Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Slow Moving Cranberry Crisis

The Cranberry Harvest on the Island of Nantucket, Eastman Johnson, 1880.
Courtesy Wikipedia

Delawareonline is reporting that cranberry growers in the state are becoming nervous about their future prospects becuase they are seeing signs of climate change.
Despite enjoying a near-record, 768 million-pound nationwide harvest in 2012, growers are voicing concern that global warming will sour the industry’s long-term outlook, increasing losses to weather-related blights and fruit rots and tempting more producers to grow the tangy berry offshore.
 Of course, "offshore" is having the same climate-related problems. But Massachusetts is experiencing problems with earlier spring weather and cranberry growth leaving the plants more vulnerable to frost. And Mass. is pretty focused on cranberries, having maintained a research centre for cranberries at the University of Massachusetts since 1910.
“The growers are at the point where there’s concern that the climate is changing,” said Brian Wick, director of regulatory services for the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association. “We are seeing these sort of extremes in weather.”
“They’ve noticed over the past several years that we’re dealing with many more extremes,” Wick said.
This disruption in growing patterns caused by weather extremes is not, of course, confined to Massachusetts, but is being experienced everywhere. From the American drought to an extended hurricane season, to changes in the monsoon season and populations relying on disappearing rivers, there's a lot happening out there.
So far, 2012 has delivered plenty of weather extremes in Delaware, including the hottest spring on record, the third-hottest summer and, through October, the hottest year-to-date by a wide a margin. Along the way, there have been periods of severe drought and intense rain, including Hurricane Sandy’s deluge.
Delaware Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee has remained optimistic.
“Climate change is something that people are talking about, but we think a lot of it can be dealt with genetically,” through development of hardier and more tolerant crops, Kee said. “Climate is changing, but it’s a slow process.”
But the problem is, is that it is not such a slow process anymore.  Those weather extremes in Delaware are already happening. That means that the changes are upon us. The Arctic has lost its summer sea ice cover at least 20 yars before the most pessimistic forecast had it vanishing. Things are speeding up and the future looks bleak. A safe, secure, stable food system is essential for maintaining a safe stable society. Just ask the governments that faced the Arab Spring uprisings. It is also pretty necessary for maintaining life on Earth.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The New Food Safety Bill

This is the same bill that removes wieghts and measures from the CFIAs list of responsibilities. With this government, you can be pretty sure that it doesn't have our best interests at heart.
From the CBC:
In the aftermath of the massive E. coli scare at the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., the House of Commons has passed legislation to modernize, consolidate and add consistency to Canada's food inspection system.
While the legislation is not a direct response to September's XL Foods shutdown, federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said Bill S-11 will provide a "more consistent" approach to food inspection, allowing a "uniform approach" across all food commodities.
Bill S-11 originated in the Senate in June. It passed a third reading unanimously Tuesday evening and only royal assent remains before the bill becomes law.
Speaking before the final vote on Tuesday, Ritz highlighted several improvements contained in the Safe Food for Canadians Act:
  • Better traceability in the food system, making it easier to recall products if safety issues arise somewhere in the food chain.
  • New record-keeping requirements for regulated facilities and more powers for inspectors to compel the production of documents in useable formats.
  • Tougher penalties for those who violate established safety standards, increasing maximum fines from $250,000 to up to $5 million, or even higher at the court’s discretion.
  • New penalties for "recklessly endangering the lives of Canadians" through tampering, deceptive practices or hoaxes.
  • Registration for all importers, to add a greater degree of certainty to the food safety system.
  • More authority for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to certify exporters, if required by other countries to facilitate trade.

Monday, November 19, 2012

HARDtalk with Vanada Shiva

Vananda Shiva from Wikipedia

HARDtalk is a BBC News programme the does extended interviews. At 4:30 am on 19 Nov. 2012, the extended interview is/was with Vananda Shiva, the original treehugger (no, really. In the '70s, she and a group of women hugged trees to keep them from being cut down). She:
(...) is a philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist.[1] Shiva, currently based in Delhi, has authored more than 20 books.[2] She was trained as a physicist and received her Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Western Ontario, Canada, in 1978 with the doctoral dissertation "Hidden variables and locality in quantum theory."[3][4]
She is one of the leaders and board members of the International Forum on Globalization, (along with Jerry Mander, Edward Goldsmith, Ralph Nader, Jeremy Rifkin, et al.), and a figure of the global solidarity movement known as the alter-globalization movement. She has argued for the wisdom of many traditional practices, as is evident from her interview in the book Vedic Ecology (by Ranchor Prime) that draws upon India's Vedic heritage. She is a member of the scientific committee of the Fundacion IDEAS, Spain's Socialist Party's think tank. She is also a member of the International Organization for a Participatory Society.[5]
She was awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 1993. [via wikipedia]
There's a great deal of info on Vanada Shiva available (like this interview).  But the HARDtalk interview is really quite good. When the interviewer says that cotton yields have increased with the introduction of BT cotton from Monsanto, Vanada calls her out, saying, in essence  "Bull. The yields have increased not because its bt cotton, but because its now being monocropped instead of intercropped. There's simply more cotton being grown." The interview isn't available for download yet--as the programme hasn't yet been aired in most of the world. But the link above will make it available soon. And I'll post it once it becomes available.
UPDATE: BBC has restricted viewing of HARDtalk to the UK. There is a clip from the interview here.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Feeding The World Cheaply

How about using the food we already grow? Reports out of Canada, the EU, and the US indicate that close to half of the food planted never makes it to the fork.
From Science Daily:
The world's population is an estimated seven billion people. An additional one billion can be fed from our current resources, if the food losses could be halved. This can be achieved if the lowest loss percentage achieved in any region could be reached globally.
"There isn't enough clean water everywhere on Earth. Significantly more agricultural land cannot be cleared as well as certain raw material minerals for fertilizers are running low. At the same time, a quarter of the amount of calories in produced food is lost or wasted at different stages of food production chain, which results in unnecessary resources loss," says Matti Kummu, post-doctoral researcher at Aalto University.
The new study is the first to evaluate the impact of food losses and its relationship to resources on a global scale. Annually 27 m3 of clean water, 0.031 hectares of agricultural land and 4.3 kilos of fertilizers per every inhabitant in the world is wasted in food losses.
"Agriculture uses over 90 percent of the fresh water consumed by humans and most of the raw materials used in fertilizers. More efficient food production and the reduction of food losses are very important matters for the environment as well as future food security," Kummu adds.

New Potatoes

Not the little ones, but a new cultivar.  Science Daily is reporting the conventional breeding of a new potato called the Peter Wilcox.
Peter Wilcox potatoes
Credit: University of Florida
Scientists with USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) bred yellow potatoes with carotenoid levels that are two to three times higher than those of the popular Yukon Gold yellow-fleshed potato variety.
ARS plant geneticist Kathy Haynes and nutritionist Beverly Clevidence did the research at the agency's Henry A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Md. Haynes works in the Genetic Improvement for Fruits and Vegetables Laboratory (GIFVL) at the Beltsville center, and Clevidence works in the center's Food Components and Health Laboratory.
Haynes found wild potatoes with intense yellow flesh that have about 23 times more carotenoids than white-flesh potatoes. By crossing these wild potatoes with cultivated types, Haynes and her colleagues developed the high-carotenoid potatoes.
In 2007, Haynes and her colleagues introduced a new potato named Peter Wilcox that they developed. The potato, which has purple skin and yellow flesh, has become popular in niche roadside markets. The overall carotenoid levels in this potato are more than 15 percent higher than those in Yukon Gold, according to Haynes.

English Honey Production

Image from Wikipedia

With all the trouble bees are having with colony collapse disorder, varroa mites, and the like,now we need to add climate change to the mix.
Varroa mite on honeybee. From Wikipedia
The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA)  is reporting [pdf] that:
Britain’s beekeepers have endured a desperately difficult summer with average honey yields down to just eight pounds per hive, compared to a yearly average of 30 pounds, according to the results of the British
Beekeepers Association’s latest annual Honey Survey announced today, 30 October.
Honey bees produce honey as a food store. In a normal year this store should be sufficient to see them through the winter months. The nation’s honey bees now face an even more trying winter than usual with vastly depleted stores and even greater reliance than usual on the feeding skills of beekeepers to prevent mass starvation occurring through the dark winter months when honey bees would normally feed on honey produced over the previous summer.

Nearly nine in ten (88 per cent) of the 2,700 beekeepers who took part in the survey cited rain and cold weather as the main cause of depleted honey supplies this year, conditions which caused the BBKA to issue an unprecedented mid-summer warning to beekeepers to check the stores in their honey bee colonies and to feed them if they were inadequate to avoid starvation
The British over-winter drought broke this late spring with massive storms, leading into a wet and miserable summer. The summer was so bad that bees were unable to collect food enough to feed themselves. Makes me wonder how the British Black Bees that were found this year are doing.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Food: An Atlas

Food map from Food: an atlas
Tilde Herrera, over at Grist, writes about a fascinating new project: Food: An Altas
“It’s a book about the geography of food,” says Darin Jensen, a University of California at Berkeley professor and cartographer who is spearheading the project. Jensen issued a call for maps in June and the submissions began pouring in. Food: An Atlas is crowdsourced from roughly 100 volunteers spread across parts of the globe, including a loose band of what Jensen calls “guerrilla cartographers.” That means they created maps and contributed to the project voluntarily, not because they are under assignment.
Some maps, such as one of a tomato tour of Europe, raise interesting questions about global trade. Spain, for example, exports some of its best tomatoes out of the country at a premium, according to author Lucia Arg├╝elles of Barcelona, but it also imports tomatoes for consumption from other nations, such as Morocco and France, or from the Netherlands during the winter. These inefficiencies exacerbate environmental problems, such as climate change and air pollution.
A terrific project, and one I look forward to getting my hands on.

The Truth Will Out

A journal article popped up rather unexpectedly on PLOSOne the other day. Titled
Increasing Cropping System Diversity Balances Productivity, Profitability and Environmental Healththe article details how researchers have  compared the standard industrial model agroculture, with lots of herbicides/pesticides and a two-crop rotation, with a three crop and four crop rotation.using much lower levels of nitrogen and herbicide inputs. To quote the authors; "We hypothesized that cropping system diversification would promote ecosystem services that would supplement, and eventually displace, synthetic external inputs used to maintain crop productivity."
The news is good. "Grain yields, mass of harvested products, and profit in the more diverse systems were similar to, or greater than [emphasis mine], those in the conventional system, despite reductions of agrichemical inputs." The abstract pretty much covers it all:
Balancing productivity, profitability, and environmental health is a key challenge for agricultural sustainability. Most crop production systems in the United States are characterized by low species and management diversity, high use of fossil energy and agrichemicals, and large negative impacts on the environment. We hypothesized that cropping system diversification would promote ecosystem services that would supplement, and eventually displace, synthetic external inputs used to maintain crop productivity. To test this, we conducted a field study from 2003–2011 in Iowa that included three contrasting systems varying in length of crop sequence and inputs. We compared a conventionally managed 2-yr rotation (maize-soybean) that received fertilizers and herbicides at rates comparable to those used on nearby farms with two more diverse cropping systems: a 3-yr rotation (maize-soybean-small grain + red clover) and a 4-yr rotation (maize-soybean-small grain + alfalfa-alfalfa) managed with lower synthetic N fertilizer and herbicide inputs and periodic applications of cattle manure. Grain yields, mass of harvested products, and profit in the more diverse systems were similar to, or greater than, those in the conventional system, despite reductions of agrichemical inputs. Weeds were suppressed effectively in all systems, but freshwater toxicity of the more diverse systems was two orders of magnitude lower than in the conventional system. Results of our study indicate that more diverse cropping systems can use small amounts of synthetic agrichemical inputs as powerful tools with which to tune, rather than drive, agroecosystem performance, while meeting or exceeding the performance of less diverse systems.

Some Good News

Potato varieties courtesy

After the failure to get food labelling laws changed in California, agribusiness giants like Monsanto and Bayer have been facing some significant push-back in other parts of the world.
, reporting at Natural Society, writes about Poland:
Following the anti-Monsanto activism launched by nations like France and Hungary, Poland has announced that it will launch a complete ban on growing  Monsanto’s  genetically modified strain MON810. The announcement, made by Agriculture Minister Marek Sawicki, sets yet another international standard against Monsanto’s genetically modified creations. In addition to being linked to a plethora health ailments, Sawicki says that the pollen originating from this GM strain may actually be devastating the already dwindling bee population.
Similar opposition to Monsanto occurred on March 9th, when 7 European countries blocked a proposal by the Danish EU presidency which would permit the cultivation of genetically modified plants on the entire continent. It was France, who in February, lead the charge against GMOs by asking the European Commission to suspend authorization to Monsanto’s genetically modified corn. What’s more, the country settled a landmark case in favor of the people over Monsanto, finding the biotech giant guilty of chemical poisoning. is reporting a similar action by the Peruvian government:
In a massive blow to multinational agribiz corporations such as  Monsanto, Bayer, and Dow, Peru has officially passed a law banning genetically modified ingredients anywhere within the country for a full decade before coming up for another review.  Peru’s Plenary Session of the Congress made the decision 3 years after the decree was written despite previous governmental pushes for GM legalization due largely to the pressure from farmers that together form the Parque de la Papa in Cusco, a farming community of 6,000 people that represent six communities. They worry the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will compromise the native species of Peru, such as the giant white corn, purple corn and, of course, the famous species of Peruvian potatoes. Anibal Huerta, President of Peru’s Agrarian Commission, said the ban was needed to prevent the ”danger that can arise from the use of biotechnology.” (

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What Exactly Are They Trying To Say?

Hidden away in the omnibus bill called a budget, the federal Conservatives have decided not to chase down food package infractions anymore. From the CBC:
Canada's Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz is defending his government's decision to deregulate food packaging.
The proposal is part of the omnibus budget bill.
Ritz said food safety will be improved because less time will be spent chasing minor packing infractions.
Food packaging size is currently monitored by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, under the Ministry of Agriculture.
Ritz said officials "spend more time than you'd think" enforcing the sizes.
"We’ll spend days chasing down a honey container that is a half an ounce out. And the quality of the product is never suspect inside the container," Ritz said. "We need to focus our resources on food safety."
Really, Gerry? So now it will be okay for companies to simply mislabel the volume on a label to make you think you're getting 400 grams at $0.99/100g, but you're really only getting 350 grams? And that is a "a non-tariff trade barrier"?
I'll say it again; there is a strong stench of criminality, corruption, and just plain incompetence around this government.

More Vertical Urban Farming

Courtesy of MNDSingapore.
This intriguing item is a giant Ferris wheel  for plants. As reported at the9billion,and at NPR, this is a vertical farming unit currently commercially producing bok choy and Chinese cabbage in Singapore.
Horizontal space is at a premium, so the produce is grown inside 120 slender 30-foot towers, and is already finding their way into Singapore's grocery stores.