U.S. workforce have been replaced by large, often mechanised, operations that employ just 2% of the country's workforce. As long-time farmers grow older, it is becoming increasingly difficult to pass on the family farm. As a result, the number of farms has dropped 63% since 1900 and farm size has increased by 67%. The researchers looked at demographic trends among farm and ranch operators in Wyoming to see if and how the agricultural community was ageing. Based on their results, they paint a gloomy picture: At the current pace of agricultural ageing, there won’t be any farmers under the age of 35 by 2033. By 2050, the average age will be 60, and 34% of all farm and ranch operators will be of retirement age (65 and older). Even if their children and grandchildren show an interest in agriculture, farmers often cannot afford to keep their land and equipment. In addition, the draw of more profitable enterprises, often in urban areas, is a source of migration away from rural landscapes and farming. According to the authors, the demographic trends in Wyoming mirror those seen across the United States. They conclude that the loss of farmers, ranchers and their land is accompanied by the loss of local wisdom. “Agricultural wisdom, often built over generations, is irreplaceable once lost. Grazing practices finely tailored to the individual pasturelands, knowledge of local disease and pest cycles, water conservation strategies that work in tandem with local flora or geologic features - these are forms of place-based knowledge whose subtleties are carried by local operators and which might begin to fade if professional managers begin to dominate”, the study warns. (ab)

02.01.2015 |

British supermarket chain to sell 'odd' fruit and vegetables

Oddball carrots (Photo: Larry Krause/

Britain’s second-biggest food retailer, Asda, has agreed to sell misshapen but perfectly edible fruit and vegetables at a discounted price in an effort to reduce food waste. The new ‘Beautiful on the Inside’ range will be sold in stores for a third less than perfect produce, in a bid to support farmers who might otherwise have to throw produce away, the Guardian reports. The initiative was sparked following an investigation into food waste by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and farmer Jimmy Doherty for a TV programme on Channel 4. The first show featured British farmers complaining that they were unable to sell thousands of tonnes of their fresh vegetables to supermarkets because they are oddly shaped. The pair asked the supermarket chain to carry out an in-store trial to see if customers would be willing to buy “crooked carrots, knobbly pears and wonky potatoes” at a discounted price. The survey showed that two-thirds of customers would be open to buying wonky produce, while 75% would ‘definitely’ do so if it were cheaper. The campaign and dedicated range will be launched in selected stores on 26 January, with the aim of rolling it out nationwide if it proves successful. “If most Brits had half an idea of the amount going to waste, they’d be snapping up ugly veg by the trolley load,” Jamie Oliver said. “There’s no difference whatsoever in taste or nutritional value. This is perfectly good food that could and should be eaten by humans. When half a million people in the UK are relying on food banks, this waste isn’t just bonkers – it’s bordering on criminal.” (ab)

29.12.2014 |

Nicaragua: Banana workers to receive payment for pesticide exposure

Pesticide application (Photo: Scot Nelson/

After 40 years, the U.S. corporation Dole Food Company has agreed to compensate more than 1,700 former banana workers from Nicaragua who were exposed to the banned pesticide Nemagon, suffering severe health problems. “The payments will be made soon”, said Humberto Hurtado, Dole spokesman, in a statement on Friday. Between 1973 and 1980, Dole used the agrochemical dibromochloropropane (DBCP), also known by the brand names Fumazone and Nemagon, in plantations in Central America to control soil-dwelling nematodes that fed on the roots of banana plants. The chemicals caused serious health problems including infertility, cancer, miscarriages and skin diseases. The amount of the settlement was not revealed but the attorney for the workers said that it would be distributed according to the severity of the damage suffered by each worker. The 1700 workers belong to a group of 4150 former Nicaraguan banana workers from different departments of the country who sued Dole for physical and psychological damages. “I hope the whole group will receive compensation”, said the lawyer for the workers, Antonio Hernandez Ordeñana. He said that the settlement should serve as an incentive for further cases against chemical companies that produced DBCP, including Dow Chemical and Shell Oil Company. (ab)

19.12.2014 |

Open letter: Africa doesn't need genetically modified bananas

Human trials with GM bananas instead of animal tests (Photo: Kit practicalowl/Flickr)

Civil society networks and farmers' organisations have submitted an Open Letter to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Iowa State University expressing fierce opposition to human feeding trials involving genetically modified, beta-carotene-enriched bananas intended for Africa. The letter was published last week by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), a Pan-African platform working towards food sovereignty. More than 120 organisations from around the world, as well as 26 individual scientists, support the letter, including the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, FoodFirst, La Via Campesina North America and Dr. Vandana Shiva. They are strongly opposed to the GM banana human trials that are funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and carried out by Iowa State University under the leadership of Dr. Wendy White. The GM bananas are currently being given to 12 young students. The so-called ‘super-banana’ was developed by scientists at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, with funds from the Gates Foundation. It has been genetically modified to contain extra beta-carotene, a nutrient the human body uses to produce vitamin A. The trials are designed to support the release the GM bananas into Ugandan farming and food systems, and later to other East African countries. “As AFSA, we are vehemently opposed to GM crops. Africa and Africans should not be used as justification for promoting the interest of companies and their cohorts. We do not need GM crops in this changing climate. What we need is the diversity in our crops and the knowledge associated with them,” commented AFSA Coordinator Dr. Million Belay. The letter states that GM crops divert resources away from more locally appropriate agricultural solutions to nutritional concerns. “If indeed the aim of those involved in the promotion of the project is truly to combat vitamin A deficiency, then surely they should be advocating for the consumption of more diverse fruits and foods, such as sweet potatoes that are rich in vitamin A and found in abundance in Africa. Ironically, the promotion of a GM food staple high in vitamin A risks perpetuating monolithic diets, the very cause of vitamin A deficiency in the first place”, reads the letter. AFSA stressed that progress to overcome vitamin A deficiencies has been made in the Philippines through government programmes that provide supplements and improve access to vitamin A rich foods - without the massive costs or unknown long-term impacts on health, the environment and agriculture associated with GM crops. (ab)

16.12.2014 |

USDA greenlights Monsanto’s dicamba-resistant soybean and cotton

Spraying a soybean field
Spraying a soybean field (Photo: United Soybean Board)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has paved the way for the introduction of Monsanto’s dicamba-tolerant cotton and soybeans. On Friday, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service published its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on varieties of cotton and soybeans that have been genetically modified to survive spraying with several herbicides, including dicamba, concluding that both should be fully deregulated. The decision was heavily criticised by health and environmental groups. “Monsanto’s genetically-engineered dicamba-resistant crops are yet another example of how pesticide firms are taking agriculture back to the dark days of heavy, indiscriminate use of hazardous pesticides, seriously endangering human health and the environment,” said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety (CFS), a U.S.-based non-profit organisation. CFS estimates that the anticipated widespread adoption of these GE crops would lead to an over 10-fold increase in dicamba use in U.S. agriculture, from 3.8 million lbs. at present to more than 43 million lbs. per year. Dicamba is a selective herbicide used to kill broad-leaved plants. It has been linked to increased rates of cancer in farmers. According to CFS, Monsanto has developed dicamba-resistant crops “as a quick fix” to the epidemic of glyphosate-resistant weeds generated by the massive use of that herbicide with the company’s first generation of genetically modified crops. However, the use of dicamba with the new GE cotton and soybean varieties could give rise to weeds resistant to both dicamba and glyphosate. “Monsanto’s dicamba-resistant crops are the latest fruits of a pesticide industry strategy to increase sales of their toxic herbicides,” said CFS Science Policy Analyst Bill Freese. Monsanto welcomed USDA’s decision that moves them one step closer to the introduction of their new crop varieties. The last step is now the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) registration of the trait’s corresponding herbicides. In October, the EPA approved Dow AgroSciences’ Enlist Duo herbicide, only two months after USDA issued its final EIS for the corresponding Enlist corn and soybean traits.

12.12.2014 |

Organic farming more productive than previously thought

Diversity can increase organic yields (Photo: cyclotourist/Flickr)

A new study comparing organic and conventional farming shows that organic yields are much higher than previously thought. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that organic crop yields were only 19.2% lower, on average, than those from conventional crops. Using agricultural diversification practices such as crop rotation and multi-cropping (growing several crops together on the same field) could further reduce the yield gap to 8% and 9% respectively. According to the study, published on Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, there were no significant differences in yields for leguminous crops, such as beans, peas and lentils. “In terms of comparing productivity among the two techniques, this paper sets the record straight on the comparison between organic and conventional agriculture,” said the study’s senior author, Claire Kremen, Professor of Environmental Sciences at UC Berkeley. The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 115 studies containing more than 1000 comparisons in 38 countries for 52 crop species – a dataset three times greater than in previous papers. “Our study suggests that through appropriate investment in agroecological research to improve organic management and in breeding cultivars for organic farming systems, the yield gap could be reduced or even eliminated for some crops or regions,” said the study’s lead author, Lauren Ponisio. The study stresses the need to look more closely at organic farming, as aside from the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, the ability of synthetic fertilizers to increase crop yields has been declining. “Increasing the proportion of agriculture that uses sustainable, organic methods of farming is not a choice, it’s a necessity. We simply can’t continue to produce food far into the future without taking care of our soils, water and biodiversity”, Professor Kremen said. With regard to the question whether organic farming can feed the world she said: “It’s important to remember that our current agricultural system produces far more food than is needed to provide for everyone on the planet. Eradicating world hunger requires increasing access to food, not simply the production.” (AB)

08.12.2014 |

Fighting climate change with food sovereignty

Farmer in the Andes (Photo: Alfredo Miguel Romero)

A global effort to give small farmers and indigenous communities control over land is the best way to deal with climate change and feed a growing world population, according to two new documents released by La Via Campesina and the non-profit organisation GRAIN for the occasion of the UN Climate Change Conference currently underway in Lima. Small farms of less than five hectares represent 78% of all farms in Peru, but occupy only 6% of the country’s agricultural lands, reflecting the global situation. Analysis of official data carried out by GRAIN suggests, worldwide, small farms account for 90% of all farms yet occupy less than a quarter of the agricultural land. The organisations argue that the dispossession of peasants and indigenous peoples of their lands has laid the basis for destructive resource extraction and an industrial food system that is responsible for 44-57% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. However, the food and agricultural sector has an enormous potential to tackle climate change. GRAIN estimates that a worldwide redistribution of lands to small farmers and indigenous communities, combined with policies to support local markets and cut the use of chemicals, could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by half within a few decades and significantly curb deforestation. Simply by rebuilding the organic matter that has been depleted by decades of industrial agriculture, small farmers could put a quarter of the excess carbon dioxide that is now in the atmosphere back into the soil. Both organisations warn against false solutions, such as carbon markets and REDD+ projects that would allow the “worst offenders to avoid cuts in emissions by turning the forests and farmlands of peasants and indigenous peoples into conservation parks and plantations.” In their view, the only effective solution is a shift from a globalised, industrial food system governed by corporations to local food systems in the hands of small farmers.

04.12.2014 |

World must cut down on meat to curb climate change, report says

Cattle - a contributor to climate change (Photo: Compassion in World Farming)

A radical shift in meat and dairy consumption patterns is essential to keep global temperature increases below two degrees Celsius but an “awareness gap” about emissions from livestock could hamper efforts to curb climate change, a new report warns. The livestock sector produces more greenhouse gas emissions than transport and is the largest source of two of the most potent greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide. However, people were more than twice as likely to identify transport as a major contributor to climate change, according to a 12-nation survey commissioned by international think-tank Chatham House. Governments and environmental groups are reluctant to pursue policies or campaigns to change consumer behaviour due to fears of a consumer backlash, the analysis suggests. “A lot is being done on deforestation and transport, but there is a huge gap on the livestock sector. There is a deep reluctance to engage because of the received wisdom that it is not the place of governments or civil society to intrude into people’s lives and tell them what to eat”, said Rob Bailey, the report’s lead author. Although the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that dietary change can “substantially lower” emissions, efforts to cut meat and dairy consumption are absent from international mitigation strategies. The Chatham report found that consumers with a higher level of awareness of climate change and its impacts were more willing to reduce their dietary behaviour. The greatest potential for behaviour change appears to lie in emerging economies, with respondents in Brazil, China and India showing a greater consideration of climate change when choosing meat and dairy, and a greater willingness to modify their behaviour than consumers in the United States, the UK and Japan. This is encouraging as these countries are among the most important for future demand for meat and dairy products. “The research does not show everyone has to be a vegetarian to limit warming to 2°C”, said Bailey. It shows, however, that closing the awareness gap is an important precondition for behaviour change and that addressing dietary trends has to be part of an international strategy to reduce emissions.

02.12.2014 |

Latin American fairtrade farmers call for climate action

Climate change will affect farmers in Central America (Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT)

A new round of UN climate talks opened in Lima on Monday, aimed at paving the way for a new international climate deal. Ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP20), fairtrade producer networks urged governments to provide more support to smallholder farmers in fighting the effects of climate change on their livelihoods. “Small farmers and rural workers are among the groups most affected by the devastating impacts of climate change; however, their voice is not being heard in the climate negotiations”, the Fairtrade Producer Network for Latin America and the Caribbean (CLAC) criticised on behalf of three networks representing more than 1.4 million farmers and rural workers. According to their statement, extreme weather events are affecting crops and livestock in Latin America, disrupting the delicate ecological balance needed to ensure food security of farm families, rural communities and urban consumers. The fairtrade networks stressed “the urgent need to increase resilience to climate change and access more funding opportunities for climate change adaptation”. They called on governments and international actors involved in the agricultural sector “to work together towards achieving food security and sovereignty for the regional and global population.” In the run-up to the COP20 conference, many civil society organisations in Latin America worried about the effects of global warming on farming and food security, urging their governments to put a focus on agriculture in the climate talks. Tania Guillén, who represents Nicaragua’s Humboldt Centre environmental group at the talks, told Inter Press Service “Central American organisations working for climate justice, food security and sustainable development are trying to share information and hammer out a common position.” Over the next 10 days, delegates from more than 190 countries will attempt to reach consensus on a new international climate agreement to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. The deal is set to be signed in Paris in December 2015 and would enter into force in 2020.

27.11.2014 |

New study highlights importance of urban agriculture

Cuban urban agriculture (Photo: Melody Breaker/flickr)

Urban agriculture is playing an increasingly important role in global food production, according to research from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). The study, which was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, suggests that the significance and size of urban agriculture is widely underestimated. Using satellite data, the scientists found that agricultural activities within 20 kilometres of urban areas occupy 456 million hectares of land - an area roughly the size of the European Union. Most of that land lies just outside the city but 67 million hectares is being farmed in open spaces in urban agglomerations. “This is the first study to document the global scale of food production in and around urban settings, and it is surprising to see how much the table is definitely getting closer and closer to the farm,” said co-author Pay Drechsel, a researcher at the IWMI. The scientists say their goal was to highlight the proximity of farming to cities in the quest for urban food security and sustainable development, given the focus on rural areas of most agricultural research and policy work. The team notes that urban agriculture, in addition to contributing to food security, puts marginal lands into production, helps with flood control, creates income opportunities for the poor and strengthens urban biodiversity. Citing Ghana as an example, Dr Drechsel said that in and around cities, everyday there are about 2,000 urban vegetable farmers supplying greens to 800,000 people. In addition, most of these farmers irrigate their fields with polluted water. „In Accra, up to 10% of household wastewater is indirectly recycled by urban vegetable farms. These farms are now ‘recycling’ more wastewater than local treatment plants”, he added. According to the authors, urban agriculture is viewed differently in the North and in the South: “Urban farming in wealthy countries is praised for reducing various footprints and enhancing a green economy, while in developing countries it is usually regarded as an inconvenient vestige of rural life that stands in the way of modernisation.”


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