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News archive: March 2007

Organic kiwis have more C

New research by Dr Maria Amodio and Dr Adel Kader from the University of California Davies discovered that organically grown kiwis had significantly higher levels of vitamin C and polyphenols. The researchers said:

“All the main mineral constituents were more concentrated in the organic kiwi fruit, which also had higher asorbic acid (vitamin C) and total polyphenol content, resulting in higher antioxidant activity. It is possible that conventional growing practices utilise levels of pesticides that can result in a disruption to phenolic metabolites in the plant that have a protective role in plant defence mechanisms.”

Peter Melchett, the policy director of the Soil Association, said: “This is a very rigorous study. There is clear evidence that a range of organic foods contain more beneficial nutrients and vitamins and less of things known to have a detrimental health effect such as saturated fats and nitrates.”

Brits eat organic beef

About 40% of British beef imports are organic and demand is likely to grow by 40% in the next three years according to the British Red Meat Industry Forum. This means even more imports will be needed unless British farmers can produce more, said RMIF advisor Bob Bansback.

Rising heat lowering wheat yield

Rising temperatures between 1981 and 2002 caused a loss in production of wheat, corn and barley that amounted in effect to some 40 million tons a year according to one of the first scientific studies of how climate change has affected cereal crops.

“Most people tend to think of climate change as something that will impact the future, but this study shows that warming over the past two decades has already had real effects on global food supply,” said Christopher Field of the Carnegie Institution in Stanford, California.

HRH The Queen goes organic

Prince Charles’ green-fingered influence has extended to Buckingham Palace, where the Queen of England is on the lookout for an organic gardener. An ad for the £13,500-a-year post (about US$27,000) says the successful applicant will help phase out the use of pesticides from the Palace’s gardens, improving “environmental and conservation practices” as well as maintaining a new organic vegetable garden at Clarence House. This comes as no surprise to OrganicFoodees, as Prince Charles is a big fan of all things organic, including his own organic farm.

Organic food and immigration reform

I have a choice of growing one of two types of peaches, but which one will be decided by Congress and President Bush. Without immigration reform, the better peach will be lost.

One peach is complex; the other is simple. One involves many hands; the other would be the product of technology that controls the process as much as possible.

One peach can have an unbelievable taste if I get it right as I work with the intricacies of nature; the other would be bred for consistency and a “good enough” standard, a uniform product designed for efficiency and longer shelf life.

One fruit requires manual labor — an intensive operation of workers constantly in my fields; the other calls for reducing the need for labor, substituting mechanization whenever possible and creating a system that is not at the mercy of worker shortages.

But whether I can grow a better peach depends on whether I have enough field workers, and that’s where immigration reform comes in. In recent years, farm labor has been tight, with some workers lost to construction jobs and others because of increased border security. Some farmers have responded by increasing wages, yet there were still not enough people willing to work the harvests. Last year, pears in California rotted on trees; two years ago, my raisin harvest was endangered, and for the last three years, I’ve struggled with peach harvests, terrified that just as the fruit was at the peak of perfection, I wouldn’t have enough workers. Some of my best fruit has fallen from my trees.

The agricultural industry supports federal legislation for a guest-worker program that would bring in temporary farm laborers when shortages arise. This remedy would fix short-term problems. However, a long-term solution lies in immigration reform that could change the nature of farming, especially when it comes to specialty crops and small-scale operations like mine.

Without sufficient labor, organic and sustainable agricultural methods are jeopardized. The choice to work with nature as opposed to controlling it demands constant monitoring of the fruit and adapting and responding to the rhythms of the seasons. These systems require many hands. I want the human character to be part of my fields and my produce.

With more hands on my farm, I can grow delicate heirloom varieties, pick riper fruit and work with “just in time” management strategies. Dismiss and devalue these hands and the final outcome changes. A peach may look the same on the outside, but the process used to create it will result in a very different end product. Imagine the taste of a sauce made with minimal human touch, substituting prepackaged ingredients in order to reduce the labor needed.

Agriculture makes a mistake, though, if our sole goal in immigration reform is to seek an abundant supply of cheap labor. Farmers must acknowledge the human capital in our fields. Investments in workers, such as training, can benefit all parties. Skilled positions can then be created for a more willing and able labor pool. With the right kind of reform, workers’ worth would be redefined; they would no longer be invisible.

As undocumented workers emerge from the shadows, new tensions will be created. Communities will change. The social contract in a region — the relationships that connect and bind us — will be tested.

New social justice issues will challenge employers. Workers with faces can’t be as easily dismissed; their calls for better wages, health benefits and working conditions will no longer be whispers. We in the agricultural community have signaled an openness to reform and acknowledged the need for labor to fill “jobs that no one else wants.” We also need to accept the responsibility for that labor.

In the future, could providing better farmworker benefits help define a region and industry? Could we create an appellation based on social justice and market a valued-added product, similar to “fair trade” coffee, which guarantees growers a designated price and decent working conditions? Could I then grow peaches with a conscience? Consumers have been willing to pay more when they understand the story behind their foods, be it organic or in support of living wages.

A grape or peach can acquire a distinctive flavor from terroir — the taste of region. Surely the way that individuals, rural communities and industries include “new Americans” in agricultural systems also will alter the delicate nuances of taste. After all, the true character of a pristine fruit is a result of multiple inputs: weather, soil and water as well as management and labor relations.

As we once again debate immigration reform, agriculture has an opportunity to educate the public about the role farmers and workers have in growing food, in satisfying our hunger. We’re all part of a food system at the dinner table, and the policy we create will affect the nature of each bite.

This article is by a Californian farmer named David Mas Masumoto who is supported by the Kellogg Foundation.

Biotech potato controversy in Europe

Financial Times journalist Andrew Bounds reports from Bonn on March 13:

‘The battle over biotech crops erupted again yesterday after members of the European parliament blocked a resolution calling for greater use of the technology. MEPs voted to delay the draft motion to allow more time for the agriculture committee to scrutinise it.’

Menahwile, The Irish Independent published on March 12 that the multinational corporation BASF has abandoned plans to grow GM potatoes in Ireland. It is now opting to grow them in Britain where there are fewer restrictions. A BASF spokesperson confirmed that the company would not be going ahead with field trials in Co Meath which received approval from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last year. BASF delayed starting the trial last year citing the onerous monitoring requirements imposed by the EPA.

Friends of the Earth and GM Freeze are calling on the UK Government to suspend plans for these experimental trials of GM potatoes in the UK. The call comes after a Dutch court ordered permits for trials in the Netherlands to be destroyed because the risks to the environment had not been properly assessed. The UK trials of BASF’s blight resistant potatoes are due to take place from this spring at two locations for a period of five years. One site is a research centre in Cambridge, the other is proposed for Hedon/Preston, East Riding of Yorkshire.

Biofuels rely on pesticides

George Bush says that ethanol will save the world. But there is evidence that biofuels may bring new problems for the planet. The ethanol boom is coming. The twin threats of climate change and energy security are creating an unprecedented thirst for alternative energy with ethanol leading the way. That process is set to reach a landmark on Thursday when the US President, George Bush, arrives in Brazil to kick-start the creation of an international market for ethanol that could one day rival oil as a global commodity. The expected creation of an “Opec for ethanol” replicating the cartel of major oil producers has spurred frenzied investment in biofuels across the Americas. But a growing number of economists, scientists and environmentalists are calling for a “time out” and warning that the headlong rush into massive ethanol production is creating more problems than it is solving. To its advocates, ethanol, which can be made from corn, barley, wheat, sugar cane or beet is a green panacea – a clean-burning, renewable energy source that will see us switch from dwindling oil wells to boundless fields of crops to satisfy our energy needs. Dr Plinio Mario Nastari, one of Brazil’s leading economists and an expert in biofuels, sees a bright future for an energy sector in which his country is the acknowledged world leader: “We are on the brink of a new era, ethanol is changing a lot of things but in a positive sense.” In its first major acknowledgment of the dangers of climate change, the White House this year committed itself to substituting 20 per cent of the petroleum it uses for ethanol by 2017. In Brazil, that switch is more advanced than anywhere in the world and it has already substituted 40 per cent of its gasoline usage. Ethanol is nothing new in Brazil. It has been used as fuel since 1925. But the real boom came after the oil crisis of 1973 spurred the military dictatorship to lessen the country’s reliance on foreign imports of fossil fuels. The generals poured public subsidies and incentives into the sugar industry to produce ethanol. Today, the congested streets of Sao Paolo are packed with flex-fuel cars that run off a growing menu of bio and fossil fuel mixtures, and all filling stations offer “alcohol” and “gas” at the pump, with the latter at roughly twice the price by volume. But there is a darker side to this green revolution, which argues for a cautious assessment of how big a role ethanol can play in filling the developed world’s fuel tank. The prospect of a sudden surge in demand for ethanol is causing serious concerns even in Brazil. The ethanol industry has been linked with air and water pollution on an epic scale, along with deforestation in both the Amazon and Atlantic rainforests, as well as the wholesale destruction of Brazil’s unique savannah land. Fabio Feldman, a leading Brazilian environmentalist and former member of Congress who helped to pass the law mandating a 23 per cent mix of ethanol to be added to all petroleum supplies in the country, believes that Brazil’s trailblazing switch has had serious side effects. “Some of the cane plantations are the size of European states, these vast monocultures have replaced important eco-systems,” he said. “If you see the size of the plantations in the state of Sao Paolo they are oceans of sugar cane. In order to harvest you must burn the plantations which creates a serious air pollution problem in the city.” Despite its leading role in biofuels, Brazil remains the fourth largest producer of carbon emissions in the world due to deforestation. Dr Nastarti rejects any linkage between deforestation and ethanol and argues that cane production accounts for little more than 10 per cent of Brazil’s farmland. However, Dr Nastari is calling for new legislation in Brazil to ensure that mushrooming sugar plantations do not directly or indirectly contribute to the destruction of vital forest preserves. Sceptics, however, point out that existing legislation is unenforceable and agri-business from banned GM cotton to soy beans has been able to ignore legislation. “In large areas of Brazil there is a total absence of the state and no respect for environmental legislation,” said Mr Feldman. “Ethanol can be a good alternative in the fight against global warming but at the same time we must make sure we are not creating a worse problem than the one we are trying to solve.” The conditions for a true nightmare scenario are being created not in Brazil, despite its environment concerns, but in the US’s own domestic ethanol industry. While Brazil’s tropical climate allows it to source alcohol from its sugar crop, the US has turned to its industrialised corn belt for the raw material to substitute oil. The American economist Lester R Brown, from the Earth Policy Institute, is leading the warning voices: “The competition for grain between the world’s 800 million motorists who want to maintain their mobility and its two billion poorest people who are simply trying to stay alive is emerging as an epic issue.” Speaking in Sao Paolo, where the ethanol boom is expected to take off with a US-Brazil trade deal this Thursday, Fabio Feldman, said: “We must stop and take a breath and consider the consequences.” Biofuel costs When Rudolph Diesel unveiled his new engine at the 1900 World’s Fair, he made a point of demonstrating that it could be run on peanut oil. “Such oils may become, in the course of time, as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time,” he said. And so it has come to pass that US President George Bush has decreed that America must wean itself off oil with the help of biofuels made from corn, sugar cane and other suitable crops. At its simplest, the argument for biofuels is this: By growing crops to produce organic compounds that can be burnt in an engine, you are not adding to the overall levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The amount of CO2 that the fuel produces when burnt should balance the amount absorbed during the growth of the plants. However, many biofuel crops, such as corn, are grown with the help of fossil fuels in the form of fertilisers, pesticides and the petrol for farm equipment. One estimate is that corn needs 30 per cent more energy than the finished fuel it produces. Another problem is the land required to produce it. One estimate is that the grain needed to fill the petrol tank of a 4X4 with ethanol is sufficient to feed a person for a year.

Article by Daniel Howden in Sao Paolo. Published: 05 March 2007  in The Independent, UK

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