Posts Tagged ‘Environment’

Feb26

Agricultural Population Growth Marginal as Nonagricultural Population Soars

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The global agricultural population—defined as individuals dependent on agriculture, hunting, fishing, and forestry for their livelihood—accounted for over 37 percent of the world’s total population in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. This is a decrease of 12 percent from 1980, when the world’s agricultural and nonagricultural populations were roughly the same size. Although the agricultural population shrunk as a share of total population between 1980 and 2011, it grew numerically from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people during this period.

The world’s agricultural population grew from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people between 1980 and 2011. (Photo Credit: UNDP)

Between 1980 and 2011, the nonagricultural population grew by a staggering 94 percent, from 2.2 billion to 4.4 billion people—a rate approximately five times greater than that of agricultural population growth. In both cases growth was driven by the massive increase in the world’s total population, which more than doubled between 1961 and 2011, from 3.1 billion to 7 billion people.

It should be noted that the distinction between these population groups is not the same as the rural-urban divide. Rural populations are not exclusively agricultural, nor are urban populations exclusively nonagricultural. The rural population of Africa in 2011 was 622.8 million, for instance, while the agricultural population was 520.3 million.

Although the agricultural population grew worldwide between 1980 and 2011, growth was restricted to Africa, Asia, and Oceania. During this period, this population group declined in North, Central, and South America, in the Caribbean, and in Europe.

In 2011, Africa and Asia accounted for about 95 percent of the world’s agricultural population. In contrast, the agricultural population in the Americas accounted for a little less than 4 percent. Especially in the United States, this is the result of the development and use of new and innovative technologies as well as the increased use of farm machinery, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation systems that require less manual labor.

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Dec20

Putting a Dollar Value on Food Waste Estimates

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By Carol Dreibelbis

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that about one-third—or 1.3 billion metric tons—of all food produced for human consumption goes to waste each year. While it is easy to recognize the enormity of this number, it is much more difficult to make sense of it in a useful way. An October 2012 study by Jean Buzby and Jeffrey Hyman of the U.S. Department of Agriculture seeks to make food waste estimates more meaningful by attaching a dollar value.

Research from the USDA finds that Americans waste an average of US$544 worth of food per person per year. (Photo Credit: biocycle.net)

The study measures the value of food loss in the United States at the retail (“supermarkets, megastores like Walmart, and other retail outlets”) and consumer (“food consumed at home and away from home”) levels. Findings indicate that US$165.6 billion worth of food was lost at these levels in 2008. This translates to the loss of an average of US$1.49 worth of food per person per day—totaling about US$544 per person per year—at the retail and consumer levels. At the consumer level, alone, the average American wasted almost 10 percent of the amount spent on his or her food in 2008.

Food losses on this scale are concerning, especially when viewed in the context of a growing global population. As the study explains, “The United Nations predicts that the world population will reach 9.3 billion by 2050 and this growth will require at least a 70 percent increase in food production, net of crops used for biofuels.” Considering that a reduction of food loss at the consumer and retail levels by just one percent would keep US$1.66 billion worth of food in the food supply, limiting food waste could play a major role in feeding future populations.

Food waste also places an unnecessarily heavy burden on the environment. The production, processing, storage, and transportation of food that ultimately goes to waste still consumes natural resources and other inputs, while also releasing greenhouse gases and other pollutants that stem from the food system. For example, the study points out that the production of wasted food consumes over 25 percent of all freshwater used in the U.S. and around 300 million barrels of oil.

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Nov29

White House Report Highlights Importance of Reauthorizing Farm Bill

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By Sophie Wenzlau

Earlier this week, the White House Rural Council released a report highlighting the economic importance of reauthorizing the Farm Bill, the United States’ primary food and agriculture policy tool.

The Farm Bill can impact food prices, environmental conservation programs, and international trade. (Photo Credit: wlfarm.org)

The bill—which impacts food prices, environmental conservation programs, international trade, agricultural research, food and nutrition programs, and the well being of rural communities—has been stalled in congress for over a year, in part due to disagreement over reductions to the food stamp program. House Republicans aim to cut $40 billion in food stamp funds over the next 10 years, while Senate Democrats aim to cut only $4 billion.

According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, failure to pass the bill before the end of the year could double milk prices for Americans, spark retaliatory tariffs from Brazil, and leave livestock producers who have been hit by storms and drought without standard federal assistance.

The Obama Administration’s report, which urges Congress to reauthorize as soon as possible, highlights the potential benefits of a new Farm Bill. According to the Administration, the new bill could:

  1. Build on recent momentum of the U.S. agriculture economy, a key engine of economic growth;
  2. Continue federal conservation efforts, working alongside a record number of farmers and ranchers to conserve soil and water resources; (more…)
Nov25

Innovation of the Week: PodPonics—Thinking Globally, Growing Locally

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By Jameson Spivack

PodPonics, an indoor urban agriculture project that grows lettuce in PVC pipes inside used shipping containers, is just one of a new crop of up-and-coming urban agricultural innovators. The U.S. company, created by Dan Backhaus and Mark Liotta, currently operates a collection of six “pods,” or containers, in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, and is in the process of developing a plot of land next to Atlanta International Airport.

PodPonics minimizes harmful outputs and enables urban residents to grow fresh, nutritious foods locally. (Photo Credit: talk.greentowns.com)

According to Backhaus and Liotta, growing the produce in shipping containers has many advantages. The size and scale of the containers makes it easy to standardize the light, temperature, and watering of the plants. For this reason, the PodPonics model is applicable to many different locales and situations. Backhaus and Liotta call this the “local everywhere” approach—emphasizing local production and consumption while maintaining a global focus.

Part of this global focus includes a strong dedication to environmental responsibility. Standardizing inputs allows PodPonics to conserve resources that typically are wasted in large-scale production. The closed environment of the pods prevents fertilizer runoff and allows for the recycling of water and nutrients. The pods also use energy during off-peak hours, which utilizes leftover energy in the system, helping to stabilize the city’s energy grid.

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Nov05

A Cubic Mile of Oil: Facilitating the Shift to Cleaner Energy Sources

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By Alyssa Casey

Agricultural production consumes large amounts of energy both through direct energy usage, such as fuel and electricity, and through the energy-intensive production of fertilizer. This makes the U.S. agriculture industry sensitive to changes in energy prices. Because current agricultural techniques are energy intensive, food production is also a significant source of climate-altering emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture have increased rapidly in recent years.

A Cubic Mile of Oil, by Hewitt Crane, Edwin Kinderman, and Ripudaman Malhotra, illuminates the history, sources, and way forward for global energy. (Photo credit: Oxford University Press Blog)

With this undeniable link between agriculture and energy, the future of energy will greatly influence the future of agriculture. Concerns surrounding fossil fuel supplies and climate change are stimulating attempts to convert more of the world to cleaner, more sustainable energy sources. It is likely that the agriculture industry will find itself adapting alongside energy.

What are these possible advances in the future of energy? How do we attempt to understand the changes and participate in the discussion, which can be muddled by a multitude of energy sources, mathematical equations, and units of measurement?

These questions were the basis for a new book, A Cubic Mile of Oil: Realities and Options for Averting the Looming Global Energy Crisis, by co-authors Hewitt Crane, Edwin Kinderman, and Ripudaman Malhotra of SRI International. The study attempts to clear the hurdle of constantly converting between energy units, such as gallons, barrels, British Thermal Units, and kilowatt-hours, and to address the question of how to continue supplying energy to a growing world population.

The book builds off the premise that talking about current and future energy consumption can be simplified through the use of one all-encompassing unit of measurement, the “cubic mile of oil” (CMO). One CMO can be understood by simply envisioning a swimming pool one mile wide, one mile across, and one mile deep. This unit does away with the need to constantly convert between units and eliminates the need to tack on an unfathomable multiplier, such as one billion barrels.

After establishing the premise for using the CMO, the authors divide the book into three sections. The first explains the history of energy consumption and the sources from which humans have obtained energy. The second separates energy sources into two simple categories: inherited energy sources, such as oil, coal and natural gas, which exist in limited and diminishing supplies; and income energy sources such as wind, biomass, hydropower, and solar power, of which a relatively infinite supply exists. The final section discusses the future of energy supply and consumption, emphasizing the need to conserve our current supply and invest in a sustainable plan for powering our future.

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Oct24

GM Crops Causing a Stir in Washington State, Mexico, and Hawaii

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By Sophie Wenzlau

Courts, councils, and voters across North America are weighing in on genetically modified (GM) crops this month.

Research on the health effects of GM crops is woefully inadequate. (Photo Credit: The Daily Mail)

In Washington state, voters are beginning to cast ballots in favor of or opposing Initiative 522, which would mandate that all GM food products, seeds, and seed stocks carry labels in the state. According to the initiative, polls consistently show that the vast majority of the public, typically more than 90 percent, would like to know whether or not the food they buy has been produced using genetic modification.

Initiative 522 is making big headlines. On October 16, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the initiative’s top opponent—the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)—for allegedly violating campaign disclosure laws by concealing the identities of its donors. The lawsuit accuses the GMA, a D.C.-based food industry group, of infringing the law by soliciting and receiving contributions and making expenditures to oppose Initiative 522 without properly registering and reporting as a political committee, and of concealing the true source of the contributions received.

Days after Ferguson sued the group, the GMA agreed to name the companies that contributed to the $17.1 million campaign to defeat the initiative. High on the list are Pepsico, Coca-Cola, and NestleUSA, each having contributed more than $1 million. A more extensive list of donors, published by the Seattle Times, names General Mills, ConAgra Foods, Campbell Soup, The Hershey Co., and J.M. Smucker Co. as additional donors.

The fight to require labels on GM foods in Washington state is reminiscent of last year’s fight over Proposition 37—which also proposed mandatory GM labels—in California. According to California Watch, food and agribusiness companies, including The Hershey Co., Nestlé USA, Mars Inc., and Monsanto, contributed $44 million in opposition of Prop 37, while those in favor contributed $7.3 million. Although 47 percent of Californians voted in favor of Prop 37, it ultimately failed to pass.

Opponents of GM labeling have argued that the labels would imply a warning about the health effects of eating those foods, although no significant differences between GM and non-GM foods have been officially established. They also argue that consumers who do not want to buy GM foods already have the option of purchasing certified organic foods, which by definition cannot be produced using GM ingredients.

The initiative’s proponents, on the other hand, argue that GM labeling is about people’s right to know what is in the food they eat and feed their families. These groups argue that U.S. companies, which are already required to label GM foods in 64 countries around the world, should be required to provide the same information to shoppers back home.

“As things stand, you can find out whether your salmon is wild or farm-raised, and where it’s from, but under existing legislation you won’t be able to find out whether it contains the gene of an eel. That has to change,” wrote Mark Bittman, a food columnist for the New York Times. “We have a right to know what’s in the food we eat and a right to know how it’s produced. This is true even if food containing or produced using GMOs were the greatest thing since crusty bread.”

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Oct06

Working for a Fairer, More Sustainable Food System: An Interview with Shiney Varghese

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Nourishing the Planet’s Catherine Ward  spoke recently with Shiney Varghese, a senior policy analyst at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) who leads the organization’s work on global water policy. Ms. Varghese focuses on water availability, its impact on water and food security, and local solutions that emphasize equity, environmental justice, and sustainability.    

Shiney Varghese is a senior policy analyst at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. (Photo Credit: Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy)

How do you define “sustainable agriculture”?

Sustainable agriculture has come to mean different things to different people these days. To many, sustainable development or sustainability is simply about ensuring resource sustainability, primarily through improving resource use efficiency. Too often, that answer relies much too heavily on technological solutions. I find such an understanding of sustainability rather reductionist.

True, given that most of the resources we need to sustain ourselves in this world are not renewable, resource recovery and efficient use of resources has a crucial role in achieving sustainability, provided that these processes do not end up having higher environmental footprints. But this in itself cannot address the issue of sustainability. There is another equally important component: equity.

In an understanding that simultaneously emphasizes equity and efficient use of resources, the achievement of ecological sustainability involves limiting our consumption today so that it is not at the expense of consumption of people in other spaces today, nor at the cost of environment or future generations. Sustainability means we have to efficiently use our share of the world’s resources to meet our livelihood needs.

Thus to me sustainable agriculture would go beyond improving resource use efficiency to uphold peasants’ right to land, water, and genetic material—including their right to say ‘no’ to bio-pirates or legitimating bio-prospectors—and will help realize food sovereignty of ordinary people. (more…)

Feb28

To Combat Scarcity, Increase Water-Use Efficiency in Agriculture

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By Sophie Wenzlau

This blog was originally published as part of an online consultation organized by The Broker  on the role of water in the post-2015 development agenda. Click here to read the original post. 

Photo Credit: World Bank

The South Centre has argued that “as oil conflicts were central to 20th century history, the struggle over freshwater is set to shape a new turning point in the world order.” Water scarcity, which already affects one in three people on earth, is set to increase in magnitude and scope as the global population grows, increasing affluence drives up demand, and the climate changes. According to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), “half the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress by 2030, including 75 to 250 million people in Africa.” In the Sahel region of Africa, desertification caused by overgrazing, unsustainable farming, and the collection of wood for fuel is already responsible for systemic crop failure, soil erosion, and devastating famine. Failure to act on water scarcity will lead to more of the same.

Though water scarcity will surely play a defining role in the 21st century, the assumption that ‘water wars’ are inevitable is overly deterministic and assumes the worst of people. Historically, the need to manage trans-group or trans-boundary water basins has actually tended to facilitate cooperation between groups with competing interests. In the last fifty years, there have been only 37 incidents of acute conflict over water, while during the same period, approximately 295 international water agreements were negotiated and signed. According to Nidal Salim, director of the Global Institute for Water, Environment, and Health, the potential to peacefully overcome water scarcity does exist; it depends on political will, trust between nations, and real manifestations of cooperation.

To peacefully overcome water scarcity, leaders at all levels must prioritize efforts to cooperatively increase water-use efficiency, reduce water waste, and manage demand.

Increasing efficiency in irrigation—which is responsible for the consumption of 70 percent of the world’s total water withdrawal—would be a sensible place to start. Improved water management in agriculture could increase global water availability, catalyze development, reduce soil erosion, and lead to increased and diversified agricultural yields, augmenting our ability to feed a population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050.

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Jan30

Sea Buckthorn: A Shrub That’s Good for People and the Environment

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By Carol Dreibelbis

Sea buckthorn, also known as Siberian pineapple, sea berry, sandthorn, or swallowthorn, is a deciduous shrub that grows natively across northern Eurasia. As its name suggests, sea buckthorn’s branches are dense, stiff, and thorny, but its berries can provide nutrition for both people and wildlife.

Sea buckthorn berries offer benefits to both human and environmental health. (Photo credit: www.seabuckthornberries.info)

Sea buckthorn is valued in parts of Europe and Asia for its nutritional and medicinal properties. Its bright orange berries are high in carotenoids, flavonoids, and vitamins A, C, E, and K; in fact, the concentration of vitamin C in sea buckthorn is higher than in strawberries, kiwis, oranges, tomatoes, and carrots. The berries have a fruity yet sour flavor and are often used in juices, jams, sauces, and liqueurs. The silver-gray leaves yield a tea rich in antioxidants, and the plants are even high in essential fatty acids.

While sea buckthorn is currently used medicinally in Russia and China, it has only recently attracted the attention of researchers across the world. Sea buckthorn oil, which can be extracted from seeds, is said to be anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and adaptogenic (helping the body develop resistance to stressors). It is used as a treatment for mucositis, ulcers, radiation damage, burns, and scalds, as well as to relieve pain and promote tissue regeneration. While clinical studies are still needed to fully understand its medicinal benefits, a study by Hamdard University in India shows that sea buckthorn may help protect against diabetes.

Beyond its human health benefits, sea buckthorn also boosts the health of the environment in which it grows. Because its extensive root system can bind together even sandy soils, sea buckthorn prevents water and wind erosion on slopes and in open areas. It is fairly drought and frost resistant, tolerates soil salinity and low temperatures, and can withstand a range of soil pH levels. Sea buckthorn also adds nitrogen to the soil through nitrogen fixation, so it can grow in marginal soils and help restore them.

Sea buckthorn provides food and shelter for a variety of animals. In the Loess Plateau of northern China, 51 species of birds are entirely dependent on the shrub for food.

Despite the relative ease of cultivation, sea buckthorn is difficult to harvest, and machines to efficiently collect the fresh berries are still being developed. Harvesting berries by hand is time consuming (some estimate 600 person-hours per acre, compared to the 120 person-hours per acre required for tomatoes). Until harvesting machines become readily available, large-scale cultivation of sea buckthorn may not be viable.

Given the many potential benefits offered by sea buckthorn, groups such as the European Commission’s EAN-Seabuck network have prioritized the development of economical and sustainable production methods for this plant. In the meantime, sea buckthorn retains its ability to improve environmental and human health on a smaller scale.

Have you ever tried sea buckthorn berries or a product made with them? Let us know in the comments section below.

Carol Dreibelbis is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.

Dec31

Year in Review: 10 Things You Should Know about Food and Agriculture in 2012

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By Sophie Wenzlau and Laura Reynolds

Although Aunt Mabel’s Christmas trifle might top your list of current food concerns, there are a few other things about U.S. food and agriculture worth considering as you look back on 2012, and forward to 2013:

Photo Credit: wlfarm.org

1. Farm Bill Deadlock. The 2008 Farm Bill, which established the most recent round of policies and support programs for the U.S. food system, expired in September. Although the Senate has passed a new version of the bill, the House has not; congressional leaders are deadlocked on the issues of cutbacks in crop subsidies and reductions in food stamps. If the House does not reach an agreement, U.S. farm policy will revert to the last “permanent” Farm Bill, passed in 1949. With 1949 policy, many innovative programs that invest in sustainable agriculture (like low-interest loans for newfemale, or minority farmers) could be forced to shut down; the price for dairy products could double in January; and antiquated farm subsidies could increase by billions of dollars, likely leading to greater overproduction of commodity crops like corn and soybeans (to the benefit of agribusiness and the detriment of small and medium-sized farms).

2. Enduring Drought. Although media attention has faded, nearly 80 percent of U.S. agricultural land continues to experience drought conditions, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), making this year’s drought more extensive than any experienced since the 1950s. The drought is expected to make food more expensive in 2013 (the USDA predicts a 3 to 4 percent increase in the Consumer Price Index), particularly meat and dairy products. To boost agriculture’s resilience to drought and other forms of climate variability, farmers can increase crop diversity, irrigate more efficiently, adopt agroecological practices, and plant trees in and around farms. Consumers can support small-scale farmers, eat less meat, and pressure the government to enact food policies that support sustainable agriculture.

3. Acceleration of Both the Food Sovereignty Movement and Agribusiness Lobbying. Achieving food sovereignty, or a food system in which producers and consumers are locally connected and food is produced sustainably by small farms, is increasingly a priority for communities in the United States and worldwide. According to the USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory, the total number of farmers markets in the United States increased by 9.6 percent between 2011 and 2012, while winter markets increased by 52 percent. But also accelerating is agribusiness lobbying: campaign contributions from large food production and processing groups—including American Crystal Sugar Company, the Altria GroupAmerican Farm Bureau, the National Cattlemen’s Beef AssociationCalifornia DairiesMonsantoSafeway Inc., and Cargill—increased from $68.3 million in the 2008 election cycle to $78.4 million in 2012, a 12.8 percent change.

4. Failed GM Labeling Bill in California. Although 47 percent of Californians voted in favor of Prop 37, a measure that would have required food companies and retailers to label food containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients, the initiative failed to pass in November. According to California Watch, food and agribusiness companies including The Hershey Co., Nestlé USA, Mars Inc., and Monsanto contributed $44 million in opposition of the initiative, while those in favor of GM labeling contributed $7.3 million. Also notable: the first independent, peer-reviewed study of GM food safety, published in the August issue of the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology, found that rats fed low-levels of Monsanto’s maize NK603for a period of two years (a rat’s average lifespan) suffered from mammary tumors and severe kidney and liver damage. Although the science is not yet conclusive, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should urge consumers to familiarize themselves with the potential health risks of GM food consumption, and should conduct additional studies.

5. Corn Ethanol Found to Be Environmentally Unfriendly. study released by the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology in September found that the increased production of corn for ethanol creates environmental problems like soil acidification and the pollution of lakes and rivers. Although corn has long ruled the biofuels industry (ethanol accounted for 98 percent of domestic biofuel production in 2011), its relative energy-conversion inefficiency and sensitivity to high temperatures—in addition to its environmental footprint—make it an unsustainable long-term energy option. Perennial bioenergy crops like willow, sycamore, sweetgum, jatropha, and cottonwood, however, grow quickly; require considerably less fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide application than annual crops; can thrive on marginal land (i.e., steep slopes); and are often hardier than annual alternatives like corn and soy.

6. Red Meat Production Increases. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, while domestic beef production isprojected to decline in 2012, overall monthly red meat production is up from 2011 levels (due to an increase in pork, lamb, and mutton production). Americans eat a lot of meat: per capita, more than almost anyone else in the world. In 2009, the most recent year for which U.S. Census consumption data is available, the United States consumed nearly 5 million tons more beef than China, although the Chinese population was four times larger. U.S. consumers could significantly reduce per capita greenhouse gas emissions by eating less red meat (the production of which is input intensive). A study published in theJournal of Environmental Science and Technology suggests that switching from a diet based on red meat and dairy to one based on chicken, fish, and eggs could reduce the average household’s yearly emissions by an amount equivalent to driving a 25 mile per gallon automobile 5,340 miles (approximately the distance from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. and back).

7. Stanford Study on Organics Leads to Emotional Debate. A Stanford study titled “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier than Conventional Alternatives?” provoked emotional debate in September. The study found that the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods, although it also found that consumption of organic foods can reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The study’s results were misinterpreted by many, including members of the media, to imply that organic food is not “healthier” than conventional food. In reality, the study calls into question whether organic food is more nutritious than conventional food, and affirms that organics are indeed less pesticide-ridden than conventional alternatives (the primary reason many consumers buy organic).

8. World Food Prize Recognizes Water-Saving Potential of Drip Irrigation. In October, the World Food Prize was awarded to Israeli scientist Daniel Hillel in honor of his contributions to modern drip irrigation technology. Drip irrigation is the precise application of water to plant roots via tiny holes in pipes, allowing a controlled amount of water to drip into the ground. This precision avoids water loss due to evaporation, enables plants to absorb water at their roots (where they need it most), and allows farmers to water only those rows or crops they want to, in lieu of an entire field. Drip irrigation can enhance plant growth, boost crop yields, and improve plant nutritional quality, while minimizing water waste, according to multiple sources (Cornell University ecologists, and a study conducted by the government of Zimbabwe, among others). Agriculture account for 70 percent of water use worldwide; numerous organizations, including the Pacific Institute, have argued that the efficient and conservative use of water in agriculture is a top priority, especially as overuse and climate change threaten to exacerbate situations of water scarcity.

9. Rio+20 Affirms Commitment to Sustainable Development in AgricultureThe Future We Wantthe non-binding agreement produced at the United Nations’ Rio+20 conference in June, acknowledges that food security and nutrition have become pressing global challenges, and affirms international commitment to enhancing food security and access to adequate, safe, and nutritious food for present and future generations. In the document, the international community urges the development of multilateral strategies to promote the participation of farmers, especially smallholder farmers (including women) in agricultural markets; stresses the need to enhance sustainable livestock production; and recognizes the need to manage the risks associated with high and volatile food prices and their consequences for smallholder farmers and poor urban dwellers around the world. But overall, the agreement was heralded as a failure by many groups, including Greenpeace, Oxfam, and the World Wildlife Fund. According to Kumi Naidoo, the head of Greenpeace, “We were promised the ‘future we want’ but are now being presented with a ‘common vision’ of a polluter’s charter that will cook the planet, empty the oceans, and wreck the rain forests…This is not a foundation on which to grow economies or pull people out of poverty, it’s the last will and testament of a destructive twentieth century development model.”

10. White House Calls for More Investment in Agricultural Research and Innovation. A new report, released by an independent, presidentially appointed advisory group earlier this month, argues that the federal government should launch a coordinated effort to boost American agricultural science by increasing public investment and rebalancing the USDA’s research portfolio. The report cautions that U.S. agriculture faces a number of challenges that are poised to become much more serious in years to come: the need to manage new pests, pathogens, and invasive plants; increase the efficiency of water use; reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture; adapt to a changing climate; and accommodate demands for bioenergy—all while continuing to produce safe and nutritious food at home and for those in need abroad. Overall, the report calls for an increase in U.S. investment in agricultural research by a total of $700 million per year, to nurture a new “innovation ecosystem” capable of leveraging the best of America’s diverse science and technology enterprise for advancements in agriculture.

Although they might not be sexy, agricultural issues are worth caring about. The way we choose to grow, process, distribute, consume, and legislate on behalf of food can affect everything from public health, to greenhouse gas emissions, to global food availability, to water quality, to the ability of our food system to withstand shocks like floods and droughts. By familiarizing ourselves with these and other food issues, we as consumers can make informed decisions in both the grocery store and the voting booth, and can generate the action needed to move our food system in a healthy, equitable, and sustainable direction in 2013.

Sophie Wenzlau and Laura Reynolds are Food and Agriculture Staff Researchers at the Worldwatch Institute.