UN Conference Connects Food, Agriculture, and Climate Change

By Carol Dreibelbis

This week and next, international decision makers are meeting at COP18/CMP 8, a UN conference on climate change in Doha, Qatar. Several events taking place today consider the relationship between agriculture and climate change, including a session entitled, “Climate Change & Ensuring Sustainable, Humane, Equitable Food Systems: Views from the North & South.”

Check out today’s issue of Outreach, a magazine published in conjunction with the conference. It features further discussion on food, agriculture, and climate change, including articles such as “China, Food Security, Climate Change, and the Future” and “Livestock and Climate Change: Intensification is Not the Answer.”

What topics in food and agriculture do you hope are addressed at the conference? Please let us know in the comments section below.

Carol Dreibelbis is a research intern for the Nourishing the Planet project.

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“Green” Economic Development Can Hurt the World’s Poor

By Sophie Wenzlau

There is a dark side to the green economy. Or so say researchers with the STEPS Centre, a U.K.-based interdisciplinary research and policy center that unites development studies with science and technology studies.

According to the Journal of Peasant Studies, “green grabbing” is likely to further impoverish the world’s poor. (Photo Credit: Human Rights House Network)

The group’s observations in Africa and elsewhere suggest that land and resources in developing countries are increasingly being appropriated—transferred from the poor to the powerful—in the name of “green” economic development, ranging from efforts to promote biofuels, to carbon-offset schemes, to conservation and ecotourism initiatives. This rapidly growing practice, known informally as “green grabbing,” is forcing people to leave their homes and their land, and is responsible for increasing poverty worldwide, they say.

“Across the world, ecosystems are for sale,” writes Melissa Leach, director of the STEPS Centre, in an op-ed published last June by the news network Al Jazeera. She notes that businesses, environmental organizations, and governments are buying up huge tracts of land for “green” initiatives worldwide, often with unsettling consequences. Leach writes that in Mozambique, for example, “a company with British capital is negotiating a lease with the government for 15 million hectares, or 19 percent, of the country’s surface,” in order to capitalize on the “carbon credits” that can be derived from trees grown on the land and traded internationally.

In some cases, the sale of land for “green” purposes excludes local populations from accessing the natural resources on which they depend. In other cases, the sale of land for such purposes excludes residents from their land and homes altogether. Leach notes, “green grabbing builds on well-known histories of colonial and neo-colonial resource alienation in the name of the environment.”

“Green grabbing” is likely to further impoverish the world’s poor, according to 17 case studies recently published in a massive special issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies. When farmers and pastoralists are excluded from their land, they are excluded from their livelihoods, the studies argue. And such exclusion can stall and reverse indigenous economic development.

According to Leach, both environmental principles and principles of fairness should guide the development of the green economy: “If market-based mechanisms are to contribute to sustainable development and the building of economies that are not only green but also fair, then fostering an agenda focused on distribution, equity, and justice in green market arrangements is vital.”

This perspective mirrors other recent criticisms of the green economy as being just another route to the “financialization of nature,” to the detriment of “commonly shared” resources such as water, forests, and fish.

Leach concludes by noting that true sustainable development must incorporate an emphasis on “nurturing and legitimizing more interconnected human-ecological relationships and understandings,” so that nature is recaptured “from the market’s grasp.”

Sophie Wenzlau is a food & agriculture research associate with the Worldwatch Institute.  

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Global Irrigated Area at Record Levels, But Expansion Slowing

By Judith Renner

In 2009, the most recent year for which global data are available from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 311 million hectares in the world was equipped for irrigation but only 84 percent of that area was actually being irrigated, according to new research conducted for our Vital Signs Online service. As of 2010, the countries with the largest irrigated areas were India (39 million hectares), China (19 million), and the United States (17 million).

Water withdrawals for irrigation will need to rise by 11 percent in the next three decades to meet crop production demands. (Photo Credit: Julie Braun)

The irrigation sector claims about 70 percent of the freshwater withdrawals worldwide. Irrigation can offer crop yields that are two to four times greater than is possible with rainfed farming, and it currently provides 40 percent of the world’s food from approximately 20 percent of all agricultural land.

Since the late 1970s, irrigation expansion has experienced a marked slowdown. The FAO attributes the decline in investment to the unsatisfactory performances of formal large canal systems, corruption in the construction process, and acknowledgement of the environmental impact of irrigation projects.

The increasing availability of inexpensive individual pumps and well construction methods has led to a shift from public to private investment in irrigation, and from larger to smaller-scale systems. The takeoff in individual groundwater irrigation has been concentrated in India, China, and much of Southeast Asia. The idea of affordable and effective irrigation is attractive to poor farmers worldwide, with rewards of higher outputs and incomes and better diets.

The option is often made even more appealing with offers of government subsidies for energy costs of running groundwater pumps and support prices of irrigated products. In India’s Gujarat state, for example, energy subsidies are structured so that farmers pay a flat rate, no matter how much electricity they use. But with rising numbers of farmers tapping groundwater resources, more and more aquifers are in danger of overuse.

If groundwater resources are overexploited, aquifers will be unable to recharge fast enough to keep pace with water withdrawals. It should be noted that not all aquifers are being pumped at unsustainable levels—in fact, 80 percent of aquifers worldwide could handle additional water withdrawals. One troubling aspect of groundwater withdrawals is that the world’s major agricultural producers (particularly India, China, and the United States) are also the ones responsible for the highest levels of depletion.a

Another problem with pumping water from aquifers and redirecting flows for irrigation is the impact on delicate environmental balances. Salinization occurs when water moves past plant roots to the water table due to inefficient irrigation and drainage systems; as the water table rises, it brings salts to the base of plant roots. Plants take in the water, and the salts are left behind, degrading soil quality and therefore the potential for growth.

A potentially better alternative is drip irrigation, a form of micro-irrigation that waters plants slowly and in small amounts either on the soil surface or directly on roots. Using these techniques has the potential to reduce water use by as much as 70 percent while increasing output by 20–90 percent. Within the last two decades, the area irrigated using drip and other micro-irrigation methods has increased 6.4-fold, from 1.6 million hectares to over 10.3 million hectares.

With predictions of a global population exceeding 9 billion by 2050, demand for higher agricultural output will put more strain on already fragile water reserves. Even without the effects of climate change, water withdrawals for irrigation will need to rise by 11 percent in the next three decades to meet crop production demands. Reconciling increasing food demands with decreasing water security requires efficient systems that produce more food with less water and that minimize water waste. Intelligent water management is crucial especially in the face of climate change, which will force the agriculture industry to compete with the environment for water.

Further highlights from the report:

  1. The share of the area equipped for irrigation that is actually under irrigation ranges from 77 to 87 percent in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and in Oceania, but is only 59 percent in Europe. More reliable rainfall allows farmers in northern and eastern Europe to rely less on existing irrigation infrastructure than is the case in drier or more variable climates.
  2. Worldwide, the most commonly used irrigation technique is flood irrigation, even though plants often use only about half the amount of water applied in that system.
  3. India claims the lead in irrigated area worldwide, irrigating almost 2 million hectares of its land using drip and micro-irrigation techniques.

Judith Renner is a senior at Fordham University in New York.

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Meet the Nourishing the Planet Team: Alyssa Casey

We have a whole new crop of interns with the Nourishing the Planet team this fall. Today, meet Alyssa Casey.

Alyssa Casey

Alyssa is currently a graduate student at George Washington University studying Philosophy and Social Policy. She plans to focus on agriculture and health policy, especially as it relates to international development.

Alyssa received her undergraduate degree in graphic design from Saint Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. During her time at St. Norbert she became very involved in The Zambia Project, a campus-based organization that fundraises for Zambia Open Community Schools and promotes awareness about issues of education and development in Zambia, Africa.

She participated in two service trips to Zambia delivering school supplies and meeting with school leaders and community members to discuss successes and needs.

Recently, Alyssa spent four months living and working in a rural Zambian village with Same World Same Chance, a non-profit organization working to establish a high school, health clinic, and organic farm in Kibombomene, Zambia. During her time in the village she painted educational murals, helped with the planting of the farm and orchard, taught English to school children, and worked on community fundraisers.

Alyssa loves traveling and besides Zambia has spent time in Italy and Ireland. Her experiences in Zambia and around the world have shaped her passion for human rights and issues of nutrition, food security, and social justice. She is excited to work with Nourishing the Planet, bringing awareness to, and promoting solutions for, a healthier and more sustainable world!

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More Energy for the Negotiations

This article was originally published in Outreach Magazine. The original can be found here.

The latest UN climate negotiations are underway in Doha, Qatar but the talks need a stronger focus on energy's role in climate change. (Source: UNFCCC)

More than half of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions result from the burning of fossil fuels for energy supply. Even excluding traditional biomass, fossil fuel combustion accounts for 90 percent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Against this background, it is surprising how limited a role energy is playing in the ongoing climate negotiations. And yet this discussion could be instrumental in refocusing the debate about what is necessary and what is possible in both the areas of climate mitigation and adaptation—bringing it back down from the current inscrutable spheres of negotiation tracks, subsidiary bodies, parallel sessions, ad-hoc working groups, and special meetings (which, let’s be frank, nobody outside the negotiators understands anymore).

First, a focus on energy shows how far we are from solving the climate crisis. Energy-related CO2 emissions grew 3.2 percent in 2011 to more than 31 gigatons—despite the economic crisis. We know that if we don’t want to lose track of the 2-degree Celsius threshold of maximum warming that would hopefully avoid major disasters, energy emissions must decline by at least one third to 20 gigatons in 2035, despite expectations that energy demand might double in the same time frame.

So the challenge is enormous. But—and this is where the good news starts—clean energy solutions are at hand, ready to be implemented. The costs for wind, solar, sustainable hydro, biomass and waste energy technologies all continue to fall rapidly, and, in many markets, they are becoming price competitive with fossil fuels—even if externalities and fossil fuel subsidies are not internalized. If they are, the cost that our societies pay for our continued reliance on fossil fuels becomes truly outrageous: Coal, responsible for 71 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions, causes more than US$100 billion in local pollution and health care costs annually in the United States alone, in addition to the personal hardships of those suffering from these impacts. Add the costs for climate change, and it becomes incomprehensible why our societies continue down the fossil path despite the availability of alternatives.

Many countries and regions, including China, India, Japan, South Korea, and most parts of Europe, are running out of fossil fuels rapidly. In 2011, for the first time, investments in renewable energy sources were higher than those in conventional energy. The results are impressive. As a result of its Energiewende (“energy transition”), Germany now supplies 27 percent of its electricity from renewables. Costa Rica has pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2021, covering 100 percent of its electricity supply from renewable sources. Municipalities, provinces, and countries around the world show similar ambitions.

At home, that is. Neither the technological progress of the recent past nor the potential for future advances seems to be reflected in the United Nations climate negotiations, which still follow a paradigm of climate mitigation equaling economic loss. For 20 years, they have only resembled one logic, that of “how can I possibly commit to less than you do?” Research has shown that energy emissions can be halved by 2030 if efforts at efficiency and renewables are integrated in an ambitious strategy. What is technically possible would have enormous environmental, social, and economic benefits.

At this point, continued global warming is already inevitable. Our need to adapt to future changes in our environment, including extreme weather events, is becoming more urgent by the day. And again, renewables hold enormous advantages over fossil fuels. As distributed power solutions, many renewable technologies are less vulnerable to storms and floods, and most of them rely on less water to operate.

What countries know that they can do—and must do—at home, finally needs to be reflected in at this COP and beyond. Energy ought to bring new power to the negotiations.

Alexander Ochs is Director of Climate and Energy at Worldwatch Institute.

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Syria’s Drought and Climate Upheaval

Drought Image courtesy of IRRI Images via flickr

Following “Superstorm Sandy”, it has once more become acceptable in the United States to talk about climate change and its repercussions. And a re-elected President Obama now feels less constrained to engage the topic.  It remains to be seen, however, whether this change of circumstances will do much to revitalize international climate talks, where U.S. recalcitrance has been among the reasons why negotiations have been stalled for years.

Both scientific reports and real-life experiences make stepped up action to rein in greenhouse gas emissions ever more critical. The UN Environment Programme now estimates that the “emissions gap” by the year 2020 amounts to an estimated 8 to 13 gigatons of CO2 equivalent.  This is the difference between a level of emissions consistent with a “safe” target of no more than a 2 degree Celsius increase in global average temperatures and the emissions projected under current policies.

The actual emissions trajectory increases the likelihood that the Earth will heat up by as much as 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. A new scientific report by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics warns that the consequences will be cataclysmic in many regions of the world, including unprecedented heat-waves, inundated coastal cities, exacerbated water scarcity, increasing risks for food production, increased intensity of tropical cyclones, and irreversible loss of biodiversity.

In more and more places around the world, these repercussions are no longer just the stuff of abstract climate models or conjecture—they are becoming increasingly real.  Take Syria, for instance.  In late 2010, the New York Times reported that after four consecutive years of drought—the worst in 40 years—Syria’s agricultural heartland, along with adjacent areas in Iraq, was in deep trouble: “Ancient irrigation systems have collapsed, underground water sources have run dry and hundreds of villages have been abandoned as farmlands turn to cracked desert and grazing animals die off. Sandstorms have become far more common, and vast tent cities of dispossessed farmers and their families have risen up around the larger towns and cities of Syria and Iraq.”

In 2008, wheat production dropped to 2.1 million metric tons, 56 percent below the peak reached just five years earlier. Although harvests increased again in subsequent years, they remain a quarter below the 2003 level.

Drought conditions in Syria and Iraq during April 7-22, 2009 (NASA image created by Jesse Allen, Earth Observatory, using data provided by Inbal Reshef, Global Agricultural Monitoring Project. Caption by Holli Riebeek.)

Primarily affected by the lack of rainfall was the country’s northeast, which accounts for 75 percent of total wheat production in Syria.  The 2011 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction notes that since the start of the drought, close to 75 percent of agriculture-dependent households in the northeast have suffered total crop failure.  Prior to the drought, Syria’s agriculture sector accounted for 40 percent of the country’s workforce and 25 percent of gross domestic product. Some 2–3 million people have been pushed into extreme poverty by a combination of lack of crop income and the need to sell livestock at 60–70 percent below cost. Syria’s livestock herd has been decimated from 21 million to an estimated 14–16 million.

This calamity is the result of a number of factors. Climate change is joined by resource mismanagement, including the overexploitation of groundwater (due to subsidies for water-thirsty crops such as cotton and wheat), inefficient irrigation systems, and over-grazing.

The drought has led to an exodus of hundreds of thousands of people from rural to urban areas.  Syria’s cities were already under economic stress, in part because of the large-scale influx of refugees from Iraq after the U.S. invasion of 2003. Growing numbers of destitute people find themselves in intense competition for scarce jobs and access to resources. In an analysis in early 2012, Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell write that “the role of disaffected rural communities in the Syrian opposition movement has been prominent compared to their equivalents in other ‘Arab Spring’ countries. Indeed, the rural farming town of Dara’a was the focal point for protests in the early stages of the opposition movement last year – a place that was especially hard hit by five years of drought and water scarcity, with little assistance from the al-Assad regime.”

Syria’s experience suggests that environmental and resource pressures, including climate change, could become an important driver of displacement. And while deep-seated popular discontent over decades of repressive rule surely is a key driver of Syria’s civil war, climate-induced pressures have added fuel to the fire. This is a key point: the repercussions from environmental degradation do not occur in a void, but rather interact with a cauldron of pre-existing societal pressures and problems.

Countries around the world will not only experience the physical effects of climate change differently, but the way in which these changes translate into the social, economic, and political sphere will also differ substantially. Adaptability and resilience are key factors shaping the response. In divided societies such as Syria, the impacts of climate change could turn out to be political dynamite.  If we want to avoid such unprecedented experiments, then climate negotiators and their bosses—meeting November 26 to December 7 in Doha for the 18th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework on Climate Change—need to step up their game.

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As the Doha climate conference kicks off, look elsewhere for game-changers

Ever since the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, downplaying expectations ahead of a UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) has become somewhat of a ritual in the media and even among experts – as if everyone had sworn off being optimistic about international climate action altogether. COP 18, which starts today and will last until December 7, 2012, is no exception to the rule. Why would it, given that public mobilization is nowhere near pre-Copenhagen levels, that nearly every party is satisfied with waiting until 2015 to reach a global agreement, and that negotiations are hosted by one of the most carbon-intensive nations in the world, Qatar?

COP 18's being held in Qatar appears to many as a paradox, but it also epitomizes a deepening and broadening of the global climate conversation (source : COP 18 official website)

With such a disconcerting lack of political urgency, one could easily come to the conclusion that man-made climate disruption isn’t that much of an existential threat after all. But over the year that has passed since COP 17 in Durban, climate change has shown that it had little intention to wait for the discussions to end before starting to unleash its devastating effects. Scientists are hesitant to point out a causal link between climate change and a specific weather event, as they should be, but the aggregated evidence for 2012 alone is simply too strong to ignore. Just in the last few weeks, a study revealed that the most pessimistic models about the future of climate change have proven to be more accurate than the optimistic ones, while the World Bank pulled the alarm on an ever more likely “4 degrees Celsius world.”

What is especially striking about international climate decision-making is how much it’s disconnected from the scientific and natural timelines. 2015 is the year greenhouse gases emissions must peak and start declining, according to the International Energy Agency, if the world is to stay within 2 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100. Ironically, it’s also the year governments have agreed on as a target for the adoption of a global treaty “with legal force” (actual implementation would come even later, in 2020). If anything, scientific expertise is used as a pretext to further delay aggressive action. Many governments are hypocritically waiting for the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), released in 2014, to find out what we already know – climate change is happening faster and stronger than predicted, the 2 degrees Celsius objective is sliding out of reach, and the ambition-reality gap is getting dangerously large.

In the eyes of the climate negotiations experts who addressed a young and multinational audience in Paris on October 28th, for the CliMates International Summit, this fundamental mismatch between scientific evidence and diplomatic ambition should come as little surprise. Indeed, climate agreements are not designed to actually work: they are expected to satisfy every party at the table, full stop. Never mind, for instance, that the Kyoto protocol only enforces all-too-modest objectives for a handful of willing countries, representing no more than 15% of global emissions. It stands out as the strongest application to date of the “common but differentiated responsibility” principle, present since the adoption of the UNFCCC in 1992, which, according to many, grants developing (“non-Annex I”) countries the right to sit back and watch as wealthy nations – with some notable exceptions – make the first efforts to reduce their own greenhouse gases emissions. As a result, it has become front and center of the global conversation on climate change. Brazil, not the least progressive emerging economy in climate negotiations, has said it clearly: with the protocol about to expire, there is little room for discussions about the ambition gap or deeper carbon cuts in Doha. In other words, all efforts should be put on prolonging a dying mechanism that does not work.

Paul Watkinson (head of French delegation), Laurence Tubiana (IDDRI founder and high-level environmental advisor) share their experience with a multinational audience at the student-led CliMates International Summit (source : website)

The shame is that as Paul Watkinson, head of the French delegation for COP 18, noted during CliMates’ panel discussion, when stakeholders actually move on to the implementation step, cooperation is much easier and effective. It is unlikely, however, that we are going to see a lot of action-centered talks at Doha, where the bulk of the agenda is occupied by the old, divisive, mainly virtual issues many got used to being pessimistic about: the extension of the Kyoto protocol beyond December 2012 for a second commitment period (without Russia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and of course the United States and emerging economies); the repartition of financial efforts towards adaptation, to fill up the empty coffers of the Green Climate Fund; and the implementation of the Durban platform, a pathway to a global agreement replacing the rather unsuccessful Bali roadmap, which was aiming for a worldwide binding deal adopted at Copenhagen.

Very few things on this agenda seem to go in the way of more ambitious international action on climate change – actually, if one is to find reasons for hope at the COP 18, it’s probably safer to look for them at the margins. Take, for instance, the peaceful demonstrations led in several countries of the world by the Arab Youth Climate Movement, which highlighted the potential benefits of having Qatar, a highly fossil-fuels dependent nation, host a climate change conference – the first ever held in the Middle East. What some see as a paradox could also be interpreted as good news: that a carbon-intensive country would take the diplomatic chance of hosting high-stakes talks, and temporarily becoming the center of the international conversation on climate change, at the risk of having its own contradictions exposed and denounced, goes a long way in demonstrating that climate negotiations can’t and shouldn’t rest in the hands of a few proactive countries, or become yet another wealthy nations’ club.

As the Arab Youth Climate Movement illustrates, the conjunction of climate issues with other forms of social protest (such as the legacy of the Arab Spring) could lead to surprising developments (source : CNN)

Upon receiving civil rights activists at the White House in the mid-1960s, Lyndon Baines Johnson assured them he understood their concerns and the need for action, and then supposedly added: “now go out there and make me do it.” During the CliMates panel, the negotiations experts and officials seemed to suggest just that. UN international climate meetings are bound to disappoint, because they “only” provide a technical and financial frame for action. Worldwatch Institute and countless other actors, for their part, strive to provide innovative ideas to oil the wheels of the process.  But who provides indignation and passion? As the climate dialogue deepens and reaches new territories, this question is likely to receive surprising answers. If public mobilization around climate justice in the Middle East doesn’t falter after the Doha talks end on December 7th, it might prove to be COP 18’s most enduring legacy.

Antoine Ebel is a former intern at WorldWatch’s Climate and Energy team, a regular contributor to ReVolt, and CliMates’ Regional Officer for North America. CliMates is an international student think-tank, working to research, debate and promote innovative solutions to climate change. The organization held its first International Summit in Paris from October 29th to November 2nd – the outcome document of the Summit is available online.



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This Thanksgiving, Celebrate Traditional Food Production

Nourishing the Planet wishes you a happy Thanksgiving!

Check out this op-ed published in Arizona’s Sierra Vista Herald by Nourishing the Planet Director Danielle Nierenberg and research intern Hong Gao. The article discusses the importance of supporting traditional Indigenous food production and culture, on Thanksgiving and throughout the year.

Click here to read the full article.

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A Tale of Two Farms: Industrial vs. Sustainable Meat Production in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic

By Carol Dreibelbis

Most food in the United States comes from industrialized, intensive farms. Meat and dairy are no exception: nationwide, 40 percent of all U.S. food animals are raised in the largest 2 percent of livestock facilities. And these large-scale facilities, commonly referred to as factory farms, continue to grow. Between 1997 and 2007, the U.S. factory farming industry added 4,600 hogs, 650 dairy cows, 139,200 broiler chickens, and 1,100 beef cattle each day. On a global scale, industrial animal production now accounts for 72 percent of all poultry production, 43 percent of egg production, and 55 percent of pork production.

Pastured broiler chickens feed on grass and grain at Virginia-based Polyface Farm. (Photo credit: Polyface, Inc.)

Although factory farms provide large quantities of relatively inexpensive meat, the associated environmental, social, and human health costs are high. Factory farms rely on massive inputs of water, fossil fuel energy, grain-based feed, and other limited resources. Feed production alone accounts for an estimated 75 percent of the energy use associated with factory farming; growing animal feed also requires the input of water, fertilizers, and pesticides, and it occupies arable land that could be used directly to grow food. An estimated 23 percent of all water used in agriculture goes to livestock production.

Industrialized meat production also creates huge amounts of waste, contaminating nearby air and water and threatening the health of humans and wildlife. Some large factory farms produce more waste than large U.S. cities. The livestock industry is also responsible for approximately 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—more than the entire global transportation sector. By contributing to climate change, factory farms affect people both locally and around the world.

Although industrial animal production is on the rise, many farmers, particularly in developing countries, still work within natural systems to provide sustainable alternatives to industrialized meat. Relying on the same holistic, agroecological principles that sustained humanity for generations, these farms produce meat without the negative environmental and human health effects that characterize industrialized meat production. When done correctly, agroecological approaches, including the integration of livestock and crops, can have a positive environmental impact by protecting soil and water while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Studies show that pasture-raised beef requires only half the fossil fuel energy input as factory-farmed beef.

To better understand the differences between the environmental impacts of industrial and sustainable livestock operations, we contrast two farming systems in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region: industrial poultry farms on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and Polyface Farm in central Virginia.

Chicken “factories” create waste, exploit growers

In Maryland, agriculture is the largest commercial industry, and industrial poultry production dominates. The state’s farmers produced nearly 301 million broiler chickens in 2010, ranking eighth in the nation for production. Most of these chickens are raised in large, cramped chicken houses located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In fact, nearly 60 percent of the state’s broiler operations contain 500,000 or more chickens.

Traditionally, the enormous amount of chicken manure produced in eastern Maryland was used as fertilizer on local agricultural fields. But as broiler production rises and the area of cropland shrinks, excess manure increasingly flows into and pollutes the Chesapeake Bay. In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that approximately 19 percent of excess nitrogen and 26 percent of excess phosphorus in the Bay was directly linked to animal manure in the watershed.

Many of the poultry houses and facilities in Maryland are associated with Amick Farms, a South Carolina-based poultry company. According to the local poultry trade association, Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., Amick Farms ranked 18th in the nation in 2010 for poultry production. Companies like Amick Farms are known as “integrators” because they control production across all stages—from breeding to growing to processing to retailing.

Amick Farms contracts with more than 200 individual growers who produce a total of over 9 million pounds of poultry each week for the company. The contract growing system can be oppressive, as growers go into debt just to enter into business and then have few options other than to accept whatever terms the integrator offers. According to one former contract grower, the occupation “promises job security in the beginning, but then immediately takes away that security in the form of a contract that is one-sided and can be changed or taken away after the grower has borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

“Polyculture” provides more sustainable option

On the other side of the livestock production spectrum, Polyface Farm, owned and operated by sustainable agriculture advocate Joel Salatin, is a highly productive, pasture-based farm located in central Virginia. Polyface Farm is an example of a polyculture, or a diversified farming system in which grains, fruits, vegetables, fodder, and livestock are produced in the same fields. Polyface Farm imitates the diversity of species in natural ecosystems and makes use of innovative farming strategies to boost production and quality. For example, its broilers are housed in small, floorless, portable field shelters that house about 75 chickens each. These birds are moved to fresh pasture daily, where they feed on local grain and grass sprouts.

Polyface Farm produces 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of pork, 10,000 broilers, 1,200 turkeys, 1,000 rabbits, and 35,000 dozen eggs on just 100 acres each year. According to Miguel A. Altieri, professor of agroecology at the University of California, Berkeley, polycultures like Polyface Farm can even out-produce the yield per unit of single crops grown on large-scale farms.

Polyface Farm and other small-scale farming systems represent a more environmentally sound—and socially just—path for meat production. Rather than contributing to climate change, environmental degradation, and other negative consequences of industrialized agriculture, sustainable farming has the potential to feed a growing population without overexploiting both natural and human resources.

What does sustainable farming mean to you? Please let us know in the comments section below.

Similar blog posts:

  1. Feeding the World Sustainably: Agroecology vs. Industrial Agriculture (Infographic by the Christensen Fund)
  2. Five Holistic Alternative Farming Methods: Agroecology at its Best
  3. Looking at Alternatives to a “Green Revolution”
  4. New UN Report Illustrates the Potential of Agroecology to Feed the Hungry

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Uncertain Role of Extractive Reserves in Conservation

During the 1980s, Brazilian rubber tapper Chico Mendes was a prominent activist for the preservation of the Amazon region. He urged his government to set up reserves for rubber tappers and was instrumental in creating various organizations and unions for his peers. In 1988, Mendes was murdered by a rancher intent on logging the site of a future reserve. Partly in response to the international media outcry, Brazil created the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, consisting of 980,000 hectares of land protected for forest-dependent indigenous inhabitants.

The extractive reserve model aims to simultaneously conserve forests and extract their resources in an economically sustainable way. Forest managers use collaborative strategies to reconcile these goals. By enhancing collaboration among local residents, non-governmental organizations, government institutions, and the private sector, extractive reserves have the potential to increase economic independence for local communities and conserve the Amazon rainforest.

Fires along the Rio Xingu, Brazil (Photo via Flickr, by NASA)

Extractive reserves are not limited to extractive activities, such as nut harvesting and rubber tapping, but can also be used for agricultural activities. Since the inception of extractive reserves in the 1980s, the idea has gained momentum due to international support. More than 3.4 million hectares of Brazilian land are now part of extractive reserves, and several more reserves are in the planning process.

Because of the relative newness of Brazil’s extractive reserve programs, researchers are still evaluating their success in balancing conservation with development. One study analyzed the Alto Jurua extractive reserve and found that while deforestation is occurring, its frequency is much lower than in neighboring non-reserve lands. The majority of households and individuals that live in the reserve have organized into the Rubber Tappers and Farmers Association, expressing their desire to continue living in the reserve. Rubber has become a less valuable commodity, so some residents have switched to bean cultivation and livestock. While these activities require land clearing, the management power of the community has been able to keep the clearing to a minimum.

Although the Alto Jurua reserve has been successful at limiting deforestation and providing opportunities for the local community, much of its success is due to external forces. For example, the Brazil Pilot Program controls deforestation on rural properties. Through Brazil’s Pilot Program, Brazil is developing a spatial database of private land boundaries and ownership. Brazil also limits land availability by placing unclaimed public lands under management in order to increase land and timber values.

Brazil has expanded its extractive reserve model from land to water. While the majority of the country’s reserves are land-based, there are a few marine ones, and many of the proposed future reserves will protect marine fisheries. But the results so far are mixed.

One researcher spent a year studying Brazil’s first marine extractive reserve, Arraial do Cobo. Although the reserve has created a more democratic forum for decision-making, it has yet to be utilized, as many fishers fear the consequences of participating outside of the traditional social hierarchy. The fishers also deeply distrust the government and view the reserve as a burden. Meawnhile, a lack of government funding and minimal cooperation from local fishermen limits monitoring and enforcement capabilities. The result is that traditional, self-imposed governing systems have eroded as more fishermen gain access to the fishing grounds, racial tensions persist, and certain families have gained economic and social control of the community. So far, the reserve has failed to replace the traditional governance structure with anything productive and sustainable.

The international community has touted extractive reserves as a way to protect valuable resources while simultaneously spurring local economic growth and development and protecting indigenous communities. But research shows that this fanfare may be premature, as the extractive reserve model is dependent on adequate funding and implementation, as well as the ability to monitor. Its success also depends on cooperation and communication among different levels of participants.

Certainly, extractive reserves are a step in the right direction, as local stakeholders are integrated into the decision-making process, improving conservation and development. If governance of extractive reserves can be improved, the reserves may well be a success story for all parties. But until then, their impact remains unclear.

(Written by Alison Singer; Edited by Antonia Sohns)