Golden Rice…The Food of Politics


Golden Rice is rice that’s been genetically engineered to deliver enough beta carotene to improve the health of the malnourished poor who might eat it. (Deficiencies blind over 250,000 children a year.) It’s a humanitarian project — funded by the Rockefeller and Gates foundations, among others — that has been in development since the 1990s. Some people object to it; they see it as a Trojan Horse that the biotech industry is using to enter countries that might otherwise reject their technology.

The Grist Article

In my humble opinion, this article’s real value is in pointing out the difficulties when one ‘kind’ of people decide their going to solve vast problems for another ‘kind’ of people….the real fool’s gold is the hubris that underlies many technical solutions.

Antibiotic Use In Livestock…And The Food We Eat

Yesterday I attended the USDA NRCS Technical Team meeting for the State of Rhode Island. As part of the meeting, we reviewed many of the accountability measures that USDA has in place for farmers who utilize their conservation practices programs. In order to utilize conservation practice payments from USDA a farmer needs to document resource concerns and provide a substantial amount of data, testing, and documentation before they qualify (or as part of the practice planning and implementation process).

As I’m driving back to my office, I find myself listening to a NPR report on antibiotic use in industrial livestock operations. As I’m listening I hear the reporter say…

There’s a heated debate over the use of antibiotics in farm animals. Critics say farmers overuse these drugs; farmers say they don’t.

It’s hard to resolve the argument, in part because no one knows exactly how farmers use antibiotics. There’s no reliable data on how much antibiotic use is intended to make animals grow faster, for instance, compared to treating disease.

Given USDA requires all kinds of data and information from small farmers to aid their environmental improvement practices, it seems reasonable that USDA could find a way to follow the use of antibiotics in livestock. The problem is a mindset that some farmers – particularly older farmers – have about their ‘private land’ and its management….very much a ‘don’t tread on me’ philosophy. Given the evolution of CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) I think CAFO operators have now made their private land and its management a public health concern.

The NPR Report

Reviving An Heirloom Corn That Packs More Flavor And Nutrition

CornReview Android Smartphone

Barber says this corn is just one example of what can happen when crops are bred to be flavorful and colorful, not just big.

The chef says he hopes this story becomes more than just a foodie fascination with heirlooms because he thinks there’s more at stake here about the way our food is grown.

“What I’ve come to learn from this experience is that if you are pursuing great flavor,” he says, “you are pursuing great nutrition. It’s one and the same.”

And what he’d like to see is for farmers and plant breeders to work together to combine the best of the old with modern breeding techniques that may help pack more nutrition into the foods we all eat.

The NPR Report

Small Farmers and Environmental Benefits

Many of today’s young farmers (and a good number of older, thoughtful small operators) are committed to farming in a manner that creates minimal environmental harm (I think any human land use, by definition, creates environmental and ecological change to the landscape)…and produces substantial environmental benefits.

Unfortunately, most communities do not provide financial support for these new, small farm environmental benefits. Already in a financially stressed situation, small farmers could realize real improvements in their economy if communities began to 1) value the environmental benefits provided by sustainable small farms, and 2) pay small farmers for the community assets they are creating year after year.

USDA, through its NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service), provides incentive payments to farmers. The payments, however, are to address resource concerns…correct an environmental harm or environmental problem (the farmer allows his livestock to pasture in a stream area…NRCS pays for fencing and stream restoration).

With two partner organizations (New Urban Farmers in Pawtucket, RI and the African Alliance Growers Collaborative in Providence, RI) we’ve been working to 1) determine the agro-ecological areas where small farmers are creating environmental benefits, 2) analyze if any of the eco-benefits fit into the structure of USDA NRCS conservation practices and practice payments, 3) if appropriate, expand the payments USDA NRCS is making to small farmers to better align their incentives with the work of small, organic, and urban growers, and 4) examine how other community based agricultural organizations (primarily state conservation districts) might create funds to ‘invest’ in small farm environmental asset building.

From our research, there are six areas where small farmers are creating substantial environmental benefits:

1) Improving the physical, chemical, and biological conditions of soil through compost, mulch, manure, and remineralization practices.

2) Managing nutrients to protect from runoff, improve air quality, and improve production characteristics.

3) Managing weeds and pests with natural methods that improve plant communities/wildlife habitat, enhance the quality of forage, and control pests.

4) Managing water for water control, irrigation, runoff, and water harvesting.

5) Managing farm infrastructure for conservation improvements – tree and shrub establishment, vegetative barriers, etc.

6) Managing farm energy uses to reduce energy use, and improve energy efficiency.

Small farmers are utilizing both novel methods (those developed in the last 30 to 50 years through biodynamic -realizing its’ non-scientific aspects – and permaculture practices utilizing new ecological science) – as well as revisiting old, natural farming processes – to realize their sustainability goals.

These benefits not only increase their farm productivity, they also improve environmental qualities in their communities. They are becoming an increasingly responsible ‘underground’ community of economic asset builders related to those environmental improvements.

Young Farmers Break The Bank…Continued…3% Of Your Wealth

In the last post, I recommended rethinking how your savings, investments, pensions, etc. are being utilized. Most conventional investment mechanisms used by Wall Street do little to diversify wealth and expand social equity (many would say today’s financial markets do quite the opposite – they are, in essence, wealth concentrators). Invest 3% of your wealth in local farmers and food enterprises….and advocate that your community’s institutions, foundations, etc. do the same!

Rhode Island has two major foundations, The Rhode Island Foundation and The Champlin Foundations. Both foundations had above $500 million in assets. I am not familiar with the investment management of The Champlin Foundations.

The Rhode Island Foundation contracts their investment management to a private consulting firm who in turn contracts with other investment advisory firms to manage particular industry/area portfolios. There is no overriding social responsibility criteria to their consultant (I’m certain, I requested it and their only social responsibility actions are to contract with a consultant who advises them how to vote on proxy issues). There is no overriding agro-ecological responsibility criteria.

I have requested a list of their investments and did not receive a reply (although I did receive a long email from their CEO defending their investment behavior).

May I suggest you write to the major private and public foundations and retirement funds in your community/state and ask them 1) if they have social responsibility criteria for their investments, 2) if they have agro-ecological responsibility criteria for their investments, and 3) if they have a list of their investments on a given recent date that they might provide to you.

Please ask them to consider investing 3% of their wealth in sustainable, socially responsible, local farm and food ventures.

Young Farmers Break The Bank…Continued

At the same time that – across the country – restaurants and thoughtful households are demanding local, nutritious, sustainably-grown food, the economy and financial infrastructure for small farmers is feeble and immature. That is especially true for new and socially disadvantaged farmers.

Changing the small farm financial infrastructure is critical to expanding local food production, improving household nutrition, and reducing healthcare costs. USDA through the Farm Service Administration has rethought the FSA loan program to provide more opportunities for small and new farmers. USDA Rural Development has become much more sensitive and helpful to the needs of socially disadvantaged small farmers.

What else can we do?…a few thoughts and suggestions:

1) Small farmers need routes to ownership for their land (we’re doing a tiny bit here with a RI farmland fund). Communities across the nation need to rediscover their small bank infrastructure and use it to build local farm assets.

2) We should pay small farmers for the environmental goods they produce. I’m not talking about correcting resource problems…I’m advocating for local systems for incentive payments to small farmers that build ecosystem assets for themselves and their neighbors.

3) Communities need to begin rebuilding the small farm services infrastructure that existed until perhaps fifty years ago. It’s not a romantic notion to rebuild small farm economies in every community in America…it’s good economic sense!

4) Eat thoughtfully (I’m borrowing from Wendell Berry on this one). We can be the best advocate for the local farm community by buying food and farm products in a thoughtful manner.

5) Establish the educational infrastructure necessary to use the talents of refugee socially disadvantaged populations – who many times have significant farming skills. Language and business/financial education is critical to the success of these new citizens.

6) Rethink how your savings, investments, pensions, etc. are being utilized. Most conventional investment mechanisms used by Wall Street do little to diversify wealth and expand social equity (many would say today’s financial markets do quite the opposite – they are, in essence, wealth concentrators). Invest 3% of your wealth in local farmers and food enterprises….and advocate that your community’s institutions, foundations, etc. do the same!

7) Resist working in thoughtless environments. If your work is not meaningful and honest, find a local farmer or food provider and hook up!

8) Demand honest, sincere, timely decisions from your government representatives. If they are not honest, sincere, and timely, elect someone else. Our current American governmental institutions resist meaningful, important changes that will make us all healthier and happier…we need to work with our neighbors to demand new social policies and institutions that better ensure opportunity for all!

Young Farmers Break The Bank Before They Get To The Field

As the average age of the American farmer has crept up to 60, fewer young people are filling in the ranks behind them. That’s prompted some to ask if young people even want to farm anymore.

The quick answer is yes, just not in the same numbers as they used to. And surveys indicate many of them don’t want to farm in conventional ways.

A 2011 from the National Young Farmers Coalition showed access to land and capital to be the single biggest factors keeping young people from getting into farming or ranching. The survey also indicated young people are concerned about the environment — they’re “generation organic” — and interested in small-scale operations.

But it can be difficult to turn dreams of a farm life into reality.

The NPR Article

Another Article on the Effect of ‘No Strings’ Cash to the Poor

Not only do people often know best what they themselves need, but there are huge emotional and health benefits that result from people feeling some degree of control over their lives — agency. The very poor deserve that as much as those of us better off do. I love this initiative — similar to microcredit but more radical.

Now if only we could roll back the enforced helplessness that people in the US often feel in relation to health insurance companies, telephone and internet monopolies, big corporations that don’t respond to individuals and even have machines answer their telephone hotlines, and the paternalism of US nanny-state laws, and we might also do better economically and feel more in control of our own lives.

The Article