Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Who Benefits from Biotechnology?

In the future, who will own the seeds of our major vegetable and field crops? How can this seed can be made accessible to all in agriculture? Who will benefit from advances in biotechnology? What checks and balances operate in the system to assure that benefits are appropriately distributed?

These are questions raised frequently in meetings on organic and sustainable agriculture. The concentration of ownership of seed varieties into the hands of a few large corporations, and the introduction of technologies such as the "terminator gene," further enlarge the debate about who will gain from science and new technologies in agriculture.

Over the past two decades, several major changes have transformed the seed business and influenced the accessibility of a wide range of seed varieties to farmers. One of these changes is plant patenting, a trend that began in Europe as a response to companies that wanted to assure a fair return to their investment in research and technology development. This change has strongly affected the seed industry in the US, where the first patent on a life form was granted in 1980 (Ann Clark, in Acres USA, July 1999).

Plant patenting has reduced the exchange of basic germplasm between breeders in the public sector and those in private corporations, and even among the breeders in public programs who can now benefit from varieties that are patented by their universities.

One notable exception has been the decision by the international agricultural research centers that hold much of the reserve of genetic collections. They agreed through the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1994 to not seek intellectual property rights to any of these collections, thus assuring their availability to plant breeders worldwide at no cost. According to Dr. Clark, this agreement has been violated by some private breeders who acquired seed from the centers, then sought their own patents.

Genetic fingerprinting technology makes it possible to detect the specific identity of patented lines and provide methods of enforcing the patents. Farmers now sign technology agreements with a company, stating that they will not save seed nor sell any from their own harvest to neighbors for planting in the next season. There have been numerous reports in the papers about abuses of these agreements and the companies’ quests to enforce their contracts with growers.

There is no debate about the issue of concentration of ownership. What has emerged is more competitive and secretive behavior by plant breeders. We have to ask if this will ultimately benefit farmers.

What about the issue of responsibility? The corporation has, by definition, a responsibility to serve its stockholders. Most local companies find that their owners are best served by attracting local customers and meeting their needs so that the same people return. There is familiarity on a personal and family level, responsibility to individuals and the community, and a level of personal trust that keeps the system stable.

As business ownership becomes more distant from the local community, it is less likely that any of these factors will play a role in the decisions made by a company. In the extreme case of multinational corporations, the decisions and responsibility are far removed from the clients, and there is little or no personal dimension to the business. It is easy to paraphrase President Harry Truman and say that, in the international corporate world, "the buck never stops."

Who benefits from advances in biotechnology? There is no question that corporations and their stockholders have the most to gain. In fact, there is a push right now to just recover the extremely high development costs of varieties resulting from use of genetic engineering technologies.

Have yields increased with the advent of biotechnology? The most frequent reports describe the benefits of reduced costs in weed control, and these have only occurred for some farmers in some years. There is little evidence to support changes in crop yields; in fact, there is much discussion about the ‘yield drag’ associated with transgenic manipulation. Plant breeders can make only so much progress in yield, and the more traits or genes that must be selected for at the same time, the slower this progress will be.

Yield drag is the difference between the latest varieties developed by conventional means and those developed by genetic engineering. According to Dr. Clark’s article, one study from 1995 to 1998 showed that Roundup Ready soybeans produced 10% less than the normal varieties, and a more recent study showed a 4% to 5% lower average yield in the Roundup Ready soybeans compared to normal varieties.

Given the current prices for conventional corn and soybeans, it is likely that thoughtful farmers will give greater attention to growing specialty varieties or other crops rather than try to increase yields of standard commodities.

In summary, we can look at the economics of agriculture as well as the current beneficiaries of biotechnology and see whether this kind of technology will benefit farmers in the future. Aside from the arguments about gene escape, food safety, and whether European consumers will accept US grain crops, it is important to study the question of ownership. Who owns genes, who owns crops, and how will these ownership issues affect our future global food supply?

We need to look at both the economic and social impacts of a global agriculture, and to see who really benefits from globalization. At this point, globalization appears to benefit only the few developed countries that have the resources and the infrastructure to participate. WorldWatch magazine (Sept-Oct. 1999) reports that the richest fifth of the world’s population enjoys 82% of the expanding export trade, while the poorest fifth has about 1%. The report says that a global, professional elite enjoys a world of open borders and abundant goods, but billions of others find borders as impassable as ever. These are extensions of prior inequities that have greatly expanded during the recent move to globalization.

Even in our developed country, we can question if the beneficiaries of ownership, concentration. and biotechnology include the farmers who produce low-value commodities with ever-increasing costs of production inputs, especially those such as seed that now include a ‘technology charge.’ Although the trends are toward greater concentration and less local autonomy, we should remember the words of Nobel laureate Rene du Bos: "Trend is not destiny." The future will be shaped by the choices we make today.

by Chuck Francis, from the Fall of 1999 NSAS newsletter. Charles Francis is a Professor of Agronomy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society: Home Features

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wildlife and Farmers Can Exist Together

What is the big deal with wildlife and farmland? It has to do with what we want for our farms, communities and environment. Some species are disappearing, and agriculture is blamed as the culprit. That's not really a new situation, as agriculture has always taken a natural environment and changed it to one managed by people. Some species flourish in the human-influenced habitat, while others don't.

That's the first lesson: everything is habitat. Habitat is where critters live. It provides all the needs of a species: food, shelter, space, and water. All creatures need certain ranges of light, heat, water, and protective cover to sustain themselves. The ranges tolerated by blue jays, for example, are different than those tolerated by Canada geese. Which do we want? Both are wildlife. Both are desirable. But we can't have maximum numbers of each in the same space.

That's lesson two: diversity of wildlife requires diverse habitats. Agriculture has reduced the diversity of habitats by creating monocultures - large areas with only one plant species, such as cornfields. In a monoculture there is only one plant for insects, birds, or animals to eat. There is only one height of vegetation to sit on or hide in. The soil's surface has a uniform moistness, temperature range, and cover. Only wildlife species that can tolerate those particular conditions will live there. Some may do very well, such as corn borers, while others may only visit, such as whitetail deer. The biological diversity (number of animal or plant species) of a typical monoculture field is very low.

Dennis Avery, author of Saving the World with Pesticides and Plastic, claims that agriculture "destroys" land for wildlife. He believes that we must maximize agricultural production on some land and save other land exclusively for wildlife. But farms don't have to provide only one set of living conditions. Proponents of sustainable agriculture think that both wildlife and farmers can use the same land.

Ann Robinson, in the 1991 Walton League publication "Sustainable Agriculture: A Brighter Outlook for Fish and Wildlife," reports that sustainable farmers often farm smaller fields and use more crops in their rotations than conventional farmers. They recognize the benefits of birds, insects, and even plants sometimes called weeds. Livestock, which add to diversity, are often included in sustainable farming systems. Their manure feeds birds and insects. Livestock necessitate the production or delivery of foods that wouldn't otherwise be part of the farm. Sustainable farmers often express considerable concern about soil erosion, and sustainable farming practices that reduce erosion are good for fish.

So if it's good to stop erosion, then no-till farming must be great, right? That depends on the chemicals needed to farm without mechanically killing weeds. "Paraquat, a herbicide frequently used in no-till farming, is very toxic to some birds and mammals" says Robinson. "Several herbicides have been shown to harm fish. The synergistic effects that may happen when several chemicals are combined can make these products more harmful."

Those synergistic (increased and/or changed) effects include what some scientists call "endocrine disruption." Trace amounts of pesticides or their residues apparently act like animal hormones and disrupt normal body functions like growth and reproduction. Such side effects of pesticide use could wreak havoc on the health of wild animals, domestic livestock, and people.

So, what do we want? Holistic Resource Management practitioners use a planning process that starts with describing their goal: quality of life, production to support it, and the environment to allow that production. If we want wildlife, we need only to plan for it and to put that plan into action.

Many HRM farmers and ranchers have explicit plans to include wildlife on their land. They can point to the economic gains they expect from working with natural processes, instead of against them. Their plans can include simple ideas like scheduling grazing or haying dates to avoid critical nesting sites. A more complex plan might include grazing to influence shrub density and grass regrowth on deer winter range.

University of Missouri agricultural economist John Ikerd agrees with the HRM approach for including wildlife on farms. He believes that, "Success...is measured against the goal of sustainable human progress — balanced economic, ecologic, and social progress." Each farm family can choose its own balance point, and can create a farm plan to reach that point. The resulting mix of farm profits, a healthy farm environment, and a supportive community can easily include farm wildlife.
Wyatt Fraas, Center for Rural Affairs

Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society: Home Features

Friday, July 9, 2010

Seeds Shape Our Future

Seeds are the basis of agriculture. We take for granted that we will always be able to buy varieties that suit our needs. There are forces at work in the seed industry, however, that will severely limit our choices of what seeds we can buy and who we can buy them from.

Today, the seed industry is being concentrated in the hands of a few multinational corporations, and these corporations have little or no interest in sustainable agriculture. Indeed, their interests lie in the opposite direction.

In its September 29, 1998 issue, the Wall Street Journal pointed out that "most seed companies have either aligned themselves with or been acquired by crop-biotechnology juggernauts like Monsanto Co., DuPont Co., and Dow Chemical Co." These corporations are in the chemical business and see the seed industry as a way to insure a growing market for their herbicides.

By using biotechnology to incorporate herbicide resistant genes into plants that have already been bred to respond to high inputs of fertilizers, these multinational corporations are creating plant varieties that depend on an expensive chemical regimen to survive. This dependence will insure huge profits for the corporations and greater input costs for farmers.

This is not the only adverse effect of bioengineering of seeds. By patenting the genes they insert into the seeds, the corporations maintain legal control of the right to propagate those seeds in future generations. In other words, you will not be able to save seeds from these crops for your own use or to sell to neighbors without paying royalties. In fact, in the future a few corporations may control what we plant, what we eat, and what we wear. Profit rather than food security will be the main consideration of these corporations.

Farmers across the country refuse to passively let the corporate giants gain this control over our food system. The Farmer Cooperative Genome Project was organized to unite farmers and gardeners in an effort to ensure that people will have access to seeds that meet their needs.

The Farmer Cooperative Genome Project met in Salem, Oregon in March to explore ways in which as many people as possible can join together to assure an open access to seeds and basic genetic material for the common good. The meeting was organized by JJ Haapala, Farmer Cooperative Genome Project Administrator and Director of Research and Education at Oregon Tilth. He brought together plant breeders, farmers, people from small independent seed companies and others interested in seed production and distribution.

The conclusion of the two day meeting was that we can insure open access to seeds if we work together. Farmers will have to learn to grow more of their own seeds and make them available to others through cooperative seed exchanges or independent seed companies. Plant breeders will have to work directly with farmers to produce varieties that meet local needs. Government agencies, such as the National Germplasm Repository, are willing to work directly with anyone seriously interested in evaluating germplasm from around the world. Anyone who has an interest in the quality of the food we will eat in the future can and must support this effort.

Dr. Richard Hannan, who directs the Regional Plant Introduction Station of the National Plant Germplasm System in Washington, spoke at the meeting. He pointed out the need for farmers and gardeners to grow out seeds that are stored in the National Plant Germplasm Repository, but have not been grown out and characterized. These seeds have been collected from around the world and are part of the national collection but, due to lack of funds and people, they have never been grown out under local conditions to see how they will perform.

If serious gardeners and farmers are willing to grow out samples of these seeds, they can describe how they grow under local environmental conditions. Their reports can become a part of the database of information that plant breeders, including gardeners and farmers, can access when they are seeking new genetic resources for their breeding efforts.

Our generation will decide the nature of the food mankind will eat in the future. If enough of us choose to accept our responsibility to breed our own seed, our food will come from a great diversity of visions of what food should be. If we choose to abdicate that responsibility, our food will reflect Monsanto’s vision of food for profit instead of food for people.

The decisions we make about the seeds we plant on our farms and in our gardens will shape the future. Which genetic legacy do you want to leave to your children?

The plants we enjoy today represent the choices made by individual gardeners and farmers for thousands of years. They chose certain genetic material because they thought it was beautiful, because they thought it tasted good, and because they thought it yielded more and better food, fiber, and flowers.

This genetic heritage is valuable and should be conserved, but it is more important to conserve the idea that it represents - the idea that each of us can influence the future by shaping the plants that will sustain us and our children. We need to save people who save seeds more than we need to save germplasm.

A plant germinates from a seed, grows to flower and produces seeds for the next generation. We are born, grow up, and produce children for the next generation. Unlike plants, we have the ability to influence the environment in which our children will live.

We can pass on not only our own genetic heritage, but the genetic material in plants that represents our vision of what is beautiful, bountiful and beneficial. If we choose to save seed, future generations may live in a better world.

Tom Tomas and Cris Carusi
Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society: Home Features

Friday, July 2, 2010

Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society receives grant to do Farm -to-School Project!

USDA Rural Development Awards Funds for Business Development and Entrepreneurship

Lincoln, Neb., June 29, 2010--The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development has awarded $272,000 to five non-profits in Nebraska that will support business development and entrepreneurship in Nebraska.

Recipients are:

Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway of Mullen will use $99,900 to contract with a qualified individual (s) to assist them to promote existing Byway businesses, raise awareness of new business creation opportunities and attract travelers to a rural and relatively underserved region of Nebraska. Funds will be used for marketing, promotion and technical assistance. At a minimum this project will create/save 10 jobs. Assistance will impact the eight counties of Blaine, Custer, Garden, Grant, Hooker, Sheridan, Sherman and Thomas.

Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, Inc (NSAS) of Hartington will utilize $99,000 to provide technical assistance and training for local food businesses and producers in six counties through participation in the Farm to School Pilot Program to sell locally grown food to area schools. The project will create/save 13 jobs. NSAS will partner with the University of Nebraska Department of Nutrition and Health Services, the University of Nebraska Rural Initiative and the Nebraska Local Food Network.

Ansley Economic Development Inc. of Ansley received $60,100 to make renovations to an existing building owned by Ansley Economic Development Inc., in order to create a business incubator with space for five small rural business enterprises in Ansley. It is estimated that three jobs will be saved or created as a result of this project in a community of 520 in population.

Creighton Community Schools in Creighton is the recipient of $8,000 and Crawford Public Schools in Crawford received $5,000 to each install a wind turbine used for educational purposes. Both schools partner with the National Renewable Energy Lab’s Wind for Schools program. The program objectives include engaging rural America in the concept that wind offers an alternative energy and economic future for rural America, engaging rural teachers and rural students in energy education, and equipping high school Juniors and Seniors with knowledge of the wind energy field to provide the growing U.S. wind industry with interested and equipped engineers. This project will create and/or save at least one job in rural Creighton, a community of 1,270 in population. In Crawford the project will create and/or save at least two jobs in this rural community of 1,107 in population. Future employment opportunities within the renewable energy field will also be fostered as a result of this educational funding.

For more information on USDA Rural Development Rural Business Enterprise Grants, contact Deborah Drbal at (402) 437-5558 or Deborah.drbal@ne.usda.gov.

For more information about the NSAS Farm-To-School project email William at healthyfarms@gmail.com

Monday, June 21, 2010

Capturing the Most Basic Nutrient: Sunlight

Most discussions of nutrients for crop or grazing lands begin and end with the mineral elements, like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Livestock discussions also include vitamins and amino acids. Water is another critical nutrient for growth, reproduction and maintenance. But sunlight is the most basic nutrient of all. Plants depend on sunlight to photosynthesize their food. Livestock depend on plants, or animals that eat plants, for nourishment.

At the most basic level, farmers and ranchers turn sunlight energy into products to use or sell. Plants convert sunlight into food and fiber for animals and people. Farmers can sell or eat the plants, or they can harvest them to feed livestock. Allan Savory of the Center for Holistic Resource Management describes this process in the above graphic.

Unfortunately, solar energy is lost at each of these steps. About 6% of the energy that hits a plant can be turned into more plant material. Only about 10% of the plant's energy is available as food for plant-eaters. The rest is lost to decay, or is used by the plant. Only about 10% of the energy in those plant eaters is available to predators. The rest is lost as heat, or through body maintenance and decay. Only about 10% of the energy in the predators is available to humans and other critters who feed on meat-eating animals like fish, poultry, and bears. This energy forfeited at each conversion is truly lost - neither we nor other living organisms can make use of it. Fortunately, this energy flow is constantly replenished by sunlight.

How do we improve our collection of solar energy? Farmers and ranchers control the time when plants convert sunlight to plant material. A mix of 'warm' and 'cool' season grasses in a pasture, for example, will convert sunlight throughout the growing season. Young leaves are slightly more efficient at photosynthesis than older leaves.

Producers decide how much land area is covered by sunlight-trapping plants. Crop planting density directly affects the number of plants in a field that are converting sunlight energy into useful forms. Cover crops make use of otherwise bare ground between rows, during fallow periods, or before and after crop growing seasons.

Farmers and ranchers also control the volume of plant leaves that trap sunlight. Leaf area varies with the type of plant, as well as the planting density. Tall plants with broad leaves will intercept more sunlight than short plants with narrow leaves.

Tallgrass prairie provides a natural example of how time, area and volume interact to capture a maximum of sunlight energy. A wide variety of plants, including grasses, legumes, forbs and trees, grow from the spring thaw through the hot dry summer, until the fall freeze. Some of these plants remain green throughout the winter.

On the native prairie, patches of soil are sometimes bare of green leaves. Annual plants use these spaces between perennial plants in the spring and fall, while a canopy of taller plants' leaves covers those spots in the summer. Not too long ago, bison and other grazers periodically fed on and then avoided parts of the prairie. Modern management-intensive graziers mimic this pattern to maintain nutritious, fast-growing pastures.

Technology can enhance the land's ability to capture sunlight. Fertilization can make plants healthier, bigger, or more numerous. Pest controls can keep plants healthy, and irrigation can extend the growing season into dry periods.

But technology costs money, which can only be recovered through increased plant production. When wealth is generated from on-farm resources, it can be measured in "solar dollars." Plant production supported by outside resources, such as petroleum energy, is subsidized by non-renewable "mineral dollars." Mineral dollars have brought many material gains, but our dependence on mineral resources has resulted in air and water pollution, wildlife losses, and social inequities, among other problems.

Allan Savory proposes that generating wealth from sunlight is the smartest choice we can make: "...we can generate income from human creativity, labor, and constant sources of energy such as geothermal heat, wind, tides, falling water, and most of all the sun....

"A characteristic of wealth derived from this combination is that it tends to not damage our life support system or to endanger mankind.... A further characteristic is that it is the only form of wealth that can actually feed people." Quotes from Holistic Resource Management, Allan Savory, 1988, Island Press

Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society: Home Features

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Balancing Animal Rations for Nutrient Management

For once, it might be possible to please everyone. Good animal production and environmental protection can both be achieved with ration balancing for nutrient management.

When an animal of any species takes in nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P), only a portion of the nutrients is used within the animal's body for growth and maintenance. Some N and P go into milk, wool, or other products.

Much N and P ends up in manure. Sometimes crop fields can become overloaded with N and P when large amounts of manure are applied to land.

Fortunately, you can control the amount of N and P that animals excrete by balancing their rations. And in many cases, rations that precisely meet animal requirements for production will also minimize N and P excretion. In other words, it is not necessary to trade production for the sake of reducing N and P in the environment!

There are two major strategies for reducing N and P excretion: To help animals use N and P in feed more efficiently, and to reduce the amount of N and P fed.

The first step in these strategies is to set reasonable production goals. If animals are fed for higher production levels than they can reach, extra nutrients will simply be excreted. This is expensive as well as environmentally hazardous. Grouping animals according to their production levels will allow more precise matching of rations to production potential.

The next step is to know the animals and to know the feeds. Nutritionists at the university or feed dealers will be able to supply much more in-depth information about feeds and animals than this article can.

Phosphorus. Animals are able to extract only part of the P from the feeds and supplements they eat. The amount they extract is "biologically available." Of course, the amount they do not extract is "unavailable" - and will be excreted without being used.

Providing feedstuffs which are high in available P helps animals make more efficient use of P in the feeds. So, less total P can be fed than if animals are given feedstuffs low in available P.

Test feedstuffs, including forages, for their nutrient content and find out which feed sources will provide readily-available nutrients to your animals. You may be able to cut back on some supplements - which will reduce nutrient excretion and also expense.

Nitrogen. Avoid excessive protein feeding; it is expensive and causes high N excretion. Setting reasonable production goals and knowing animal protein requirements at different production levels is critical in feeding appropriate protein levels.

Know animal requirements for different amino acids. Feeding high-quality protein supplements which are well-balanced in amino acids will lower the total amount of protein required in a diet, particularly for swine. The use of poorly-balanced protein supplements can cause overfeeding of several amino acids in an attempt to meet animal requirements for one or two amino acids.

For ruminants, particularly dairy cows, consider protein "fractions" in feeds - some feeds contain protein which bacteria break down in the rumen. Cows also need protein which bacteria cannot degrade. If cows do not have sufficient non-degradable protein, they need more total protein.

To reduce total crude protein in the diet and improve milk production, supplement highly degradable protein sources with ones that are not so degradable.

Ration balancing for nutrient management requires a great deal of thought. But keeping high production and profits while maintaining a clean environment is well worth the trouble!

Cromwell, G.L. 1995. Nutrient Management from Feed to Field. Presented at the World Pork Expo, Des Moines, Iowa, June 9-10, 1995.

Grant, R.J. 1996. Feeding Dairy Cows to Reduce N, P, and K Excretion into the Environment. Presented at Area Dairy Days, Nebraska, March 4-8, 1996.
by Victoria Mundy, Extension Educator
Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society:

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Virgin Prairie: A Disappearing But Important Resource

Virgin prairie was plentiful in the US until the mid-1930s. At that time it was plowed up to plant wheat, as many farmers thought that the prairie had died in the extended drought. In fact the prairie was dormant and waiting for the next rain.

Today many grain producing states contain less than 5% grassland. Only about 1% of that is Virgin native. Much of Nebraska’s Virgin native prairie is located in Pawnee, Johnson, and Gage counties. These are currently the areas of some of the best grassfed beef production in the world. Virgin Native prairie is important as an eco system as well as a basis for production of high quality, nutrient dense beef. It, in effect, is the eco system chosen by nature as the optimal long term balance.

As an eco system, prairie supports several species of unique and rare birds, snakes, and plants. The masasaga rattle snake is almost exclusively found in Pawnee County, Nebraska. The pre-historic looking prairie chicken is also a good example of important species supported by prairie. Bison, whitetail deer, cougars, bob cats, and prairie dogs are found in a variety of tallgrass and shortgrass prairie.

Most important of all is the grass itself. More than 150 species of plants can be found on a healthy virgin native prairie. These each have unique blends of micro- nutrients brought up from the soil and made available to animals and people by the wide range of root depths and soil layers. The grasses and forbs hold the soil from rain and build the soil for further generations.

Contribution by Chris Rohrbaugh

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Eat Well Guided Tour of America visits Nebraska!

The Eat Well Guided Tour of America is crossing America to celebrate local, sustainable food and the folks who produce, distribute, promote, and eat it!

Agriculture in Nebraska
Facts on Farming and Agriculture:
• Nebraska has 48,000 farms and ranches on 45.7 million acres of land– about 93% of the state's total land area – the average (mean) operation size is 952 acres.
• Almost twelve million of Nebraska’s farmed acres grow corn or soybeans.ii
• Of Nebraska’s whole workforce, 20.3% depends in some way on agriculture, with 5.4% directly involved in farm production and 9.6% in wholesale and retail trade.
• Nebraska produces a lot of grains and oilseeds (fourth in the nation), cattle (third in the nation), and hogs (sixth in the nation). However, the state ranks near the bottom in fruit and vegetable production: forty-fifth in “vegetables, melons, potatoes, and sweet potatoes,” and forty-first in “fruit, tree nuts, and berries.”
• Nebraska has only 69 farmers’ marketsv, despite being ranked fourth in the nation in terms of the total value of agricultural products sold.
• Nebraska’s five leading commodities are cattle and calves, corn, soybeans, hogs, and wheat. These account for 93.6% of all farm receipts. Cattle alone account for over half.
• There are almost four cows (total: 6,650,000)viii for every person in Nebraska (total: 1,768,331).

Factory Farms:
• The trend toward consolidated, industrial farming has affected most of the country, but Nebraska has more factory farms than most other states. It ranks top ten (or bottom ten, depending on your point of view) for concentrated cattle, hogs, and egg-laying hens.x
• In 2006, only 8% of pigs in Nebraska lived on farms with fewer than 500 others, while a staggering 71% lived in cramped quarters alongside over 2,000 of their fellow swine. Over half lived in operations that held more than 5,000 animals.xi
• In 1995, by contrast, 29% lived on farms with fewer than 500 pigs, and 31% lived alongside more than 2,000. Only 17% lived on operations with over 5,000 in stock.
• In 2002, Nebraska was home to 644 feedlots with 500 or more cattlexiii: more than any other state in the country.
• Three Nebraska counties harbor more cows than any others in the country: Cherry County, with nearly 162,000 cows, Holt County, with 99,000 cows, and Custer County, with 92,000 cows. The human populations of these counties are: 5,934,xvi 10,610,xvii and 11,242, respectively. In light of how much manure cows produce, it’s hardly surprising that people have been moving out in droves. Over the past six years, the population of Cherry County has declined by 3.5%, Holt by 8.1%, and Custer by 4.7%. Over the same period of time, the overall state population increased by 3.3%.
• The growth of these factory farms has been driven in part by the availability of cheap feed. Corn across the country has been made artificially inexpensive by lavish government subsidies, although the growing demand for ethanol recently sent prices upward.
• Nebraska agriculture received more in government handouts than all states but Texas, Iowa, and Illinois. 59% of these subsidies went to just 10% of recipients.

Issues Facing Nebraska’s Farms:
• Farmers and ranchers face a host of challenges including high property taxes, low prices for the goods they produce, the growing cost of inputs like fertilizer, fuel, and pest control, and the increasing concentration of suppliers and commodity buyers.
• In December, 2006, an appeals court upheld a previous ruling that the 24 year old Initiative 300 is unconstitutional. The purpose of the Initiative was to preserve Nebraska’s family farms. It remains to be seen whether the Legislature will draft an acceptable replacement. “Protecting Initiative 300.” Center for Rural Affairs. http://www.cfra.org/I300.htm
• Amidst the gloom and doom, the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, among others, is busy promoting food systems that build healthy land and healthy people.
Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society. http://www.HealthyFarms.org/

Sustainable Table (www.sustainabletable.org), the New York-based nonprofit program that produced The Meatrix (www.themeatrix.com) series and the Eat Well Guide (www.eatwellguide.org)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Healthy Foods, Healthy Farms, Healthy People with John Ikerd

"This is the second in a series of quest entries of the NSAS blog featuring speakers and presenters for the Healthy Farms Conference of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society"

Americas are the most obese people in the world. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, adult obesity has increased by 60% within the past twenty years. Trends for childhood obesity are even worse, having doubled for children and tripled for adolescents during the same time. One-third of American adults are now considered severely overweight or obese. Obesity is closely linked with other health problems, particularly diabetes and heart disease, and ranks second only to tobacco smoking as a cause of adult death. Americans are the most overfed yet undernourished people in the world.

The epidemic of obesity is obviously related to the American diet. It might be easy to blame these maladies on the sedentary but high-stress American lifestyle, which probably is a significant casual factor. But an even more important cause might be the lack of essential nutrients in many of today’s foods. A growing number of scientific studies are finding significant declines in the nutritional value of our foods. And dramatic drops in nutrient density have occurred during a period when American farms were under pressure to specialize, mechanize, get bigger – to produce more food cheaper.

Meanwhile the evidence continues to grow that cheap food is abundant in calories but deficient in nutrients. For example, problems of obesity and diabetes are more common among people with lower incomes who logically tend to seek foods providing the cheapest source of energy – meaning the most calories for the fewest dollars. Because of time constraints, many such people also rely heavily on highly processed and ready-to-eat foods, including “fast foods.” On such diets, people can easily end up eating far more calories than they need without getting enough nutrition to meet the minimum requirements of a healthy diet.

One prominent academic study compared nutrient levels in 43 garden crops in 1999 with levels documented in benchmark nutrient studies conducted by USDA in 1950. The scientists found declines in median concentrations of six important nutrients: protein –6%, calcium –16%, phosphorus –9%, iron –15%, riboflavin –38%, and vitamin C –2%. While these essential nutrients may be lacking in most foods today, they may be found in abundance in foods grown naturally and organically on healthy, productive soils. A 1993 study comparing conventional foods with organic foods, found that organically grown apples, potatoes, pears, wheat, and sweet corn, purchased over a two-year period, averaged 63% higher in calcium, 73% higher in iron, 118% higher in magnesium, 91% higher in phosphorus, 125% higher in potassium, and 60% higher in zinc than conventional foods purchased at the same times.

Other studies establish clear links between declining nutrient density and the industrialization of American agriculture. One such study found that yield-enhancing technologies – fertilizers, pesticides, plant density, and irrigation – reduce the nutrient content of field crops by amounts generally consistent with declines in nutrient density over the past 50-years and nutrient differences between conventional and organic crops. These results should come as no surprise to anyone who understands that industrial agriculture profits primarily from quantity factors: acres farmed, head produced, yields per acre, rates of gain, and the cost efficiency of large-scale production. Quality factors affecting prices typically are incidental to profits and often related to cosmetic appearance rather than nutrition. The profits are in producing quantity, not quality.

The food processing and distribution industry also must share the blame. The corporations that market our foods are concerned about profits – not diet or health. In fact, the managers of the multinational corporations that currently control the American food system have a legal fiduciary responsibility to maximize returns to their stockholders. They have no social or ethical commitment to protecting public health and instead do only those things required by law. Current laws are clearly inadequate to protect the public from diet related illnesses, as is evident in current trends in the diets and health of Americans.

Food industry marketers know that humans have a natural taste preference, probably a genetic predisposition, for foods that are high in fat and sugar. Preferences essential for the survival and health of our primitive ancestors may threaten our health today. Regardless, it’s easier to market foods that are higher in calories, particularly when those foods are cheaper to produce. The primary sources of those cheap calories are plants and animals from farms using modern yield-enhancing technologies and thus lacking in nutrient density and encouraging over consumption while enhancing food industry profits. Some logical health consequences of such diets are obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

The food security of our nation depends on keeping farmland in the trusted care of family farmers who are committed to maintaining the fertility and productivity of the land while producing safe and nutritious foods for all. Rather than subsidizing the industrialization of agriculture and promoting cheap food, public policies should be refocused on sustaining our smaller, independent family farmers, people who are personally committed to producing good food for their families, their neighbors, and providing food security for their nation. Our food may cost a bit more and we may consumer a bit less, but only then, will Americans be well nourished and well fed.

John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics, University of Missouri, Columbia will give a capstone lecture for the conference on Saturday, February 6th. John was raised on a small dairy farm in southwest Missouri and received his BS, MS, and Ph.D. degrees in agricultural economics from the University of Missouri. He worked in private industry for a time and spent thirty years in various professorial positions at North Carolina State University, Oklahoma State University, University of Georgia, and the University of Missouri before retiring in early 2000. Since retiring, he spends most of his time writing and speaking on issues related to sustainability with an emphasis on economics and agriculture. Ikerd is author of Sustainable Capitalism, A Return to Common Sense, Small Farms are Real Farms, and Crisis and Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture.

For studies of health benefits of natural and organic foods, see The Organic Center, http:// www.organic-center.org/
W. M. Jarrell and R. B. Beverly, “The Dilution Effect in Plant Nutrient Studies,” Advances in Agronomy, 34:197–224, 1981.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The key to rural economic development, sustainable agriculture

This is the first in a series of quest entries of the NSAS blog featuring speakers and presenters for the upcoming Healthy Farms Conference

By Kevin Fulton

Rural areas across the country have seen steady population declines over the last 70–80 years. Census reports of most rural Nebraska counties substantiate this, and in many cases this decline has been drastic.

Much of this population loss can be attributed to a shift in agricultural practices that moved us toward an industrial model. This took both people and animals off the land. Industrialization created an environment in the farm sector where it became more desirable to own your neighbor’s land rather than have the neighbor and his family around.

For years, leaders in rural America have worked to reverse this trend or, at the very least, slow it down. Many different strategies and incentives have been implemented. Ironically, many rural economic development plans center around the recruitment of large entities to develop industrial sites as a way to generate more jobs and bring more people to the community. Examples in recent years here in Nebraska include the development of ethanol plants and large CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) in or near our rural communities. But is this really the best strategy? Why do we promote more large industry in small rural communities when this led to our demise in the first place? Does the boom-to-bust cycle that many of these industries go through create a stable economic base for rural communities that is conducive to long-term growth? We have also seen many communities torn apart by the dissension that is created when bringing in certain types of industry that have a history of negative consequences, such as creating environmental contamination and odor problems. Many times this actually hinders the development of balanced long-term economic growth.

The best solution to this problem is to bring both people and animals back onto the land. This will create prosperity for farmers and the communities around them. Is this really a practical solution? We are already seeing this happen in some areas with great success, but can it work on a widespread scale? The answer is YES. Not only would this improve economic welfare in rural areas, but it would also alleviate many of the environmental problems associated with industrial agriculture, improve animal welfare and rebuild trust with the consumer. Sustainable farming and food production systems represent the model that will lead us down this path to prosperity for rural communities and provide a healthy food supply for the population. Critics say this would not only be impractical but also disastrous, claiming that it would lead to massive food shortages and starvation. These scare tactics simply have no foundation. To the contrary, if we do not move in a different direction, our industrial food system will lead us down a path of self-destruction. The warning signs are already present as we are currently moving down that pathway.

I hope you will join us at the 2010 Healthy Farms Conference, where I will be discussing these issues along with providing real solutions on how and why we must continue to create sustainable farming systems that will allow us to eat better, improve the environment and revive rural economies.