In the land of humongous farms, the critical importance of small farms for food security is a counterintuitive message. But if we look at what most of the largest farms are growing in the U.S. Midwest, or Argentina and Brazil, it is corn and soybeans to feed livestock and biofuel production. Neither contribute much to supplying food—and especially good nutrition—to the billions who cannot afford meat. Meat is a welcome part of many diets, but besides being expensive, is also an inefficient means to produce protein. Read More
October 17th, 2013
October 17th, 2013
At a glitzy awards ceremony this evening at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, three individuals will be awarded the prestigious World Food Prize. To the dismay of many, all three are experts on genetic engineering and pioneers of its early use in agriculture. Two actually work for agribusiness giants—Monsanto and its Swiss rival, Syngenta—that develop and sell this technology. Read More
October 10th, 2013
A new paper published earlier this week in the scientific journal PLoSOne calls into question whether we know enough about biochar to use it as an important strategy to mitigate climate change. The article, two of whose co-authors formerly worked here at UCS, did a systematic review of the scientific literature on biochar through 2011, and found 311 relevant papers.
But even with all this research, a key question remains unanswered: How long does biochar persist in the soil? Read More
September 30th, 2013
September 16th, 2013
I was recently a participant in a virtual forum sponsored by the Boston Review magazine called, rather grandly, “The Truth About GMOs.” I was one of eight respondents asked to provide short comments on an article by Dr. Pamela Ronald advocating greater acceptance of genetic engineering. The forum also gave Dr. Ronald space to reply to the respondents’ comments. Read More
August 30th, 2013
After years of participation in public discussions about agriculture, I’ve developed something of an allergy to the catchphrase “feed the world.”
It seems to come up with depressing regularity to justify, among other things, pesticides, industrial-scale monoculture, and biotechnology, all of which we must embrace—all together now—to feed the world. What gets under my skin is that the phrase is so often used by advocates of high-input American corn and soybeans, who otherwise seem not terribly concerned about problems of hungry people or farmers in developing countries. Read More
Small Insect’s Big Lessons for the Farm Bill: Agroecology and Breeding Top Monsanto’s Industrial Agriculture
August 26th, 2013
My last post discussed the success of public sector scientists who discovered and developed genes in soybean, using conventional breeding, that confer resistance to the invasive soybean aphid. These insects cost US farmers billions of dollars per year.
In contrast, an article in the New York Times in late July used the dramatic example of citrus greening disease, which is threatening the citrus industry in the US, to tout the possibility of GE to remedy challenging pest problems. Whether these will eventually work is far from certain. But we should keep in mind that while such future promises catch the public’s eye, breeding continuously makes significant advances in crop improvement. Read More
August 20th, 2013
In a recent post, I wrote about the health benefits—and attendant reductions in health care spending—that could be achieved if public policies helped all Americans to eat healthy foods instead of subsidizing ingredients for junk food. While data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) consistently show that people in every state and at every income level are falling short of dietary recommendations for fruits and vegetables, low-income Americans have the steepest hill to climb.
They also have the most to gain. That’s why I was excited to learn recently about an innovative organization in New York City that is putting public and private funds to work to increase access to fresh, local fruits and vegetables for residents of some of the city’s most economically ailing neighborhoods. Read More
The $11 Trillion Reward (Or, How Congress Could Improve Health, Save Lives, and Shrink the Deficit in One Easy Step)
August 8th, 2013
It’s August in Washington, DC, and that means two things—the tomatoes at my farmers market are juicy and delicious, and Congress has cleared out and gone home. Both highly anticipated events, but this year, the two are linked in an unusual way.
You see, when Congress split last week, they left a critical piece of food and farm legislation to grow cold on their plate. And while you might think that the “Farm Bill” is mostly of interest to farmers, a new report unveiled by UCS this week shows that we all have a huge stake in what Congress does (or doesn’t do) with this legislation. Read More
July 29th, 2013
It’s a huge insect pest problem on soybeans, one of the country’s major crops. A recent paper estimates that it costs growers 2 to 5 billion dollars annually in lost productivity and insecticide use. But fortunately technology has an answer—several genes that control the pest, and can reduce or eliminate the need for chemical insecticides that harm people and the environment. Read More