Sunday, March 27, 2011

End the Monsanto monoply

Last year, the Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Agriculture held a series of five hearings investigating anti-competitive practices in the food and agricultural sectors. The hearings were historic and gave a vital opportunity for hundreds of thousands of America’s farmers, agricultural workers and citizens to call for an end to agribusiness’ excessive monopoly power. 
Last December, Food Democracy Now! delivered more than 200,000 citizen comments to Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney with your demands to break up the worst abusers.
Nowhere are these abuses more prevalent than in the extreme market share enjoyed by the seed and chemical company Monsanto, which has a virtual stranglehold on seed supplies in crucial sectors that has severely limited farmers' choice in what seeds they can buy. Monsanto’s control of the seed market is so high that 93% of soybeans, 82% of corn, 93% of cotton and 95% of sugarbeets grown in the U.S. contain Monsanto's patented genes.
Not only is this level of market share allowing Monsanto to jack prices up on farmers because there’s no competition, but it also threatens our democracy as Monsanto uses their corporate power to influence our regulatory agencies, like the USDA, EPA and FDA, as well as Congress and the White House.
It’s time to fight back, and the only way to do that is to make sure that the Department of Justice continues their investigation into Monsanto’s anti-competitive business practices.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Legal matters

Last week, the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the USDA challenging the USDA's decision to allow the planting of GM alfalfa. You can read more about it in their joint press release here.

In other legal news, the Iowa state house last week approved a bill that would criminalize secret videotaping of activities on farms, specifically related to the mistreatment of animals. While the ag industry is crying victim here, saying they're being held hostage by PETA and other animal rights groups, the larger issue is that investigations into farm and animal conditions would be illegal, if video was used. The bill could also apply to crops, not just animals. In other words, the makers of Food, Inc., could, under this bill, have been arrested if they'd filmed in Iowa and this bill had been law at the time the film was made. Florida is reportedly also considering a similar bill. The Iowa Senate has yet to weigh in.

If you're an ag company and you're supporting a bill that would make it illegal to video your crops, exactly what are you hiding? Yes, that is a somewhat rhetorical question, but I ask it because I don't personally know a single farmer who'd object to anyone filming their farming practices.

Other thoughts? I'd share more of mine but am posting this while I should be writing program notes. Back to Bartók.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Why the Gates Foundation worries me

When it comes to philanthropy, few can top Bill Gates. He's donated so much of his money to various educational and health-related causes over the years that he's no longer the richest man in America. Good for him. Seriously. I think it's great that he is using his wealth to better the planet. What worries me is the credo his foundation seems to operate under, which could be summed up as technology uberalis. The foundation believes in using high-tech solutions for things like eliminating malaria in Africa, or, more recently, advocating for industrial farming practices in developing nations in order to produce enough food to feed everyone.

The Gates Foundation, along with the Rockefeller Foundation, wants to launch a new Green Revolution in Africa. While the Green Revolution had measurable benefits in a number of countries, its success relied primarily on industrial farming methods: use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers to boost gain.

Enter the UN report I posted a few days ago, which is referenced again in this report from Humanosphere, that proves low-tech farming is both more productive and better for farmers and land.

Still not convinced? Even if you think industrial methods are the best way to increase yields, all those pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers do enormous damage to the soil, rendering it less fertile over time. The runoff from all these industrial inputs contaminates water supplies. Most important, industrial farming relies on petroleum to create all those (say it with me) pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers.

Uh, Mr. Gates? Petroleum is not a renewable resource (I don't have time to address the global warming implications of using a petroleum-based farming system here, but you can fill in the blanks yourself).

What worries me is that America's biggest philanthropist is so seduced by the lure of technology that he's willing to ignore or downplay low-tech methods that have a proven track record of success. I get it that low-tech isn't sexy. But if you really want to feed more people, and low-tech methods work better and are healthier for the farmers, the soil, the water, the people who eat the food, and, ultimately, the planet, you need to wean yourself away from the glitz and glamour of high-tech.

Gates has a penchant for reaching for the brass ring high-tech solution. In 2005 I read an article in The New Yorker about the Gates' Foundation work to eliminate malaria in Africa. Turns out one of the most effective methods is mosquito nets (very low-tech, and they've been around for thousands of years in one form or another). But Gates wanted to focus his efforts on finding a vaccine, because that would allow him to use science and high-tech to further his philanthropic agenda.

I'm not questioning Gates' sincere desire to feed the hungry, or make malaria a thing of the past. I do question, and object to, his slavish devotion to The Next Big Thing, the cool new technology, the sexy science, while ignoring proven low-tech, low-cost methods. I get that Gates, one of the best-known representatives of high-tech, wants to use the technology that made his fortune to right some of the world's biggest wrongs. His motivations are admirable, but it's his money that will make the difference, not necessarily the technology he champions. After all, what's important here is feeding people, or curing malaria. Let's not lose sight of that.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

UN Report endorses eco-organic farming practices

Organic farming advocates have been saying this for years, and places like the Rodale Instistute have been proving it with numerous field trials. The Union of Concerned Scientists published a report two years ago called "Failure to Yield," which also debunks the empty promises made by advocates of GMO crops and industrial farming (chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides), that industrial farming methods are the only way we can feed the world. And yet, despite these and many other studies, The Economist last week published an article which concluded, "although the concerns of the critics of modern agriculture may be understandable, the reaction against intensive farming is a luxury of the rich. Traditional and organic farming could feed Europeans and Americans well. It cannot feed the world."

More on the Economist article in an upcoming post, but I just have to point out how well it pushes the divide-and-conquer button. It's all well and good for rich first-worlders to play with organic methods, but it's totally unfair of those same pampered well fed folks to advocate for organics in the developing world, because organic methods can't feed millions. There's a lot of research this article conveniently leaves out, but I'll get to that in a later post. I just need to fume for a moment, 'cause I hate it when good writers use their powers for evil. Okay. Done.

Meanwhile, back to the good news:

Now that the UN is advocating "ecological methods," I hope that will give farmers in other countries a tool for combatting the reach of global chemical and seed companies, which are trying to force governments in the developing world to use their products, rather than allow the farmers in these countries to farm in a way that protects and enriches the nutrient value of their soil.

Here's a companion article that supports the U.N. report, by Anna Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet. (Yes, for all you baby-boomers, Anna is the daughter of Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet, which was such a central part of the the 1970s environmental movement).

Here's the UN news release:


8 March 2011 
Eco-Farming Can Double Food Production in 10 Years, says new UN report

GENEVA, 8 March 2011 – Small-scale farmers can double food production within 10 years in critical regions by using ecological methods, a new UN report* shows. Based on an extensive review of the recent scientific literature, the study calls for a fundamental shift towards agroecology as a way to boost food production and improve the situation of the poorest.

“To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available,” says Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food and author of the report. “Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live -- especially in unfavorable environments.”

Agroecology applies ecological science to the design of agricultural systems that can help put an end to food crises and address climate-change and poverty challenges. It enhances soils productivity and protects the crops against pests by relying on the natural environment such as beneficial trees, plants, animals and insects. “To date, agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects,” De Schutter says. “Recent projects conducted in 20 African countries demonstrated a doubling of crop yields over a period of 3-10 years.”

“Conventional farming relies on expensive inputs, fuels climate change and is not resilient to climatic shocks. It simply is not the best choice anymore today,” De Schutter stresses. “A large segment of the scientific community now acknowledges the positive impacts of agroecology on food production, poverty alleviation and climate change mitigation -- and this this is what is needed in a world of limited resources. Malawi, a country that launched a massivechemical fertilizer subsidy program a few years ago, is now implementing agroecology, benefiting more than 1.3 million of the poorest people, with maize yields increasing from 1 ton/ha to 2-3 tons/ha.”

The report also points out that projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh recorded up to 92% reduction in insecticide use for rice, leading to important savings for poor farmers. “Knowledge came to replace pesticides and fertilizers. This was a winning bet, and comparable results abound in other African, Asian and Latin American countries,” the independent expert notes. “The approach is also gaining ground in developed countries such as United States, Germany or France,” he said. “However, despite its impressive potential in realizing the right to food for all, agroecology is still insufficiently backed by ambitious public policies and consequently hardly goes beyond the experimental stage.”

The report identifies a dozen of measures that States should implement to scale up agroecological practices. “Agroecology is a knowledge-intensive approach. It requires public policies supporting agricultural research and participative extension services,” De Schutter says. “States and donors have a key role to play here. Private companies will not invest time and money in practices that cannot be rewarded by patents and which don’t open markets for chemical products or improved seeds.”

The Special Rapporteur on the right to food also urges States to support small-scale farmer’s organizations, which demonstrated a great ability to disseminate the best agroecological practices among their members. “Strengthening social organization proves to be as impactful as distributing fertilizers. Small-scale farmers and scientists can create innovative practices when they partner”, De Schutter explains. “We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations. The solution lies in supporting small-scale farmers’ knowledge and experimentation, and in raising incomes of smallholders so as to contribute to rural development.”

“If key stakeholders support the measures identified in the report, we can see a doubling of food production within 5 to 10 years in some regions where the hungry live,” De Schutter says. “Whether or not we will succeed this transition will depend on our ability to learn faster from recent innovations. We need to go fast if we want to avoid repeated food and climate disasters in the 21st century.”

(*)  The report “Agro-ecology and the right to food” was presented today before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. This document is available in English, French, Spanish, Chinese and Russian at: and

Olivier De Schutter was appointed the Special Rapporteur on the right to food in May 2008 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. He is independent from any government or organization.

For more information on the mandate and work of the Special Rapporteur, visit: or

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Political activism in 30 seconds

Here are three petitions you can sign, from one protests Monsanto's stranglehold on the USDA, one protests GMO crops, and the third demands that President Obama protect our right to buy and eat GMO-free foods.

I know that the Center for Food Safety plans to sue to stop the planting of GMO alfalfa (and GMO sugar beets), but have not heard if they have actually filed their suit yet. You can click on the link to their site here for more info. They also have many more petitions to sign.

Adding your name to a petition, as I once said in an earlier post, is a pretty spineless form of activism, but it's better than nothing. If I hear of more direct ways to get involved, I'll post them.

FYI, these petitions have widgets that you can embed on your Facebook page or blog; at the bottom of each one there's a "Get Widget" link for the embed code. Feel free to pass them along.

Petitions by|Start a Petition »

Petitions by|Start a Petition »

Petitions by|Start a Petition »

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Save the bees, via this message from Slow Food:

Bees are dying off around the world - and it's getting serious. Without them, much of the food we eat would disappear, and the impact on the US economy and food prices would be severe.

Scientists are suggesting agricultural pesticides are one of the main culprits, so you can tell the Environmental Protection Agency it's time to solve the mystery of what's killing our buzz (and food chain). 

The EPA is under increasing pressure from the pesticide companies to do nothing about it, so please click on the link below to let the EPA know you're concerned about bee populations.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Republicans have discontinued several green programs in the US Capitol. This article in Mother Jones details the rollbacks, including the return of the styrofoam coffee cup.

It's hard to know how to respond to such idiocy.