Beneath California crops, groundwater crisis grows

New York Times – Sunday 5th April

Four years into California’s most devastating drought on record, the state’s groundwater levels are reaching crisis point. Binding regulation on groundwater pumping was only enacted last autumn, and so the years of heavy use during the drought are having a lasting impact on this vital resource. The question that looms is, what will happen if the state’s aquifers run dry?

Groundwater is largely being drained across the state by agriculture, which typically uses some 80% of surface water. In the absence of rain, farmers have turned to sub-surface water supplies: many are building ever-deeper wells as water levels have dropped. There is now a growing problem with subsidence in many places, with land sinking up to a foot a year. The water is sustaining the state’s thirsty nut crops and enabling some farmers to grow hay for China.

It’s becoming clear, though, that things cannot continue as they are. The recent legislation on groundwater pumping will be phased in over the next 40 years, reaching ‘sustainable’ levels somewhere around 2040. Replenishing the groundwater that has been lost will be tricky, particularly if the drought is really a shift to a drier climate caused by hotter temperatures, as many people think. An old turn of phrase from the American West that “Whiskey’s for drinking, and water’s for fighting over” is an ominous harbinger of things to come. Water wars are projected to be a major security risk across the world in the coming decade – will California be ground zero?

Pesticide residue on food could affect sperm quality, says Harvard study

The Guardian – Thursday 31st March

In the dystopian vision of P.D. James’ novel The Children of Men, fertility in humans has dropped precipitously in the future of a declining, depopulated Britain in 2021. The story focuses on a young woman who is miraculously pregnant, carrying one of earth’s last human babies. While the route to this is never clear in the book, a recent Harvard study might make us stop and contemplate it for a moment…

The study found that men who ate the greatest amount of fruit and vegetables with high levels of pesticide residues had a sperm count 49% lower than men who ate the least amount of these; the former group also had a third less normally formed sperm than the latter. Further research is needed to make a more robust association between the consumption of pesticide residues and lowered male fertility, but the results point to a real need to understand better the health impacts of these residues on our food. We have long been told by regulating agencies and chemical companies that they are ‘harmless’, but a recent report from the World Health Organisation states that the herbicide glyphosate is ‘probably carcinogenic’. We are only just beginning to realise the risks posed by these chemicals, which are widely used across the world.

Antibiotic resistance: 80,000 ‘might die’ in future outbreak

BBC News – Monday 6th April

A report out from the UK’s National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies gives a blunt warning of where our overuse and abuse of antibiotics is headed. Eighty thousand people could die in an outbreak of a resistant blood infection and a high number of deaths is anticipated from other resistant strains. In the next 20 years, it will become harder and harder to treat infections as resistance increases. Much of modern medicine could become a no-go zone – too risky to carry out without effective treatment available for potential secondary infections. This could include operations such as C-sections, resetting bones, having an appendix out or getting a hip replacement. It’s a pretty terrifying scenario. And we hear it repeated again and again from health professionals and government officials because the threat is serious. This could fundamentally change our lives.

Research is fast evidencing how the resistance is developing. It is coming from doctors prescribing antibiotics for the common cold and other viral maladies, or just so their patients feel like they’ve done something for them. But it’s also coming from our food system where resistant bugs are moving from animals to humans. Industrial farming uses antibiotics prophylactically to manage the intensive stocking levels of animals living close together where infection can pass easily from one animal to another.

To address the rise of anti-microbial resistance effectively requires a thorough overhaul of the use of antibiotics in industrial farming. This continues to be an area of regulation in which it has been difficult for governments to make meaningful headway. While leaders make public statements about the dangers of antibiotic resistance and the need to control it, changes in practice, especially in agriculture, are happening slowly. Antimicrobial resistance, however, is moving very fast.

Agribusiness giant tells suppliers to stop cutting down forests

Grist – Tuesday 31st March

Just when you’re about to despair of ever seeing climate change stop at 2 degrees, a bit of good news appears on the horizon. Archer Daniels Midlands (ADM), one of the world’s biggest agribusinesses, has committed to not buying palm or soy oil from producers that are cutting down forests. That such a prominent leader in palm and soy production is taking a stance on deforestation will be tremendously influential on the industry as a whole, particularly as it comes on the heels of Wilmar, the largest palm oil producer in the world, taking a similar position on deforestation in relation to its supply chain. As ADM’s Chief Communications Officer stated, it represents a commitment to “traceable and transparent agricultural supply chains that protect forests worldwide”.

ADM’s shift in policy towards deforestation will certainly bring other companies on board. Widespread deforestation has been the devastating outcome of palm and soy oil production, and NGOs from Greenpeace to the Sierra Club have been working to push the industry towards a more sustainable model. Deforestation continues to be a significant concern across the globe, and despite some progress in stemming it in the Amazon, its pace is picking up again there as well. The destruction of the Amazon could significantly ‘amplify’ climate change. That wouldn’t be good for the palm and soy industries, so eliminating deforestation from the supply chain is starting to make a lot of good sense.

Small farmers under threat from collapse in food prices

The Telegraph – Saturday 4th April

The sub-title to this article should call us all to attention: “Traditional British farming will soon be replaced by international investors and creation of mega farms to feed China.” Note the word “soon”. It’s hard to imagine that it could turn around so quickly, but the dairy industry in Britain is offering a salient case in point on the possible future of British agriculture. Small- and medium-scale operations have been closing in high numbers as the falling price of milk has ceased to make for a viable business model. Read SFT director Patrick Holden’s trenchant reflection on the UK dairy industry. He writes that:

“There is only so long that any farmer can lose serious money on every litre of milk, and needless to say it is the small, so-called ‘inefficient’ family dairy farms (which represent the backbone of rural culture in England, Wales and Scotland) that are being forced out of business the fastest. With support from their banks the biggest farms will survive by intensifying further and growing bigger still – something that has negative implications for the environment, animal welfare, rural communities and milk quality.”

Will this be the face of British agriculture more broadly? Farmers for Action is voicing concern that this, indeed, may be the case. Collapsing food prices in the global commodities market, combined with a “struggling” British pound could make it hard for a wide array of small- and medium-scale farmers to survive, let alone thrive. The United Nations has noted that farm-gate food prices have fallen to their lowest in five years. Farming is becoming harder instead of easier in a world with a growing global population. Somehow that just doesn’t make sense, but making farming bigger is not an answer: the social and environmental impacts of intensive farming are not sustainable in the world we’re moving into.

Photograph: Faces of Fracking

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